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A Japanese layout in HO scale (1:80)

Robert van der Burg

It’s a lovely sunny spring day in a fictional mountain village. Villagers are shopping at the butcher or fishmonger. An elderly man is carefully tending flowers on his porch as he chat with passers by. A sarariman accompanies his American colleague to the station. The ramen saleswoman is running a brisk business near the exit of the village station.

The station near the temple entrance sees quite a few commuters and tourists using the tram service. There too, weary travelers are cared for: Besides the commonplace vending machines there is a kiosk and even a maid cafe. Rumour has it that an unusual train will be visiting the station today, which explains why there are groups of both Japanese and foreign rail fans posted near the station’s entrance. One of the groups is even stationed above the entrance to the tunnel, led by an HO version of myself, full-body scanned and 3D printed.


Having been introduced to modeling by building of Dutch urban transport, focusing largely on trams, I later got interested in Japanese material by the purchase of an N-scale Enoden train. My fascination with Japanese rail is the combination of both old (pre-war) and hyper modern material, combined with the diversity of the landscape. This led me to design and build a diorama with HO rolling material.


Standard footprint of HO layouts often tend to be 120x60 cm. Since my working space is limited to 150x34x40 cm, and Japanese HO is hard to source, the challenge was to acquire enough interesting elements. Having not yet been to Japan myself, I needed the help of a Dutch seller who regularly travels there in order to gather enough material.

My plans for the layout required a particular type of setting. A station for local train traffic, servicing a village with typically Japanese architecture, a temple and a rice field. Stereotypically Japanese with history, but also partly modernised with current design. The layout consists of the edge of a village at the foot of a mountain, which is a hub for local trains and buses. All tracks disappear under the mountain, housing two separate staging yards. The houses (mostly Sankei, one Tomix) are built to both modern and classic Japanese examples, and fully decorated. The Sankei buildings are made from industrial cardboard, simple to assemble, and easily adapted to house lighting. On the side of the mountain a shrine (the only standard Sankei kit used as intended) is partly hidden in the woods.


This diorama has two separate tracks: one with an electric tramway (Tokyo, Sapporo, Toyama, Köchi Gifu models) and one with an electrified local train service (Enoden or Hakone Tozan 3000 series). For both tracks I use Japanese vehicles of various brands, like Tomix, Modemo, Tramway, DDF and Halling. Drive units have been built into the material, if they weren’t already built in. The Enoden 10 and 20 have been upgraded with newer electric motors, as the older ones weren’t sufficient. All vehicles have received a DCC decoder and lighting.

Since there is no kit for an overhead line, I had to build this myself, with only pictures of Japanese overhead lines as example. The most challenging aspect was the proximity of the contact wire and catenary wire. During finishing the overhead line was extensively tested, especially at the tunnel entrances. In the tunnel for the local train the overhead line is so low that the pantograph is virtually flat on the roof of the carriage.

Security and signals

I could not get a hold of Japanese signals in HO, so European signals have been changed to Japanese style. All tracks have been outfitted with these signals. The layout is computer controlled, using ROCO’s Rocomotion system. The track detection system is hidden under the layout, as are all actuators of the five switches and single automatic level crossing. This crossing is a German model retrofitted to look Japanese, which has exchanged its red and white barriers in favour of the Japanese yellow and black, and slightly longer, barriers.


Mostly the cars and buses are Tomytec, with some Furuta and Herpa mixed in. These were gathered over the course of the last five years. Typical Japanese scenery such as torii, ramen vendor, signs and posters, figurines (kimonos, school uniforms), could all be ordered from Japan (brands like Echo model, Sakatsu, Dolls). By making the temple a tourist hotspot it allowed me to also use many figurines from the standard European assortment.

A portion of the scenery could not be ordered, so had to be made from scratch or adapted from European scenery. Some figurines are 3D printed from existing templates. In case of the long set of stairs leading up to the temple, these were custom designed and printed.

Exciting angles

The diorama has been designed in such a way that not all details are visible from all angles. There are hidden or obscured areas that are only visible from one perspective. Between the trees of the forest one can find a surfer girl returning from the lake. An elderly couple is enjoying the sun in front of their house on the edge of the forest. In one of the houses a maiko is being instructed about proper attire. The table is set for lunch in the house by the temple, while grandfather is watching TV and drinking tea. The village looks peaceful, but the police station in the centre of the village is busy at this time. This building is in the center of the display and one of the two modern buildings that break the pastoral look of the village.

for more pictures see (Dutch only)

Ore my N-scale leyout

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