This article gives a fascinating insight into railway activities and life in Japan at the close of the nineteenth century.

Originally published in “The Railway Magazine” in March 1898, the author D.T. Timins looks at what to an occidental eye must have been a very strange place indeed. I note with interest that he felt somewhat “inebriated” after drinking a few cups of green tea.

I hope you enjoy this glimpse into the past. Railway/railroad buffs should find the images of engines and rolling stock of interest…

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THE WORDS “JAPAN” and “railways” used in conjunction with one another strike anyone who has visited that charming country with a sense of incongruity. What should that placid little people know of the rattle and rush of an express train, typical as it is of the nerve-wasting haste which we Westerners live our lives? Those shining metals are as the veritable trail of the serpent; they follow inevitably in the wake of civilisation, and give rise to crowded and smoky manufacturing towns, while spreading abroad an unrestful desire for travel, with all its concomitant worries and brain-wear. Moreover, the destruction of all peaceful village life comes in their train. It is not within the scope of this article to discuss the merits of a so-called “civilisation,” as accepted by our Western standards, nor the value of the “benefits” which it is supposed to confer upon a people whose ethical, moral, social, and political codes date from a time when all Western Europe was probably peopled by naked savages. But I cannot resist saying that when Japan finally exchanges her peaceful simplicity, her admiration for, and artistic appreciation of, Nature’s beauties, and her contented national life, for the storm, stress, and hurry of that feverish existence known to the West, she will have given up the substance for the shadow.

Happily for her, that day is not yet within measurable distance, and she remains in everything whether borrowed from the West or not, Japanese. And especially does this remark apply to her railways. In them we shall find the national characteristics as truly exemplified as they are in her Shinto temples or her miniature pleasure grounds.

Let us suppose that we have journeyed from the Western Hemisphere, either eastwards via the Suez Canal, or westwards via Canada, and arrived in the land of the Rising Sun, “Dai Nippon”–”The Great Japan.” We shall most probably have landed at Yokohama and proceeded straight from the quay to our hotel. Later on we shall be seized with a desire to explore the country, and having packed up our traps we tell the musmee to call a cab. The nearest approach to this vehicle and its beast of burthen, which Japan provides is to be found in a two-legged steed with a two-wheeled carriage, the latter known to fame as a “Jinricksha,” commonly called “Jinricky,” and the former to natural history as “Homo Sapiens”! If our impediments be of large dimension, we shall find trouble ahead, for no self-respecting ‘Ricksha man can take more than one piece of luggage, so that if there be six trunks waiting transport an imposing cavalcade will accompany us from the hotel. Arrived at the railway station, we are received by an officer in full uniform, who will direct sundry menials clad in butcher blue kimonos, but bare us to their hairy brown legs, to carry our luggage into the station while he conducts us to the booking-office. The gentleman (usually in spectacles), who smiles benignly at us through the diminutive pigeon-hole, then disburdens his mind of a polite but totally unintelligible sentence in Japanese. A dim recollection of the hints of the guidebook leads us to correctly surmise that he is making affectionate inquiry for our passport. This indispensable document is not the banknote-looking paper, signed “Salisbury” in one corner and “John Jones” in the other, with which every Briton worthy of the name arms himself before “going abroad,” and obtains through the recommendation of a “banker, lawyer, or some other responsible person” (vide Badeker). It is a State document obtainable only at the Japanese Foreign Office. For the benefit of the uninitiated, it may be as well to state here that in most of the large sea-ports of Japan there exists a portion of the town known as the “Foreign Concession,” within, which all foreigners (this term, of course, comprising everyone who is not a Japanese by birth) may reside, carry on business, “or otherwise,” as the lawyers have it. Within twenty-five miles of this concession, but no further, may the foreigner direct his wandering steps. To advance one yard outside this special district, known as the “Treaty Limits,” is a criminal offence, unless the individual be armed with a “passport.” This formidable weapon, though not exactly identical with its English prototype, has, as we shall see, certain points of similarity. It is easy of acquirement, and of great service. At the Japanese Foreign Office are drawn up lists of places arranged in the form of tours, separate passports being issued for each series. The traveller selects the itinerary for which he desires a passport from one of these lists. The routes cover all places of beauty or interest in Japan, but no passport can be extended, nor can a traveller deviate in any particular from the tour laid down for him therein. A passport is valid for three months, and each traveller before obtaining one has to sign a declaration stating that he is travelling “for the benefit of his health.” This declaration is of a sufficiently elastic nature to prevent anyone from doing violence to his sense of veracity in subscribing to it. Three large seals depend from the passport in an imposing manner. One of the conditions of issue is that this document shall be returned to the Foreign Office immediately upon expiration or upon the holder leaving the country. Failure to comply with this rule entails very heavy penalties, and also the certainty of a refusal should an application ever again be made for a passport at a subsequent date.

The Railway Station, Yokohama, Japan

As we have seen, the first request of a booking clerk before giving us our ticket is for this passport. When duly presented he will inspect it for some minutes, and discuss the situation with a subordinate. Having finally decided that we are legally entitled to travel over a certain portion of his precious Nippon, he will address another exceedingly suave but equally meaningless speech to us. However, we shall probably know by a species of intuition that he is asking us to name our destination and the class by which we propose to travel. We shall, therefore, reply: “Tokio made jo-to kippu ichimai kuda-sai” (A first-class ticket to Tokio”), assuming that place to be our destination, whereupon a small, oblong square of cardboard will be handed to us (in exchange, of course, for the requisite number of “yen” and “sen”), exactly similar in appearance to an English railway ticket. Fares in Japan are very low, and the validity of single tickets is arranged on a very sensible plan–viz., up to 50 miles, 1 day; 50 to 100 miles, 2 days; 100 to 200 miles, 3 days; 200 to 300 miles, 4 days; over 300 miles, 5 days.

Imperial Railway, Japan, four-coupled in front engine. Built by Sharp, Stewart and Co., 1877. Coupled wheels, 4ft. 6in. diameter; cylinders, 15in. by 22in.

The name of the issuing station and that of our destination, as well as the class by which it entitles us to travel, are printed on the ticket in English as well as in the Japanese character. The journey can be broken at all principal stations en route. Labels printed with mysterious hieroglyphics are stuck on our trunks, and we pass through the barrier on to the platform, a full half hour before the booked time of the train! For hurry and the Oriental are two. Though the Japanese are by no means a lazy or an idle race, and though they possess none of that apathetic indolence common to those Eastern races who dwell beneath a tropical sun, still all notion of speed, haste, or flurry are utterly foreign to a nature. Centuries of Western training will be necessary before a Japanese will be able to appreciate the significance of such a phrase as “catching a train by the skin of one’s teeth!” The native of Japan arrives at the station two or three hours before the train is due. If he be a rustic, or unused to travelling, and he intends to take a morning train, he will probably make a point of taking up a strong position at the station the night before his prospective journey and camping on the platform. To this practice the railway officials make no sort of objection: the ingrained honesty and scrupulous cleanliness of the people put it out of the power of the authorities to find any reason why travellers should not be allowed to insure themselves–after their own unique method–against any chance of being left behind by the train. The Japanese do not regard the train as an object to be worshipped, nor do they seek to propitiate the engine by offerings of flowersand fruit as do the Hindoos; but they none the less experience a certain amount of respect for the tetsudo-bahu, or “fire carriages.” This feeling seems to find expression in a greatly exaggerated fear lest the train should fail to wait for them, as exemplified by their very early arrival at a station when they contemplate making a journey. After all, this is but the original stage of that feeling whose evolution may be seen in a crystallised form at any big English railway station. The perspiring matron with many bundles, who always arrives at least three-quarters of an hour before the train is due, suffers from this same heathenish instinct in a modified form.

A double roof passenger carriage with brake compartment, Japanese Railway.