Sunday, October 10, 2021

All Aboard! Celebrating Japan's Unusual Trains

 --Susan, every other Sunday

The first railway in Japan was built in 1872. The single-line track connected Tokyo and Yokohama, and featured an imported British locomotive that ran at a dazzling maximum speed of 32 kph (20 mph).

Like many items imported from the West, trains were enormously popular in Japan, and the idea of travel by rail literally took off running. By 1889, it was possible to travel all the way from Tokyo to Osaka by train--a distance of 515 km. There was one daily departure in each direction, and the trip took 20 hours.

Today, the high-speed shinkansen bound for Osaka (and points beyond) departs from Tokyo station every 30 minutes between 6 a.m. and 9 p.m., and if you board one, you'll disembark in Osaka in a little less than 3 hours' time.

The country is so enamored with rail travel that it's possible to get almost anywhere by train--including some places so rural that the stations are little more than an elevated platform beside the rails. (Some of them, not even covered, though fortunately most of them do offer basic shelter from the elements.)

Semi-rural platform in Hokkaido, near Lake Onuma

At least two kinds of trains run on most standard tracks: local trains, which stop at every station, and express trains, which cost more, but move faster (and generally bypass smaller local stops).

Limited Express Hokuto, in Hokkaido

While many local trains are more utilitarian, and less colorful, in design, there are exceptions--usually either limited-time promotions (like the Pokemon trains in Tohoku, north of Tokyo) or sponsorships (like the "Thomas the Tank Engine" themed trains that run on the FujiQ line to the Fuji Five Lakes region).

Historic trains also usually get special colors and themes, like the brightly colored cars of the Hakone Tozan Railway--which also look delightful in the snow.

Trains on the Hakone Tozan line, near Gora (Hakone area)

The Narita Express offers rapid service between central Tokyo and Narita Airport--the more distant of Tokyo's two major airports. (It stops at other places too, along the way.)

Narita Express

Japan is proud of its history--including the history of its rails--and has several train and railroad-themed museums around the country. The train below is one of the original steam locomotives that traveled the mountainous Kiso valley; it's now on display near Kiso-Fukushima, along the old Nakasendo travel road.

A memory from the days of rail travel in the Kiso Valley

Local trains like the one below are utilitarian "workhorses," moving the majority of the (more than) 18.5 million Japanese people who travel by rail every day.

Local train in Tochigi Prefecture, north of Tokyo

Many trains have decorations painted on the outside to promote the history of, or sites of interest in, the prefectures or regions in which they run.

Express in Wakayama Prefecture painted with historical figures related to the region

More historical scenes on the Wakayama Express

Express trains are often named for regional features too, like the "Stork" pictured below, which runs through Osaka, Kyoto, and Hyogo Prefectures - the latter of which is home to a reintroduced population of endangered Oriental White Storks.

Let's ride the stork!

Preservation of endangered animals, and environmental conservation, are increasingly important issues in Japan--and what better way to raise awareness than a train?

The "Panda Conservation" train in Wakayama Prefecture

Side paintings on the Panda Conservation Train

No post about Japanese trains would be complete without a mention of the biggest, best, and fastest: the shinkansen--often known outside Japan as the "bullet train"--the high-speed rail system that connects all four of Japan's major islands, and makes it possible to travel all the way from Hokkaido in the north to Kyushu in the south--a distance of over 1,900 kilometers--in twelve hours. (Flying is faster, but to travel that far by ground in a single day is pretty impressive.) 

As of October 2021, the fastest shinkansen travels at top speeds of 320 kph in service (and there are plans to introduce a new Alpha-X train, which will travel at 382 kph, in the next few years). 

Shinkansen (look closely) arriving at Odawara Station

Shinkansen are longer than other trains, and travel much faster, so they require much larger stations--usually with passing tracks in the center, so the faster trains can pass through without stopping while other trains are stopped at the station platforms.

A long-nosed beauty pulling into the station

Although all of the high-speed trains are "shinkansen," they're subdivided based on travel speed, number of stops, and rail line. The Nozomi, Hikari, and Kodama shinkansen run along the most heavily traveled Tokaido-Sanyo line, which connects Tokyo with popular destinations like Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe, and Hiroshima. Of the three, the Nozomi is the fastest, and makes the fewest stops--and is one of the few trains that isn't covered by the Japan Rail Pass (which allows foreign visitors to travel for 7 or 14 days without paying for individual fares on every train they use, but requires them to use the slightly slower Hikari and Kodama trains).

This is how baby shinkansen are made...

The fastest shinkansen, called the Hayabusa, runs only to the northern Tohoku region (and to the shinkansen terminus at Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto, on the island of Hokkaido). The engines are so fast and strong that they often couple slower trains to a Hayabusa for the first part of the journey north from Tokyo, and uncouple them at Morioka, where the track splits into a northern line (for Aomori and Hokkaido) and a western line (to Akita).

Railroad tracks in Hokkaido

I've always loved trains, and living in Japan has only made my attachment to them stronger. I can't begin to count the number of hours I've logged on every type of Japanese train--but I can tell you I plan to ride many, many more.

Are you a fan of travel by rail? Would you go out of your way to ride a special one? (I have, and I'll do it again!)


  1. Such a wonderful variety of opportunities! Great post! Thanks, Susan.

  2. I too love the Japanese trains and plan to make good use of them when I travel to Japan next time with my sons. They've sadly somewhat outgrown the Hello Kitty and Pokemon trains, but I think there's still plenty for them to enjoy.

  3. I remember many an early Sunday morning in my childhood when my father would drive the two of us down to a stretch of road running parallel to train tracks along the Allegheny River. He'd wait for a train to come by heading in our direction, then race alongside the engine while I waved wildly at the engineer. He'd inevitably wave back and toot the whistle. To this day nothing is more comforting to me than the sound of a train passing through the night.

    Great post, Susan. Make that ANOTHER great post.