The days when “tetsudo otaku,” or hardcore train fans, were the most ridiculed of the bunch in Akihabara have gone the way of the steam locomotive thanks to a spike in female interest and increasingly visible celebrity support.
Tetsudo otaku are one of the most venerable fan varieties, with subsections that include “sharyotetsu” (obsessed with vehicles), “noritetsu” (like to ride), “rosen kenkyu” (study lines), “toritetsu” (take pictures), “mokeitetsu” (build models), “shushutetsu” (collect goods), “ototetsu” (record sounds), “ekibentetsu” (like station box lunches), “jikokuhyoutetsu” (analyze schedules) and “ekitetsu” (like stations). There is even a category called “soshikitetsu” for those devoted to memorializing retired trains and lines. But there were only 20,000 train otaku in Japan in 2004, spending $40 million a year on their hobbies, and many believed rarefied knowledge was a dying fashion among aged men.
On the contrary: a new “Train Boom” started in 2007, when events such as the Great Railway Expo began to capture the popular imagination, and famous folk started to openly gush about love for trains. The Nomura Research Institute has suggested the number of train otaku today might be closer to 140,000. At any station in the Tokyo metropolitan area, there is inevitably a young man (or woman or family) at the end of the platform openly snapping shots of incoming trains.
The charismatic “train talent” Masumi Toyoka was among the first to embrace this trend, lending her voice to the wildly popular anime “Tekko no Tabi” (“Train Girl’s Journey”), which helped legitimize and bring train otaku into the mainstream in fall 2007. In fact, no longer are these fans included in the dark ranks of otaku, but rather as the much cuter “tecchan” (for males) and “tekko” (for females). Following Toyoka’s lead, Yuko Kimura based her entire idol persona on her love of trains, inventing her own category of tetsudoru, or “train idol.”
Another idol, Rina Akiyama (“beautiful backside Rina Moon” to fans), publicly came out as a tekko after taking the role of a train stewardess in the 2007 show “Kamen Rider Deno,” which had its superhero swapping his trademark motorcycle for a time-traveling train; Kenjiro Ishimaru, the narrator of the long-running TV Asahi show “Sekai no Shaso Kara” (“World Through the Train Window”), was the conductor. Surprisingly, Deno was the perennial franchise’s most popular ever with the ladies.
Likewise, DJ group SUPER BELL”Z remixed train sounds from Akihabara for an otaku audience in 1999, and in 2002 cut a track of the Yamanote line that became a surprising hit with women. While train “doujinshi” (amateur comic books) for men have withered away or turned into porn depicting anthropomorphized vehicles, inspiration has trickled down to the girls’ side. Train-boy homosexual romance was well represented at Comic City Tokyo 119 last June.
A microcosm of the diversifying train fandom is Saitama’s recently opened Train Museum. Symbolic of train fandom itself, the hallowed shrine to locomotives was uprooted from the shadowy corner of Akihabara it had occupied since 1936 and relocated to a 33,500-square-meter modern facility. It boasts Japan’s largest train diorama, a miniature train ride, Japan’s first steam locomotive and 35 other engines, including a snowplow model.
Sound geeky? Maybe, but 50,000 people agreed it was hip enough to make the hour-long commute from Tokyo and pay the 1,000 yen entrance fee during opening week in fall 2007. The museum quickly became a hot destination — for dates. For their part, otaku have been making pilgrimages to the Train Museum en masse, as in the “Go, go tetsudo!” excursion offered by the maids of Candy Fruits Optical eyewear shop. “The days when we had to hide are over,” said the organizer. “Why not show our passion and knowledge when it seems girls want to hear it?”
The Railway Museum is located 25 minutes from Ueno in Omiya, Saitama Prefecture.
This story originally appeared in Metropolis magazine.