Thursday, February 2, 2023

How Do We Lose Sympathy and Empathy?


Young Tyre Nichols was laid to rest on Wednesday Feb 1.  I’m certain that more than 99% of us who viewed a part or the entire violent episode in which cops attacked and brutalized young Tyre in Memphis, TN, had the experience of cringing with a feeling of pain that we weren’t in reality being subjected to. What baffled most of us was the ability of these policemen to comfortably ignore Tyre’s excruciating suffering while they boasted about their exploits in catching him, and in one case, one of the cops actually taunting Tyre as he lay groaning on the ground. Heartless, we say--or, as we’ll see later, maybe brainless.

Sympathy vs empathy  

The two words are often used interchangeably but there are qualitative differences between the two. Sympathy is defined by feelings of pity or hurt for another person even if not having the same experience or being in the same circumstance. In empathy, we are able to qualitatively put ourselves in the another person’s situation and understand how it must feel for them. Sometimes one can have both of these, e.g. I feel sympathy for a schizophrenic screaming at a hallucination, but I can also empathize by imagining how terrifying it must be to hear those voices taunting me and telling lies about me.

Sympathy and empathy in medicine

I was thinking through some of the occasions in which, as a doctor, my level of empathy could have been higher. Some doctors lack empathy for a number of reasons:

  • Personality: I’ve observed simple basic levels of bedside manner or caring between doctors, and sometimes it’s striking.
  • Burnout: a syndrome in which exhaustion combines with the inability to care, e.g. too many nights on call, extended shifts, or not enough vacation time.
  • A hardening of the doctor’s psychological armor to avoid making "emotional decisions,” which is why doctors shouldn’t treat friends or family members.
  • A God-like feeling in which the doctor is brought to believe that pain is for “other people,” i.e. his patients. It is a shock when such a doctor falls ill with the very ailments he treats, e.g. an oncologist who gets cancer or a neurologist suffers from Parkinsonism. Now they can empathize with their patients and not just sympathize. 
Sympathy and empathy at work

Often, when someone complains that they have the “boss from hell,” they’re describing a boss who appears unable to put themselves in the employee’s shoes. The best bosses have empathy for their workers and make humane judgements accordingly. The boss may not have a young child at home, but he empathizes with the worker who needs to get home to take care of a sick infant. Here, sympathy is not necessary for the boss to come to that decision, but empathy is.

At meetings, the ability to empathize with coworkers is vital to a friendly workplace. A simple, “Are you okay?” to a colleague whose parent is suffering from distressing dementia shows at least sympathy. If the coworker can put themself in the colleague’s shoes and understand the pain, there’s empathy there as well.

Sympathy and empathy in wartime

Heroic acts during wartime often stem from empathy. The soldier or marine who must go back to get his wounded partner on the battlefield is feeling the pain the partner is, and therefore he is completely empathizing, even though sympathy isn’t essential to commit this act of bravery. In this example, though, other qualities are showing, such as courage and principle.

On the other hand, for a soldier or marine to fight effectively, they must put away any sympathy or empathy for the other side. Other measures could include dehumanizing the enemy or ascribing characteristics to them that justify their annihilation. War crimes all over the world depend on the offenders seeing their victims or prisoners as deserving to be raped, shot, burned alive, or tortured.

Sympathy and empathy in killers

Although it’s customary to call murderers of all kinds “monsters,” they really aren’t. They are human beings who have not only lost the ability to feel their victims’ pain, but in some cases to enjoy it. The wiring in their brains is seriously out of whack in a pernicious way. Most of us don’t kill people, even if we have an impulse to, because it takes a lot to counter what we know to be wrong at a basic level. Many similarities have been found between the brains of psychopathic killers and dictators, both of whom lack the ability to sympathize or empathize.

Sympathy, empathy, and the brain

Neuroimaging is helping us understand one basic component of empathy: the interpersonal sharing of affect, i.e. a common feeling of emotion that comes with pain. A study using functional MRI (fMRI) revealed enhanced activity in the brains of subjects shown photographs of hands and feet put into  positions that were likely to cause pain, compared to the control group shown the same hands and feet in non-stressed situations. The subjects rated their perceived levels of pain. The results revealed that perceiving and assessing painful situations in others was associated with significant bilateral changes in activity in several regions notably, the anterior cingulate, the anterior insula, the cerebellum, and to a lesser extent the thalamus. These regions are known to play a significant role in pain processing. Finally, the activity in the anterior cingulate was strongly correlated with the participants' ratings of the others pain.

It’s clear in the diagram how close these areas are to each other, suggesting that they might even be cross-communicating each other and modifying the response. We could call them the empathy centers. These areas are also where our own pain,
 i.e pain inflicted on us, is processed. So, when these areas light up on fMRI as a result of personal pain, it's very similar to the pattern seen when we see someone elses pain, suggesting that empathy correlates highly to these areas of the brain. That’s why we have an amazing ability to feel the pain of another. So, in Tyre’s beating by the cops, we almost literally feel his pain, which makes the video “hard to watch.”

Plasticity of sympathy and empathy

But clearly, our sympathy and empathy are moldable by the environment, our basic personalities, new experiences and outlook. For example, when we hear about Ukrainians are suffering under the Russians’ merciless attacks, we may feel sympathy, but it’s rather fleeting. But if we were actually on the ground with the Ukrainian people, sympathy and empathy would go up several-fold. So, the input of what we see, hear, and feel in the war can heighten the activity of the empathy centers. In the doctor example above, the experience of cancer rendered them more empathetic to their patients.

On the other hand, Russian and Ukrainian soldiers can’t battle each other with sympathy or empathy. Clearly, there’s a “higher power” in the brain that sends an order to empathy centers that they need to shut down completely: “This is not the time for that.” 

I think the notion of moldable sympathy and empathy is a good one, because it means we can train ourselves to be more caring of others. We can practice sending commands from the brain's “higher powers” to the empathy centers.

For authors, get your empathy centers fired up. The emotion will pour out on the page, enriching the reader’s experience. As a bonus, if you can tap into the reader’s empathy, you really have it made. That’s for us writers to figure out.

Where was the empathy for Tyre Nichols?

The special unit to which these Memphis policemen belonged had a self-contradictory name: SCORPION, which stood for Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods. Scorpions, not known for peace, bring pain. These men in a culture of brutality lived in a world in which they had sadistic license to inflict suffering. Someone handed down the message that there should be no “softness” here, giving the cops' testosterone-marinated aggression to shut down the empathy centers. We wonder if any empathy will return to them as they serve their prison sentences. Somehow, I doubt it.



Wednesday, February 1, 2023

Jurassic Park, Tasmania

 Michael – Thursday

Around 200 million years ago the landmass of this planet was mostly concentrated in one super continent, which was named Gondwana (retrospectively, of course).


About 180 million years ago during the Jurassic period, Gondwana started to break up. The theory behind that involves the movement of the tectonic plates that support the continents and the enormous forces within the Earth’s crust that drive them together and apart, and other complicated stuff. Anyway, over time the super landmass broke up and redistributed its mass around the planet. The practical evidence is the curious way in which the continents fit if you move them back together, as in the pictures. Of course, that might just be chance, but it seems a very unlikely one. There’s also the fact that the continents are still drifting apart – very slowly but measurably.

Pieces of the puzzle

That was also the period when flowering plants started to appear. Forty million years later, Africa and South America took their leave of the rest, and after another 50 million years India was heading north while Australia and Antarctica had just separated. The dinosaurs were around for another 35 million years, and after that the mammals had their turn.

Artist's impression of the Jurassic

So all this implies that there ought to be plant, reptile, and insect ancestors in the fossil record common to several different continents. And, indeed, there are.

Inala Jurassic Garden
...with a hint of the past...

Yes, dragonflies were well established by the Jurassic

That brings us to Inala Jurassic Garden in the south of Bruny Island south of Tasmania. The idea was to create a collection of plant families with examples from different parts of the world that can be traced back to the Jurassic days of Gondwana. It’s a wonderful project comprising nearly fifty plant families and seven hundred different species. Much has changed in the last 150 million years and the plant descendants have evolved and diverged over that time, yet they have very clear features that have survived, indicating their relationship with each other and with those long-ago early flowering plants.

No chance of the Tasmanian Tiger, I'm afraid

Blue cypress

Cypresses with the temperate forest behind

Jurassic barn
I’m very partial to the Proteaceae family of angiosperms that has a multitude of wonderful examples in South Africa – the most luxuriant examples being in the southern Cape. The family has two subfamilies. One, the Proteas themselves, must have evolved after Africa split from South America and Australia since it’s not represented on the latter continents; and the other, the Grevilleas, are widely distributed in Australia and South America. Pollen fossils tend to support their early connection to Gondwana.

King Protea from South Africa
The Australian bee seems happy enough!

Wonderful display of South African pincushion Proteas
I'm pretending to ignore them by watching birds

Silver trees (a type of Protea) and King Proteas

The irritating thing is that Inala Garden has superb examples of the African Proteas, better than mine!

Descriptions of the relationships between species

The point of the garden is that one can see a variety of plants that trace their roots (to coin a phrase) back a hundred million years to a time when all the Earth’s land was connected.

Australian Waratah

One of the Grevilea Sp

Inala has another function. It is a private nature reserve to preserve a piece of Tasmania’s temperate rain forest and especially the Eucalypt trees that are home to the Forty-spotted Pardalote, one of Australia's rarest birds. The birds are restricted to a few sites in south-eastern Tasmania, feeding exclusively around the white gums or manna gums. The sweet gum that collects on the tree trunks represents three quarters of the diet for fledglings, and only occurs on these trees. Perhaps not a great business plan. Inala has been planting these trees and supplying breeding boxes, and now has one of the largest remaining colonies of the birds, thus contributing to the specie's chance of survival. They have also constructed a tower between the trees so that you can get closer to the levels where the birds zoom around between the gums getting on with their lives.

Pardalote viewing platform

Here is a great photograph of one on them. (Remember that you will only find twenty spots on each side if you're tempted to count them.)

Forty-spotted Pardalote
Photo Ian Wilson

Inala means “a peaceful place” in the local Aboriginal language. It certainly is peaceful. But it’s a lot more than that.

View from Bruny Island

Thanks to Pat for the pictures from Inala.

Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Birthday of the Rock (& starting my new mystery snail style)

 Ovidia--every other Tuesday

Yes, it's still Chinese New Year. The whole festival lasts 15 days and today (Jan 31st) is the 10th day or the Birthday of the Rock.

That probably came about because the Chinese words for '10' and 'stone' share the homonym 'shí'.

As kids we were told that if we could carry a small stone around all day without losing it, we would have a fruitful year (ie good results in our exams). I know some girls were given a piece of jade or a tiger eye stone on a chain to wear, but most of us just had a smooth pebble in our pocket.

The Rock's Birthday was also a day when the stone pestle and mortar (like this one below) couldn't be used in the kitchen,

and when snails shouldn't be crushed. Maybe because of the shape of their shells? We also had a few stone snails in my grandfather's garden.

I don't kill snails at all if I can help it, I'm very fond of snails. They're small, have pretty poor eyesight but are sensitive to their surroundings, and protect themselves from the outside world with hard (but fragile) shells. 

Which is kind of how I feel when I'm starting on a new book, like now.

It's a terrifying time with so many ideas and options and possibilities that I could go on forever trying to decide. But snail style, I just start where I am. 

My next book will be another history mystery, set here in Singapore after the Japanese Occupation.

But in what kind of surroundings? Snail style, my characters will need somewhere to eat--the kopitiam or sidewalk coffee shop (precursors of the one I lunched at today) were just appearing then--

 --and they haven't changed all that much!

It's nice to be around friendly people who aren't friends, who'll nod and say 'hello' but won't start a conversation so you can study them and decide which of them you want to add to your collection. 

Like people, snails are very sociable creatures. Patricia Highsmith (who wrote “Man has no more soul than a garden snail. The point is, the garden snail has a soul, too.”) is said to started collecting snails after seeing two of them being companionable in a pet shop window.

I imagine they were like a couple I saw at the kopitiam today, in office wear. The man looked in his forties and was focused on his curry rice and hardly said a word. The woman, who looked much younger, talked non-stop. She had a bowl of seafood noodles in front of her but hardly swallowed more than a few mouthfuls of soup. 

I wonder if the two are colleagues or relatives or some permutation of friends. And if I were to write them in, would I kill him off and point suspicion to her or vice versa? Or would the spectator (poor me in this case) be unceremoniously bumped off for seeing them together?

Here are a couple of snails being companionable. It's easier for snails. because their close encounters with other snails generally lead to either sex or cannibalism. But when it comes to people there's such a wealth of other options... though sex and cannibalism remain interesting options!

I want to look more into the habitat too. Nowadays food supplies are transported in from centralised distributors, but back in the post war days the coffee shop owners would wok-roast their own coffee beans with sugar and butter and sometimes sweet corn stalks and pineapple skins to the requisite dark brown colour and fragrance. 

A kopitiam's reputation was based as much on the strength of its kopi (coffee) and sweetness of its homemade kaya (coconut jam) as the rice and noodle dishes it might serve.

Which opens up possibilities of pointing out the last meal a victim ate contained kaya or kopi was Not prepared in the kopitiam (s)he was found dead in, or that the stone mortar used to bash someone's head in couldn't have been wielded by a superstitious person... unless he or she's the one now making panicky offerings to the Rock to atone...

I won't share any of the photos I took (without permission while pretending to be taking selfies) of all the people in the koptiam. I know the stories I make up about their lives and how/ why they chose what they're wearing/ eating/ carrying/ complaining about/ watching/ texting comes more from me than from them, but until I've settled on the general outline of my next book I'm 'auditioning' characters for major and minor roles and this is probably the second most exciting part of the writing process. 

And it's a lot more pleasant and less painful than the actual writing! 

But I'll leave you with one more snail picture:

I like this one because you can see the snail eyes on stalks that extend and turn to take in everything around it. 

Happy Rock Birthday, everyone! (And please tell me, would you read a book with snails in it? Or would you find them taboo as clues?)


Monday, January 30, 2023

Will AI Replace Us?

Annamaria on Monday

The news report that inspired this blog post said that the NYC Board of Education was considering banning an Artificial Intelligence bot called ChatGPT.  The fear was that students would use the readily available AI instrument to write their homework papers for them.  I have since learned that some education institutions are requiring students to turn in handwritten papers to prevent such cheating.

When I learned that the same bot could write a "poem" in the "style" of William Shakespeare or the Declaration of Independence, I wondered if publishing houses would soon be turning to AI to produce novels, doing away with the need for messy human authors.  I also wondered if AI could write a plausible blog post.  It would have been fun to post such a thing and then own up that it was really "fake Annamaria."

Knowing, as I did, that such a tech experiment would likely be beyond my level of tech savvy, I asked Stan Trollip to give me a hand in my research.  He gave it try.  here is what ChatGPT produced for him, with his instructions in italics and the bot's responses in blue:

Give me the opening of a murder mystery set in Botswana

It was a hot summer day in Botswana when the body of local businessman, John Doe, was found in his office. The police were called to the scene and immediately began their investigation. The office showed no signs of forced entry and all valuables were left untouched, leading the detectives to believe that the murder was not a robbery gone wrong.

As the detectives began to interview employees and associates of the victim, they quickly realized that John Doe was not as well-liked as they had initially thought. Many of the people they spoke to had motives for wanting him dead.

The investigation led to many twists and turns as the detectives uncovered secrets and lies surrounding the victim's business dealings. But as the evidence piled up, one suspect stood out above the rest.

The question now was, could they prove it in court?



Regenerate the response:


It was a hot summer morning in the small village of Gaborone, Botswana. The sun was just beginning to rise over the vast savannah, casting a warm golden glow over the dusty streets. The village was still asleep, but one house was stirring. Inside, a young woman named Mma Ramotswe was getting ready for her day. She was a private detective, and she had a case to solve.

Mma Ramotswe was sitting at her small wooden desk, sipping on a cup of tea and going over her notes for the case. It was a murder case, and she had been hired by the victim's family to find the killer. The victim was a wealthy businessman, and there were many suspects. Mma Ramotswe knew that it would be a difficult case, but she was determined to find the truth.

As she was getting ready to leave her house, her assistant, Mma Makutsi, knocked on the door. Mma Makutsi was also a private detective, and she was excited to hear about the case. Together, they set off to investigate.

The first stop on their investigation was the victim's house. It was a large, luxurious mansion on the outskirts of the village. They were greeted by the victim's wife, who was still in shock over her husband's murder. She told them that she had no idea who could have killed him, and that he had no enemies.

Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi spent the next few days talking to the victim's friends, family, and business associates. They soon realized that the victim had many enemies, and that the list of suspects was growing.

As they dug deeper into the case, they uncovered secrets, lies, and motives for murder. The closer they got to the truth, the more dangerous the case became. But Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi were determined to solve the case, no matter what the cost.


What happened next?


As Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi continued their investigation, they began to piece together the events leading up to the murder. They discovered that the victim had been involved in a number of shady business deals, and that many of his associates had motives for wanting him dead.

They interviewed several suspects, including a business partner who had been swindled out of a large sum of money, and a former employee who had been fired unjustly. They also talked to several of the victim's mistresses, who revealed that he had been leading a double life.

As they gathered more information, they began to suspect that the murder was not just a simple crime of passion, but a carefully planned and executed scheme. They realized that the killer may have had multiple motives, and that they were dealing with a cold and calculated criminal.

Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi worked tirelessly to gather evidence, and they were eventually able to identify the killer. With the help of the local police, they were able to arrest the culprit and bring them to justice. The case was solved, and the victim's family finally had closure.

Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi were hailed as heroes in the village, and their reputation as top-notch detectives spread far and wide. They continued to work together, solving many more cases and bringing criminals to justice.



 It struck me, as I am sure it did Stan, that the baldfaced bot just plagiarized Alexander McCall Smith's characters. And then Stan got it to write about Florence, and guess what.  It stole John Dunning's detective Alessandro Rossi!


Give me the start of a murder mystery set in Florence


It was a warm summer evening in Florence, Italy. The sun had just set over the city, casting a warm orange glow over the ancient streets. Tourists and locals alike were out, enjoying the beautiful weather and the many sights and sounds of the city. But one corner of the city was shrouded in darkness and mystery.

In the heart of Florence, in the Piazza del Duomo, the body of a young woman was found. She was lying on the ground, her body ravaged by stab wounds. The police were called, and they quickly cordoned off the area, trying to gather as much evidence as possible.

Detective Alessandro Rossi was put in charge of the case. He was a seasoned investigator, known for his sharp mind and his ability to solve even the most complex of cases. He knew that this case would be no exception.

Alessandro began his investigation by talking to the locals, trying to find out if anyone had seen anything suspicious. But no one had seen anything, and the murder weapon was nowhere to be found. The victim was identified as a young American woman, a student who was studying art history in the city. She had no known enemies, and her death seemed to be a random act of violence.

As Alessandro delved deeper into the case, he began to realize that the murder was not a random act of violence, but a well-planned and executed murder. He discovered that the victim had been researching a famous painting that was kept in one of the city's museums, and that her research had uncovered a dark secret.

Alessandro knew that he had to find out what that secret was if he wanted to solve the case. He began to investigate the painting and its history, and he soon realized that there were many people who had a motive for killing the young woman. He had to work fast, before the killer strikes again.

As the investigation progressed, Alessandro encountered many obstacles and setbacks, but he never gave up. He knew that he was getting closer to solving the case, and he was determined to bring the killer to justice.


Where was the student working?


The student was working at one of Florence's museums, researching a famous painting that was kept there. She was an art history student, and she had come to Florence to study the city's rich cultural heritage. She was particularly interested in the painting she was researching, and she had uncovered a dark secret about it.

Was the student working at the Uffizi gallery


It is not specified in the story that the student was working at the Uffizi Gallery, but it's possible. The Uffizi Gallery is one of the most famous museums in Florence, and it is home to many works of art by some of the world's most renowned artists. It would make sense that an art history student would be interested in researching a painting that is kept in such a prestigious museum.



Why was the student murdered?


It's not specified in the story why the student was murdered. The story states that the student was working on a research about a famous painting in one of the city's museums and that her research had uncovered a dark secret, but the story does not reveal what that secret is and why that would lead to her murder. The story also suggests that many people had motive to kill the young woman and detective Alessandro Rossi was working on piecing together the motives and the circumstances around the murder and trying to find the killer.


The student was from New York City. Tell me more about her.


Sure, the student was from New York City, she was an art history student, who came to Florence to study the city's rich cultural heritage. She was particularly interested in the painting she was researching, and she had uncovered a dark secret about it. She was described as a young American woman, eager to learn and with a passion for art. She had no known enemies, and her death seemed to be a random act of violence. It could be that she was a bright student, dedicated to her studies, and had a close-knit family and friends back in New York City. Her sudden death would have been a shock for her loved ones, and they would have been eager for justice to be served for her.



I asked “Who was the art student working with?”  The system crashed.

With all this in hand, and the obvious conclusion that this bot in its current incarnation could not be trusted to write a publishable book, I decided to see if the bot could write an essay, rather than a story.  Let's face it, expecting it to create something completely new is a lot to ask.

Here is what I asked it, and how it responded.

This much research is certainly not enough to draw a definite conclusion about the future of bot-novelists, but if what Stan and I uncovered is indicative of AI's creative capabilities, I think most of us are safe from imminent replacement.  However, my requests of ChatGPT reveal a possible sea change in the publishing industry.  Given its definition of what constitutes good crime fiction, it may soon be aiming at the jobs of publishing executives.

I do like one thing it said about all that very much:

Sunday, January 29, 2023

Trains, Wonderful Trains....

 --Susan, every other Sunday

I've always loved trains. There's something about the nature of travel by rail that slows you down, (while simultaneously speeding you up as you miss the traffic). I didn't have many chances to ride on trains while living in the States, but since coming to Japan, I'm making up for lost time.

Most people have heard of Japan's ultra-high speed shinkansen--the "bullet trains" that have impressed the world for decades--and the crowded Tokyo metro trains that carry millions of people to and from work and play on a daily basis.

But these don't even scratch the surface . . . from tiny, one-car rural trains to the fanciful "Joyful Trains," sightseeing trains, and even trains dedicated to eating local specialties "on the move," Japan is a country that loves its rails--and there's a lot of rail to love.  

Today I thought I'd share a few of the ones I've ridden during the past few years:

The AnPanMan train in Shikoku features characters from the popular children's anime (called AnPanMan), whose heads and bodies are made of different types of special bread.

Here comes the AnPanMan express!

Anpan is a round bread filled with adzuki bean paste (called "an" in Japanese). Anpanman is enormously popular with Japanese children - and while riding this train, I saw more than a dozen little kids standing near various crossings, waving to the train as we passed by.

Anpanman and friends

I may not have grown up on a diet of anpan(man), either real or on TV, but I loved this train. Even the memory makes me happy.

More anpanman ...

There are dozens of "character trains" like this around Japan, featuring everything from Thomas the Tank Engine to Pikachu, Hello Kitty, and many more. 

Specialty food trains are also popular. One of the leading candidates is actually close to home: the FujiView Sweets Express, which runs on the FujiQ railway to Kawaguchiko Station in the Fuji Five Lakes district.
The Fujiview Sweets Express, living up to its name

While the last three cars always operate as a standard train, and don't require reservations, on weekends the first car becomes the "Sweets Express"--a reservation-only experience that includes incredible views (including Mt. Fuji, in good weather) and a special dessert menu that changes seasonally. 

Car 1 - the sweets car

Car 1 - all aboard for dessert...

Instead of standard seating, the inside is set up like a cafe; when you board, the staff take you to your assigned seat or table. The huge windows make for amazing views.

My seat!

I've ridden twice - once in the summer and once in the winter. I'll definitely go again, too. 

Winter sweets: chocolate mousse "Fuji" and raspberry-chocolate eclair "sweets express"

Dessert with a view

No post about trains in Japan would be complete without a shinkansen - the fastest of which is currently the Hayabusa (the Japanese word for peregrine falcon) that runs on the Tohoku Shinkansen lines, north of Tokyo.

Hello, Hayabusa!

For rapid travel one step down from the shinkansen, Japan has a lot of futuristic-looking express trains, which cover distances much faster than standard trains, though not quite at the shinkansen's 150+MPH speed. They also look like transformers come to life: 

The real-life mandalorian...

When heading north from Tokyo, you may get to ride a conjoined shinkansen, like the one below. The red train (in front) is a "slower" shinkansen, bound for Akita Prefecture, while the sleek green machine is a Hayabusa bound for Hokkaido (the northernmost terminus of the shinkansen lines). From Tokyo Station to Morioka Station (about two hours north of Tokyo), the trains are joined together, to take advantage of the Hayabusa's powerful engines. At Morioka they uncouple; the red train heads west to Akita, while the Hayabusa keeps racing north alone.  

This is where baby trains come from.

I've even ridden fancy trains without leaving Tokyo. The sleek N'Ex runs north to south through Tokyo, with its northernmost end at Narita Airport (N'Ex means Narita Express). Like many Japanese express trains, all of its seats are reserved, and you need a designated seat ticket to get on board. 

All aboard the Narita Express

Japan even has a number of historic trains still in operation - or, like the one below, on display at museums and parks near the tracks where they used to run. I haven't ridden any of the old steam engines yet, but it's high on my list.

A steam locomotive on the historic Kiso Road

The workhorses of Japanese rail remain the little local trains, which usually have between 1 and 3 cars, depending on the needs of the communities where they run.

The local Tobu train, at Ryuokyo, Tochigi Prefecture

Sightseeing trains are gaining popularity. While some people ride them purely for transport purposes, the rail companies advertise special trains like the Saphir Odoriko below as a destination in and of themselves.  

Saphir Odoriko, Izu

And they're not wrong. The Saphir runs along the coast between Tokyo and the southern tip of the Izu Peninsula, about 3 hours from Tokyo. All of the cars have a view of the ocean, and it's a lovely way to spend a relaxing afternoon.

Still other trains feature exterior "wrap" designs intended to draw attention to special aspects of the area in which they run, or local history or culture. 

Wakayama History on a train

The traditional samurai images on this train in Wakayama prefecture are designed to share a little about the history of the region, and inspire interest in travel to local historical sites. 

In the last few years, Japan has increased its focus on sustainability (always an important part of Japanese culture, but now being taken to a more global level). And yep, it's made its way to the trains as well, with the Sustainable Smile Panda, a special train in Wakayama Prefecture that hopefully makes riders think about conservation of animals and the environment. 

Sustainable Smile Panda

In addition to the cute design, signs inside the train remind riders about the importance of conservation and sustainability, and explain that the train is using prototype engines that reduce emissions, conserve fuel, and use alternative fuels; the hope is that this technology will spread throughout Japan in the years to come. 

Don't look now, but I think they're watching us.

In case you hadn't noticed, it's also really, really cute.

Pandas in Wakayama

A lot of the special trains I've ridden to date were happy accidents, but I like them so much that I'm turning into a nori-tetsu (乗り鉄) - the Japanese term for a train enthusiast who enjoys riding trains (as opposed to a model train collector). In the years to come, I plan to ride as many special trains as possible - and I promise I'll take you along, both on my own blog and here at MIE!

All aboard!!

So... are you a train enthusiast too? Or would you rather not be ridden out of town on a rail?