10 Unique Trains You Can Ride In Japan, From Luxury Trains to a Pokemon Train and More!
Your long-awaited trip in Japan is finally upon you, and you are understandably anxious to spend every moment of your journey wisely. Thankfully, Japan offers a wide array of trains which showcase different facets of its rich and colorful culture. Use these ten trains - as unique as they are chock-full of fun and adventure - to travel around Japan and have the time of your life!
Jan 06 2020 (Apr 06 2021)
1. Genbi Shinkansen
If you decide to travel in Niigata, you should board the Genbi Shinkansen - a bullet train cleverly converted into an art train by JR East. The facade itself makes a striking impression as it's beautifully adorned with spectacular photographs of the Nagaoka Fireworks Festival in Niigata. Bring your children on board this artistic marvel!
Inside this train, you can get up close and personal with fascinating animations and installations that are specially created by influential artists. Sit back and enjoy the tranquil atmosphere created by the art-splattered lounge area. What's more, there is a playroom where your children can play and engage directly with the interactive exhibits and develop their aesthetic sensibility. What better way to let your kids entertain themselves for a bit while you go and savor a nice cup of Tsubame Coffee, a specialty product of Niigata?
Indeed, the Genbi Shinkansen is perfect for nurturing the art connoisseur within you, young or old alike.
To make the most of your time on the Genbi Shinkansen, you can look into buying a JR East Pass (Nagano & Niigata area), which you can use for five days within a two-week span.
Timing-wise, this shinkansen is not scheduled every day, so it is best to check out the JR East website for availability. You can also reserve your seats online on this website.
2. Pokémon with You
Pokémon is an anime and gaming franchise that took the world by storm and needs no introduction. Families and anime devotees will thus be elated to know that they can ride the Pokémon with You train, to capture the feeling of living in Pokémon land! Travelling between the two northern cities of Ichinoseki in Iwate Prefecture and Kesennuma in Miyagi Prefecture, the train was launched to bring some cheer and boost the spirits of the children affected by the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011.
Lean back on the comfy chairs and enjoy how various parts of the carriage are (tastefully!) decorated with lively Pikachu images. Not only that, there's a spacious play area. Children will squeal in delight when they realize they can dash around freely and release their energy in the midst of Pikachu plushies. The announcements are made in character voices too, a delight for all the family!
To board the Pokémon train, make sure to purchase the JR East pass (Tohoku area). This pass can be used for five days within a two-week span, so refer to the JR East website for the timings and schedule. Don't forget to reserve your seats too!
3. Toreiyu Tsubasa
When you have a hectic travel schedule, you long for the chance to relax while travelling from one destination to another. However, train rides can leave some travelers more weary at the end of the journey than when they begin it. Lucky for you, JR East has created a one-of-a-kind train ride that rejuvenates travellers while incorporating unique elements of local culture. It's known as the "Toreiyu Tsubasa" - "Toreiyu" being a classically Japanese portmanteau of "train" and "soleil" ("sun" in French) - and travels between Fukushima and Yamagata. Experience the Toreiyu Tsubasa for yourself!
This shinkansen is noted for two eye-catching, safflower-colored footbaths that you can dip your tired feet in while enjoying the verdant greenery and azure-blue skies. And if that isn't enough to soothe your frazzled nerves, Toreiyu Tsubasa has a comprehensive bar counter where you can partake in homemade Yamagata sake and wine. What a cool way to eat, drink, and be merry!
The JR East Pass (Tohoku area) also allows you to board the Toreiyu Tsubasa. Check out the timings and schedule before making your seat reservation on the JR East website.
4. Sanriku Railroad
Japan's winter scenery is breathtaking, but its unbridled beauty comes with a challenge, namely the intense cold. However, Japanese people adapt to the winter very well with methods like the kotatsu (a table with a heating unit, covered with a quilt). So, if you are travelling in winter, why not embrace this quintessential experience and take a ride on the Sanriku Railroad train between Sakari and Kamaishi in Iwate?
Counter the cold by putting your feet under the kotatsu, and feel the warmth rise up your feet. Add some emotional warmth, too, by striking up a conversation with some of your fellow passengers! And give your tastebuds a treat by tucking into the bento lunches full of Iwate's seasonal ingredients.
Oh, and don't forget to take pictures with the namahage demons. Clad in demonic masks and traditional straw garments, they stomp into your carriage, trying to scare the wits out of you. This inspired touch of Japanese folklore is bound to make your trip even more memorable.
The Sanriku Railroad train does not run on JR lines, so remember to purchase the train tickets directly at Sakari Station. Depending on your itinerary, you can choose to buy either a 1-day free ticket or a one-way ticket with stopovers. The timings of this train service are indicated on the Sanriku Railway website.
Had your fill of sprawling malls and towering skyscrapers, and wish to get a respite from the bustling city life? Or hoping to hone your cultural versatility and get to know the Japanese people on an intimate level? Now you can kill two birds with one stone by riding the Oykot train that runs between Nagano and Tokamachi.
Oykot is actually Tokyo spelled backwards and promises to deliver a relaxing ride. Step into the rustic and chic train interior. Take in the cozy atmosphere evoked by a design that resembles Japanese countryside homes. This calmness is complemented by the gorgeous scenery outside the train. Think rolling hills and lush rice fields and majestic mountains!
If you are up for conversation, the personable Oykot obasan (middle-aged women) attendants will serve up a cosy dose of omotenashi (Japanese hospitality) and enthral you with interesting trivia about their local area.
Excellent news! As with the Genbi Shinkansen, the JR East Nagano Niigata Pass allows you to board the Oykot train. The seat availability for this service can be found along with the timings and schedule on the JR East website.
6. SL Hitoyoshi
Many travellers board trains to view irresistible scenery or get acquainted with local customs. But what is there for people passionate about trains, you may ask? Well, if you are a train geek, you should not miss out on the SL Hitoyoshi train, which is the only steam locomotive operated by JR Kyushu. Get on this train at Kumamoto Station, and enjoy the leisurely journey as it brings you on an idyllic ride along the Kuma River. You will reach Hitoyoshi Station about 2.5 hours later.
Be mesmerised by the thick smoke billowing out of the train and the ear-piercing whistle, which will transport you immediately to the past, to back when steam locomotives were dominant. Truly a multi-sensory experience! To enhance your learning, there is an amazing SL Museum on board, where you can browse through the many books and the historical displays. It's a delightful way to pick up cool nuggets of information about the history of trains in Japan.
Remember to take photographs of your time in the observation cars (Car 1 and Car 3). These comfortable lounges contain chairs made of maple wood and rosewood, which certainly adds to the air of retro nostalgia.
If the SL Hitoyoshi train catches your fancy, you can purchase tickets at any one of JR Kyushu's ticket offices.
As there is only one round trip every day, please be sure to take note of the schedule when you plan your trip!
- Departure time from Kumamoto Station: 9:45 am
- Arrival time at Hitoyoshi Station: 12:09 pm
- Departure time from Hitoyoshi Station: 2:38 pm
- Arrival time at Kumamoto Station: 5:14 pm
7. Tohoku Emotion
Many trains offer lunches that pair together a variety of quality homegrown ingredients. However, for a truly novel experience, budding chefs might want to check out the Tohoku Emotion train - a gourmet train that connects Hachinohe in Aomori to Kuji in Iwate.
The Tohoku Emotion train boasts an open kitchen in Car 2, where you can observe how the chefs practise an “earth-to-table” ethos and infuse traditional techniques into their dishes. This authentic experience will give you insights on why Japanese cuisine is so well regarded around the world. Of course, seeing the chefs pour love into their dishes will make your lunch even more delicious!
Besides filling up your tummy, this train appeals to your artistic sense as well. Marvel at the decor featuring artisanal Tohoku crafts. Aomori kogin sashi embroidery, Iwate kohaku amber illumination and Ogatsu inkstone from Miyagi are just some of the time-cherished crafts showcased here.
Keen to board the Tohoku Emotion train? Online bookings are not possible, so head down to head down to the JR East Travel Service Centers at these five stations, namely Tokyo Station, Shinjuku Station, Ikebukuro Station, Ueno Station and Sendai Station. Details in regards to the timings and schedule can be found on the JR East website.
8. Sagano Romantic Train
When it comes to autumn, truckloads of visitors flock to Kyoto as it is renowned for having some of the most picturesque foliage in Japan. So it's no wonder that Sagano Romantic Train that runs between Arashiyama and Kameoka is so highly sought after. It passes through a ravine with vast untouched forests, so it is super aesthetically pleasing to see all these vivid colors in splendor.
In fact, it is worth your while taking a ride on Sagano Romantic Train more than once since you can behold the beauty of sakura and admire the lush greenery in spring and summer respectively!
What sets the Sagano Romantic Train apart is that it comes with four enclosed cars (with windows that can be opened) and one fully open car. There are no barriers, so you are one step closer to being nestled in the bosom of Mother Nature. Feeling the wind caress your face and inhaling the crisp fresh air will make this an experience not to be missed.
The early bird catches the worm. As tickets to the Sagano Romantic Train are highly coveted, it will be wise to reserve your tickets in advance on the JR West website. Head over to the Sagano Scenic Railway website to check out the timings and schedule now!
9. High Rail 1375
Calling all night owls and astronomy buffs: engage your nocturnal senses by taking the High Rail 1375 train, which runs on the Koumi line through Nagano. As its name suggests, this train will ascend up to a maximum height of 1375 meters, which gives you the perfect opportunity to admire a postcard-worthy, panoramic view of the mountainous terrain.
An adrenaline-pumping adventure awaits you: the High Rail 1375 will stop at Nabeyama Station for an hour, where you alight and take a soul-stirring stargazing tour with a knowledgeable local guide. Stare in awe at the fantabulous starry sky and try to identify the constellations. Who knows, you may even catch a shooting star or two! Continue this magical ride when you reboard the train and proceed to the in-house planetarium to do more star-gazing.
As with other trains offered by JR East, you can buy a JR East pass (Nagano & Niigata area) and make your reservations at the JR East website itself. The website also provides information regarding the timings and schedule pertaining to the High Rail 1375 train.
10. Twilight Express Mizukaze
There’s retro nostalgia, and then there’s luxury nostalgia. What do we mean by that? Ride JR West's Twilight Express Mizukaze and see! Setting off from Kyoto, Twilight Express Mizukaze brings you back to the past with its sleek lightswitch plates depicting traditional scenes. Traditional art pieces also enliven its ten carriages and inform you about Japan’s colorful history.
Such sophistication permeates all parts of the train. Making you feel like you are staying in a high-class hotel, each carriage boasts retractable twin beds that can be compressed into seating during the day, so that you have more personal space. You may also consider staying at its one and only suite. Not only does it come with its private balcony, but it also includes a bathroom with a freestanding bathtub. What an awesome way to soak in the atmospheric past as well as the natural scenery of Western Japan.
As tickets are highly exclusive, you need to submit your application for a ballot and pray hard that your name gets selected! Also, you must be able to read Japanese in order to submit your application on the Twilight Express Mizukaze website. Nonetheless, the next round of applications begins in May 2020 (to secure departure dates for December 2020), so there is plenty of time for you to enlist the help of a Japanese friend.
In short, we have carefully curated a list of attractive trains whose themes run the gamut from art and anime to nostalgia to luxury. (There is also the Hello Kitty Shinkansen in which we have featured separately in this article.) Thus, these trains are not just a great chance for you to immerse and indulge in your interests, but also allow you to meet local people and learn about their distinctive customs. Bon voyage!
Header image: Pisitphol / Shutterstock.com
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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.