SAITAMA - Ten-year-old Koharu Yagi gazes at the meters and meters of plastic train track laid out in a room at the Plaza North culture center in the city of Saitama and lets out a sigh of wonder.
“It’s like a dream being able to play with something as big as this,” he says. “Something I could never make at home.”
Welcome to Purafesu, a semi-regular event aimed at fans of toy trains organized by YouTube personality Yoshimasa Matsuoka, which held its most recent edition at Plaza North from Dec. 22 to 24.
For a ¥1,000 entrance fee, enthusiasts of all ages were invited to play with battery-powered plastic trains on a giant track laid out by Matsuoka and his helpers on the room’s roughly 200-square-meter polished wooden floor.
The track was made from Plarail, a railway construction kit produced by toy-maker Takara Tomy that allows users to make their own designs and configurations.
Despite the huge amount of time and effort that had evidently gone into Matsuoka’s creation, visitors were invited to roll up their sleeves and get involved, with the emphasis firmly on play.
“Purafesu is a community,” said the 31-year-old Matsuoka, whose videos of his Plarail track layouts have been watched more than 55 million times on YouTube. “It’s a place for people who like trains to get together. It’s like an exhibition where people can actually get involved. The aim is for people to bring their own trains and run them along this track. It gives them hands-on experience.”
Matsuoka started Purafesu in July 2016 and holds the event about once a month. He usually stages it in Saitama, but on Saturday and Sunday he will hold it at the Hikarie building in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward, and he is planning future events in Mie and Shizuoka prefectures. Tickets for the Shibuya event are ¥1,500 in advance or ¥2,000 on the day.
“I’ve been making Plarail videos for a while, and there were a lot of people who wanted to meet me,” said Matsuoka, who quit his job at a university to devote himself to his YouTube channel in March 2014.
“I met a lot of them individually, but then the number grew and it became difficult,” he said. “I thought it might be best to put on an event. A lot of people came to the first one and from then on people started asking if I could put on more. Then it became a regular event.”
Matsuoka estimates that anywhere from 100 to 200 people come each day of Purafesu. For parents such as Itsumi Iwatate, who was visiting with her 3-year-old son Hajime, the lack of space at home makes it a valuable opportunity for their children to play freely.
“It’s our first time here,” she said. “My son always watches YouTube videos and we saw that this event was on. It’s close to where we live so we came along. My son plays with trains at home. He can’t make a full circuit but he can make bits of them.”
“I think this is a great event,” she continued. “I like Plarail myself so it’s fun to watch. … I think Japanese people like putting detailed things like this together, and Plarail has a long history. You can get really deep into it.”
Plarail first went on sale in Japan in 1959, giving it a special place in the hearts of adults as well as children. Some, like Matsuoka himself, started playing with it as a child and never managed to kick the habit.
“I’ve been to this event lots of times before,” said 27-year-old Yuta Ishii, who also runs his own Plarail-themed YouTube channel called Arieru & Eric TV. “I can run trains in this big space here in a way that I can’t at home. I make train tracks at home but there’s no space. I loved Plarail when I was a kid and then I stopped playing with it for a time. I was wondering what to do with my life and then I finally hit upon the idea of doing this.”
Ishii credits Matsuoka for inspiring him to start his own channel, and several other Purafesu visitors say they were drawn to the event after watching the organizer’s online videos.
In September 2017, Matsuoka and nine of his associates used Plarail to recreate the track layout of all 29 stations on Tokyo’s Yamanote Line at Plaza North. Each layout was painstakingly researched and replicated, and the finished model took eight or nine hours to complete.
“I was in a cafe with the others, and we were talking about how we wanted to do something interesting,” he said. “They said it would be fun to recreate every station on the Yamanote Line, and that’s how it started.
“We looked at Google Maps to get the whole view and work out which bit branches out from where, and built it accordingly. It was very difficult. If there was a very slight curve, we would just use a straight piece of track. If the curve was a little more pronounced, we would use a different piece.”
Matsuoka followed up his Yamanote Line replica with a recreation of Osaka’s Loop Line in March this year, and he aims to do the same for all shinkansen and Tokyo Metro stations in the future.
“The thing I like about Plarail is that you can get really engrossed in thinking about how you’re going to design the layout,” he said. “When you have limited space, you have to think about how many trains you can get to run on it and how you can make it interesting. I don’t have any interest in the trains themselves. I like the tracks. It’s sort of like a puzzle.
“I have no interest in the finished model,” he continued. “I like the process, thinking about how you’re going to make it. When it’s finished, I lose interest. … I think: ‘OK, what’s next?'”
Matsuoka estimates that he spends an average of ¥100,000 to ¥200,000 on Plarail each month, and that half of his apartment is taken up by boxes of track and other equipment.
He says that he would like to see Purafesu grow before handing it over to someone else to organize. He also hopes that the community spirit fostered by the event will give the people who take part more confidence to keep building.
“The people who come here like trains and Plarail, but they are in the minority,” he said.
“The outside world doesn’t really understand them. If you get a group of like-minded people together, you form a community. That’s what a lot of people who come here are looking for. The majority of people don’t like trains, but for those that do, they can come here and talk about it.”