All aboard for our railway-themed tribute to the world’s coolest train journeys.
Japan celebrated 150 years of its railway network in 2022, and to mark the occasion, we’re taking a look at its most spectacular railway routes, ranging from a sculpture-filled shinkansen (bullet train) to a cat-themed train. So what are you waiting for?
Top Picks for You
Akasawa Forest Railway
This beautifully restored train chugs along a former logging railroad which weaves through Akasawa Natural Recreational Forest–a protected area where a tangle of walking trails twists through old-growth forest and thick clusters of 300-year-old hinoki Japanese cypress trees. A top tip? If you bag a seat on this train, open the window, and take a deep breath–Japan’s Ministry of the Environment recently named the forest one of the country’s 100 most fragrant scenic areas.
Akita Nairiku Line
Love a four-legged friend? You’ll love the dog-themed Akita Nairiku Line, which pays tribute to Akitas, the popular Japanese dog breed. Pictures of Akitas adorn the interior of carriages, although the scenery you’ll pass through is pretty spectacular, too. Highlights of the 58-mile route include Nishiki Town, which is surrounded by vibrant fields of hot pink dogtooth violets, the towering backdrop of Mt. Moriyoshi, the thick swathes of Mongolian oak trees, and the endless paddy fields surrounding Kamihinokinai Station. This forested region is especially popular in autumn, and if you’re a keen photographer, it’s worth noting that the best views are from the railway bridge which crosses the Omata River.
This 83-mile route connects the historic city of Aizu-Wakamatsu with the rural landscapes of the Oku-Aizu valley area, and the regular stops mean there are endless opportunities to disembark and explore different sections. The most spectacular ones include the stretch, which passes the gorgeously ornate Tsurugajo Castle, and Yanaizu, with its hillside temple and rainbow-hued forests. If you’ve got time to spare, consider disembarking at the Aizu-Yanaizu Station–it takes just a few minutes to walk to the fantastic Kiyoshi Saito Art Museum, and at the workshop next door, you’ll be able to make your own Akabeko–a papier-mâché cow which is the symbol of the region.
Kurobe Gorge Railway
This short but sweet, privately operated railway shadows the banks of Toyama’s Kurobe River. It was originally built to ferry supplies to the construction site of the Kurobe Dam, completed in 1963. Today, it’s one of Japan’s most popular railway routes, and passengers flock here to trundle through the country’s deepest V-shaped gorge. Highlights of the two-hour journey include the cherry-red Shin-Yamabiko Bridge and the views of the Sarutobikyo Gorge–a designated Special Place of Scenic Beauty and Special Natural Monument. The route finishes in Keyakidaira, where you’ll find the riverside Babadani onsen–a great place to soothe away any train-related aches and pains.
Takamatsu-Kotohira Electric Railroad Co.
This railroad, which dates back to the early 1900s, includes three lines that connect Takamatsu city with nearby destinations. The ancient carriages, donated by various now-defunct Japanese railroad companies, are meticulously maintained, and if you’re lucky enough to get a look inside the railroad’s workshop near Busshozan Station, you’ll see enormous collections of handmade tools, many of which were made specifically for certain carriages. Original features on the trains include hat hooks and wire luggage racks, and limited-edition exterior paint jobs are regularly rolled out. In early 2022, the railroad paid tribute to the Ukrainian train drivers ferrying victims of the war to safety by giving one of its trains a blue and yellow paint job and adorning a carriage with the words “We stand with you.”
Seven Stars in Kyushu
Thought the Orient Express was posh? Take a look at the Seven Stars in Kyushu trains, which travel around Kyushu Island and are designed to showcase the talents of Japan’s finest craftsmen and women. Each train carries just 30 passengers in seven carriages, all of which have writing desks, cypress wood-paneled bathrooms, and butler service. And then there’s the food–dishes available onboard include Yobuko squid, tiger prawns, Kagoshima caviar, and wine-fed wagyu beef. The downside? Fares start at around $1,800 for a two-day journey.
Okuizumo Orochi Train
There are just two cars on the Okuizumo Orochi, a sightseeing train that travels between Kisuki and Bingo-Ochiai on Shimane Prefecture’s JR Kisuki Line. The route is another one that is most popular in autumn when passengers come here to enjoy the autumn foliage of the mountainous Okuizumo region. The train, famous for its beautiful blue-and-white paint job, traverses several switchbacks (the most famous of which is the Okuizumo Orochi Loop), and the carriages have been designed to make the most of the view–there’s no glass in the huge windows, and the train’s slow speed means plenty of time to line up the perfect shot.
Wakayama Electric Railway Kishigawa Line
What’s not to love about a cat-themed train? In Japan, cats were often kept by stationmasters for their rat-catching abilities, although this approach was taken to extremes at the Wakayama Electric Railway Kishigawa Line’s Kishi Station, where a cat known as Tama was appointed stationmaster in 2007. A few years later, a makeover of the train station involved the construction of a cat-shaped roof, and Tama was named Acting President of Wakayama Electric Railway in 2013. Sadly, Tama headed to the train station in the sky in 2015, but her legacy lives on–she’s got her very own shrine on the station platform, and several of the railway’s trains have been given cat-themed paint jobs in her memory.
Finally, a blast from the past. Often referred to as the world’s fastest art gallery, the Genbi Shinkansen, which retired in late 2020, made the average Amtrak train look rather boring. Passengers who stepped on board found an interior designed by some of Japan’s top artists, along with a (rather stylish) playroom and café. The most sought-after spots were the sofa-style seats designed to ensure passengers make the most of the artwork which fills the train, and exhibition spaces dotted throughout the carriages were filled with paintings, drawings, and sculptures. And if you were wondering about the name? kanji gen (現), means “contemporary,” and bi (美), “beauty.”