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Winter Wonder-ride: 5 most beautiful and scenic winter train lines in Japan

Winter Wonder-ride: 5 most beautiful and scenic winter train lines in Japan

Winter is one of my favourite seasons to ride local lines in Japan, as there's no shortage of breathtaking snowy scenery outside. Fluffy snow blanketing the horizon, trees turned white from frost accumulation, the blue of the sky and the rivers accentuated by the white snow, with snow-capped majestic mountains in the background... Winter transforms the surrounding landscape, turning window views into scenery that looks like it has come straight out of a painting. Plus, you don't need to be afraid of the cold temperatures, as the radiators in the train keep you warm and toasty while you enjoy the scenery. 


In this article, we'll take a look at five of Japan's local train lines that offer spectacularly scenic snowy views. While many of them are located in countryside areas, they are well worth the journey if you are seeking majestic and serene winter views!


① Iiyama Line (飯山線), Nagano Prefecture

The Oykot train running along the Iiyama Line in winter. (Image credit: JR East)


First, let’s start with the southernmost line on our list, JR East’s Iiyama Line in Nagano Prefecture (長野県). My personal favourite prefecture, Nagano is one Japan’s most mountainous prefectures, with the country’s highest average elevation. The Iiyama Line runs in the northern part of Nagano, which receives some of the country’s heaviest snowfall. So it's no surprise that some of Nagano's best ski resorts, such as Shiga Kogen (志賀高原) and Nozawa Onsen (野沢温泉), can be accessed from the Iiyama Line.


View from the train window along the Iiyama Line. (Image credit: Carissa Loh)


Along its journey, the Iiyama Line traverses the idyllic Nagano countryside, and you will be treated to the romantic scenery of fields being blanketed in white powder snow, with the emerald-coloured Chikuma River (千曲川 Chikuma-gawa) running alongside.


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Station with the highest recorded snowfall: Morimiyanohara Station. (Image credit: Carissa Loh)


Did you know? Morimiyanohara Station (森宮野原駅) on the Iiyama Line has the honour of being the train station that received the highest ever recorded snowfall, a whopping 7.85m recorded on 12 February 1945! At the station, you'll see a monument marking this height and record.

Tadami Line (只見線), Fukushima Prefecture

The Tadami Line is scenic at every turn. (Image credit: photoAC)


Known to be breathtakingly scenic in all seasons, JR East’s Tadami Line in the Aizu region of Western Fukushima Prefecture (福島県) offers plenty of picturesque sights that are hard to beat. The line connects the Aizu region with Niigata Prefecture’s Uonuma City. Personally, I find winter to be the most captivating season of all, as the snow truly transforms the landscape, making it even more magical. 


Mostly meandering along the scenic Tadami River (只見川 Tadami-gawa), the Tadami Line crosses numerous bridges along its route, giving train riders amazing views of the river’s tranquil emerald waters, with frost-covered trees and snow-covered mountains in the distance.  


A train crossing the No.1 Tadami River Bridge in winter. (Image credit: photoAC)


Of the Tadami Line’s many bridges, the No.1 Tadami River Bridge (第一只見川橋梁 Dai-ichi Tadami-gawa Kyōryō) is the most famous of all, with many visitors flocking to its viewpoint, braving slippery stairs and waiting in freezing temperatures just to catch a glimpse of the train crossing the bridge.


Whether you enjoy your trip on the Tadami Line by gazing at the views from the train window or combining it with a visit to a viewpoint, you’re sure to encounter enchanting sceneries that look like they belong in paintings.


Akita Nairiku Line (秋田内陸線), Akita Prefecture

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Akita Nairiku Line in winter. (Image credit: Carissa Loh)


Heading up north, next up is the Akita Nairiku Line in Akita Prefecture (秋田県), a local line that is operated by Akita Nairiku Railway (秋田内陸縦貫鉄道 Akita Nairiku Jūkan Tetsudо̄). “Nairiku" means "inland", and this line winds through the inland region of Akita, providing many fantastic views of Akita’s inland scenery: hills, valleys, rivers, mountains, and more.


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View from the train window as it crosses the Omatagawa Bridge. (Image credit: Carissa Loh)


One of the most scenic sections of the Akita Nairiku Line is when it crosses Omatagawa Bridge (大又川橋梁 О̄matagawa Kyо̄ryо̄), and trains will slow down along the bridge to let passengers enjoy the view. When the weather is clear, you will be treated to the sight of the white, frost-covered trees, the still, mirror-like waters of the Omata River below, and the colourful vehicle bridges. 


④ Senmō Line (釧網本線), Hokkaido Prefecture

The Senmō Line runs along the coast of the Sea of Okhotsk. (Image credit: photoAC)


Crossing over to the Island of Hokkaido (北海道), next up is JR Hokkaido’s Senmō Line, which runs in Eastern Hokkaido. Connecting Kushiro (釧路) and Abashiri (網走), this scenic line offers a multitude of scenic vistas. The most amazing of them all? Between Abashiri Station and Shiretoko-Shari Station (知床斜里駅), the train line runs very close to the sea along the coast of the Sea of Okhotsk (オホーツク海), and during winter, you can see drift ice (流氷 ryūhyō) through the train windows, right from the comfort of your seat! 


Winter-limited sightseeing trains on the Senmō Line. (Image credit: photoAC)


The line also traverses the beautiful Kushiro Wetlands (釧路湿原 Kushiro Shitsugen), known for its red-crowned cranes (丹頂 tanchō). If you’re lucky, you might even be able to get a glimpse of these birds from train window, near Kayanuma Station (茅沼駅).


Only during winter, JR Hokkaido operates two special sightseeing trains on the Senmō Line: the colourful Ryuhyo Monogatari Train (流氷物語号) along the Sea of Okhotsk, and the steam locomotive SL Fuyu-no-Shitsugen Train (SL冬の湿原号) through the Kushiro Wetlands, and I highly recommend catching a ride on them if you can.


⑤ Sōya Line (宗谷本線), Hokkaido Prefecture

A snowy day on the Soya Line. (Image credit: photoAC)


Finally, we end our list with another line in Hokkaido: JR Hokkaido’s Sōya Line, Japan’s northernmost train line. Running between Asahikawa Station (旭川駅) and Wakkanai Station (稚内駅)―the northernmost train station in Japan―a journey on this line in winter gives you endless views of vast expanses of snow. 


Mount Rishiri, as seen from Cape Soya. (Image credit: photoAC)


One of the best views on the line occurs between Bakkai Station (抜海駅) and Minami-Wakkanai Station (南稚内駅). When going in the direction of Wakkanai, as you look out the window on your left, the view opens up, and you get a panoramic view of Mount Rishiri (利尻山 Rishiri-zan)―also known as “Rishiri-Fuji” (利尻富士) due its resemblance to Mount Fuji―floating on the sea. 


The frozen Teshio River (天塩川 Teshio-gawa), which runs parallel to the train line near Teshio-Nakagawa Station (天塩中川駅), is also a special sight to behold. Towards the end of winter, as the frozen river thaws and spring starts to creep in, the unique sight of the melting ice and snow chunks floating down the river is something that can only be enjoyed when traveling by train.


Enjoy winter in Japan!

Enjoy spectacular snowy scenery in winter. (Image credit: photoAC)


With fluffy white snow blanketing the land, creating enchanting winter wonderlands that look like they've popped straight out of a painting, winter is one of my favourite seasons to take a long train ride. Staring at the mesmerising snowy scenery, it's easy to get lost in your thoughts and surroundings. When I look out the train windows to gaze at the scenery, feeling the rhythm of the train’s gentle rumbling as it chugs along the tracks, it feels as if time slows down. Would you like to visit one of Japan’s scenic winter lines?


Header image credit: photoAC


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