N-Scale Japanese Monsters

09/28/15- Miniature Japanese monsters look right at home in the world of n-scale stuff; Kaiju toys/model collectors of all scales have realized this, as have some in the n-scale model railroading community. Photos and displays look more interesting if the daikaiju models are posed in the environment depicted in movies and on TV. Nothing dresses up a Japanese model railroad layout like a giant city-stomping monster.

Scale Rule #1: Don't get hung up about scale. In modeling, scale accuracy is about realism, to make the sizes of objects in a specific scale ratio match the relative sizes of the objects in their real-world 1:1 scale. There are a few problems with this for n-scale and monsters.

N-scale is not a single size ratio. Depending on the country and manufacturer, n-scale trains can be anything from (approximately) 1:148 to 1:160. The difference isn't huge, and objects in and around those scales can mix together without the universe winking out. The point is, don't sweat it and don't demand a level of scale accuracy that's more appropriate for modeling WWII armor.

Daikaiju aren't real. Films may attempt to depict reality, but they aren't reality. Even though size statistics have been invented for daikaiju, filmmakers don't have to observe them. In the old days, they probably were satisfied with what looked good on-screen using the props and miniatures that they had to work with, and turned a blind eye to some scale discrepancies. If you must, you can feed your inner scale-compliance nazi tendencies by comparing the height of the monster to the height of the buildings it's smashing. Buildings do exist in the real world and their height can be approximately calculated.

As an example, I was surprised to see the official size for Ultraman's Jet VTOL (18.5 meters)-- I never realized that it was supposed to be that big! If Ultraman is officially 40 meters tall, the Jet VTOL should be almost half his size. Clearly, that wouldn't work in the scene shown below. Of course, if the filmmaker avoids showing the jet and another object with a known size in the same frame, the viewer doesn't have a size reference to go geekshit about.

Close 'nuff...

Close 'nuff, but it's actually too small since it's 1:200 scale...

1:144 scale Ultrahawk-1: Why does the TDF need Ultraseven when they've got a 40-meter long jet-powered spear?

N-Scale Japanese Buildings

Daikaiju prefer Japanese buildings: Great taste, less filling. In my first Ultra-series web article in '98, for some pics I used structures harvested from my original n-scale model railroad layout (late '80s-'90s). That layout was a mongrel, using anything n-scale that I could find that I thought looked cool. During the heyday of brick & mortar hobby shops, most of the n-scale building models came from European companies like Faller, Model Power, Kibri, Vollmer, etc., and their focus was mainly on older European structures (I suspect that when they made their first models, the buildings weren't considered "old-style"). During the pre-Internet times, none of the local hobby shops stocked skyscrapers, modern office buildings, or much in the way of Japanese structures-- which happen to be the preferred scenery when you're displaying Japanese daikaiju.

That's changed due to the Internet; sadly, local hobby shops are in decline, and few US online retailers carry the Japanese-flavored n-scale stuff (although modeltrainstuff.com has a decent selection of structures), but you can easily order it from Japanese vendors via eBay or Amazon, or from Japanese online stores like Hobby Search. Since the stuff comes from Japan, it usually takes longer to ship. If you don't want to wait weeks for a "standard shipping" (SAL) package to arrive, "expedited shipping" (EMS) usually takes about a week... but naturally, it costs more.

As this article about X-Plus monsters and scenery points out, Kato and Tomytec/Tomix are the biggest mass-market producers of n-scale Japanese stuff, but there are many smaller companies producing models of specialized subjects. There is an awesome variety of diorama/layout scenery products available to help you model almost any Japanese-flavored scene that you could want. City buildings are probably the first on most people's list because giant Japanese monsters and Japanese cityscapes go together like trite expressions and my articles. It's even better when the buildings have lots of signs and advertising in a language that you can't read.

Another dio-scape that nails "going Japanese" is the temple/shrine environment. There are a good selection of n-scale models depicting Japanese temples, shrines, pagodas and castles; I've been especially impressed with Fujimi's model kit of the Byodo-in temple.

Kato makes a nice selection of pre-assembled traditional wooden buildings that fit in with that style, and for depicting a small, old-time Japanese town/village.


The Layout: Downsized again! Reichland wasn't a particularly ambitious layout, but when I tried to run trains on it after a long period of neglect, their poor performance convinced me that it had too much track to keep clean, too many switches, too many things that made it unreliable. All the track took up space that could be used for buildings. It encouraged me to find places to store trains on the track instead of putting them away where they'd be protected from dust and atmospheric grime. So the layout was downsized to a very simple roundy-round two-track oval, with a crossover and a couple of passing/train parking sections.

It's mainly for running two trains, with up to four trains on the track. The modest switching options let me play with switching the two trains between loops, but a third (and fourth) can be running on autopilot to increase the stress level. That's one of the cool things about DCC.

I regularly catch myself thinking about adding more track and switches. That is, until I run into derailment problems on this simple layout! The inner oval has R249 curves, which is about the tightest curve that many trains can handle (and some can't handle it). If you put a turnout right after a curve, the moving rail's inner surface has to be absolutely flush with the fixed rail or it some train's wheels will hit the hump where they meet and derail. From the factory, turnouts don't have a divot cut in the fixed rail where the moving rail can recess to create the smooth join. If you have this problem, you can create the divot with a file.

Not all trains are sensitive to this, so I only noticed this when I got a new train (and believed that the problem was with the train). I think that locomotives with closely-spaced 3-wheel trucks may be more susceptible, and it's more likely when running at a slow speed.

Although everything's moveable, I arranged the buildings in a theme. The layout morphs from city, temple, to village sections in a compressed space. The sections are based on some memories of living in Japan a long time ago. The tacky advertising-packed two-story shops and traditional wooden gable roof shops remind me of my mom's post-WWII hometown/village on the big city train line. And of course, I was dragged along to see the temples-- stuff that I appreciate more now that I'm older.

The city section is generic... it's Kato's vision of modern Japan that I didn't experience to any great extent. I used some of my old European-style buildings for variety, because it's not that unusual for sections of a city to contain a mix of building styles from different periods of time.

I'd love to add lighting to the buildings, but the challenge is designing a system that lets the buildings remain moveable with the power feeds not looking too horrible and obvious.

I wish I had the space and time to do a permanent scenery-focused Japan diorama/layout with hills and tunnels to recreate some of my memories of Japan; It's a very beautiful country and I'm actually more interested in the scenic aspect than running trains. (Given my inclinations though, I'd clutter it with dense track.)

yukikazeful's YouTube page has some really great videos of a permanent Japanese layout. Wonderful scenery!

N-Scale Japanese Trains

Sumida Crossing Website: If you're a newbie to all of this, finding accessible information in a language you can understand is essential. One of the best English-language sites for Japanese n-scale train info is Sumida Crossing. The website is well-organized, the author is very articulate, has deep knowledge about electronics, model railroading, and Japan. His articles cover many of the things I try to cover, but in much greater depth and expertise, except for the daikaiju stuff. (Sounds like I'm sucking up, but it appears to be a true labor-of-love, no advertising, not trying to sell you anything... how rare is that these days?)


Da trains! Da trains! Inevitably, looking at all this n-scale Japanese stuff lured me into looking at the trains. Japan has a remarkable system of trains, stretching back to the '60s (and before), when they introduced the "Bullet Train" (Shinkansen) to the world, just in time for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. I have fond memories of riding trains in Japan as a kid. Miraculously, my childhood stamp collection is still around, which has some beat-up stamps commemorating the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and the first Shinkansen. Hey, what a great excuse to get the Kato Shinkansen Series 0-2000 set!

I had to get the Kato series 489 Hakusan/Asama set because it looked like a tin toy series 151 Kodama I had as a kid.

DCC in N-Scale The missing year of 2014 in my "Wassup" index page was spent on interests that I didn't document at the time: N-scale trains (and RC helis). I revisited n-scale model railroading last year as a result of being blown away by a video of a Fleischmann streamlined German BR-01.10 steam locomotive decorated with a Reichsadler (imperial eagle) and factory-fitted with a Digital Command Control (DCC) sound decoder (see elmertrain's YouTube video). It looked very art-deco, which steered me towards German-- not modern-era German, but fantasy WWII era-ish German. Sort of like a Reichland theme park, to provide cover for the anachronisms. This was a fun combination because of the plentiful n-scale WWII German stuff out there, and also because the European train hobby has embraced DCC, and Europe has a long, interesting history of rail. Consequently, there are many established manufacturers making trains of all eras and a good selection of feature-filled DCC sound decoders.

DCC is a great technology for model trains. If you go full-gonzo, you can interface it with computers and automate just about everything-- trains, signals, switches, operation (Check out hovermotion's incredible collection of videos.) I settled for a much more modest goal: Trains with sound. DCC lets you operate more than one train on a track at a time with independent control, turn lights on/off, and play sounds. It's similar to what you can do with RC tanks, including loading custom sound sets and programming operational parameters. (Naturally, there's a learning curve.) As a tinkerer, I enjoyed the challenge of installing tiny speakers and decoders into tiny trains, probably more than actually operating them.

DCC in Japanese Trains When my attention shifted to the Japanese n-scale stuff, I expected that robust DCC support would be a given. Frankly, I was surprised to learn that DCC in Japanese model railroading is actually... not very popular? While Kato and Tomix are highly-regarded for the quality of their products, their support of DCC for their Japanese trains is either lacking, spotty, weak, or unambitious. Speculation is that DCC isn't popular due to the typical Japanese customer's lack of space for permanent layouts. Plugging in a Digitrax DCC controller to a temporary layout is as easy as plugging in a Kato DC controller. However, the reason may be simpler: DCC is a costly additional investment on top of DC, which might make some reluctant to take the plunge for a temporary layout. Whatever the reason, it seems to be true, so manufacturers probably have little incentive to invest heavily in it. I get the impression that Kato mainly does it (in collaboration with DigiTrax) because they make trains for the US and European market, where DCC is more popular.

For the Japanese market, it's probably not worth the cost. Kato recently re-released their perennially popular series 0-2000 Shinkansen (model 10-1132) without changes to make it DCC-friendly. Why do an expensive retool when the majority of your target market doesn't care? On the other hand, it might be complacency: They didn't outfit it with their passenger car close couplers (model 11-703) that they put on the 489 to replace the Rapido couplers that everyone seems to hate.

They're not totally sticking their heads in the sand. The Kato series 489 train (model 10-239) is described as being "DCC-friendly"; for these newer designs, they sell an EM13 motor decoder, FL12 cab head/tail light decoder, and a FR11 passenger car lighting decoder that are designed to be easy to install. Their decoders have a limited feature set, and as far as I can tell, sound decoders aren't even on the radar. To add sound to the n-scale model railroading experience, Kato sells a DC system external electronic "Sound Box" that plays synchonized train sounds from a plug-in ROM chip for a single train operating on the layout. Based on a video I've seen, it seems pretty cool, but much more limited than n-scale DCC sound decoders.

Of course, the industrious modeler of any nationality can buy a sound decoder of any nationality and figure out how to shoehorn it into an n-scale train of any nationality. None of the sound decoder manufacturer websites that I know have libraries of Japanese sounds, probably because sufficient demand isn't there. Of course, the industrious modeler can go out and record these sounds and make a custom set. There probably are Japanese websites that have all that, but due to the language barrier, I haven't found them and wouldn't understand them if I had.

The dearth of DCC support didn't put the kibosh on any of my aspirations. Initially, I bought two Kato sets. I knew that the series 0-2000 Shinkansen was an older design, reissued without changes, so I didn't expect to turn it into a DCC train. Not a problem, since the personal nostalgic connection was sufficient... in addition to it being a cool-looking train.


The train articles are mainly about decoder installs and observations about specific trains. Understand that I have a very small sampling of Kato products (exactly one of each). It occurred to me that my experience may be atypical, so I found it frequently necessary to use the acronym, "YMMV" -- meaning, "Your Mileage May Vary" -- meaning, "hey, this is just what happened to me." There are so many variables, including the actual product sample (is it a representative sample?), equipment involved (I use an ESU Programmer and a Digitrak Zephyr controller), and a bunch of other variables (track condition, wiring quality, condition of the motor, trucks, contacts, etc.) that can lead to WAGs (Wild-Assed Guesses) about causes and fixes.