Cats and dogs and Pokémon and ball pools: The eight joyful trains of Japan

Okay, it may not look like much, but... the exterior of the Genbi Shinkansen art experience. Image: ©Mika Ninagawa, used courtesy of Tomio Koyama Gallery.

If you’re on this website, you’ll likely agree with the statement: trains are good. We like trains. Trains are marvellous.

But in Britain our idea of a good train is “runs on time, doesn’t smell of wee, possibly has a spare seat”. Our national rail ambition has been battered by years of this crap: the most exciting we can hope for is to catch sight of the Orient Express as it flashes through a station, or a ride on the Settle to Carlisle railway.

Yet in Japan, there are trains dedicated to art and sake and Pokemon. There’s a train with a ball pool, for Christ’s sake.

These trains aren’t usually part of the ‘real’ timetable (that is, they don’t show up in the regular searches), and sometimes only run on specific days, they do still run proper routes. The Tohoku Emotion, for instance (all about dining; one car is an open kitchen) runs between Hachinohe and Kuji, adding a direct train between those cities in an otherwise annoying two hour gap.


Cost is, of course, another issue. It’s not possible to book many of these trains outside Japan so prices are tricky to come by, and some of the dining packages on offer will obviously involve laying down some hefty yen.

That said, the Kawasemi Yamasemi, an exquisitely decorated train that runs three times every day direct between Kumamoto and Hitoyoshi in central Kyushu, costs about the same as travelling between the two on the bullet train (it’s faster too, because it’s direct). And I’m happy to bet the farm that any of these trains will cost a damn sight less than Japan’s newest, shiniest novelty train – and probably be more fun.

So without further ado, here are some of the best – and this really is what they’re called – Joyful Trains in Japan.

Pokémon with YOU

Yes, there really is a Pokémon train. Introduced in Tohoku to cheer up – and raise money for – the region’s children after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, the service runs between Ichinoseki and Kesennuma stations, and if Niantic hasn’t worked out a way to put special Pokémon Go characters at each station, it’s missing a trick. There’s a playroom with big Snorlax cushions, the Drilbur Tunnel and real life Poké balls. And, as far as we can tell, a seat costs less than a fiver.

Oh, and because it’s run by JR East, you can do a Google Street View walkthrough of the whole train, which are available for many of the company’s Joyful Trains. Japan. Is. Awesome.

Image: Google Street View.

Tama-Den

If cute character-themed trains are your thing, then you should also check out the Tama-Den which runs on the Wakayama Electric Railway’s Kishigawa line. Tama, you may recall, was a calico cat who became feted as a stationmaster, and elevated into a goddess when she died in 2015. (Her replacement, Tama II, works a five day week at Kishi station.) The Tama-Den is covered in drawings of her. And you thought your cat was spoiled.

Meow? Image: as365n2/Flickr/creative commons.

The same company also runs the Omo-den, which is all about toys and has cash-guzzling capsule toy vending machines on board.

Aso Boy!

Where there’s a cat train, there must also be a dog. Aso Boy! usually takes you past the caldera of Mount Aso, the largest active volcano in Japan, but since the Kumamoto earthquake the route is altered.

 But even with the lack of its main scenic draw, this is still a top train because it features the cutest of all Japan’s regional mascots. Kuro is JR Kyushu’s yuru-chara and the damnably adorable dog gets everywhere. It’s one-up on the Tama-Den because you can buy Kuro-themed food and souvenirs, and this is the train with the ball pool.

The balls are wooden though. Ouch.

On board Aso Boy! Image: Jill Chen/Flickr/creative commons.

Genbi Shinkansen

The bullet train is cool enough, but this one is decorated inside and out with the work of eight modern artists. Running between Niigata and Echigo-Yuzawa, the Genbi Shinkansen reckons it’s the world’s fastest art experience. With a journey time of just under an hour, works range from standard wall-mounted paintings to art that’s literally part of the furniture.

Images: ©Mika Ninagawa, used courtesy of Tomio Koyama Gallery.

SL Ginga

Not only is this train hauled by a steam locomotive, it has a freaking planetarium on board. It’s inspired by children’s author Kenji Miyazawa’s book Night on the Galactic Railroad which is set in the early 20th century, and the decor is meant to echo that era. There are galleries devoted to Miyazawa’s life, and the train runs between Hanamaki – where he was from – and Kamaishi.

Image: Google Street View.

FruiTea Fukushima

The whole of Fukushima province has been tainted by association with its namesake nuclear power plant, which is deeply unfair as it’s a gorgeous part of the country.

To drum up tourism, the FruiTea train went into service a couple of years ago on the standard line connecting Koriyama to Aizu-Wakamatsu, a castle-and-samurai town. There are several Joyful Trains dedicated to eating and drinking, but this one deserves a mention because its locally produced fruit snacks and drinks deserve wider recognition. As does the area.

Here’s your Google Street View walkthrough:

Image: Google Street View.

Shu*Kura

There are three Shu*Kura trains, all departing from Joetsumyoko but with different destinations. This is another train dedicated to eating and, well... drinking.

Niigata Prefecture claims to brew the finest sake in the world, and this three car service showcases the best of them. It also has live music and snacks, but the point here is that you can stand at a sake cask-themed bar and get tiddly without anyone judging you, like they would for that M&S prosecco.

And check out the lights on that thing.

Image: Google Street View.

Toreiyu Tsubasa

This is the train to catch if you want to go full Japan. Most of the cars don’t have seats, they have tatami mats and low tables instead, billed as a ‘conversation space’.

There’s another tatami car designed as more of a lounge for people after they’ve used the footbath. Yes, you did read that correctly. A footbath. You’re not going to want your shoes with all this tatami anyway, and it’s a unique way to view the scenery between Fukushima and Shinjo.

Image: Google Street View.

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Owning public space is expensive. So why do developers want to do it?

Granary Yard, London. Image: Getty.

A great deal has been written about privately owned public space, or POPS. A Guardian investigation earlier this year revealed the proliferation of “pseudo-public spaces”. Tales of people being watched, removed from or told off in POPS have spread online. Activists have taken to monitoring POPS, and politicians on both sides of the pond are calling for reforms in how they are run.

Local authorities’ motives for selling off public spaces are normally simple: getting companies to buy and maintain public space saves precious public pounds. Less straightforward and often overlooked in this debate is why – given the maintenance costs, public safety concerns and increasingly unflattering media attention – developers would actually want to own public space in the first place.

To answer that question it’s important to note that POPS can’t be viewed as isolated places, like parks or other public spaces might be. For the companies that own them, public spaces are bound up in the business that takes place inside their private buildings; POPS are tools that allow them, in one way or another, to boost profits.

Trade-offs

In some cities, such as Hong Kong and New York, ownership of public space is a trade-off for the right to bend the rules in planning and zoning. In 1961 New York introduced a policy that came to be known as ‘incentive zoning’. Developers who took on the provision of some public space could build wider, taller buildings, ignoring restrictions that had previously required staggered vertical growth to let sunlight and air into streets.

Since then, the city has allowed developers to build 20m square feet of private space in exchange for 80 acres of POPS, or 525 individual spaces, according to watchdog Advocates for Privately Owned Public Space (APOPS).

Several of those spaces lie in Trump Tower. Before the King of the Deal began construction on his new headquarters in 1979, he secured a pretty good deal with the city: Trump Tower would provide two atriums, two gardens, some restrooms and some benches for public use; in exchange 20 floors could be added to the top of the skyscraper. That’s quite a lot of condos.

Shockingly, the current president has not always kept up his end of the bargain and has been fined multiple times for dissuading members of the public from using POPS by doing things like placing flower pots on top of benches – violating a 1975 rule which said that companies had to provide amenities that actually make public spaces useable. The incident might suggest the failure of the ‘honour system’ under which POPS operate day-to-day. Once developers have secured their extra square footage, they might be tempted to undermine, subtly, the ‘public’ nature of their public spaces.

But what about where there aren’t necessarily planning benefits to providing public space? Why would companies go to the trouble of managing spaces that the council would otherwise take care of?


Attracting the ‘right sort’

Granary Square, part of the £5bn redevelopment of London’s Kings Cross, has been open since 2012. It is one of Europe’s largest privately-owned public spaces and has become a focal point for concerns over corporate control of public space. Yet developers of the neighbouring Coal Drop Yards site, due to open in October 2018, are also making their “dynamic new public space” a key point in marketing.

Cushman Wakefield, the real estate company in charge of Coal Drops Yard, says that the vision of the developers, Argent, has been to “retain the historical architecture to create a dramatic environment that will attract visitors to the 100,000 square feet of boutiques”. The key word here is “attract”. By designing and managing POPS, developers can attract the consumers who are essential to the success of their sites and who might be put off by a grubby council-managed square – or by a sterile shopping mall door.

A 2011 London Assembly Report found that the expansion of Canary Wharf in the 1990s was a turning point for developers who now “assume that they themselves will take ownership of an open space, with absolute control, in order to protect the value of the development as a whole”. In many ways this is a win-win situation; who doesn’t appreciate a nice water feature or shrub or whatever else big developer money can buy?

The caveat is, as academic Tridib Banerjee pointed out back in 2001: “The public is welcome as long as they are patrons of shops and restaurants, office workers, or clients of businesses located on the premises. But access to and use of the space is only a privilege and not a right” – hence the stories of security guards removing protesters or homeless people who threaten the aspirational appeal of places like Granary Square.

In the US, developers have taken this kind of space-curation even further, using public spaces as part of their formula for attracting the right kind of worker, as well as consumer, for nearby businesses. In Cincinnati, developer 3CDC transformed the notoriously crime-ridden Over-The-Rhine (OTR) neighbourhood into a young professional paradise. Pouring $47m into an initial make-over in 2010, 3CDC beautified parks and public space as well as private buildings.

To do so, the firm received $50 million  in funding from corporations like Procter and Gamble, whose Cincinnati headquarters sits to the South-West of OTR. This kind of hyper-gentrification has profoundly change the demographics of the neighbourhood – to the anger of many long-term residents – attracting, essentially, the kind of people who work at Procter and Gamble.

Elsewhere, in cities like Alpharetta, Georgia, 3CDC have taken their public space management even further, running events and entertainment designed to attract productive young people to otherwise dull neighbourhoods.

Data pools

The proposed partnership between the city of Toronto and Sidewalk Labs (owned by Google’s parent company Alphabet) has highlighted another motive for companies to own public space: the most modern of all resources, data.

Data collection is at the heart of the ‘smart city’ utopia: the idea that by turning public spaces and the people into them into a vast data pool, tech companies can find ways to improve transport, the environment and urban quality of life. If approved next year, Sidewalk would take over the mostly derelict east waterfront area, developing public and private space filled with sensors.

 Of course, this isn’t altruism. The Globe and Mail describe Sidewalk’s desired role as “the private garbage collectors of data”. It’s an apt phrase that reflects the merging of public service and private opportunity in Toronto’s future public space.

The data that Sidewalk could collect in Toronto would be used by Google in its commercial projects. Indeed, they’ve already done so in New York’s LinkNYC and London’s LinkUK. Kiosks installed around the cities provide the public with wifi and charging points, whilst monitoring traffic and pedestrians and generating data to feed into Google Maps.

The subway station at Hudson Yards, New York City. Image: Getty.

This is all pretty anodyne stuff. Data on how we move around public spaces is probably a small price to pay for more efficient transport information, and of course Sidewalk don’t own the areas around their Link Kiosks. But elsewhere companies’ plans to collect data in their POPS have sparked controversy. In New York’s Hudson Yards development – which Sidewalk also has a stake in – ambiguity over how visitors and residents can opt out of sharing their data when in its public square, have raised concerns over privacy.

In Toronto, Sidewalk have already offered to share their data with the city. However, Martin Kenney, researcher at the University of California at Davis and co-author of 2016’s ‘The Rise of the Platform Economy’, has warned that the potential value of a tech company collecting a community’s data should not be underestimated. “What’s really important is the deals Toronto cuts with Sidewalk may set terms and conditions for the rest of the world," he said after the announcement in October.

The project could crystallise all three motives behind the ownership of POPS. Alongside data collection, Sidewalk will likely have some leeway over planning regulations and will certainly tailor its public spaces to its ideal workers and consumers – Google have already announced that it would move its Canadian headquarters, from their current location in Downton Toronto, into the first pilot phase of the development.

Even if the Sidewalks Lab project never happens, the motives behind companies’ ownership of POPS tell us that cities’ public realms are of increasing interest to private hands.

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