Japanese tin trains

Some time ago, I had an idea to build a tin HO scale train layout using one or more old Japanese tin trains. I never got around to it, but Ralph Graves had the idea independently of me, and unlike me, he followed through and built what he imagined in his mind. The results are, in a word, spectacular.

The consist

This is a Japanese tin toy car, probably made between 1946 and 1966.

Japanese postwar tin was very colorful and simple in design. Early Japanese HO scale followed this tradition in what traditionally was always a model railroad scale. His layout reflects that. The simplicity and color yields an attractive display. He used Japanese trains, Japanese toy vehicles such as Nomura, and Japanese wooden buildings, all dating from 1946 to the mid 1960s.


He mounted it on pegboard, which he painted by hand. Simple green for vegetation and gray for roads. The design mimics the lithography on the trains and vehicles. He then outfitted the layout with Japanese tin cars, and tin and wooden buildings, all dating from the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s like his trains. Although the makes and timeframes varied, the look is pretty well unified and period correct. The Japanese postwar style is distinct from the Nuremberg style that came out of Germany earlier in the century. But if you’re familar with Manga, it’s probably not surprising that midcentury Japanese tin litho would have an appealing style.


Japanese tinplate
Tin litho is not something we usually associate with postwar HO scale trains. But this Nomura tin litho diesel locomotive is exactly that. It’s colorful and attractive.

Japanese toys from this era aren’t crazy expensive, so he was able to build the layout on a modest budget. Most of the items on his layout cost less than $10. That’s the fun thing about taking a road less traveled. His layout may or may not be one of a kind, but it’s very much unlike the typical layout you see in any of the train magazines. It took years to find all of the items on his layout, but the cost was anything but outrageous.

Taking his approach yourself

Graves used tin HO scale trains. But the approach works for any other Japanese midcentury tin. It would be no less impressive if you used slightly larger Japanese tin such as Mito or Mizuno.

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