It was November 20th, 1897 (Meiji 30) when the first train graced the rails of the newly opened Niitsu Station. At the time, Niitsu was nothing more than a small way-station on the line connecting Nuttari and Ichinokido. But with the opening of the eastward running Gan’etsu Line and the Uetsu Honsen Line, Niitsu Station became an important crossroad for trains traveling to and from Fukushima prefecture in the east and Yamagata prefecture in the north. In time, Niitsu came to be compared with Maibara (a predominant station located in the Kansai area) as a vital railway node.
At the height of business, as many as 1 in 4 of Niitsu’s working population made their living working for the rails.
This month, the Niigata English Journal introduces the Niigata City Niitsu Railway Museum, a museum organized in honor of the bright triumph, quiet decline, and current contributions of Niitsu’s railway enterprise.
The museum is broken up into multiple sections by era and theme. Each section is accompanied by an overarching narrative that outlines Japanese railroad history, told from the perspective of Niitsu city. (Much of the Japanese text is at least accompanied by English language titles, and all major sections include varying levels of English translation).
But whether you’re interested in the historical narrative or not, the museum is bristling with interesting gadgets, models, and railway relics from the past: uniforms, badges, models of trains and the Shinkansen tunnel system, segments of real trains, a training simulator(!) as well as old maps, educational materials, tools, machines, videos and factoids.
The Shimizu Tunnels
The museum’s collection includes a set of interactive models depicting the Shimizu tunnel complex. The complex is located on the prefectural boarder of Niigata and Gunma, and if you’ve ever taken an express train between Niigata and Tokyo, then you’ve passed through it. Altogether there are three tunnels looped around each other, worming shoulder-to-shoulder through the rock of the mountain: the Shimizu Tunnel (opened 1931), the Shinshimizu Tunnel (opened 1967), and the Daishimizu Tunnel (opened 1982). At the time of completion, both the Shimizu Tunnel in 1931, and the Daishimizu Tunnel in 1982, were the longest tunnels in the world.
In the late 1920’s and early 1930’s steam powered locomotives were still the standard. But at 9,702 meters, the Shimizu Tunnel was far too long for use by steam trains, as the engine drivers would be in danger of suffocating to death before reaching the end of the passage. Because of this, the train line was designed for complete electrification from the start.
Along with electrification, the tunnel project represented a dramatic leap forward for transprefectural rail transport in Niigata. While the average train traveling from Niigata to Ueno (Tokyo) took nearly 13 hours, express trains in the early 1930’s managed to make the trip in just over 7 hours—almost half the time it took prior to the construction of the tunnel.
After the end of WWII train times continued to improve. Although the trip still took 6 hours in 1952, the introduction of a limited express train in 1968 cut the time down to 4 hours, and the introduction of the Shinkansen bullet train in 1985 finally reduced the trip to 1 hour and 43 minutes.
In addition to segments of a real steam locomotive and a Shinkansen bullet train, the museum also features parts and profiles for each of the major passenger trains that have operated in the Niigata area.
As one would expect from the Snow Country, the museum has a corner devoted to both the problems caused by heavy snows, and the solutions applied. In the same corner is a fascinating black-and-white video from the aftermath of a 1963 snow storm (the “Sanpachi Blizzard,” click here for pictures) that froze all rail activity in the prefecture. The video includes footage of factory workers packing buildings with snow (so they won’t collapse), trains hauling snow, and the Self Defense Force not only air dropping foodstuffs and forming shoveling lines, but even giving in to such desperate shenanigans as attempting to melt the snow with flamethrowers.
Even now Niitsu is home to a rolling stock factory that produces Tokyo’s most advanced line of EMU trains.
Heading to the museum? We recommend you save the Google map embedded below!
Also, for more train fun, be sure to take a ride on the SL Ban’etsu Monogatari-go, a steam locomotive that runs between Niigata and Aizu-Wakamatsu during the warmer months of the year.
Niigata City Niitsu Railway Museum
Hours: 9:30 AM ~ 5:00 PM (Closed on Tuesdays, except when Tue is a National Holiday.)
General Admission: 300JPY (Uni & High School: 200JPY, Jr. High & Elem: 100JPY)
One Year Pass: 1,000JPY (Uni & High School: 700JPY)
Japanese Website: http://www.city.niigata.lg.jp/akiha/about/kankou/rail/museum/index.html
2-5-6 Higashi-cho, Niitsu, Akiha Ward, Niigata City