Photo/IllutrationChildren, and some children at heart, watch lifelike model trains cruising around in a railroad diorama. (Photo by Lisa Vogt)

  • Photo/Illustraion

I overheard a little boy who must have been about 6 years old ask his father, “What’s a locomotive?”

I smiled as my first thought was, “Come on, come on, baby, do The Loco-Motion with me.” I hope readers of this column have heard of this song -- do I need newer material?

My second thought was, considering where we were, Ome Railway Park in Tokyo, “I can answer that. A locomotive is a heavy, old-fashioned train that billows smoke as it chugs along.”

Daddy’s reply left me red-faced. My answer was not only insufficient; it was wrong! He explained that a locomotive is a train that pulls the carriages along the tracks. It can be powered by steam, diesel, electricity, gas, fuel cells or it can be a hybrid of any of these. The Yamanote Line in Tokyo, for example, is not a locomotive because each carriage is self-propelled.

Oh. So, the train does not have to look like Thomas the Tank Engine (which, in my opinion, has to be one of the weirdest, surreal-looking cartoon characters ever).

Visitors young and not-so-young were crowded around a huge glass-encased railway model diorama. Trains looped around the intricately formed terrain with tunnels, bridges, train stations, railroad crossings, etc.

In this always-in-a-rush 140-character Twitter world that we live in, it’s a rare treat to sit in front of something and just “be” for a while, taking in what’s in front of you. Doing so, I noticed several things that are obvious when you think about it, but hadn’t occurred to me until I gazed at the diorama for a while.

For instance, automobiles zigzag up and down mountains, whereas trains just shoot through tunnels. And, unlike car tires that must be rubber because they grip the road, locomotive wheels are made of steel because trains are heavy and there’s less rolling friction.

Imagine two pachinko balls, one rubber and one steel, that have the same mass rolling across a carpeted floor. The steel ball will travel a longer distance before it stops because there’s less friction.

Have you ever noticed that train tracks are slightly angled at curves? A right curve will have the right train track a little lower than the left. And I also noticed that long-distance trains have fewer doors than city commuters -- duh!

There are picnic tables, kiddie rides, real locomotives and a Shinkansen train on the museum premises. A day here, letting your mind wander and notice things, is a day well spent.

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This article by Lisa Vogt, a Washington-born and Tokyo-based photographer, originally appeared in the Oct. 15 issue of Asahi Weekly. It is part of the series "Lisa’s In and Around Tokyo," which depicts the capital and its surroundings through the perspective of the author, a professor at Meiji University.