Sunday, January 29, 2023

Trains, Wonderful Trains....

 --Susan, every other Sunday

I've always loved trains. There's something about the nature of travel by rail that slows you down, (while simultaneously speeding you up as you miss the traffic). I didn't have many chances to ride on trains while living in the States, but since coming to Japan, I'm making up for lost time.

Most people have heard of Japan's ultra-high speed shinkansen--the "bullet trains" that have impressed the world for decades--and the crowded Tokyo metro trains that carry millions of people to and from work and play on a daily basis.

But these don't even scratch the surface . . . from tiny, one-car rural trains to the fanciful "Joyful Trains," sightseeing trains, and even trains dedicated to eating local specialties "on the move," Japan is a country that loves its rails--and there's a lot of rail to love.  

Today I thought I'd share a few of the ones I've ridden during the past few years:

The AnPanMan train in Shikoku features characters from the popular children's anime (called AnPanMan), whose heads and bodies are made of different types of special bread.

Here comes the AnPanMan express!

Anpan is a round bread filled with adzuki bean paste (called "an" in Japanese). Anpanman is enormously popular with Japanese children - and while riding this train, I saw more than a dozen little kids standing near various crossings, waving to the train as we passed by.

Anpanman and friends

I may not have grown up on a diet of anpan(man), either real or on TV, but I loved this train. Even the memory makes me happy.

More anpanman ...

There are dozens of "character trains" like this around Japan, featuring everything from Thomas the Tank Engine to Pikachu, Hello Kitty, and many more. 

Specialty food trains are also popular. One of the leading candidates is actually close to home: the FujiView Sweets Express, which runs on the FujiQ railway to Kawaguchiko Station in the Fuji Five Lakes district.
The Fujiview Sweets Express, living up to its name

While the last three cars always operate as a standard train, and don't require reservations, on weekends the first car becomes the "Sweets Express"--a reservation-only experience that includes incredible views (including Mt. Fuji, in good weather) and a special dessert menu that changes seasonally. 

Car 1 - the sweets car

Car 1 - all aboard for dessert...

Instead of standard seating, the inside is set up like a cafe; when you board, the staff take you to your assigned seat or table. The huge windows make for amazing views.

My seat!

I've ridden twice - once in the summer and once in the winter. I'll definitely go again, too. 

Winter sweets: chocolate mousse "Fuji" and raspberry-chocolate eclair "sweets express"

Dessert with a view

No post about trains in Japan would be complete without a shinkansen - the fastest of which is currently the Hayabusa (the Japanese word for peregrine falcon) that runs on the Tohoku Shinkansen lines, north of Tokyo.

Hello, Hayabusa!

For rapid travel one step down from the shinkansen, Japan has a lot of futuristic-looking express trains, which cover distances much faster than standard trains, though not quite at the shinkansen's 150+MPH speed. They also look like transformers come to life: 

The real-life mandalorian...

When heading north from Tokyo, you may get to ride a conjoined shinkansen, like the one below. The red train (in front) is a "slower" shinkansen, bound for Akita Prefecture, while the sleek green machine is a Hayabusa bound for Hokkaido (the northernmost terminus of the shinkansen lines). From Tokyo Station to Morioka Station (about two hours north of Tokyo), the trains are joined together, to take advantage of the Hayabusa's powerful engines. At Morioka they uncouple; the red train heads west to Akita, while the Hayabusa keeps racing north alone.  

This is where baby trains come from.

I've even ridden fancy trains without leaving Tokyo. The sleek N'Ex runs north to south through Tokyo, with its northernmost end at Narita Airport (N'Ex means Narita Express). Like many Japanese express trains, all of its seats are reserved, and you need a designated seat ticket to get on board. 

All aboard the Narita Express

Japan even has a number of historic trains still in operation - or, like the one below, on display at museums and parks near the tracks where they used to run. I haven't ridden any of the old steam engines yet, but it's high on my list.

A steam locomotive on the historic Kiso Road

The workhorses of Japanese rail remain the little local trains, which usually have between 1 and 3 cars, depending on the needs of the communities where they run.

The local Tobu train, at Ryuokyo, Tochigi Prefecture

Sightseeing trains are gaining popularity. While some people ride them purely for transport purposes, the rail companies advertise special trains like the Saphir Odoriko below as a destination in and of themselves.  

Saphir Odoriko, Izu

And they're not wrong. The Saphir runs along the coast between Tokyo and the southern tip of the Izu Peninsula, about 3 hours from Tokyo. All of the cars have a view of the ocean, and it's a lovely way to spend a relaxing afternoon.

Still other trains feature exterior "wrap" designs intended to draw attention to special aspects of the area in which they run, or local history or culture. 

Wakayama History on a train

The traditional samurai images on this train in Wakayama prefecture are designed to share a little about the history of the region, and inspire interest in travel to local historical sites. 

In the last few years, Japan has increased its focus on sustainability (always an important part of Japanese culture, but now being taken to a more global level). And yep, it's made its way to the trains as well, with the Sustainable Smile Panda, a special train in Wakayama Prefecture that hopefully makes riders think about conservation of animals and the environment. 

Sustainable Smile Panda

In addition to the cute design, signs inside the train remind riders about the importance of conservation and sustainability, and explain that the train is using prototype engines that reduce emissions, conserve fuel, and use alternative fuels; the hope is that this technology will spread throughout Japan in the years to come. 

Don't look now, but I think they're watching us.

In case you hadn't noticed, it's also really, really cute.

Pandas in Wakayama

A lot of the special trains I've ridden to date were happy accidents, but I like them so much that I'm turning into a nori-tetsu (乗り鉄) - the Japanese term for a train enthusiast who enjoys riding trains (as opposed to a model train collector). In the years to come, I plan to ride as many special trains as possible - and I promise I'll take you along, both on my own blog and here at MIE!

All aboard!!

So... are you a train enthusiast too? Or would you rather not be ridden out of town on a rail?


  1. I loved the train travel on a short visit to Japan several years ago. I'd love to do that again!

  2. SO JEALOUS. But then again, in NYC there's the Long Island Railroad, Metro North and the good ole Subway System. Arrrrrggghhhh!