10 Types of railway enthusiasts: Which are you?
If you’ve been to Japan before, then you have probably ridden one of their trains, haven’t you? Japan’s railway network is extensive and well-developed, and most residents and visitors have regular contact with trains in one way or another, so it’s hard to find someone who hates trains. With the prevalence of trains in daily lives, especially in cities, it’s not surprising to find railway fans (鉄道ファン tetsudо̄ fan) of all types from all walks of life.
Although there exist dozens of railway fan subcultures, in this article we will delve into just 10 types of railway enthusiasts, and what makes railways at-track-tive and eki-citing to them. Rather than being just one type or the other, most of us will be a combination of a few. Whichever type(s) you identify with, you will probably have a preference between nori-tetsu or tori-tetsu, the first two on this list. According to a poll by trafficnews.jp, a whopping 79.5% of respondents identified as nori-tetsu, while coming in second at almost half was tori-tetsu at 41.2%. Are you ready to find out more? Tetsu go!
1) Nori-tetsu (乗り鉄)
Enjoys riding trains
Enjoying passing scenery from the train window. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
One of the two major types of railway enthusiasts, the term nori-tetsu comes from the words nori (乗り to ride), and tetsu, which is short for tetsudо̄ (鉄道 railway). And like its name suggests, nori-tetsu love riding trains! Whether it’s because they enjoy looking at the passing seasonal scenery from the train windows, or kicking back and relaxing with a drink on board while enjoying the gentle rhythm of the moving train, the joy is in the ride.
Unique features and events on board make a train trip more enjoyable. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
Many themed sightseeing trains, like JR East’s Joyful Trains or JR Kyushu’s D&S trains, were created with nori-tetsu in mind—plying extremely scenic local routes, having fun-filled activities on board or at stations along the route, being decorated with unique interiors. For nori-tetsu, trains are not just a means of transportation, train journeys themselves are trips on their own. Personally, many of my trip highlights have been train rides: trains are part of my itinerary like how cafés or castles would be!
The entire JR railway network spans almost 20,000km (non-JR private railway lines span approximately 7,000km), and for hard-core nori-tetsu, their goal is to ride all the lines (完乗 kanjо̄). For Japanese people, this may take years or even decades as train fares are expensive, but as a foreign traveller armed with a JR Pass that allows unlimited rides on all JR lines, perhaps you can reach it sooner.
2) Tori-tetsu (撮り鉄)
Enjoys taking photos of trains
Photo of trains versus photo of people taking photos of trains. (Image credit: JR East / Shinoda)
Tori (撮り) means “to take a photo”, and compared to their ride-loving nori-tetsu counterparts, tori-tetsu enjoy taking photos of trains. From staking out at a special spot to take photos of passing trains against a picture-perfect backdrop, to waiting to get a snap of an elusive rare train, to taking photos of the interiors of trains, a tori-tetsu’s must-bring item is their precious camera.
Various train photos taken by a tori-tetsu colleague. (Image credit: JR East / Shinoda)
Heavily invested tori-tetsu plan their trips, having researched where to go based on the backdrop, or based on a particular train they want to catch. Serious tori-tetsu are armed with large DSLR cameras, while casual tori-tetsu like me can make do with phone cameras.
Although there are viewpoints like the No.1 Tadami River Bridge Viewpoint and the Miyamori Bridge that can easily be reached by public transport, their accessibility also means that they are often crowded. As such, seasoned tori-tetsu tend to visit further flung viewpoints which might only be accessible by car, and can spend hours staking out at a spot just to take the perfect picture. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and some tori-tetsu take photos that are simply splendid!
3) Jikokuhyо̄-tetsu (時刻表鉄)
Enjoys reading train timetables
The JR train timetable book, a jikokuhyо̄-tetsu’s bible. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
In Japan, large phonebook-sized train timetables (時刻表 jikokuhyо̄) are sold at book stores and trains stations, and are usually updated monthly. Jikokuhyо̄-tetsu enjoy reading these books and planning their trips. Since Japan’s trains run like clockwork, arriving and departing on time according to the schedule, this is perhaps a hobby more widespread in Japan compared to other parts of the world.
My Japanese colleagues tell me that the books are accurate without a doubt and are fun to use, and part of that fun is from flipping back-and-forth through the pages. In my early 20s when I had limited time and funds to travel, I could spend days planning my trip itineraries (both actual and imaginary) according to the minute, based on train and bus timings. Living outside Japan without access to these books, I had to make do with online timetables and Hyperdia—a website I’m sure many fellow travellers to Japan have also used.
Timetables at Niigata Station. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
Be it old-school physical books or digital timetables, there’s someone enjoyable about planning trips and going on fantastic imaginary journeys, don’t you think? Looking up train platform layouts for tight connections, or squeezing in some sightseeing and food during long connections—half of the fun of a trip lies in the planning process!
Jikokuhyо̄-tetsu enjoy planning trips, especially trying to maximise the furthest distance that they can travel in a single day, based on the train timetables. Taking the first train departing Tokyo, how far do you think you can travel? While maximising the furthest distance was not a priority of mine, the furthest I’ve travelled in a single day (while on a regular activity-filled itinerary) is around 1,250km from Hiroshima Station (広島駅) in the Chugoku region to Sendai Station (仙台駅) in the Tohoku region. As a JR Pass user I had the luxury of riding shinkansen to reduce travelling time, but many jikokuhyо̄-tetsu like to plan their trips solely using local and rapid trains, without express trains or bullet trains, what an amazing feat.
Timetable book for cargo trains. (Image credit: photoAC)
Timetable books are used not just by jikokuhyо̄-tetsu, but also by all types of railway fans, especially tori-tetsu, who use it to find out where their train of interest will be passing by at what time. Other than regular timetable books for passenger trains which are updated monthly, timetable books for cargo trains (貨物時刻表 kamotsu jikokuhyо̄) are also published annually in Japan. While cargo trains cannot be ridden, over 20,000 tori-tetsu purchase the kamotsu jikokuhyо̄ each year in order to find the best spots to snap away at cargo trains.
4) Eki-tetsu (駅鉄)
Expert on train stations
Vineyard at Shiojiri Station’s platform and footbath at Kami-Suwa Station’s platform. (Image credit: JR East / Chie Matsubara / Carissa Loh)
While trains bring you from one place to another, the train station (駅 eki), is the gateway to your destination. Eki-tetsu relish visiting various train stations, and nothing eki-cites them more than discovering and enjoying the unique traits of each station. Not just a departure or arrival point, train stations in Japan have an equally long history as trains, and some even have unique features, like Shiojiri Station (塩尻駅) which has a functioning vineyard on its platform!
Did you know that there are even train stations in Japan with hot springs inside the station building, or even at the train platform like at Kami-Suwa Station (上諏訪駅)? Speaking of hot springs at stations, Hotto-Yuda Station (ほっとゆだ駅) in Iwate Prefecture was the first station in Japan to have a hot spring facility at the station, and it has a rather special name: “hotto” is the Japanese pronunciation of “hot” and ‘Yuda” is the name of a hot spring village near the station.
Another station with an interesting name? Obasute Station (姨捨駅) in Nagano Prefecture. Oba (姨) means “old lady”, while sute comes from the verb suteru (捨てる) which means “to throw away”. Obasute is located at a high elevation, and legend has it that in the past, people used to abandon old ladies when they grew too old and became a burden. This station also offers amazing views of the Zenkoji Plains below.
Shimonada Station and О̄migawa Station, stations with fantastic sea views. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
Whether it’s to marvel at the station exteriors or surrounding scenery, or to enjoy special features only available at a specific station, or to learn about the history and naming of a certain station, stations are one of the highlights of an eki-tetsu’s trip. While you have retro stations like Tо̄kyо̄ Station (東京駅) boasting a magnificent exterior and having a long-standing heritage, some eki-tetsu prefer visiting seaside stations like Shimonada Station (下灘駅) and О̄migawa Station (青海川駅), which offer unbeatable waterfront views and stunning sunsets.
Nobeyama Station, the highest elevation JR station, and Nishi-О̄yama Station, the southernmost JR Station. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
Other eki-tetsu aim to visit "record-holding" stations, like the the classic JR station extremities:
- Northernmost—Wakkanai Station (稚内駅) in Hokkaido
- Easternmost—Higashi-Nemuro Station (東根室駅) in Hokkaido
- Southernmost—Nishi-О̄yama Station (西大山駅) in Kagoshima
- Westernmost—Sasebo Station (佐世保駅) in Nagasaki
- Highest elevation—Nobeyama Station (野辺山駅) in Nagano
- Deepest—Doai Station (土合駅) in Gunma
5) Sharyо̄-tetsu (車両鉄)
Expert on train cars
Different types of train cars. (Image credit: JR East / Shinoda)
Japan may be known for its high-speed and high-tech shinkansen bullet trains, but other than these, there are also the slower yet still perfectly punctual local trains, as well as special themed sightseeing trains like the Joyful Trains. Train cars are called sharyо̄ (車両) in Japanese, and sharyо̄-tetsu are fans of train designs—well-informed about the different types of train cars, which models are used on which railway lines, when a particular train car is in service, the history and development of train cars etc.
Armed with a wealth of knowledge about train cars, sharyо̄-tetsu are usually also nori-tetsu or tori-tetsu, riding or taking photos of trains because of their fascination with the train cars.
Doctor Yellow shinkansen, the luxurious Train Suite Shiki-shima, and E4 series double-decker shinkansen. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
It’s hard to keep calm when spotting rare trains like the E001 series Train Suite Shiki-shima (TRAIN SUITE 四季島), a luxury cruise train, or the soon-to-be-retired double-decker E4 series shinkansen, or Doctor Yellow, the rare yellow shinkansen used for testing and maintenance. I was also amazed to see former JR East Tadami Line Kiha 40/48 series trains running all the way on the Yangon Circular Railway in Myanmar.
I won’t deny that I get very excited when riding special trains and trying out their special features—like taking a dip in the foot bath on the Toreiyu Tsubasa, or seeing the adorable motifs on the POKÉMON with YOU Train, or drinking sake (酒 rice wine) on the Koshino Shu*Kura. Many Joyful Trains have been repurposed from older train models—like the Toreiyu Tsubasa from an old E3 series shinkansen train car, or the HIGH RAIL 1375 from an old Kiha 100/110 series train car, etc.,—and I think it’s amazing how they can be outfitted in a variety of ways.
6) Oto-tetsu (音鉄)
Expert on train sounds
The SL Banetsu Monogatari letting out a whistle before it departs. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
Somewhat a bit more niche, oto-tetsu enjoy listening to the sounds (音 oto) of trains or the jingles and announcements played throughout the train’s journey, often travelling just to make recordings of them. From just the sound of a train pulling into a station, or the sound of a train as it chugs along the tracks, advanced oto-tetsu can even identify a train’s model just by listening to a short clip!
While some people shy away from picking homes near railway tracks due to noise pollution, some oto-tetsu deliberately choose places near railway tracks in order to be closer to the sounds.
Although I’m no oto-tetsu, I have to admit that the deep whistle of a steam locomotive train is really impressive, and there are certain sounds—like the music played before a door shuts or before reaching a station—that I look forward to when riding a train. Some stations like Matsumoto Station (松本駅) have a very unique way of announcing the station name—instead of the regular “Matsumoto”, they say “Matsumoto~o”, elongating the “o” song in a melodic manner.
7) Ekiben-tetsu (駅弁鉄)
Enjoys eating and collecting ekiben
Ekiben, the highlight of the trip for ekiben-tetsu. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
Unlike in Singapore, where eating on the train will get you penalised with a hefty fine, eating on trains in Japan is perfectly fine, and many riders would agree that it’s one of the joys of train travel. The unique Japanese ekiben (駅弁) are lunch boxes which are sold at train stations or onboard trains, usually to be consumed on a long train ride. Coming in different shapes and flavours, many ekiben are exclusive to particular regions or stations, featuring locally-produced ingredients or box designs with local motifs.
Ekiben-tetsu are railway enthusiasts who travel around the country to taste these regional delights, often building a collection of the paper covers (包装紙 hо̄sо̄shi) as a souvenir of their travels. The ultimate ekiben-tetsu travel slogan? “Gotta eat ‘em all.”
8) Oshi-tetsu (押し鉄)
Stamps from stations and trains. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
When in Japan, you might notice that some train stations have a table in a corner with a rubber stamp, an inking pad and pieces of paper. Known as eki-stamps (駅スタンプ), these stamps usually feature motifs unique to the district around that particular station. and have been lovingly collected by many customers as souvenirs of their railway trips over the years. Not just at stations, some sightseeing trains might even have their own stamps.
While casual collectors like me get a stamp only if we happen to come across one, true-blue oshi-tetsu make it a point to seek out these stamps at every station they visit, and often have an extensive collection of them. Oshi comes from the verb osu (押す to press), and refers to the pressing action when stamping a stamp.
Joyful Train Stamp Rally. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
These stamps are more popular than you might think. In fact, stamp rallies are often conducted as a tourism promotion event, whereby collecting a certain number of stamps from specific locations during a campaign period can earn you a small gift. Once in a while there are some stamp rallies that even foreign travellers can also participate in, though usually for the lower tier prizes.
One such stamp rally I participated in was the one for Joyful Trains. The campaign was to promote riding Joyful Trains, and the required stamps were on board the trains. One stamp could be exchanged for an A4 file at NewDays, the convenience store at JR East train stations, which I was able to get. The prizes for two or more stamps would be by lucky draw, which I could not participate in because of the local mailing address requirement. The special prize for getting six or more stamps included the rare chance to visit a train depot, so it’s not hard to see why stamp rally campaigns like this are a hit amongst railway fans.
Tetsuinchо̄ and the tetsuin stamp from Echigo TOKImeki Railway. (Image credit: kimuchi583 / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Taking it to another level, the tetsuinchо̄ (鉄印帳) campaign was launched in July 2020. Similar to the goshuinchо̄ (御朱印帳) books used for collecting goshuin (御朱印)—large stamps often handwritten by monks that you can get when visiting temples and shrines in Japan—the tetsuinchо̄ is a book that lets you collect special tetsuin (鉄印) from 40 different third sector railway companies all over Japan. Unlike regular eki-stamps, tetsuin are larger, more elaborate and cost at least ¥300 each, and only holders of the tetsuinchо̄ may receive tetsuin. Needless to say, the campaign was a hit and all 5,000 tetsuinchо̄ sold out quickly. To date (as of 19 February), almost 150 people have completed the tetsuinchо̄, having collected all the different tetsuin from all over Japan!
9) Mokei-tetsu (模型鉄)
Train model collector and builder
Miniature train models. (Image credit: JR East / Kano)
Collecting models (模型 mokei) of trains and railways is a popular hobby in not just Japan, but also all over the world. From amassing scale model train miniatures to building impressive dioramas for moving models run on, mokei-tetsu love train models. While some mokei-tetsu collect miniature models of trains to put on display as you do with figurines, others build amazingly detailed and functioning dioramas, complete with moving parts, trees, people, and buildings.
Just like the feeling of accomplishment you get when building a Lego world or putting together a jigsaw puzzle, building models also gives that sense of satisfaction. For mokei-tetsu, they let their models take them on an imaginary journey, and the fun lies in building and creating your own railway world!
10) Shūshū-tetsu (収集鉄)
Train merchandise and memorabilia collector
Train tickets and train-related merchandise and memorabilia. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
Rounding up this list is the ultimate collector: the shūshū-tetsu (shūshū (収集) means “to collect”). While some people take photos to commemorate their trip, shūshū-tetsu collect all sorts of train-related paraphernalia. Most shūshū-tetsu collect tickets, even storing them in albums—especially ones from limited run trains or anniversary events—while hard-core shūshū-tetsu collect train parts like signboards. There are even auctions and events organised by railway companies targeting shūshū-tetsu, selling unused train parts!
Though I'm no shūshū-tetsu (just a hoarder), I have kept almost all of my JR reserved seat tickets since 2014, and have a stack of close to 400 of them. Where possible, I also like to collect A4 files of special trains, and get especially thrilled when these special trains have their own masking tapes.
To me, trains are definitely the most enjoyable and cost-efficient way to travel across Japan. Most railway companies offer discounted rail passes for foreign tourists, so go make use of them when travelling around Japan. For the Eastern Japan region, check out the JR EAST PASS:
JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area)
JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area) and usage area. (Image credit: JR East)
If you are coming from Tokyo and thinking of visiting Nagano and Niigata Prefectures, check out the JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area), an affordable pass offering unlimited rail travel on JR East lines (including bullet trains) in the valid area for any 5 days of your choice within a 14-day period. At only ¥17,310 when purchased overseas, it costs less than a round-trip between Tokyo and Niigata (~¥21,000), and the 5 days do not have to be consecutive. You can also make seat reservations for bullet trains, some limited express trains and Joyful Trains online for free, up to 1 month in advance, here.
JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area)
JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area) and usage area. (Image credit: JR East)
If you are thinking of visiting the Tohoku region, check out the JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area), an affordable pass offering unlimited rail travel on JR East lines (including bullet trains) in the valid area for any 5 days of your choice within a 14-day period. At only ¥19,350 when purchased overseas, it costs less than a round-trip between Tokyo and Aomori (~¥35,000), and the 5 days do not have to be consecutive. You can also make seat reservations for bullet trains, some limited express trains and Joyful Trains online for free, up to one month in advance, here.
Header image credit: JR East / Shinoda