Greg Cope and Ken Mitchell have been riding Japan’s railways for over 30 years. “When I first started to travel around Japan,” recalls Greg, “I was struck by the fact that Japan not only has one of the most efficient railway systems in the world, but they have myriad types of railways, from new to old, conservative design to outlandish.”
On one of Greg’s succeeding trips back to Japan, he asked his train aficionado friend Ken, who had seen a lot of Japan during a visit in 1967, to come along. “I devised an itinerary…incorporating a variety of different trains. The trip that I had nutted out from the timetable turned out well and I was hooked on Japan’s railway system,” says Ken.
Greg and Ken wanted to share their Japan rail experiences with others, so to achieve this goal they started Trainaway Tours out of Australia in 1998. These guys are living the train otaku dream, so when RocketNews24 started looking into Japan’s best, most scenic railways, we went straight to them for recommendations. From JR lines to small private rails, tourist trains to steam locomotives, let’s look at their picks for the top 10 train trips in Japan.
As we go through their top ten recommendations (in no special order), Greg and Ken will also let us in on what train travel was like back in 1978, and tell us of some of their observations when discovering Japan track by track.
The two Australians, who dress like train conductors when guiding their tours, admitted it was really tough to narrow it down to just 10 railways (they’ve even ridden every line in Hokkaido), so we’ve appended a list of more of their favorites at the end of the article.
1. Gono Line (Akita Prefecture)
Located in northern Honshu, the Gono Line stretches from Akita Prefecture to Aomori and offers views of the Sea of Japan. Greg and Ken recommend trying to get onto the Resort Shirakami–a sightseeing train started in 1997–if you can get a booking. Some of the special trains only run in summer and are heavily booked with locals, but the local train is also good, offering what Greg says is some of the best coastal scenery of any railway in the world.
▼ Stunning views of the Sea of Japan
▼ Some parts of the journey look like you’re going to go straight off the edge into the sea!
▼ The less exciting sections of their trip were filled by live music.
“Japan was like paradise for anyone who is interested in trains, but not only were there trains everywhere, it was a country where life is built around the railway system. That first trip to Japan would change our lives forever.”
2. Tsugaru Line–Aomori
This charming single carriage runs from Goshogawara to Tsugaru Nakazato. It’s essentially the railway time has forgotten about, says Greg. “It’s like being in a different world and reminds us of what a rural railway was once like in Australia. Not too many foreigners ever make it here, but we do.”
“Many tourists think Japan is all Shinkansen, speed and rush, so it’s lovely finding places like this in Japan. We can relate to the slow pace of life in the wilds of northern Honshu.” These small stations are great places to buy local produce, and don’t forget to get the station stamp!
▼ The sole rail car
▼ ”The terminus still has a station-mistress, and it sells straw sandals,” says Greg, “I must get a new pair next time…”
“We really had very little knowledge of Japan. There were no Lonely Planet books then and no internet. I was armed with about 10 words of Japanese. But our understanding of the people really developed through our amazing train journeys. We bumbled our way from one end of the country to the other all on trains – no rail pass then — and it was JNR – Japanese National Railways.”
3. Kurobe Gorge Railway ( Toyama Prefecture)
On a crystal clear day, there’s nothing like the Kurobe Gorge Railway that crosses the Atobiki Bridge and offers expansive views of the Kurobe River and valley. It’s so lush and green, Greg says it’s like going bush-walking without having to leave the train.
▼ Crossing over the Atobiki Bridge
▼ Scenery from the bridge
“Some people fear being in a foreign country and not being able to speak the language and Japan gives you an added ‘fear’ with the writing – kanji, katakana & hiragana. But the best thing is to dive in head first!”
4. Nishikigawa Railway (Yamaguchi Prefecture)
The Nishikigawa is a small private line that connects Kawanishi and Nishikichō Stations, in the town of Iwakuni. Ken says that the railway winds up the valley and follows the Nishiki River, affording excellent views of the valley and river from the comfort of the train. On a fine day, the air is crystal clear.
Well, they certainly have cute carriages!
▼ The Hidamawari
▼ This small private line has a connection to the shinkansen. Don’t you just love Japan?”
▼ The Nishikigawa Seiryu Line
▼ The Nishiki River
“At times it felt like we were the only foreigners in the country. Staying at rural youth hostels we met many Japanese students and the elderly traveling who gave us all the information of where we should go and what we should see.”
5. Ikawa Line (Shizuoka Prefecture)
The Oigawa Railway connects Kanaya with Ikawa and wends through the Japan Alps in an uninhabited part of the prefecture. The railway is a normal branch line from Kanaya to Senzu, but from Senzu changes to an Abt rack section to Ikawa. Abt, named after its Swiss inventor, is a type of cog railway devised in the 1880s that uses a rack and pinion system on very steep sections of railway lines. This is the only one of its kind still operating in Japan.
▼ You can see the rack between the tracks and the Abt symbol on the side of the locomotive.
▼ Great mountain scenery
▼ These small profile carriages are used on the Abt section.
▼ Choo, choo!
“[Japan] was an enormous cultural shock – but the kindness of strangers was unbelievable. The railway system was like our security blanket, we felt warm, secure, and part of the railway family.”
6. Fujikyuko Line (Yamanashi Prefecture)
This line goes from Otsuki to Kawaguchiko. From the name of the line, you can probably guess that it’s a good rail from which to catch views of Mt. Fuji!
▼ Even the trains look like Fuji-san!
▼ Fujikyu 8000 Series–who would have thought a mountain could be so cute?
▼ A rural scene with Mt. Fuji looming in the background.
“There were almost no convenience stores in Japan but there was always a railway kiosk selling cold green tea in a plastic cup and a boiled egg.”
7. Kisuki Line (Shimane Prefecture)
The Kisuki Line runs from Shinji to Bingo in Shimane then on to Ochiai in Hiroshima Prefecture. Through this mountain scenery, the railway executes a zigzag. These days more powerful locomotives have made these trackbacks unnecessary, but in the old days tracks were laid across the mountain in a zigzag so the behemoths could get up the mountain staying as parallel to the mountain as possible, and slowly climb up stopping the train after each segment of the single track to reverse direction.
“The only zigzags left now are on minor branch lines that don’t see a lot of traffic, like the Kisuki Line that only has a few trips a day,” says Ken.
▼ Izumo Sakane Station, from which the rail starts a zigzag up the mountain
▼ Tranquil, rural Japan
▼ You can view the adjacent highway that has a spiral.
“The help that station staff gave us was beyond our expectations, sometimes involving the Station Master – they made us feel like honoured customers even though we had backpacks and wore jeans.”
8. Seto Ohashi Line (Okayama Prefecture)
The Seto Ohashi Line connects Kojima, Okayama with Sakaide, Kagawa on the island of Shikoku. The train traverses the Seto Inland Sea via the 13-kilometer (8-mile) Seto Ohashi Bridge, the world’s longest two-tiered bridge. The cars run on top of the bridge, while the trains use a track below.
▼ The Seto Ohashi Bridge, connecting Honshu and Shikoku, opened in 1988.
▼ View from the carriage.
▼ Time your train ride to coincide with the sun setting over the Seto Inland Sea.
“While traveling on the Shinkansen is always a highlight for anyone’s visit to Japan, we found that most people really enjoyed traveling on small branch lines in the country where generally you can interact with the locals.”
9. Hohi Line (Kumamoto Prefecture)
The Hohi Line connects Kumamoto and Oita Prefectures in Kyushu. The line passes through the mountainous center of the island, through a zigzag and past the steaming cone of the Mt. Aso volcano.
▼ The Trans-Kyushu Express at Beppu
▼ Mt. Aso hides behind clouds in the background.
▼ Rural Kyushu and rice field views from the railway.
“Today we think of Japan in modern terms with it impressive technology, so finding things from the past still being practiced is great.”
10. Take a Steam Locomotive ride (SL Trains)
There are also several SL trains in Japan which are a great opportunity to experience the nostalgic days of steam engine travel.
▼ SL is what the Japanese call a Steam Locomotive.
▼ Clouds of smoke billow out of the locomotive as it wends its way through the mountains.
“Something odd happens to the Japanese people on a steam train trip–they are much more relaxed and are out to enjoy themselves.”
11. Specialty Trains
Greg and Ken always include a ride on one of Japan’s specialty lines on their Trainaway Tours. Japan is well-known for it’s funky trains, which started with the Ichigo Densha (Strawberry Train) in 2006. The most famous is probably the Tama Train at Kishi Station in Wakayama that just lost its feline station master .
But getting a ride can be tricky because some of these trains are seasonal or only operate at special times of the year .
▼ The festive interior of the Omocha Densha (Toy Train)
Ibusuki no Tamatebako is the name of a train based on a magical treasure box featured in the Japanese folk tale “Urashima Taro.” The train also goes by the sobriquet Ibutama.
▼ The Tetsudo Hobby Train in Shikoku is like a rideable museum.
▼ Model trains are displayed inside the Tetsudo Hobby Train.
The Nezumi Otoko, a yokai themed train, starts at Yonago, and ends at Sakaiminato in Tottori Prefecture. Each of the 16 stations on the line has a yokai name and illustrations of these supernatural monsters from Japanese folklore are painted on the trains.
▼ The Nezumi Otoko leaves from platform zero at Yonago station, Tottori.
“Every year we visit Japan we are constantly amazed about the variety of trains and the special trains that are running, we don’t really know of any other place like it. That’s why we keep coming back.”
Also recommended by Trainaway Tours: Takayama Line (Toyama to Gifu) for a journey through the Japan Alps winding along river valleys; Hakone Tozan Line (Hakone Yumoto to Sounzan) for mountain scenery and two zigzags, and Hisatsu Line (Yatsushiro to Yoshimatsu) in Kyushu.
Got a favorite train ride in Japan? Do let us know!
All images © Trainaway Tours unless otherwise noted.