Japan’s trains are a cut above anywhere else in the world. No one in Japan has ever been reduced to tears by the words ‘rail replacement bus service’. Because of this, they’ve become quite a cult thing to obsess over and Japan is an absolute goldmine of brilliant and hilarious train-based stuff. We knew we’d have to write up our top five things to do in Japan for railfans, and we’ve not even scratched the surface yet.
‘Tetsudo (rail) fans’, as they are known in Japan, are in a league of their own compared to ‘trainspotters’ in the UK. Their obsession with everything related to trains is quite something. Some tetsudo fans travel all over the country to photograph different types of train and things can get rather heated. They also go to retirement ceremonies for old trains, which is somewhere between cute and terrifying. This intriguing individual even converted a room in his house into a train carriage using old parts.
It isn’t that difficult to understand this behaviour when train journeys in Japan are such a joy. Except in Tokyo at rush hour, obvs. But mostly they are fun. Train stations have their own jingles to welcome you and to say goodbye. Train drivers, as we mentioned in our blog on Takamatsu, do some very entertaining pointing and hand gestures. It’s a famous safety feature and really something you have to see. We should also mention that some train stations have adorable cats as station masters.
Anyway, if you want to get on board (ha) with the train geekery in Japan, read on.
1. Go on a shinkansen (bullet train)
The high-speed bullet train or ‘shinkansen‘ is an iconic symbol of Japanese technology. You have to go on one, whether you’re into trains or not. Preferably include a journey past Mount Fuji in good weather for some amazing views. Shinkansens are spacious inside and all seats face forwards. But mostly importantly, they’re ridiculously fast. And they have great bento boxes available on board. Anyone who has suffered a Virgin Trains cheese sandwich will be in heaven.
If you buy a Japan Rail Pass (roughly the same cost as a shinkansen return ticket between Kyoto and Tokyo), you can ride these little beauties to your heart’s content. As well as all the other breeds of JR (Japan Railways) trains and buses and all sorts. Bargain.
Also, watching a shinkansen fly past when you’re stood on a platform is impressive. Technology can be beautiful. Some types of shinkansen have noses that look very cool, but actually make the trains slower. Japan is not all about efficiency.
2. Visit the Railway Museum in Tokyo
The Railway Museum in Tokyo is quite something. It’s in a huge modern building and has all sorts of trains, from old wooden ones to a shinkansen (or at least the nose of one). You can listen to all the different train station jingles through a machine. It’s all completely interactive – you can get inside all the trains and touch everything. Brilliant for photos. Also, it’s hilariously ironic that a museum has trains better than those currently in service in the UK.
3. Drink at a train-themed bar in Tokyo
Kiha bar has been painstakingly fitted with everything you would find in a Tokyo subway carriage. That includes adverts, luggage racks, seats, handrails and signs. The bar serves tinned food only, because this is what trains in Japan used to serve. Only now you can get all kinds of amazing restaurant-quality bento boxes and things.
The glass tables are filled with ticket stubs and there’s a wardrobe of fancy dress options. So you can put on train-drivers’ hats and jackets. Is that going a bit far? You won’t think so after some sparkling sake.
4. See the Japanese countryside on a tiny train
This isn’t something many people will have the time nor inclination do during a Japan trip, but it’s one of our favourite memories from our first trip to Japan a few years ago.
We went from Matsumoto to Nechi (a little village in Itoigawa) with our friend. The trains are just single carriages and go through some incredible mountain scenery. You can see Mt. Fuji in the distance and lush greenery, paddy fields and ravines all around. We had the whole train to ourselves when we did it – apart from one confused local.
Also, a notable mention has to go to the Kitakinki Tango railway, a private railway with two spectacular trainlines near Kyoto.
Because it’s Japan, you can do these obscure countryside journeys with relative ease. You might be the only tourist ever seen on some of the smaller lines, but you can bet that all the trains will be on time and all your connections will work.
5. Ride on the Sagano Romantic Train in Kyoto
Alright, the Sagano Romantic Train doesn’t actually take you anywhere useful, but it is so cute. It’s a little red diesel train that trundles you through some beautiful scenery around Kyoto. Ravines, bridges, forests: it’s got the lot. It’s a nice way to spend a couple of hours if you’re seeing the bamboo forest in Arashiyama.
The journey is basically centred around pretty photo opportunities. We went on it after the cherry blossom season, but it would be incredible when they are in bloom. The website even guarantees a very specific 7.3km of pure cherry blossom action in spring.
That’s all for now but we can feel a ‘best train journeys in Japan’ list brewing after our next trip there. Toot toot.
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