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The allure of Japan’s railway travel

The allure of Japan’s railway travel

For many foreign tourists visiting Japan, travelling by railway is the most convenient and economical way to explore the country, as Japan’s extensive railway network spans almost everywhere a tourist would go, and a plethora of discounted railway passes are available for foreign tourists. In addition to being a mode of transportation, a train ride is a journey in itself, an experience, and a part of travel itineraries that I always look forward to!

 

Not just as a travel destination, many visitors also enjoy Japan’s culture, food, and language. Like many other Singaporeans born in the 90s, I enjoyed watching anime and Japanese dramas on local television when I was younger. When I was in secondary school, I had the opportunity to take a 3rd language as a subject for O-levels and A-levels, and chose Japanese, reasoning that it would be more interesting and useful for me than the other options.

 

All the rail passes and train tickets I’ve used since 2014. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

Fast forward to 2011, I had the privilege to be a part of the Singapore-Tohoku Youth Ambassadors (シンガポール東北親善大使), a volunteer program for the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake organised by JNTO and JCCI, and supported by the Embassy of Japan in Singapore through the JENESYS scheme. Participating in the program stoked a fire and ignited my love for travel to Japan, and since then, I have visited Japan over 40 times in the past 10 years, and have been to all 47 prefectures. This love for travelling to Japan influenced my career choice: despite majoring in engineering, I ended up working in Japan-bound tourism. I say with confidence that when visiting Japan, the best method of travelling is without a doubt by railway, and I believe many of you would also agree!

 

Shinkansen, a symbol of Japanese railway technology

You can’t talk about railway travel in Japan without mentioning shinkansen. Before your first visit to Japan, perhaps “riding the shinkansen” was one of the things on your to-do list, wasn’t it? It was a bit late, but my first shinkansen ride was in 2014, from Hakata to Kumamoto on the Kyushu Shinkansen. The following day, I took another ride from Hakata to Hiroshima, and a few days after, I rode from Hiroshima to Sendai, transferring at Tokyo. That 2014 trip was my first time riding the shinkansen, and my first time utilising the nationwide JR Pass.

 

Clockwise from top left: Kyushu Shinkansen, Joetsu Shinkansen, Akita and Tohoku Shinkansen, Hello Kitty Shinkansen. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

Fast-forward a couple of years, and I have now ridden all of the shinkansen lines in Japan, end-to-end. But no matter how many times I ride it, shinkansen technology never ceases to be impressive. Probably everyone who rides Japan’s bullet trains will be awed by the technology, amenities, and hospitality, won’t they? Clean, comfortable, and spacious, shinkansen trains are a prime example of Japanese innovation, efficiency, and hospitality. It is amazing that shinkansen trains move so rapidly, reaching speeds of up to 320km/h, and yet still move so smoothly such that water doesn’t spill from cups, and standing coins don’t drop!

 

If you’ve ever witnessed the “7-minute miracle” when the shinkansen are cleaned before changing directions, it’s hard not to be in awe. Combined with rotating seats, charging outlets at your feet, and an onboard snack trolley service, for many foreign visitors, a shinkansen ride is a must-try when in Japan.

 

Riding the shinkansen is a breeze with a rail pass. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

Buses may be cheaper, and planes might be faster, but when weighing out the pros and cons, I think many would agree that shinkansen is still the way to go when travelling between regions. You have the freedom to stretch your feet and walk around the train, something you cannot really do on buses or on planes. You don’t need to arrive hours before departure, and you do not need to wait to get your luggage. Best of all, if you have a rail pass, you have unlimited rides!

 

The majesty of nature

Not just the shinkansen, Japan’s local lines also have so much to offer. Japan’s railway network is extensive and well-developed, and most residents and visitors have regular contact with trains in one way or another, so it’s hard to find someone who hates trains. Not just facilitating a mode of transport, railways are stages that express the charms and unique characteristics of the area they run in, especially local lines.

 

View of a sunset over rice fields from a train window. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

To tourists, what makes railway travel in Japan so enjoyable for us? One part is definitely the natural scenery. Riding a train through Japan’s countryside is something I will never get tired of. For one, it lets me experience stunning scenery that I cannot even dream of seeing in Singapore, where there are no mountains, no rice fields, no large rivers, and most of the train lines run underground.

 

View of rice fields and Mount Iwaki from the Resort Shirakami. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

Countryside scenery may seem normal to Japanese people, but coming from Singapore, a country filled with skyscrapers where there are no mountains and the tallest natural landmark is a 163m-high hill, the captivating views of majestic nature—soaring snow-capped mountains, glistening emerald rivers, golden rice fields—are like paintings unfolding before my eyes.

 

Staring at the passing scenery from the train window is one of the joys of railway travel. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

It feels as if time slows down when I look out the train windows to gaze at the vast expanse of nature, feeling rhythm of the train’s gentle rumbling as it chugs along the tracks. Staring at the passing scenery, I get lost in my thoughts and surroundings, and my mind wanders to places it doesn’t usually go to, like pondering about life choices, and wondering about the mysteries of the universe.

 

View from train window along the Ban-etsu West Line and Gono Line. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

Some of my favourite railway lines include the Oito Line (大糸線О̄ito-sen) in Nagano, from which you can enjoy the sight of the soaring mountains of the Northern Alps as you go along the line; the Ban-etsu West Line (磐越西線 Ban’etsu-sai-sen) in Fukushima, where the golden rice fields and view of Mount Bandai turning orange are stunning in autumn; the Iiyama Line (飯山線 Iiyama-sen) in Nagano, where the beautiful Chikuma river flows alongside the railway tracks and heavy snowfall in winter creates a magical wonderland; and the Gono Line (五能線 Gonо̄-sen) in Aomori, where the views of the coastline are unparalleled.

 

The fleeting beauty of seasons

Singapore doesn’t have seasons, and almost every day is a 30ºC, humid, summer day. Japan on the other hand, has four distinct and beautiful seasons.

 

Same place along the Oito Line in different seasons. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

Personally, I feel that one of the joys of travelling to a country with seasons is being able to look at how the same scenery changes in different times of the year. I enjoy visiting the same place multiple times, just to experience the different views in the different seasons.

 

Experience a variety of seasonal views from the train. (Image credit: JR East)

 

No matter how many times I visit Japan, I am always deeply moved by the symphony of colours that each season brings: from the colourful flowers that bloom in spring, to the verdant greenery of fresh new leaves in early summer, to the fiery warm hues of autumn foliage, to the sparkling white snow in winter. What’s even more amazing is being able to see all of these from the comfort of your train seat!

 

Japan’s mesmerising seasonal scenery titillates the senses, and showcases the fleeting beauty of each season. Each season brings a new element to the experience. Other than just scenery to look at, there are also different scents in each season, different seasonal delicacies to savour, different textures to feel, and different sounds to listen to. The changing of seasons constantly reminds me of how amazing Japan’s nature is.

 

Eki-citing train stations

Other than the scenery, Japan’s train stations themselves are captivating as well. While trains bring you from one place to another, train stations are the gateways to your destination. Many might think that train stations are just places where you wait for, board, board and alight from trains, but they are so much more than that.

 

Vineyard at Shiojiri Station’s platform and footbath at Kami-Suwa Station’s platform. (Image credit: JR East / Chie Matsubara & Carissa Loh)

 

Not just a departure or arrival point, train stations in Japan have an equally long history as trains, and some even have unique features, like Shiojiri Station (塩尻駅) which has a functioning vineyard on its platform, or Kami-Suwa Station (上諏訪駅) with ashiyu on its platform!

 

Shimonada Station, a scenic seaside station. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

For nature lovers, seaside stations like Shimonada Station (下灘駅) in Ehime Prefecture and Omigawa Station (青海川駅) in Niigata Prefecture offer unbeatable waterfront views and stunning sunsets. For history-lovers, it’s exciting to visit classic stations like Tоkyo Station (東京駅) or Mojiko Station (門司港駅), which boast magnificent exteriors and have long-standing heritages. I remember the first time I explored Tokyo Station, I spent hours admiring its iconic red brick exterior and intricate domed interior.

 

Whether it’s to marvel at the station exteriors or surrounding scenery, or to enjoy special features only available at a specific station, or to learn about the history and naming of a certain station, train stations are one of the highlights of a railway journey. Train stations in Singapore are mostly functional, and do not really have grand buildings, so seeing 100-year-old train stations, or stations right next to the ocean really excites me and makes me go “Wow!”. In Singapore, our oldest train stations are barely 30 years old, making them babies compared to Japan’s many older train stations.

 

Shop without having to exit the gantry at ekinaka. (Image credit: HAMACHI! / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

 

The wonders of train stations aren’t limited to their exteriors though, you’ll often find more treasures inside the train station buildings, in the form of ekinaka (エキナカ), shopping complexes inside train stations. Being able to find food, go shopping, and buy souvenirs inside the train station, without having to exit the gantries, was very novel to me. In Singapore, all shops at train stations are located after exiting the gantries, so we can’t shop around while waiting for the train to arrive.

 

Dining on trains

What do most travellers look forward to the most when visiting Japan? Definitely the food! Although you can find Japanese food almost everywhere in Singapore, none of these beat the real deal in Japan.

 

Ekiben, one of the highlights of railway travel. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

Savouring an ekiben (駅弁 lunchboxes sold at train stations) while enjoying the passing scenery is one of the greatest delights of rail travel in Japan, don’t you think so? When going on a railway journey, the views are made even better with ekiben. Coming in different shapes and flavours, many ekiben are exclusive to particular regions or stations, featuring locally-produced ingredients or box designs with local motifs.

 

Part of the excitement of going on a railway journey is when you’re selecting your ekiben before boarding the train, contemplating which one you should bring on your trip. Should I take the one that features the region’s specialty fish? Or should I take the one with the cute shinkansen packaging? It’s always a tough decision, but an enjoyable one to make.

 

Dine with a view on scenic restaurant trains. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh and Nguyen Duy Khanh)

 

Singapore is a “fine” city: eating and drinking on trains is prohibited, and doing so will result in a hefty fine. In Japan, other than being able to bring food onboard and eat it, there are even restaurant trains that offer unique experiences. I had the opportunity to ride some restaurant trains in Japan, namely the TOHOKU EMOTION, the KAIRI, and the IZU CRAILE.

 

It was such a treat to enjoy mouth-watering meals made with locally-produced ingredients, and being able to enjoy a good meal while supporting the local farmers at the same time. In addition, these trains also passed by scenic routes, and offered mesmerising views of the sapphire sea right from the comfort of my seat!

 

Other than these, Japan has many more restaurant trains around the country, such as Shinano Railway’s Rokumon train in Nagano, Seibu Railway’s 52 Seats of Happiness in Saitama, Nishitetsu Railway’s Rail Kitchen Chikugo in Fukuoka, or Hisatsu Orange Railway's Orange Shokudo in Kumamoto, all of which I’d love to try someday!

 

One-of-a-kind train vehicles

When embarking on a railway journey, the stars of railway travel are undoubtedly the train vehicles themselves. Rejuvenating hot springs, sumptuous Japanese food made with local ingredients, amazing views of nature right outside the window…you might think that these sound like something you would enjoy at a resort, but I have enjoyed these experiences onboard trains and at train stations in Japan! Over the years I have come to appreciate the many unique sightseeing trains­—trains that ply local lines while offering unforgettable travel experiences—that Japan has.

 

Some sightseeing trains have footbaths, planetariums, musical performances, or even sake-tasting on board. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh & Akio Kobori)

 

Sightseeing trains like JR East’s Joyful Trains and JR Kyushu’s D&S Trains provide tourists with a new way to experience the local specialties of the areas they run on. Some of these trains have interiors that have been painstakingly decorated with one-of-a-kind installations, built around a distinctive theme, while others offer unique experiences.

 

With special features ranging from relaxing footbaths to domed planetariums, from meticulously decorated interiors to on-board musical or storytelling performances, or events like sake-tasting, you might even have a hard time believing that you are on a train! I have been fortunate enough to have ridden most of JR East’s Joyful Trains, and have written about them in previous articles. The condensed summary can be found here, and in it are links to the more detailed, individual articles.

 

Toreiyu Tsubasa, a footbath bullet train. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

Many foreign visitors look forward to enjoying Japan’s relaxing and rejuvenating hot springs. I especially love soaking in outdoor hot springs during winter, when the cool winter breeze contrasts with the warm hot spring waters, creating a magical atmosphere.

 

As a huge fan of hot springs, I was blown away when I first rode the Toreiyu Tsubasa, a bullet train with ashiyu on board. This train’s highlight is the ashiyu car, which features bright red tubs and wooden décor. For just ¥450, you can use the ashiyu for 15 minutes, and even get a mini towel and bag as a souvenir, just like the ones you use at hot spring resorts! The ashiyu face the windows, from which you can gaze at Yamagata’s countryside scenery: from bright greens in summer, to golden yellows in autumn, to frosty snow-covered fields in winter.

 

Clockwise from top: wooden interiors of the Tango AKA-MATSU, Kawasemi Yamasemi, and A-TRAIN. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

Personally, I really love wooden details in the interior of trains. Since riding the Tango AKA-MATSU train, I’ve become a huge fan of Mitooka Eiji’s works, and most recently rode the A-TRAIN and the Kawasemi Yamasemi, other trains which he also designed.

 

Targeted at adults, the A-TRAIN runs on the Amakusa Misumi Line (あまくさみすみ線) in Kumamoto, and is decorated with stained glass and dark wood. The A-TRAIN is based on the jazz tune “Take a ride on the A Train”, and during the entire train ride, the background music is just this one song. Featuring beautiful seat fabrics and wooden seats in a variety of configurations, one of the train’s highlights is the A-TRAIN Bar, which serves up a variety of alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks. With its unique atmosphere, it’s sometimes hard to believe that you’re inside a train!

 

The POKÉMON with YOU Train is loved by both adults and children. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

While the A-Train is targeted at adults, there are also sightseeing trains targeting children and families, such as the POKÉMON with YOU Train, which runs on the Ofunato Line in Iwate and Miyagi. But even though it is targeted at children, this train is also popular amongst foreign visitors who grew up watching Pokémon cartoons or playing Pokémon on Gameboy. All the times I rode this train, I saw foreigners who seemed to be Pikachu and Pokémon fans, as seen by the Pokémon designs on their bags, clothes, and accessories.

 

As a self-proclaimed minor railway enthusiast, I get very excited when riding special trains and trying out their special features, like taking a dip in the footbath on the Toreiyu Tsubasa, or tasting sake on the Koshino Shu*Kura, or enjoying a shamisen performance on the Resort Shirakami, or seeing the steam billowing from a steam locomotive train.

 

Doctor Yellow shinkansen, the luxurious Train Suite Shiki-shima, and E4 series double-decker shinkansen. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

But not just sightseeing trains, it’s hard to keep calm when spotting rare trains like the E001 series Train Suite Shiki-shima, a luxury cruise train, or the soon-to-be-retired double-decker E4 series Max shinkansen, or Doctor Yellow, the rare yellow shinkansen used for testing and maintenance. Coming from a country that doesn’t really have trains, it’s always exciting to see the different train vehicles and railway tracks when traveling overseas.

 

Omotenashi: hospitality and service

One thing that left a deep impression on me was the amount of detail and consideration paid to the passengers by the kind staff and volunteers. Most trains in Japan are non-step, and do not have stairs for boarding, making it easier for travellers with luggage. Some shinkansen even have dedicated luggage racks for big luggage, and trains often have conductors who are always ready to help if you have any questions. Some sightseeing trains even have dedicated attendants, who make the train ride more enjoyable.

 

Omotenashi is an unforgettable part of railway travel. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

When riding trains in Japan, it always fills my heart with excitement joy to when I see station staff waving at passing trains, or holding banners that say “Welcome to XXX Station!” or “Have a good trip!!”. Something I won’t forget is the sight of regular people just waving at local trains as the trains pass by their rice fields, or the sight of colourful fishermen flags along the Sanriku Coast when riding the TOHOKU EMOTION.

 

Running like clockwork

Finally, timing is very important when it comes to planning a trip, and is this made easy in Japan as you can count on Japanese trains to be punctual. Running like clockwork, not just shinkansen, but most trains in Japan arrive and depart on time according to the schedule and are rarely late, something that is almost unheard of in other countries.

 

Train timetables are displayed at the stations. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

When I travelled in Europe, it was not uncommon to see “Train delayed” plastered on the signboards. If you have multiple train connections to make, you’d understand what a hassle it is when you miss one train and the rest of your day is affected. Thankfully, this hardly happens in Japan, and railway travel is almost always guaranteed to be on schedule. You can sit back, relax, and enjoy your vacation without having to worry about the logistics.

 

A timetable book. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

Other than being able to rely on the punctuality of trains in Japan, train timetables are very easily available, both online and offline. I always see timetable boards prominently placed on the platforms, and I was shocked to find out that large phonebook-sized train timetables are sold at book stores and trains stations, usually updated monthly. For foreign visitors, we can even check Japan’s train timetables online on websites like HyperDia.

 

In my early 20s when I had limited time and funds to travel, I could spend days planning my trip itineraries (both actual and imaginary) according to the minute, based on train and bus timetables. Looking up train platform layouts for tight connections, or squeezing in some sightseeing and food during long connections, half of the fun of a trip lies in the planning process!

 

Closing

Having never lived, worked, or studied in Japan, I always find it a pleasure to travel to Japan, as it has so many unique things that can’t be experienced anywhere else.

 

To me, railway travel is the best way to explore Japan. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

Since my first time travelling by rail, I have always believed that railway is the best way to explore Japan and discover the amazing things it has to offer. Railway travel in Japan lets us enjoy captivating scenery, interesting train vehicles, top-notch technology, memorable encounters…is there anyone who dislike trains?

 

Unfortunately, declining ridership in non-urban areas has led to the closure of many railway lines. Perhaps the first few times we visit Japan, foreign tourists ride the shinkansen to travel between bigger cities, as we want to travel to many different places. But the more times we visit Japan, the more likely we are to venture into quieter, more countryside areas, and journey along on these local lines which showcase the local charms. I really hope that more and more foreign tourists can discover the joys of the countryside, and take a trip on some of these local lines.

 

Something about railway travel is that the more you ride trains, the more you fall in love with them. While waiting for travel restrictions to be lifted, I believe that many of us will also be yearning and planning for our next adventure to Japan!

 

Getting around

If you are thinking of travelling around Eastern Japan, check out the JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area) and JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area), two rail passes which can save you a lot on rail travel.

 

JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area)

The JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area) and usage area. (Image credit: JR East)

 

If you are visiting the Tohoku Region, check out the JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area), an affordable pass offering unlimited rail travel on JR East lines (including bullet trains) in the valid area for 5 consecutive days at only ¥30,000. You can also make seat reservations for bullet trains, some limited express trains and Joyful Trains online for free, up to 1 month in advance, on the JR-EAST Train Reservation.

 

The JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area) can be used for automatic ticket gates, and foreign passport holders living in Japan are also eligible to use this pass.

 

JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area)

The JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata Area) and usage area. (Image credit: JR East)

 

If you are visiting Nagano or Niigata, check out the JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area), an affordable pass offering unlimited rail travel on JR East lines (including bullet trains) in the area for 5 consecutive days at only ¥27,000. You can also make seat reservations for bullet trains, some limited express trains and Joyful Trains online for free, up to 1 month in advance, on the JR-EAST Train Reservation

 

The JR-EAST Train Reservation. (Image credit: JR East)

 

The JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area) can be used for automatic ticket gates, and foreign passport holders living in Japan are also eligible to use this pass.

 

Header image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh

 

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