Japan - Wally Higgins- Railfan - 49 years in Japan
Next stop, nostalgia: Old Japan hand celebrates railway heritage
Tom Baker / Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer
Asked when he first came to Japan, American photographer and railway enthusiast J. Wally Higgins, a longtime resident of Shizuoka Prefecture, promptly gives a remarkably precise reply: "At about 2:30 in the morning on the 31st of March of 1956, a bit behind schedule because the airplane--this was under military charter--spent 24 hours on Wake Island while they endeavored to get something fixed. Twenty-four hours is 25 hours more than I needed on Wake."
One good thing about trains is that they never leave you stuck on Wake Island.
But Higgins' fascination with rail travel--recently expressed in Showa 30s Historic Railway Scenes, a set of three sumptuous coffee table books of his photography from the 1950s and '60s--has deeper roots than that.
"Way, way back, my father was a commercial agent--that's a fancy word for salesman--for the freight traffic department of the Lehigh Valley Railroad," Higgins, 77, says in an interview. "The house where my father and I were both born [in New Jersey] is one short block from the Lehigh Valley's main line."
Many of the photos in Higgins' three books, from JTB Publishing, come from travel in the spring and early summer of 1957 that took him as far south as Kagoshima and as far north as Hokkaido.
Higgins first worked in Japan as a civilian employee of the U.S. military, but after a while he "inherited" a side job from a missionary friend who was leaving the country. It was "a regular once a week thing" helping Japanese National Railways with their various English-language business needs.
"They weren't paying," he says with a grin, "but it came with a system pass."
Higgins' pictures stand as a beautifully preserved slice of life from those days. His own thoroughness, combined with the passage of time, makes it a virtually unique body of work.
"There were indeed [other, mostly Japanese] railway enthusiasts traveling around with cameras in those days," Higgins admits, "and that probably made things easier for me because they knew what a railway enthusiast taking a railway picture was. Not a threat, not a spy. Try this in the 1930s and I would have been a spy. But not in 1956 or '65."
Much of the work of those other photographers no longer exists, Higgins said. "Most of the pictures the Japanese were taking were in black and white. Partly because of cost, partly because color involved long delays sending it for processing, if you wanted to get Kodachrome.
"And those who took color in just about any other film don't have it now. Kodachrome has held its color. Even Kodak's Ektachrome has faded. Anscochrome that I used fades, too. You can have your choice of shades, but they're all shades of red as the years go by...I'm just lucky that I standardized on Kodachrome before coming here."
His subject matter also set him apart. While many rail enthusiasts are fascinated by steam engines, daily exposure to them in childhood meant that the romance of the iron horse had worn off for Higgins.
"I was concentrating at that time on small, electrified railways," he says. The result is a collection of everyday images well suited to tap into the recent Showa 30s (1955-1964) nostalgia boom.
Even for those whose memories don't go back that far, the images reflect dramatic changes in Japan's landscapes.
"What looks really different is the cities," Higgins says. "Everything was low-rise. And now it isn't."
There are a lot of wide blue skies in these pictures, even the ones taken in places like Shibuya, Tokyo.
"For a number of these pictures, I could pick the light angle," he recalls. "Now you pick the light angle differently; it's when the sun is shining down the canyon [of buildings]."
Once the lighting was right, his technique for getting great shots was quite simple--or so he says: "Stand by the streetside and hope that when that older model tram was coming by there wouldn't be 20 bicycles in the way."
In truth, he seems to have put more effort into it than that, as his trains are often the focal point of scenic images of mountains, rivers and fields of flowers.
His three books, available only in Japanese, cover eastern Japan, western Japan and tramways.
Tramways have particular nostalgia value, as their numbers have dwindled over the decades.
"What happened to the big city systems--Tokyo is a reasonable example--was traffic congestion essentially choked surface transit. And it tends to choke streetcars worse than buses because a bus can drive around an obstruction and pass somebody [in an automobile] who's on the streetcar track trying to make a right turn," Higgins explains.
He says there was a flirtation with idea of monorail networks in the late 1950s. The very short monorail line in Ueno Zoo in Tokyo was set up as a demonstration project, "which was not really fair to monorail--that's a low-capacity, slow-motion operation."
Subways were finally deemed the most practical option by one large city after another, he says.
"It's the medium-sized cities," such as Okayama, where streetcars have survived, he says. Also, "There are places where the tram is a part of local culture and local tradition. And Hiroshima is one of them. Nagasaki is one."
Still another is Matsuyama, where tourism promoters are making the most of some brief mentions of the local trams in Natsume Soseki's 1906 novel Botchan.
Higgins says that this approach to preserving historic trams can work, citing two foreign examples: San Francisco and Melbourne.
"You see a picture of Melbourne, you see a picture of a tram," he says, adding that it is very likely to be an older model.
"And you can't buy one and export it; they won't let them go," he says. "This has happened, but they won't let it happen again."
In Matsuyama and Hiroshima, it also helps that the streets are wide enough for motorists to stay off the streetcar tracks, he notes.
In a post-interview e-mail, Higgins offered some practical suggestions for those planning nostalgic trips of their own (See "Train Spotting" box). But he notes that it would take "a time machine" to see his most favorite Japanese trains.
While a practical time machine has not yet been invented, Showa 30s Historic Railway Scenes is probably the next best thing.
The last train has not yet left the station for those in search of a vintage rail experience. Railway photographer J. Wally Higgins has a few tips to share on "where to find a bit of the flavor of the railways and tramways of 1956-1965," especially if you are planning a weekend jaunt near Tokyo.
-- The Enoden Line, which runs from Kamakura to Fujisawa along the scenic Shonan coast of Kanagawa Prefecture "owns 15 two-car sets...and three of these date back to the 1950s, though not quite in their original form." The vintage pairs are numbered 303-353, 304-354 and 305-355.
-- The Hakone Tozan Line, also in Kanagawa Prefecture, is popular among sightseers. Seven of its 20 cars, numbered from 103 to 104 and 106 to 110, date back to the 1950s, according to Higgins.
-- The Choden Line in Choshi, a fishing town on Chiba Prefecture's easternmost point of land, "is also a nice sightseeing day trip from Tokyo," Higgins suggests. "The newest two of their seven cars...came from the Ginza subway line, but the route and the ride are country-trolley style."
-- In Tokyo itself, Higgins recommends the Toden Arakawa streetcar line as "the Japanese version of a North American streetcar line...The 7500 [model cars] on that line are almost in their original form; these came in late 1962 and were on routes 6, 9 and 10 between Shibuya and downtown Tokyo, based at the Aoyama depot (where the U.N. University and other new buildings are now)."