By Minoru Shinozaki

It seems that the second wave of "SL boom" is sweeping Japan (the first one came around 1972, the centenary year of Japanese railway, when people began obsessively recording the last days of steams).

In 1999, a film called Poppo-ya (Railwayman) based on Jiro Asada's prize-winning novel was on show, attracting substantial audiences. NHK broadcast a drama serial titled Suzuran (Lily of the Valley), which is about an orphan girl brought up by a stationmaster of a local line in Hokkaido and includes many scenes in which a steam train runs in snow-covered countryside. NHK chartered Mooka-based C12 66 on Rumoi mainline (having brought her all the way to Hokkaido) for it in December 1999. Also, a weekend steam special "Suzuran Go" started operation in May there, which was hauled by newly revived C11 171 and she, too, appeared in the drama. Along with her, C57 180, which began operation of "Ban'etsu Monogatari Go" on the Banets-west line in April, was last year's biggest news for railway enthusiasts.

It was no accident that the revival of steam was related to the production of a drama featuring a railwayman. For many of us, the railway stands for the old way of living in which communal life has not yet lost its value. It stands for the value we have lost, living in a fragmented society, for which automobile is a proper metaphor. At the centre of our image of the old communal life is railway station and railwaymen -- at least for me.

Nicholas Whittaker's Platform Soul (Indigo, 1995) is good reading for all railfans especially because it describes vividly the way of thinking and behavioral pattern of an endangered species called "trainspotter". Bunking sheds" is the most interesting topic in this book. It gives an impressive episode in which the author, as a teenager, was arrested by the watchman for attempting to "bunk" Stewarts Lane sheds, South London (serving Victoria Station services), who threatened to call the police and make him cry furiously.

Compared with the British image of railwayman shown here, Japanese counterpart is far milder. Dressed decently in a navy blue JNR uniform (or white one in summer), a railwayman, always ready to answer our inquiries, was a symbol of railway and a personification of reliability for trainspotting boys. Japanese railwaymen in my memory were kind and receptive to trainspotting boys. Some drivers let us in the cab and showed how to stoke while the train was calling at way stations. When we went out to shoot steams on local lines, we first went to the station office to get information about train times and ask for permission to photograph by the track. At many stations they gave us train times on blueprint paper and showed us the way to good places to take photos.

I particularly remember one young assistant stationmaster called Mr. Ishida. I met him in March 1971 at Takiya on Tadami line (which now connects Aizu-Wakamatsu, Fukushima pref. and Koide, Niigata pref., but at that time, the middle part of the line had not yet been opened and the north part was called the Aizu line). After sending off the departing train which I got off, he told me the train times and showed how to get over the portal of the tunnel which was situated just beyond a high bridge. I crossed the bridge walking on the catwalk, which was over 30 meters high to get to the spot. That was the first time I walked across a railway bridge and I was excited (and a little scared) as I looked down and saw the river below. I heard the river chattering and calls of cuckoo echoing among the mountains in the warm sunlight of spring. Thus, unlike Whittaker's, all of my memories with railwaymen are sweet.

Takiya on Tadami (then Aizu) line

A young assistant stationmaster sending off a C11-hauled train at Takiya on Tadami (then Aizu) line in March 1971.

C11-hauled crossing a bridge

A C11-hauled crossing a bridge near Takiya on the same day.

Signalman at Tsuruoka

A signalman in front of a signal box near Tsuruoka on U'etsu mainline in autumn 1973.

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