Let’s take a trip on a sightseeing train filled with appealing local highlights

Let’s get on a sightseeing train

There are a wide variety of sightseeing trains in Japan from ones with creative interior design to ones that serve meals or even ones in which you can enjoy games and events. Some trains have large windows, seats facing the windows, seats with a table, a shop and even an attendant that provides service and tourist information.

Setouchi Marine View
Inside of the Setouchi Marine View train designed in the image of a ship (Reserved seats)

Many sightseeing trains require an additional fee (such as a limited express ticket and a reserved seat ticket) on top of a train ticket. You can make a reservation at a ticket window of the train station operating the train, travel agencies and travel centers at the airports in Japan. Few sightseeing trains accept reservation from outside Japan, so making reservation after arriving in Japan is more common. When using the Japan Rail Pass, most sightseeing trains on JR lines require no additional fee. When a JR line is extended to the line of other railroad company, the shared section requires a separate fare and an additional fee.

SL Hitoyoshi

If you want to fully experience the fun of sightseeing trains in Japan, the trip in southern Kyushu where you can catch 3 sightseeing trains in a row is recommended. Start by taking a train such as Kyushu Shinkansen and get off at JR Kumamoto Station, then take the “SL Hitoyoshi” to continue your trip in a locomotive full of retro atmosphere. Travel south to Hitoyoshi, enjoying the scenery of the fast-flowing Kumagawa River.

Isaburo and Hayato no Kaze
Isaburo (left) and Hayato no Kaze (right)
Switchbacks
Switchbacks and loop lines of the Isaburo

Head to Yoshimatsu from JR Hitoyoshi Station on a train named “Isaburo/Shinpei”. It runs on a loop line that goes around the foot of a mountain, operates switchbacks (repeating moving forward and backward on the zigzag railroad in order to go up a steep slope) and gets over the mountain. You can get a full view of the Kirishima mountain range from the windows. Catch a limited express train named “Hayato no Kaze” with a deep black body from JR Yoshimatsu Station. When you start seeing grand Sakurajima Island over the ocean, the train is only a few minutes away from JR Kagoshima -Chuo Station. This half-day trip on a sightseeing train lets you fully enjoy the beautiful scenery as well as the atmosphere of the areas along the lines.

Southern Kyushu, a trip on 3 sightseeing trains

Operating season: “SL Hitoyoshi”— Mainly Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays in March to November, holidays, spring and summer breaks.
“Isaburo/Shinpei” and “Hayato no Kaze”— Throughout the year.
Check their websites for the details on operating days.

Timetable: [Kumamoto Station] Depart 9:45 am – Arrive 12:09 pm [Hitoyoshi Station] Depart 1:22 pm – Arrive 2:48 pm [Yoshimatsu Station] Depart 3:01 pm – Arrive 4:44 pm [Kagoshima-Chuo Station]

Fare: All accept Japan Rail Pass and JR Kyushu Rail Pass (All Kyushu Area)

Reservation: Japan Rail Pass is available at the ticket window of JR stations in Japan and JR Kyushu Rail Pass is available at the ticket window of JR Kyushu stations. Reservation is crucial for the “SL Hitoyoshi” as all seats are assigned and “Isaburo/Shinpei” has few non-reserved seats.

Run through the spectacular view of nature

Kurobe Gorge train

In Japan, you can enjoy the scenery full of variety such as mountainous regions and areas along the coast. A train that lets you enjoy a thrilling experience as well as a spectacular view of a rugged gorge is the Torokko Electric Railway (a trolley train) that runs through Kurobe Gorge. You can see the gorge up close from the train with no glass windows.

Kurobe Gorge Train “Torokko Electric Railway”

A: Unazuki – Keyakidaira

B: Late April to November 30

C: 1,710 yen, 860 yen for under age 12, free for under age 6

D: Ticket window in Unazuki Station, Phone/Fax, Major travel agencies in Japan

A: Operating sections B: Operating period C: One-way fare (Section A) D: How to purchase a ticket (each information is as of February, 2016)

Sagano Romantic Train

Sagano Romantic Train is also popular. It runs from Torokko Saga Station next to JR Saga Arashiyama Station, located in the western part of Kyoto, a popular tourist spot. This train runs along the Hozukyo Gorge letting you enjoy cherry blossoms in spring, fresh green in early summer and autumn foliage in autumn.

Sagano Romantic Train “Torokko train”

A: Torokko Saga – Torokko Kameoka

B: March to December (Does not operate occasionally on Wednesdays)

C: 620 yen, 310 yen for under age 12

D: Ticket window in the stations of Sagano Romantic Train, Ticket window in the major stations of JR West, Major travel agencies in Japan

A: Operating sections B: Operating period C: One-way fare (Section A) D: How to purchase a ticket (each information is as of February, 2016)

Setouchi Marine View

There are many islands on the Seto Inland Sea between the southwest part of Honshu and Shikoku and it is relaxing to see them from a train running along the coast. Take the “Setouchi Marine View” train that runs from JR Hiroshima Station via Kure, a historic port town, to JR Mihara Station, and enjoy the view of the Seto Inland Sea.

JR West “Setouchi Marine View”

A: Hiroshima – Mihara

B: Saturdays, Sundays and holidays

C: A basic fare ticket is 1,320 yen and 520 yen (260 yen for under age 12) is required for a reserved seat ticket. Accepts Japan Rail Pass.

D: Ticket window in major stations of JR West, Major travel agencies in Japan

A: Operating sections B: Operating period C: One-way fare (Section A) D: How to purchase a ticket (each information is as of February, 2016)

Fujisan Express (C)Design and Illustration by Eiji Mitooka + Don Design Associates
Fujisan Express (C)Design and Illustration by Eiji Mitooka + Don Design Associates

The train line that runs closest to Mt. Fuji is Fujikyuko Line. In “Fujisan Express” that starts running after April, 2016, you can see noble Mt. Fuji up close while dining in the hotel-like car with wooden interior.

Fujikyu Railway “Fujisan Express”

A: Otsuki – Kawaguchiko

B: All year round

C: To be determined

D: To be determined

A: Operating sections B: Operating period C: One-way fare (Section A) D: How to purchase a ticket (each information is as of February, 2016)

Enjoy with kids!

Kawane-ji-go SL
The Thomas-go
(c)2016 Gullane (Thomas) Limited.

There are also many sightseeing trains that kids can enjoy in Japan. Oigawa Railway in Shizuoka Prefecture operates a steam locomotive almost all year round. It usually consists of a retro locomotive and passenger cars, but steam locomotives that imitate Thomas & Friends also started to run recently. Several locomotives wait in a row at Senzu Station, which is the last stop, and the station is very crowded and lively with families taking photos.

Oigawa Railway “Kawane-ji-go SL” “The Thomas-go”

A: Shin-Kanaya – Senzu

B: Kawane-ji-go SL/ All year round (Does not operate occasionally in winter), The Thomas-go/ for 77days from June 11 to October 10

C: Kawane-ji-go SL/ 2,610 yen, 1,310 yen for under age 12 The Thomas-go/ To be determined in 2016

D: Ticket window in JR Kanaya Station and SL Center ticket window in front of Shin-Kanaya Station of Oigawa Railway

A: Operating sections B: Operating period C: One-way fare (Section A) D: How to purchase a ticket (each information is as of February, 2016)

Anpanman Train
Anpanman seats in the first car of new Anpanman Train that is running on and after March 26, 2016 (image) (C)Takashi Yanase/Froebel-kan,TMS,NTV

One of the most popular animation among Japanese children is “Soreike! Anpanman”. Trains covered with the characters of Anpanman are actively running on train in Shikoku, the hometown of the author. In JR Yosan Line, on and after March 26, 2016, a new “Anpanman Train” comes out. A design concept is the “Rainbow Bridge” and you can enjoy the reserved ” Ampanman seats”(16 seats only) in the first car, which inside is painted with colorful reinbow.

JR Shikoku Railway “Yosan Line 8000 series Anpanman Train”

A: Okayama, Takamatsu – Matsuyama (JR Honshibisan and Yosan Lines)

B: All year round (Does not operate occasionally)

C: Reserved seat of an ordinary car [usual time] Okayama – Matsuyama 6,830 yen (3,410 yen), Takamatsu – Matsuyama 6,190 yen (3,090 yen), Okayama – Nakamura 8,570 yen (4,290 yen) Shown in ( ) is for under age 12

D: Ticket window in major JR Shikoku Railway stations

A: Operating sections B: Operating period C: One-way fare (Section A) D: How to purchase a ticket (each information is as of February, 2016)

Tama the Second, a stationmaster
Tama Train
(C)DESIGN BY EIJI MITOOKA+DON DESIGN ASSOCIATES

There are several stations in Japan where an animal works as a stationmaster and one of the most famous is Kishi Station of Wakayama Electric Railway. A cat stationmaster “Tama” became a big star and was even introduced on TV shows overseas. Now “Tama the Second” has taken up the post and welcomes passengers. Wakayama Electric Railway operates unique trains including “Tama Train” which has heaps of Tama character painted on the body, “Omocha (toy) Train” that has Gacha Gacha (gashapon) in the train and “Ichigo (strawberry) Train” designed with a motif of strawberries, which is a local specialty.

Wakayama Electric Railway “Tama Train” “Omocha Train” “Ichigo Train”

A: Wakayama – Kishi

B: All year round

C: 370 yen, 190 yen for under age 12 After April, 2016, 400yen, 200 yen for under age 12

D: Ticket window in Wakayama Electric Railway stations

A: Operating sections B: Operating period C: One-way fare (Section A) D: How to purchase a ticket (each information is as of February, 2016)

As you can see, there are many unique sightseeing trains in Japan. If you find a train you want to try, check the schedule and enjoy a trip you can experience only in Japan.

Written by: Takashi Noda (Travel writer)
Top image: Kurobe Gorge Train Torokko Electric Railway