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Live Steaming in Japan

Written by Hiroyuki Watanabe    

The Ipponmatsu Live Steamers' Millennium meet.

Just after the Japanese national isolation, the Japanese government imported an English narrow gauge railway system. From that day forward, the "narrow gauge" became our "standard gauge".  The only exception to this standard is the "Shinkansen", which is rather unique. All other Japanese steam locomotives run on narrow gauge track.  Our live steam locos do, too!

Almost all of the garden railways in Japan have 3 1/2" and 5" gauge dual track. The 5" gauge with 1.43" scale has recently become more prevalent. Foreign locomotives have always been popular in Japan. Many Japanese live steamers love American locomotives and the "American" style. There are many American model 5" gauge-1" scale, or the 3 1/2" gauge-3/4" scale. The title photo shows the largest and the smallest examples running together on dual gauge track.

Japanese water is very soft and suitable for steaming ,while the typical Japanese coal, "Taiheiyo", isn't good at all.  It's no wonder all the coal mines in Japan had been closed. The Taiheiyo coal is taken from the seabed of the Pacific ocean!  It generates little ash with much smoke, soot and tar. The latter of these, especially (what the Americans call "clinkers"), is like melted glass and sticks on the grates, tubes and chimney.  Many guys removed superheaters from their locos to avoid clogging the tubes. I once drove a loco with the Welsh coal. It was completely different from the Taiheiyo and I felt a little sad as it gives no smoke.  Japanese full size locomotives also use the Taiheiyo coal and generate lots of smoke, so we cannot regard a model loco without smoke as the real thing!

Nearly all Japanese model layouts have ground level track, even in 3.5" gauge. It comes from our life style. We often sit on the Tatami (mats) instead of chairs at home, so cross-legged pose is no problem for us. Since a ground level trolley is comfortable enough for us, there is no need to adopt expensive and unrealistic raised track!  I introduce a Japanese club layout, Ipponmatsu Garden Railway,  located at the top of hill near the sea in the west part of Japan. It has 250 meters dual endless of 3.5" and 5" dual gauge ground track with a station, tunnel, turntable, shed, shop and cockpit. The club members believe that Ipponmatsu is the best layout in Japan. They have a web site as follows: .  It doesn't have an English page but you can see many photos of locomotives, layout and people. I used some of them here.

Grasshopper by Hiroshi Kimura.
Full scratch built in 5" gauge.
The builder is the representative of the club.

Pennsylvania 0-4-0 by Tamehito Nakahara.
Famous Kozo's design. The builder is now
making the New Shay from Kozo.

It is said that the 5" gauge was introduced to us by the late Seiichi Watanabe, a pioneer of live steam in Japan. He had been building model locomotives for 50 years in many sizes and styles. He wrote many magazine articles and has left us with a great Japanese guidebook "LIVE STEAM" (1982), which includes everything to design, build, run and maintain locomotives from Gauge 1 to 7.5" gauge. He has assisted O.S. and Aster with designing their products as a technical adviser.  The famous Kozo Hiraoka is one of his followers! 

Kozo Hiraoka has developed a unique technique and concept for small size engines and introduced them as a series of plans around the world with highly sophisticated drawings and instructions. He also did a Japanese version of the Pennsylvania 0-4-0 switcher. It contains not only a construction guide, but also an overview of model engineering, i.e. techniques and equipment for turning, milling, silver soldering and painting. Many Japanese modelers are encouraged by the two books and decided to build a locomotive themselves. I'm one of them!


Purchase The Pennsyvania A3 Switcher (in English) from Discover Live Steam. Other titles available from Kozo:
 Building the Shay,
Building the Heisler and Building the Climax (all in English).

 Penn. A3 Switcher

Recently, these books have become scarce here.  Actually, I don't own a copy of Kozo's book.  I borrowed a copy from a friend.  I decided to introduce the entire construction process of my first project, Martin Evans' William 2-6-2, through a web site for Japanese wannabe live steamers who would otherwise give up for the lack of information. I carefully studied those books and other English copies about Model Engineering to make my project as relevant as possible.

I also prepared English pages in my site because I like to have feedback from all over the world. Please click "Live Steam from Castings" at .

Three years have elapsed since I started the construction and the report. Some people admire me, but I'm still a beginner. I have not completed my first project yet. I have to study much more about model engineering and the locomotive, itself. Fortunately, the two books were reissued here, in Japan, this year. I think it means the live steam hobby in Japan will be growing. Be sure to follow along on the web, as I show the latest stages of construction.

Have a nice steaming!

William 2-6-2 modified to suit Japanese narrow gauge.
It needs additional work before the first steaming.


Written by Hiroyuki Watanabe  

Photos courtesy of

Kozo Locomotive Builders
(Shay, the Climax, the Heisler, Penn.A3 Switcher)
You're Not Alone
Kozo Support Group




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