Seiya Nakai takes pictures of trains, railroads and the wonderful world that surrounds them. For him, railways evoke a sense of warmth, capturing the feelings of the countless travellers they shuttle from city to city.

You like taking pictures of trains – have you been interested in trains since your childhood?


I started taking pictures at the age of twelve, when I got a camera from my father. My first subjects were not just trains, but also cars and insects, among other things. That I ended up focusing exclusively on trains and railways was a natural transition which began in junior high, when I joined the school’s Railway Study club. Strange as it may seem, I didn’t initially find much joy or satisfaction in either the club’s activities or my photography hobby. It wasn’t until I combined the two that things clicked into place and I discovered my passion.


What do you find so fascinating about it?


I think that in most other countries people think of railways mainly as a cargo transport system, whereas in Japan our lives are built around the railway system. Trains and railroads are deeply integrated into our daily activities, and for many Japanese the railway system has played an essential role in such important life events as moving from one’s rural home-town to the big city, commuting to school or work, meeting up with a date, etc. I believe that’s why the sight of a railroad tends to evoke feelings of nostalgia and travel memories in most of us. They certainly do in me, and I have always been fascinated by this, not just by railroads and trains but by the romance and charm of rail travel.


Apart from the technical aspects, trains are an expression of travel: a moment between departure and arrival – a moment in-between. What does it mean for those sitting on board a train? And what does it mean for you, the photographer?


Unlike air planes that fly through the sky at high speed, trains are “down to earth”, so travellers can enjoy the passing landscape from the train window, even when travelling on Japan’s high-speed bullet trains. The changing scenery, unusual vistas or seasonal changes in the landscape all contribute to the joy and excitement of the travel experience. That’s true for me too, but, at the same time, capturing such impressions is an important subject for me as a photographer. I’m always conscious of the fact that trains “carry people to their destination”, so what I try to do is to convey the emotions generated by scenes and situations that one sees playing out during the journey, whether in the train or seen from the train window.



In the images, trains often appear embedded in the environment, in wonderful landscapes. In your opinion and in relation to the landscape, what is the difference between rails and roads – between trains and cars?


Say we’re dealing with a vista of a vast rice field. If a paved road runs through it, most people will probably exclude it from the composition. But if railroad tracks traverse the field, I think most people will want to shoot that scene with the tracks in the centre of the composition. Both roads and tracks are man-made structures, so why do we react differently? I think it’s because railroads somehow make us reflect on the journey and the experiences of the people who have passed through.

The surrounding scenery and the seasonal changes in the Japanese landscape are as important to me as the railway itself. Railways are “strong” subjects that are always going to stand out, and if your focus is on the train, chances are you will end up with a hazy landscape. So I’m always thinking about how best to achieve that delicate balance of a train “co-existing” with the surrounding landscape, while at the same time capturing the mood of the season.



Please explain your approach to photography. What is important for you when taking pictures?


Like I said, I don’t just photograph trains. My main objective is to capture and convey the traveller’s impressions of the journey. For example, to highlight the surrounding scenery, I may focus on the flowers in the landscape while blurring the train or the railroad. Sometimes I may not even include the train in the composition. So, even though I am a railway photographer, I sometimes weaken the “powerful” image of the train in order to make the character of that travel experience stand out.


Thomas Hoepker once said: “Feet are a photographer’s most important tool”. You are on the road a lot. Do you agree with Hoepker’s statement? And, where do you look for and find your subjects?


I basically share that view. No matter how adept one is at searching the Internet or scouting out potential locations with Google Maps, it will never equal the experience of standing in the actual location. The camera only sees and captures the objects that appear in front of it and are visible to the eye; but my subject is invisible and, in order to express that in my photography, I need to feel the air and use my five senses to decide what is necessary and what is not. So for me, finding the perfect spot is about feeling and deciding how I can best convey the charm of the scenery, and not about shooting from a designated, popular vantage point. In other words, I don’t want to “take” pictures, I want to convey what I see.


You’ve worked a lot with the Leica SL2. What was your experience with it, especially in reference to speed, which is a central element of your work?


I’ve been using the Leica SL2 for many of my high-speed shots – including shots of high-speed bullet trains – and it has been a very satisfying experience, particularly in terms of its quick shooting capability and exceptional AF performance. I also liked that, while the Leica SL2 features the latest technology, it retains that unique Leica quality in its construction, and the “feel” of the legendary Leica M model. I’ve also been quite impressed with the quality of the SL lens: no distortion whatsoever.


The trains in your images also seem to be revealing the history of railways. We see everything from old trains to hyper-modern ones, while nature always remains the same. Can this also be considered the essence of your photographic essay?


During my student days I would go on rail trips for weeks, taking advantage of school vacations and a student rail pass. Many years have passed now, and though I am in my fifties, I vividly remember the excitement I used to feel back then. In fact, that boyhood excitement has never left me, and it is my hope that more young photographers will discover the charm and appeal of trains and railroads, and find them as fascinating as I do. I think rail travel is the best way to discover the charm of the ever-colourful Japanese natural landscape as it changes with the seasons. Basically, that’s what I want to convey in my photography.


Seiya Nakai was born in Tokyo in 1967. He focuses not only on railway trains, but on any and all railway-related subjects, which he photographs from a unique point of view. He has defined new genres of railway photography, such as One Railway a Day and Yurutetsu (Relaxing Railway). Since 2004, he has been working on his One Railway a Day! blog, where he takes one railway picture a day without fail. In addition to advertising and magazine photography, he is active in a variety of fields such as lectures and television appearances. He is also the representative for Foto Nakai, Inc. In 2015, Nakai received the Kodansha Publishing Culture Award and Photography Award, and the Photographic Society of Japan Newcomer Award. His books and photography collections include titles such as the DSLR Camera and Photo Textbook, Dream Train (Impress Japan), Yurutetsu (Cleo), and Toden Arakawa Line Photo Stroll (Genkosha). Nakai’s Tokyo Arakawa-ku railway photography gallery, and the Yurutetsu Gallery shop, opened in May 2018.