Kagoshima City lies for the mostpart along the coastline looking over Kagoshima Bay towards Sakurajima. Rising up behind is the broad pyroclastic plateau known as shirasu daichi, sandwiching the city on a long and narrow piece of land running roughly north to south. For the 600,000 people who live in Kagoshima City, the local tram is a transport lifeline curving through the city centre and beyond.
We caught up with Kagoshima City Transportation Bureau tram driver Furusaki Kenichi to find out more about the much loved trams, why grass was put on the tracks around the city, and finally what happens if he needs the toilet when driving!
Like Father Like Son – Kagoshima City Tram Driver
Furuichi’s father was a tram driver, and from a young age he enjoyed going to see his father at work. He says, ‘My dad also worked for the Kagoshima City Transportation Bureau as a tram driver, so when I had a day off school I loved riding my dad’s tram. I really looked up to him and thought I want to be like my dad one day. That’s why I decided to become a tram driver.’
Kagoshima City Tram
The familiar clickety-clack sound of trams passing by is something deeply famliar to Kagoshima residents. Furuichi says, ‘I think people in the city wake up to the sound of the trams rolling by. I guess something about that sound sets up the rhythm of life in the city. Waking up to the sound of the trams in the morning, and going to sleep when they stop running. It’s a mode of transportation that really is very close to the lives of the people who live in the city.’
Kagoshima City Tram Fans
Trams, much like trains, have a dedicated following of fans. While some people only use the tram as a means of transport, others have a much deeper appreciation. The tram might stand out, but tram drivers should not be noticed according to Furuichi. He explains, ‘Of course some people ride the tram just for the enjoyment of it. Trams are vehicles and a means of transport, so our ultimate goal is to be forgotten. I think for tram drivers, driving in a way that isn’t remembered by the passengers is the best goal to aim for.’
The drivers may go unnoticed, but the trams are definitely at the center of attention. Furuichi says, ‘There are quite a few tram fans who bring their own cameras and equipment. They ride the tram and enjoy all sorts of things. They also come to the museum we have here and look at the exhibits. There are some really dedicated tram fans out there.’
Nostalgic City Views
Japan is famous for its rapid and extremely efficient public transport, but the Kagoshima City Tram doesn’t match the frenetic pace of modern life. Furuichi says, ‘It’s like time is passing more slowly. Then there’s the nostalgic atmosphere inside the tram. I think it has a certain charm that railways don’t have. You can enjoy the view outside slowly floating by at a relaxed pace.’
The trams themselves are both modern machines and reminiscent of a bygone age. Furuichi explains, ‘If it’s an old one, the tram might be from the Showa period. So 1965, 1966, 1967, something like that. The most recent tram came out in 2019. It’s a brand new, state-of-the-art vehicle, but still the old ones are best. The tram we used for training, called Maru-ichi, is our oldest tram, built in 1965. I really love the shape of the body, the retro feel of the interior, and the sound of the motor as well.’
Grass on the Tracks
One slightly unusual innovation is the addition of grass verges between the tram tracks. Furuichi says, ‘Kagoshima residents all hate the ash from the volcano. But to prevent the heat island effect Kagoshima City used shirasu volcanic ash as a base and did an experiment putting grass on the tram tracks. After the work was done, they compared the temperature and the grass was 20 degrees cooler than asphalt. As a side effect, driving on the old asphlat track made more noise, but with the grass track, it was much quieter.’ The volcanic ash allows rainwater to filter through the ground and keep the grass looking glossy and green.
View from the Window
Riding on the Kagoshima City Tram provides plenty of interesting views. As the tram meanders through Kagoshima City passengers can get a glimpse of daily life in one of Japan’s smaller cities. Furuichi particularly enjoys views of nature. He says, ‘Personally, I love the view of Sakurajima from Takenohashi. When you’re driving the tram, you can see nature change through the seasons. For example, in spring you can see cherry blossoms, and in autumn you can see the ginkgo trees. You really get a sense of the changing of the seasons. So I think Kagoshima is a really wonderful place to live.’
When nature calls even a tram driver has to go. When asked how tram drivers deal with this situation Furuichi coyly responds, ‘Basically there are toilets at the start and end of the line, so as much as possible I try to go there. If it’s very tight, I’ll call headquarters and run to the nearest convenience store. I let the passengers know, “Sorry, I’m going to run to the toilet! Please wait for a moment!” It’s only happened to me once so far! I stopped at Kagoshima Chuo Station because I thought there would be a toilet nearby I was all pale in the face and sweating bullets thinking “What am I going to do!”‘