There are train hobbyists and then there are train hobbyists. Japan’s particular breed of railway aficionados are referred to by the somewhat-affectionate term densha otaku, or train nerds, and are famous for feats like memorizing complex, phonebook-size timetables or visiting every single one of the country’s almost 10,000 stations.
Of course, when they aren’t trying to increase their encyclopedic knowledge of all things rail-related, they are out looking for like-minded people to impress with it. As it turns out, Tokyo offers the densha otaku a wide selection of appropriate watering holes, or perhaps we should call them bar cars. So grab your subway map and let’s go see this elusive creature in his natural habitat.
Ginza Panorama is the model train lover’s dream bar. Not only does the counter have four separate electric tracks built in so patrons can watch lots of trains zipping by while sipping their beverages, but a large glass case directly opposite displays about 700 model train carriages for sale. Collector or not, it’s fun to see Japan’s most famous method of transportation displayed in miniature. Even the most novice tourist can at least recognize the Shinkansen bullet train or Narita Express that got them there.
The drink menu has the standard beer, wine and liquor options you would expect from a bar in upscale Ginza, but visitors will want to splurge on one of the house’s special train-themed cocktails, like the Romance Car, named after the Hakone-bound express, or Doctor Yellow, the nickname for the diagnostic high-speed test trains used on shinkansen routes. There’s also a full food menu.
With the mellow ambiance, mature crowd and the gentle clacking of the trains as they whirl around the bar, Ginza Panorama makes a very chill place for an after-work drink, even if you don’t get giddy debating the relative merits of the Tokaido and Tohoku Lines.
Address: Ginza Hachikan Bldg 8F, 8-4-5 Ginza, Chuo-ku
Hours: 18:00-03:00 Mon-Fri, 18:00-23:00 Sat, closed Sun
Nearest station: Ginza
Price: 420 yen seating charge, drinks from 840 yen
In Japan, it’s considered bad manners to eat or drink on the train or subway. For those that like the feel of eating on the go, but don’t want to offend anyone, there is Kiha, a small bar in the traditional neighborhood of Ningyocho.
There are two key things you need to know about Kiha. First, the second floor has been lovingly kitted out to look exactly like the inside of a Tokyo subway car, complete with advertisements, hand straps, emergency call buttons and luggage racks. Second, the only thing on the menu is canned food and one-cup sake. From salted pork to seafood to curry, there is an impressive selection of things to eat right out of the can. According to the owner, his bar recreates the nostalgic experience of a long train journey before they offered meal services.
Most of the clientele here are dyed-in-the-wool otaku, as evidenced by the closet full of timetable books and the rare ticket stubs adorning the tables, but they seemed happy enough to chat with a newcomer, perhaps overcoming their legendary shyness through the comfort of a familiar surroundings.
Address: 1-6-11 Horidomecho, Chuo-ku
Hours: 18:00-23:30 Mon-Fri, irregular hours Sat, closed Sun
Nearest station: Ningyocho
Price: 500 yen for sake, canned food from 300 yen
Pretty much the entire world is familiar with Japan’s maid cafes by now and they are certainly popular with otaku of every stripe, but if you want to rub elbows with the real rail buffs, you’ll want to head to LittleTGV near the geek paradise of Akihabara.
The restaurant bills itself as the world’s first rail-themed, moé-style pub. Instead of a pretty girl in a maid costume calling you “Master”, you’ll get a pretty girl in a conductor’s uniform telling you to board her train. To each their own. The walls are adorned with all kinds of train photos and memorabilia, so even if you don’t know your SLs from your JRs, the lovely gals will be happy to chat with you and teach you a bit about their world.
LittleTGV offers a full food and drink menu with foreigner-friendly pictures, and several different courses that include all-you-can-drink options. Flirting with the waitress is free of charge.
Address: Isamiyadai 3 Bldg 4F, Sotokanda 3-10-5, Chiyoda-ku
Hours: 18:00-23:00 Mon-Fri, 12:00-23:00 Sat-Sun
Nearest station: Suehirocho, Akihabara
Price: Drinks from 400 yen, food all under 1000 yen
Cafe & Bar Steam Locomotive
Not every train nerd likes to booze it up. Indeed, some of them aren’t even old enough to do so. Luckily, there’s a more family-friendly option for them in Cafe & Bar Steam Locomotive.
Located in the ground floor of a Yurakucho office building, this locale is more suited to a coffee over your lunch break than an after-work bender, but it has the added benefit of being totally appropriate for train-lovers of all ages. The center of the cafe is taken up by a massive model train display that includes several tracks and recreations of famous sites like Tokyo Tower. Just walking around and taking in the details – like tiny pedestrians crossing the street or a little grove of cherry trees in bloom – should be enough to keep your youngster entertained long enough for you to enjoy a latte. Of course, they do have alcohol on the menu if you’d rather have some “mommy juice”.
Address: Shinyurakucho Bldg 1F, Yurakucho 1-12-1, Chiyoda-ku
Hours: 11：00-23：00 Mon-Fri, 11：00-22：00 Sat, 11:00-20:00 Sun
Nearest station: Yurakucho
Price: Coffee from 450 yen, cocktails from 650
Train Bar/Mistral Bleu
OK, I confess that Mistral Bleu, often referred to just as Train Bar, is not expressly a hang out for train nerds, but it is a bar made out of a train. Somehow a train carriage was crammed into the first floor of the ROI Building close to Roppongi Crossing and transformed into a hole-in-the-wall bar for classic rock fans.
As the Aerosmith blasting out the front door as we arrived can attest, this bar is a nostalgic pleasure for drinkers of a certain age. In addition to the novelty of boozing in a converted train car, you can also keep yourself entertained by checking out the international currencies plastered all over the walls and ceilings, many with enigmatic messages scrawled on them like “time stands still!” and “f**k Michigan”.
It’s also the kind of place where you can easily strike up a conversation with the person sitting next to you, which is sometimes hard to find in Japan. Give it a try and, you never know, you might find an otaku in disguise. After all, there’s no reason someone couldn’t be crazy about trains and 80s hair bands, and if they were, Train Bar is definitely where you would find them.
Address: ROI Building 1F , 5-5-1 Roppongi, Minato-ku
Hours: 18:00-05:00 Mon-Sat
Nearest station: Roppongi
Price: 500 yen drinks till 21:30, after that from 700 yen
Images: Jessica, LittleTGV