Bullet Trains and Beautiful Scenery: Here’s Why Japan is a Dream Destination For Train Loving Families
If there’s one country that’s virtually guaranteed to thrill anyone with even a passing interest in railways and rail travel, it’s Japan. The national pride in its trains is such that there’s even a term densha otaku – ‘train nerd’- for those with a passion for rail travel. Japan’s superfast bullet trains are famous worldwide, luxury sleepers ply some seriously scenic routes, and forget hanging around on drafty platforms waiting for delayed or cancelled trains – even regular rail services in Japan run punctually every.single.time. The country is justifiably proud if its trains, and families in Japan can visit any number of railway-related museums, most of which are designed with younger visitors in mind. We’ve cherry-picked some of the best reasons for train lovers to visit this fascinating country.
TIP: Buy before you fly
To save time, money and hassle, buy a Japan Rail Pass ahead of your trip. Valid for travel on almost all of Japan’s public rail networks (check the website for exceptions), including the bullet trains, the passes are valid for periods of one, two or three weeks, are available only for those living outside Japan, and should be bought online BEFORE arrival in Japan. Leave plenty of time, as you’ll need to wait for an exchange order to arrive by post – once you arrive in Japan, this exchange order can be validated at dedicated exchange offices – most major rail stations in Japan have them, but again, check the website for exceptions.
Faster than a Speeding Bullet
You don’t need to be a rail buff to have heard of Japan’s bullet trains. These ultra-speedy railroad superstars are famous the world over, and can zip families in Japan from one destination to the next in no time flat. As well as being fun to ride, the speedy bullet trains, also known as Shinkansen, reach speeds of up to 320km/hour and are a practical way of cramming a lot of sightseeing into a short trip. Shinkansen trains serve much of the country, from Kagoshima in the south to the island of Hokkaido in the north. There are some notable gaps, but most major tourist sites in Japan have a Shinkansen stop relatively nearby. Some of the most popular routes are from Tokyo to Osaka and Tokyo to Nagano, with the opportunity to hop on and off at cities such as Kyoto and Yokohama. The needle-nosed trains can turn a 10-hour epic intercity journey by regular train into a hop of under three hours, and feel satisfyingly futuristic. If you weren’t a train nerd before coming to Japan, the bullet trains might well be enough to convert you.
Epic Overnight Journeys
Sleeper trains in Japan aren’t just for getting from A to B, they can be fun alternatives to a hotel bed for the night, and a near-essential experience for train fans in Tokyo. At the top luxury end of the spectrum, the ultra-exclusive Shiki-Shima, which launched in 2017 and whose 10 carriages have everything from chandeliers and piano lounges to a kitchen with Michelin-starred chefs. With prices ranging from around $2000-$10,000 per person for 2-4 day itineraries around Eastern Japan, a ride on Shiki-Shima may be more fantasy than reality for most visitors to Japan, but there are plenty of more affordable sleeper car experiences – the good news for visitors on a budget is that the Japan Rail Card is valid on sleeper trains. There are extra charges for beds (as opposed to seats) and for private cabins, but sleeper trains are generally clean, well-staffed and a great way to see the Japanese countryside roll by.
A Whole Heap of Railway Museums to Choose From
The national obsession with trains and train travel means there’s very little chance of train-loving families running out of rainy day options in Japan. The country has more railway-related museums than you could shake a stick at, and these kid-friendly educational establishments are dotted across the country. Aside from those of the capital Tokyo (more on that later), some of the standouts include Kyoto Railway Museum, which has the country’s largest collection of retired railway vehicles, from historic steam trains to super-modern shinkansen, and the forward-looking, SCMaglev Museum and Railway Park, which allows visitors to take a peek at futuristic maglev ‘levitating trains’, as well as being a virtual train conductor on a fun simulator. At the other end of the modernity spectrum, the Usui Pass Railway Culture Village, near the popular tourist destination of Karuizawa in Nagano prefecture, is a hands-on attraction dedicated to the Usui Toge Railway, which was the steepest railway line in Japan during its 1893-1997 lifespan.
Rail travel in Japan can be an opportunity to admire some glorious panoramas and, again, many of these journeys can be made using the yen-stretching Japan Rail Pass The Tokaido Shinkansen line, for example, runs between Tokyo and Kyoto and has terrific views of Mount Fuji. More dramatic still is the Gono Line, which runs from Akita Prefecture to Aomori Prefecture in the far north of Japan, taking in raging seas , inland snowscapes and Mount Iwaki, on a journey that has been hailed as offering some of the best coastal scenery in the world. Luxury Resort Shirakami trains offer an opulent way to see the scenery, but it’s just as incredible when seen from the window of a regular local train (yes you can use your pass!)
Boxout: Ninja Trains
Kids not interested in trains? Throw in the word ‘Ninja’ and see if that changes their mind! The Iga Railway, in Mie Prefecture visits Iga-Ueno village (famed as the birthplace of ninjas), and ninja-themed trains designed by Manga artist Leiji Matsumoto make the 16km trip between Iga-Ueno Station and Kintetsu Iga-Kambe, and families can have fun spotting the ‘ninjas’ hiding out in strategic locations at the stations.
Japan’s capital is a modern metropolis served by speeding bullet trains and a comprehensive metro system, and there are further treats in store for train enthusiasts in the big city.
Visitors can enjoy sake and fusion food with a super-close view of speeding trains at Platinum Fish in Manseibashi. This glass-walled restaurant has undergone various incarnations – until recently it was N3331 (named for a celebratory hand-clapping motion from the Edo era)- and is sandwiched on the site of an old train station platform slap bang in the middle of two fast train lines. Manseibashi Station was open between 1912 and 1943, and many original features have been preserved at this one-of-a-kind restaurant.
Stay in a Stationary Sleeper Train
Fixtures and fittings from a retired sleeper train make for a quirky accommodation experience at Train Hostel Hokutosei. The entire lodging experience – from the reception to the cabin-style dorms and the ‘onboard’ cafe bar – recreates the experience of being aboard one of the popular overnight trains that traveled between Tokyo and Sapporo for nearly 30 years, before being taken out of service in 2015. With dorm beds from around 2,500 yen (around US$23) the hostel welcomes families with children aged 4 and up. For something a bit more luxe, the Tokyo Station Hotel has upmarket,if predictably pricy, lodgings (family rooms from around $400, or 43,000 yen) right next to the Marunouchi South exit of Tokyo Station.
In a country with so many railway museums, it’s no surprise to find a couple in the capital. Beneath the elevated tracks at Kasai Station, on the Tozai Line, the Tokyo Metro Museum is aimed squarely at kids, with tons of hands-on exhibits, but is also an illuminating experience for adults interested in the history of the city and its transport system. The smaller, Japanese-only Tobu Museum right next to Sumida train station, is similarly kid-friendly with plenty of interactive exhibits and visual depictions of Japanese transportation throughout the ages.