Tin Shinkansen

Over the cab reads, "Wajima, a happy place!" and "Lower the taxes!"
A bit of fun
Born in 1872, William Heath Robinson had actually wanted to be come a landscape artist but soon realised that such a career would not pay the bills.  So, he turned to book illustration.  Things went well to begin with but his main publisher suddenly went bankrupt forcing Robinson to seek other outlets for his work.  Knowing that some of the smart magazines at the news stands in the early part of the twentieth-century paid well for large intricate and humorous illustrations, he started to draw for all he was worth.

His illustrations of crazy contraptions, peopled by deceptively ordinary folk caught the imagination of the British public and sealed his success.  Having well drawn people in them was pivotal.  It tricked the viewer into thinking they were looking at an illustration of something “real” while effectively speaking it was an illusion.  The figures help to make the unbelievable believable, at least until we really look carefully.  Although immaculately drawn, Robinson often depicted absurd, overly complex machinery, although complexity per se was not enough for him.  His devices were often cobbled together, forming an assemble of various unrelated parts, bits and pieces that did the job but would not usually be allied or even share the same domain.  It was this and his popularity that finally resulted in his name entering the English language—Heath Robinson:  ingeniously or ridiculously over-complicated in design or construction.

You may ask where is all this is leading?  Well, the “Tin Shinkansen” modelled after Japan’s iconic high-speed Bullet Train exactly fits the expression—it’s a bit Heath Robinson!  Well, yes but in this case it is not necessarily a condemnations.  Those who dare to do something out of the ordinary are actually making a statement, producing something that is a game changer, a creation that may promote a shift in the way people think and consider the world around them.

Ryoanji temple garden, Kyoto
Some of Japan’s most famous designers and architects have done just that.  Although we do not know exactly who “designed” the famous stone garden at Ryoanji Temple in Kyoto, for instance, it has certainly made its mark.  A number of buildings by Kenzo Tange and others in Japan have changed people’s ideas about architecture and influenced countless other architects the world over.

Two of the venues designed by Kenzo Tange for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.
Will the Tin Shinkansen have the same effect?  Its doubtful.  It does, nevertheless, make a difference to the city-scape of Wajima.  Some call it detrimental.  I call it “a bit of fun”.  Something to relieve the less than genial streetscapes of some parts of this capital of true lacquerware and by which many cities in Japan could also benefit.

Postcard held by Stevenage Museum in their archive.
The collection of ephemera in Wajima reminds me of a building I knew as a child.  The Woodcarver’s Cottage that used to stand beside the main trunk route between London and Scotland was a landmark and something completely out of the ordinary.  The garden as well as the walls of the cottage were decorated with figures, birds and animals.  A Santa was attached to the chimney and a witch on her broomstick floated against the sky from the gable end wall.

They were all made by a Mr. H MacDonald but sadly time has swept them all away.  It is, however, still remembered affectionately by elderly locals and inevitably the neighbourhood where it once stood is a sadder place without it.

So, let’s raise a hurrah for Heath Robinson and Wajima’s Tin Shinkansen and to all those who seek to make a difference, something to break the mould and something to raise a laugh or at the very least a giggle.

Bill Tingey Photo © Copyright except where noted.

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