Experience a Ride on the World's Fastest "Mobile Museum"

By Naoki Osaka : Reporter of Toyokeizai
April 18,2016
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Trains have long been a useful means of transportation, whether for business trips or pleasure. But believe it or not, trains are soon going to be used for mind-tripping too. A ride on this particular train is intended to mesmerize passengers and may even be addictive, especially to those who consider themselves connoisseurs of modern art.

Japan is known for having many railroad fans. To respond to their growing needs and further expand this fan base, railway companies have recently been investing heavily in the development of “concept trains” and theme-based tour packages.

In addition to dressing up the exterior into a photogenic canvas, many of these themed trains are designed to offer passengers an extraordinary traveling experience through a variety of premium services, including great food, furnishings, comfort, entertainment, and hospitality.

One of the leading domestic railway operators, JR East, has also been active in these development projects. JR already has a proven track record of launching a variety of special fun-to-ride trains on the Tohoku and Joetsu lines to stimulate regional tourism.

Art museum running on rails

This time, the company has come up with a plan to go the extra mile and build an art museum that runs on rails. The planners of the company believe that their out-of-the-box concept could effectively capture the hearts of both railroad fans and art lovers—not to mention all the tourists who prefer to travel on trains over planes.

On the day of the unveiling ceremony on April 11, the highlighting moment was when the GENBI shinkansen (GENBI is a coined word that stands for gendai bijutsu, meaning “contemporary art” in Japanese) gradually came into sight from afar as it slowly entered the Echigo-Yuzawa station.

The platform was crowded, not only with camera crews from the press, but also with hundreds of train-goers and railroad fans raising their smartphones above their heads to take shots of the incoming eye-catcher.

A JR East spokesperson proudly proclaimed, “For this project, we set our bar higher than any train designs adopted in the past.”

When the company introduced Toreiyu Tsubasa two years ago, the idea of installing a foot bath in a shinkansen carriage took many by surprise and instantly created a buzz. But the concept of turning a passenger train into a museum is perhaps more impactful in terms of the scale of development and the level of unprecedentedness.

The planners of JR East agreed to pursue this far-fetched concept—and succeeded in making it a reality—surely deserve to be lauded as the co-creators of one gigantic contemporary art masterpiece titled “The GENBI Shinkansen—The World’s Fastest Mobile Museum.”

The timing of this new project was also perfect, because this year, Niigata prefecture has become a hot tourist destination as the base of one of the world’s largest art festivals, the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale. The festival is drawing a lot of attention, both domestically and internationally, as a pioneering event that leverages the power of fine arts in local revitalization.

JR East planners are expecting the museum train to be a strong marketing tool, not only to entice tourists interested in visiting this festival to travel from Tokyo and elsewhere (in and out of the country), but it’s also meant to entertain them with world-class contemporary art during the ride.

To make sure that this marketing strategy works without fail in practical terms, the company decided to implement its outrageous idea by using a shinkansen, the world-renowned bullet express train, as the development platform for this project.

This is the second time that JR East has refurbished the bullet train for tourist-oriented purposes, following their innovation of the Toreiyu Tsubasa that began operating in July 2014—it runs between Fukushima and Shinjo stations and is the first shinkansen that offers passengers a chance to relax in a Japanese-style foot bath during the ride.

In the ceremony held in the station complex of Echigo Yuzawa, JR East officially announced that the GENBI shinkansen will begin operating on April 29 and will be in service between Echigo Yuzawa and Niigata stations on weekends and holidays.

For the time being, the train will mainly accommodate participants who are enjoying tour packages organized by various travel agencies. Those who just wish to ride the train without a tour will need to reserve the remaining seats far in advance, or they may want to wait until around July, when the operator plans to make non-reserved seats available on a first-come, first-served basis.

Designed in and out by contemporary artists

JR East also revealed that it spent 500 million yen ($4.5 million) to refurbish the E3 series (previously just the regular Akita shinkansen) into a museum train. The external design has been entrusted to a high-profile photographer and film director, Mika Minagawa, who is known for her distinctive style of embellishing her compositions with brilliant colors.

Minagawa viewed the entire train as one big canvas and chose onyx as the background color to express the night sky on all the carriages. Over the dark sky, she drew splattering fireworks in different colors and shapes on each carriage. She sourced her inspiration for this stunning design from the grand-scale fireworks lighting up the sky above the thousands of visitors who gather at the Nagaoka Festival in Niigata every summer.

The interior of GENBI’s six carriages has been transformed into an astonishing gallery featuring the commissioned artworks of Nao Matsumoto, Yusuke Komuta, Kentaro Kobuke, Paramodel, Naoki Ishikawa, Haruka Kojin, and Brian Alfred. The art ranges widely from paintings, sculptures, and photographs to spatial design.

To secure sufficient exhibition space, the total number of passenger seats on this train has been reduced to 105, which is about one-third the normal seating capacity of a six-carriage runner.

“I wanted to create an image of objects wiggling and waggling on a water surface,” said Haruka Kojin, who took charge of the interior design of carriage No. 15. She hung fishing lines with flower petals pierced through at random intervals from the ceiling. These petals dance softly when the train accelerates.

The use of velocity to change the expression of her artwork was a creative idea that could only be realized and appreciated in a mobile environment like this train, which moves at varying speeds.

GENBI runs on the Joetsu line, which has many tunnels. Nao Matsumoto, who was responsible for designing the passenger seats, cleverly used this constraint as a sly (and amusing) way to change the visual expression of the seating area.

“You will notice the color tone of the curtains change each time the train goes into a tunnel and comes out,” says Matsumoto. The interior of the carriage brightens once the train rushes out of a long tunnel.

Passengers will certainly be astonished by the natural on/off visual effects created without adjusting any of the lighting system mechanically. “The visual stimulation aroused by the spontaneous changes in the environment is itself an artistic experience,” explains Matsumoto.

The artists also contributed by supervising the design of a “kids’ space” located in one of the carriages. Providing a space for children to interact with the displayed art objects in a playful manner is intended to make art accessible and familiar to them from an early age.

Another carriage has been designated as the café space, where carefully selected Niigata-based refreshments are served. These include sweet rice cakes that use the powder of a triple-A rice brand, Koshihikari (grown in the paddy fields of Uonuma) as the main ingredient, as well as specially brewed Tsubame Coffee, which is gaining nationwide popularity as a quality coffee brand originating in the local city of Tsubame.

“We took extra care to protect the artwork from vibrations and other unstable conditions caused while the train is running with many passengers moving back and forth between carriages to see all the exhibits,” a representative from JR East’s Niigata office remarked.

Passengers will go through dynamic emotional swings while appreciating the exhibits, which may at times be surprising, uplifting, heartwarming, or relaxing, depending on their mood and the implicit messages delivered by the artwork. It seems quite likely that this process will help them nurture and understand the importance of treating all these productions carefully and with respect.