Photo/IllutrationA Railway Museum staff member demonstrates the driving simulator, which allows visitors to “operate” an E-5 Series Shinkansen running at 320 kph, in Omiya, Saitama Prefecture, on June 26. (Ayateru Hosozawa)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

Railway museums in Japan have upgraded their facilities and added further doses of reality to attract visitors, including the experience of watching bugs get smashed into the windshield of a speeding bullet train.

“In an era with a decreasing population, we need people to choose and ride trains out of the many modes of transportation available,” said an executive of a railway company. “We would like to increase the number of railway fans.”

The Railway Museum in Saitama’s Omiya Ward boasts 10 million visitors since its opening in October 2007.

The museum, operated by East Japan Railway Co., opened a new four-story building in July, increasing the total size of the exhibition space by 30 percent to 13,500 square meters.

Its new exhibits focus on “virtual experience.”

For example, a new simulator allows visitors to “drive an E-5 Series Shinkansen,” which can hit speeds of 320 kph. As the train gains velocity, spots appear on the windshield, representing unfortunate insects caught in the path of the bullet train.

The views were created from footage taken in a real driver’s seat of a Shinkansen to add authenticity to the virtual ride.

Visitors can also “serve” as other railway experts, including “maintenance engineers” who detect loose bolts by tapping the train wheels as well as distortions in the tracks.

Trains exhibited at the main building were given facelifts to provide visitors with life-like experiences.

Projections on screens covering the windows of the Ki Ha 41300 Series train on display show mountain views in Yamanashi and Nagano prefectures. The train used to run in that area on the local Koumi Line in the early Showa Era (1926-1989).

If visitors look at a bullet train-shaped monitor featuring augmented reality technology, a 200 Series Tohoku Shinkansen at the museum will appear to be running through a severe blizzard.

“Over the past 10 years, significant developments have been made for imaging techniques, which enable us to use such exhibit styles,” said Satoshi Okuhara, a curator and section chief at the sales department of the museum. “We would like visitors to know the charms of railways by experiencing the realities (of the world we provide).”

Kyoto Railway Museum, run by West Japan Railway Co., has taken the reality experience further.

The museum, which opened in 2016 in Kyoto’s Shimogyo Ward, boasts a “living” railway that extends from real train tracks. This allows active trains to enter the site for display.

In June, Twilight Express Mizukaze, a luxury sleeper train, completed its two-night tour and entered the museum for an exhibition marking the first anniversary of the train’s operation.

A junior high school student, who rushed from Osaka to the museum, got a rare look at the Mizukaze appearing with the train body of its predecessor, the Twilight Express.

“This is the only place where I can closely look into the currently operated train and compare it with its predecessor,” the 13-year-old boy said.

Hideyuki Miura, director of the museum, said older models at the facility are kept in working order.

“We maintain eight out of all 20 exhibited steam locomotives in order for them to operate so that our visitors can see their tremendous impact with smoke and steam,” Miura said.

The Scmaglev and Railway Park, which is run by Central Japan Railway Co. (JR Tokai) and located in Nagoya’s Minato Ward, commemorates its seventh anniversary this year.

Its exhibitions are themed on advances in high-speed railway technology.

The facility has reproduced the interior of a superconducting magnetic-levitation (SCMaglev) train. Visitors in the “car” can feel like they are riding on the train running at 500 kph.

In May, the museum started offering on-site lectures at elementary schools. More than 30 applications for the lectures have been submitted to the museum.

The lecturers teach pupils the mechanisms of SCMaglev trains, which use the magnet’s natural forces of repellence and attraction to allow for higher speeds.

“We would like students to learn how the properties of the magnet, which they learned at school, are used for high-speed trains,” said Mitsuhiro Amano, who heads the museum.

Other private railway companies also have grand museum plans.

Odakyu Electric Railway Co. is expected to open its Romance Car Museum in spring 2021, near Ebina Station in Kanagawa Prefecture.

It will feature five successive models of Romance Car trains, including the original SE, and the Mo Ha 1 Series train that ran in the early stages. The company expects about 270,000 visitors annually.

In the Kanto region, other private railway companies, such as Tokyu Co., Tokyo Metro Co. and Tobu Railway Co., each operate their own exhibition facilities.

In the Kansai region, Keihan Electric Railway Co. and Nankai Electric Railway Co. in 2014 opened facilities that provide virtual riding and driving simulation experiences and display their train cars.

Hiroshi Suda, chairman of the Japan Tourism Association and a counselor to JR Tokai, said it is only natural for people to want to know about the mechanisms and the history of railways because they are a part of daily life.

“From the viewpoint of railway companies, it is effective to earn people’s trust as a transportation method while encouraging them to use trains by providing opportunities to understand railway methods and systems,” he said.