Celebrate the Rise of Japan's Railways on Oct. 14

Shimbashi Station 1900, Old Shimbashi Station imagery from the National Diet Library
Shimbashi Station 1900, Old Shimbashi Station imagery from the National Diet Library

Celebrate the Rise of Japan's Railways on Oct. 14

by David Krigbaum

Japan’s favorite way to travel has its own special day on October 14. Railway Day, or Tetsudo no Hi, is a celebration of the railroads and is also the anniversary of the opening of the country’s first railroad.

Linking Tokyo and Yokohama, the first railway was an 18 mile stretch of track. At the time Yokohama was a treaty port, one of the few places foreign goods could be brought into the country, and ironically, its location was chosen in part because its distance would keep foreigners away from the capital. The track ensured that now they could be transported in.

The railway was government-owned but the undertaking was instigated, funded and led by the British. Surveying began on Apr. 25, 1870 and work began using a force of British civil engineers and Japanese laborers. Laying a single track line over flat terrain with no obstacles and one river to cross was supposed to be straightforward and simple, but there were difficulties along the way with land rights, quality control, miscommunication and overcoming the learning curve for railway construction.

It took two and a half years and cost far more than expected, but on Oct. 14, 1872, Japan’s first railway opened to great fanfare. Emperor Meiji and dignitaries rode the inaugural trip from Shimbashi Station in Tokyo to Yokohama Station and back. Onlookers kneeled as the train passed through the only four intermediary stations along the way and warships fired salutes as it approached Yokohama. The emperor declared the railway open in Yokohama.

It’s worth noting that while this was the “official” opening, limited train service from Yokohama to Shinagawa, the stop before Shimbashi, had been ongoing since June 12. The delay in completing the track lay with the army’s refusal to allow the railway to run through their grounds causing the line to have to be built around it. The army was opposed to the construction of railways.

Despite even the lowest class fare, Lower Class (later Third Class), costing more than a month’s worth of rice or a steamer trip between the cities, the railroad surprisingly attracted a lot of working-class riders early on. In its first full year of operations 1.2 million passengers rode the train. Today 17.9 million people ride trains in Japan every day.

Though much has changed over the past 150 years, a decision in the railway’s construction still defines Japanese railways to this day. The original railway used “Cape Gauge,” 3-foot-6-inch wide tracks instead of the now-standard gauge of 4-foot-8.5-inches. There’s no specific known reason why they went with the narrower gauge, but it was possibly due to Japan’s mountainous terrain and as a cost saving measure.

Shimbashi Station 1911

Other tangible elements of the early railroad can be found at “old” Shimbashi Station, which until Tokyo Station was built in 1914, was the original gateway to “Tokio.” The station and its near twin at the other end of the line, Yokohama Station, were the works of Yokohama-based Anglo-American architect R.P. Bridgens. Sadly both structures, built the same year to nearly the same plans, would meet the same fate on the same day as they were destroyed on Sept. 1, 1923 during the Great Kanto Earthquake.

Though by 1923, old Shimbashi Station’s day had passed. After Tokyo Station opened, the old station which regularly saw visits by the emperor, diplomats and dignitaries was relegated to a freight terminal and renamed Shiodome Station. Nearby Karasumori Station became the current Shimbashi Station. In 2003, a reproduction of old Shimbashi Station was built over the foundation of the original, though a beautiful representation, like most modern reproductions, it lacks the character of the Victorian structure.

Old Shimbashi Station Rails

Old Shimbashi Station Steps

This is an important site for Japanese rail fans as it is the original “Zero Point” for railway travel and tracks from the original railway line are in place beside the platform; part of the original station foundation and steps are also exposed for viewing. Sadly, the new building itself is a façade; the interior is indistinguishable from any other modern structure and mostly taken up with an eatery though there is a two room museum (no English) with smaller station artifacts that is complimentary to seeing the railway history on display outside. The museum is free.

Old Shimbashi Station  Zero Point

Another vestige of the old Shimbashi Station is cultural. If you’ve ever enjoyed shopping for high-end goods and drinking at the cafes in Ginza, you can thank Shimbashi Station. The hip district was rebuilt the same year the train line opened and due to its proximity to the station had its modern brick shops stocked with the latest Western goods, leading to its financial success and introducing the pastime of “window shopping” to Japan.

Old Shimbashi Station

Yokohama Station has moved twice and the original station location is now Sakuragicho Station, which is near many historic sites and the Cosmo Clock 21, the giant light-up Ferris wheel on the bay. There is a memorial to the first railway near the station. The only remaining piece of the original Yokohama Station is its water fountain, now displayed at Yokohama Nishiyama Waterworks.

Locomotive No. 1, which served on the first railway, is currently on display at the Railway Museum in Saitama, though its appearance has changed due to modifications made in 1890.

Though the original structures are gone, trains still reign supreme in Japan. And, Oct. 14 marks the start of it all.


“Old” Shimbashi Station
1 Chome-5-3 Higashishinbashi, Minato City, Tokyo 105-0021

Railway Museum
3-47 Onari-cho, Omiya-ku, Saitama City, Saitama Prefecture , 330-0852



Dawn of Japanese Railways by Eiichi Aoki

Early Japanese Railways: 1853-1914 by Dan Free

Meiji Revisited by Dallas Finn

JR East Annual Report 2019

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