Plarail is one part nostalgia, one part mania, and equal parts fun

Whether you're 3 or 103 years old, we bet you can't help but want to play with one of Japan's favorite toys.

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Here in Japan, trains are everywhere, and whether you live in the middle of the world’s biggest megalopolis that is Greater Tokyo, or find yourself in the nether-regions of places like Shikoku, Hokkaido, and even Okinawa, chances are you will board some sort of rail-based transport during your stay in Japan. So it’s no wonder that the children growing up here all have fond memories of building Plarail layouts with their parents, siblings and friends.

In the same manner as this American built crazy bright orange Hot-Wheels tracks for my toy car collection when I was little, many kids around Japan go bonkers whenever they see the royal blue plastic slotted tracks that the battery-powered trains ride around on. The appeal for the toys are massive; At this year’s Tokyo Motors Show at Tokyo Big Site, a massive layout was put together and pretty much attracted anything that was below the age of 10… Come to think of it, it attracted a lot of us who were 3 times that age too!

Invented in 1959 by Tomy — the same company that would later bring Transformers to life — the first Plarail set was a replica steam locomotive and came with a starter layout that had a bridge for the train to cross over the opposing track. Also, it wasn’t battery operated, so kids operated the toy the old-fashioned way by pushing it around the track. It wasn’t hard to see the appeal of the toy back in those simpler times though. Sure there were toy train sets that ran on electric rails such as the old Lionel sets, but Japanese children during those times had to pull out and put their toys away each time since the room they were playing in was also likely pulling triple duty as the living room, dining room, and bedroom as well. The Plarail set gave children new opportunities to build something new each time they played, since the layout could change. Also as the toys caught on, kids would tote their sets over one another’s homes or some other common space and build layouts together since the parts were interchangeable.

A wide-eyed child is eager to play with this tall Pla-rail layout at the 2015 Tokyo Motor Show
A wide-eyed child is eager to play with this tall Pla-rail layout at the 2015 Tokyo Motor Show (Jason L. Gatewood)

Over time, Plarail modernized with the times, garnering battery operated models and incorporating things like switches and crossing gates into the layout designs. Tomy then took the toy overseas, landing in the USA where it’s currently sold under license by Fisher-Price. Over across “the pond” in 1992, Plarail launched a tie up with “Thomas The Tank Engine” where the characters from the hit British children’s TV show are brought to life as toy trains. Instant success ensued, and the collaboration was such a hit that they spun off a separate division just to manage the licensing of the playsets around the world.

These days, you can find children and adults having fun with the toys globally, but Japan is still home base for those wishing to collect the widest range of sets. Most toy stores in Japan stock Plarail, but Tomy (Takara Tomy here in Nippon) also has dedicated stores that only sell the toy. In Tokyo Station’s underground shopping arcade, the first ever Plarail Shop opened and on a recent jaunt over there to… check out sources for this story… I noticed many of the shoppers were actually visitors and tourists snapping up as many of the tiny trains as they could shake a credit card at. In addition to the stores, there are also Plarail Expos that tour shopping malls and collectors clubs that attempt everything from the largest layouts to the most realistic setups modeled after real working railroads. Speaking of which, the toy’s popularity isn’t lost on actual rail companies either, with several also selling licensed versions of their running stock in kid-friendly plastic form.

If you’re looking for a one-of-a-kind gift that screams Japan, trains, nostalgia, you may have just found it right here in the Plarail universe. Good for ages 3 to 103!

About the attached video:

“Gacchan” is a cute 5 year old boy here in Japan whose mom & dad make videos of him playing with his toys all the time. According to his mom, “He was looking at YouTube every day. He said one day. ‘I want to join appeared on YouTube'” and the rest is history.
Please check out his channel to see what toys the little ones play with here in Japan! : https://www.youtube.com/user/TheGacchannel
----------Gacchan profile----------
Name ----- Gacchan
Age ----- 5
Sex ----- male
Likes ----- Train , PLARAIL , TOMICA , Candy making kit