Monday, September 26, 2011

Japan: Model railroad buff the must-see guru in Ginza

From Model railroad buff the must-see guru in Ginza

Shigeru Hatano's grandfather used to take him to Ginza when he was a young boy, where he would admire and yearn for the shiny locomotive models in the store windows.

But they were too expensive to buy, so little Shigeru often spent time poring through catalogs of model trains until they were in tatters.

Today, Hatano, 62, works in a store in the Ginza, and is the guru of model railroading. He said he has about 4,000 sets and pieces of railroad models stored in his memory, including their history.

"I knew their shapes by heart. It's like human faces," Hatano said.

The railroad buff serves as technical adviser for the Tenshodo's Evergreen Shop, which is dedicated to used export-oriented scale models. It's located in Tenshodo, a long-established jewelry and watch store.

Because of Hatano the Evergreen Shop has long been referred to as a must visit for serious model railroaders in Japan.

On this day, a young sales clerk came to Hatano, who was working in the back of the store.

"Are the front and the rear cars of this locomotive from the same product?" the young clerk asked.

He had received an inquiry from an enthusiast who insisted that they were from different lines because the tone of the colors of the locomotive and the tender car seemed to not be the same.

Hatano picked up and studied the gold-colored locomotive model. He placed the two model cars in his hands and took a closer look.

"Yes, they are," Hatano replied. He even named the year and make correctly.

In addition to selling models, Hatano determines the pricing to buy models brought in by customers and accepts their repair requests.

Most of the scale models for sale in the shop were made in Japan for export between the 1950s and the 1970s.

They were hand-produced by Japanese craftsmen at the request of U.S. military officers after World War II. The models won fame worldwide for their precision.

Many are in scales ranging from 1:80 to 1:87, referred to as "HO gauge." A model of a locomotive or other front cars is usually priced at around 100,000 yen ($1,300) each.

They may come in small sizes, but the weight of the brass models feels solid and hefty in the hand.

Hatano indulged in collecting scale models when he grew up, and has about 3,000 models and at least 20,000 parts in his private collection.

He also writes essays for Gekkan Train monthly model railroading magazine.

"He is someone who can give an accurate pricing of scale models even though they were made a half century ago by trying to figure out who made them based on the molds and workmanship," said an editor of the hobby magazine and friend of Hatano's for 20 years.

When he repairs trains, he often reproduces missing parts by hand using photographs as a reference.

When Hatano was asked to repair a locomotive model whose body had been distorted, he broke it down into pieces. He looked into old reference materials to see how a small piping and other details looked. It took him two months to put it back into its original shape.

"I instantly know what is wrong with it as soon as I hold it in my hands," Hatano said.

Most of his customers are model railroad enthusiasts fixated on minor details such as the subtle curve of the parts and painting.

Sometimes Hatano finds himself in a difficult position. From time to time a customer will appear to be dissatisfied with models he had sold them. Invariably those customers mistake poorly built models for good ones, Hatano said.

Hatano will honestly tell them they shouldn't buy such models. But Hatano often sees them snap at him, being blamed for refusing to sell them what they want.

The technical adviser also recommends children and first-timers to buy new trains instead of used ones.

"Used models are delicate. I don't want them to be disappointed and develop a dislike for scale models," he said.

Sometimes Hatano goes out of his way to guarantee customer satisfaction.

One memorable customer visited Tenshodo while on an intravenous drip. The customer, who was diagnosed with terminal cancer and given a year to live, was looking for an old model of a U.S. locomotive.

Hatano visited him at his hospital and laid miniature tracks at his bedside to run the locomotive model for him.

The customer smiled and said, "Thank you for extending my life a little," according to Hatano.

"Getting carried away in something might have helped him to live until the last minute," Hatano said. "I may have made a modest contribution."

When he has free time, Hatano visits stores and shops for cooking utensils, medical equipment and sundry goods in search of items suitable for his repair work. He said he finds dental surgeon tools and medical tweezers particularly useful.

There were many craftsmen who produced model railroad parts from extremely thin brass plates, and their casting skills were incredibly fast and consummate.

Hatano used to visit their studios in town to see their work up close. But now, there are only 10 or so craftsmen left in the country, he said.

"Model railroading is an important form of 'technical heritage.' As a person who has observed handicraft scenes, I want to pass it down from generation to generation," Hatano said.

His motto is "do things only you can do," which he was taught by his grandfather, he added.

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