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Railway History Park in Saijo

Meet the father of the shinkansen

Iyo-Saijo station on the JR Yosan Line is a fairly typical small town railway station. That is, apart from the view it offers of the highest mountain in Western Japan, and the Railway History Park right next door. The museum is dedicated to Shinji Sogo, once Mayor of Saijo and the man generally known as the “father of the shinkansen”, Japan’s celebrated bullet train.

The museum is an imposing structure with soaring arches of rough hewn tree trunks and abundant glass. The natural wood strikes a beautiful contrast with the gleaming shinkansen engine and diesel locomotive displayed inside. This is a real shinkansen of the original 0-Type, from 1964. Back in those days, when the shinkansen got its “bullet train” nickname, the front of the trains really did look like a 9 mm round in profile. The diesel locomotive, a DF501, was introduced as the successor to the steam trains of the earlier generation. It’s a bright orangey-red color, with lots of switches and buttons that you can push.

Besides the two real trains, there are a number of models of steam trains and other types, and some dioramas with moving trains. When the lady in charge offered to flick the switch to make the trains go, I gave a noncommittal answer, but once the little trains were running here and there, I confess I was entranced. I was joined by a little Japanese boy of about five with a camera, and we stood side by side, each snapping hundreds of pictures.

You buy your tickets for the museum in the Shinji Sogo Memorial Building next door. Here there are some exhibits about Sogo, a wily technocrat who navigated the difficult political terrain in the post-war years, ensuring that both the World Bank and the Japanese Government wouldn’t baulk at funding a high-speed railway in Japan. It was a farsighted approach.

I really enjoyed both parts of the museum. I liked Shinji Sogo’s watches and medals, and the slight smell of oil that lingers about the trains. You can enter the cabins of both trains. I sat in the driver’s seat of the shinkansen, a simple seat that somehow makes you sit up very straight. I moved the switch from “Stop” to “Forward”, and pushed the main lever right up to 10 on the dial. I must say, I felt a certain amount of trepidation as I did so.

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