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Labyrinthine beauty of tracks fascinates railfans

The Yomiuri Shimbun

Intricately intertwined railroad tracks are seen at Yamato Saidaiji Station in Nara in September. The geometric pattern fascinates railfans and other people.

By Takashi Nakamura / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer NARA — In the old capital city of Nara, there is a station that fascinates railroad photography enthusiasts, who are known as toritetsu. They point their camera lenses not at rare trains or station buildings, but at intricately intertwined railroad tracks. The overwhelmingly beautiful form and shape of these tracks emerged originally in the process of the station growing into one of largest terminals in the Kansai region.

41 railroad switches

Kintetsu Yamato Saidaiji Station is located in front of the main gate of Saidaiji temple, an ancient temple nearly as well known as Todaiji temple. The station functions as a gateway to Nara and its historical atmosphere, as the Nara Palace Site is located in its neighborhood.

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  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

    People at Yamato Saidaiji Station watch trains from an observation deck.

  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

In early September, a man with a large camera stood on the platform edge and eagerly snapped away. This was Kosuke Ueno, a 41-year-old company employee from Tsu. While searching for railroad tracks on the internet, he found mysterious pictures of these tracks and visited the station to take similar pictures himself.

“The intertwined railroad tracks create a mesh-like geometric pattern, and colorful trains travel over them. I never get bored no matter how long I look at them,” he said.

While Ueno obsessively took pictures, high school students and other travelers came to and fro on the platform, one after another. Along with the noise of the train’s brakes, the sounds of people taking pictures with cameras and smartphones resonated around the platform.

Yamato Saidaiji Station has a long history. It opened in April 1914, more than 100 years ago. It was one of the stations belonging to the predecessor of Kintetsu Railway, which connected Osaka and Nara. The station was formerly just called Saidaiji.

A train depot was completed in 1920. By 1928, the predecessor to the present-day Kintetsu Kashihara Line that runs south and the Nara Electric Railway (predecessor to the present-day Kintetsu Kyoto Line) that runs north had begun operating. The two railways later merged into the current entity.

The complicated structure of the tracks came about because elevated tracks or other infrastructure were not constructed even as the number of lines increased. Instead, all the tracks crossed over each other at the same level.

According to stationmaster Hideya Kataoka, 57, the station has 41 railroad switches (also called points) for changing tracks, the largest number among the 286 stations belonging to Kintetsu Railway. A train heading from Kashihara Jingu-mae Station in the south to Kyoto Station in the north goes through as many as eight railroad switches.

There are other stations in the country with many railroad switches. However, this station is rare in that such a large number of railroad switches are concentrated in a narrow area.

The complicated switches are operated from an interlocking tower on the premises. For most other stations across the country, train operations are automatically controlled by computers at the general operations control office in Osaka. However, at Yamato Saidaiji Station, the movements of the trains are so complicated that it is difficult to control them only with computers that cannot adapt, according to Kataoka.

When there are delays, the order of priority for train departures must be changed and by-the-second adjustments are needed in order to prevent any inconvenience for users when changing trains. This requires a proficiency held only by employees with complete knowledge of the types and locations of signals in the station and the train schedules. It is said that more than 500 instructions are given in a day even under normal circumstances.

Up close

Among railfans, the station has been famous for years, but these days it is more crowded because it was promoted on the internet and in TV programs. Some people even visit the station from the distant Kanto region.

Given that there are other places with many railroad switches, why does this station attract so many people?

Yusuke Minamida, 44, a talent manager at Tokyo-based entertainment agency HoriPro Inc. and a railfan who has written a book, cited proximity to the tracks as the reason. “There are not many places like this station where I can see so many railroad switches from the platform,” he said.

Born in Nara, Minamida has frequently visited Yamato Saidaiji Station and obsessively watched the railroad tracks since he was a small child.

“By moving the railroad switches only slightly, the destinations of big trains can be changed. I’m excited just thinking about how the railroads are transporting people to many towns,” he said with a smile.

Yamato Saidaiji Station connects lines to and from Osaka, Nara and Kyoto, and about 150,000 passengers use the station every day. As I watched the intertwining railroad tracks, I felt as if I were being invited into another dimension. This is probably because of the atmosphere of the old capital.

Access

It takes about 40 minutes by express from Osaka-Namba Station and about 45 minutes by express from Kyoto Station to reach Kintetsu Yamato Saidaiji Station.

The intertwined railroad tracks can be seen from platforms 3 and 4, but the best viewing point is from platforms 1 and 2. In a commercial facility within the station building, there is an observation deck looking over the railroad tracks from the west side of the platforms.Speech

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