Japan is often touted as a utopia for rail travel what with the Shinkansen’s soaring speed and the always-on-time local trains. Sometimes, though, it’s not about getting there as fast as possible. Sometimes, it’s about what you experience along the way. We’ve gathered four train trips around Japan that are all about the atmosphere inside, and the scenic beauty outside.
Takachiho Amaterasu Railway’s “Super Carts”
Best for: (Mild) thrillseekers
Where: Takachiho, Miyazaki Prefecture
Brace yourself for a thrilling death-defying adventure! Hop on an open-top train across a 105-meter high, 352.5-meter long railway bridge (pictured top) for panoramic views of Miyazaki’s beautiful Takachiho’s sweeping countryside on the Grand Super Cart. If that doesn’t sound scary enough, the bottom of the passenger car has a glass bottom – perfect for seeing exactly how far the drop is to the ravine below. But don’t worry; it’s not that bad. The cart only travels about 15 kilometers an hour – slow enough to get some great shots of the valley. If heights aren’t your thing, there are many other attractions: try test-driving a real diesel train car, inspecting a train garage, and riding a vintage maintenance handcar. Note: reservations are required for the train driving experience.
More info: amaterasu-railway.jp
Watarase Railway’s “Torokko” Sightseeing Trains
Best for: Retro enthusiasts
Where: Gunma and Tochigi Prefectures
Connecting World Heritage-listed Nikko in Tochigi to silk and textile mecca Kiryu in Gunma, this 44.1-kilometer route stops at 17 stations along the way. Take a ride on the retro Torokko Watarase Keikoku or Torokko Wasshi trains for sweeping views of Watarase Gorge, which is stunning in all seasons. If you’re lucky enough to catch a ride on Torokko Watarase Keikoku number three or four, you’ll be in for a treat as the train goes through a tunnel between Godo and Sori stations – the ceiling is lit up to look like a starry night sky. If you need a break, get off at Mizunuma Station: they have a day trip onsen facility to soak in. Bentos are available for purchase along the route, but it may be better to call and reserve one in advance. Note: the trains don’t run daily. Also, photographers should make sure to book a seat in one of the windowless cars to avoid window glare.
More info: watetsu.com
Iga Railway’s “Ninja” Trains
Best for: 007 wannabes
Where: Mie Prefecture
For the least stealthy way of visiting Iga-Ueno, home to descendants of real-life ninja, hop on one of the ninja trains on Iga Railway. There are three trains dedicated to these masters of disguise – they come in pink, blue, and green, and were designed by Leiji Matsumoto, the manga artist famous for Galaxy Express 999 and many other works. The green mokuiku (tree growing) train is especially popular as the interior features wood grown and produced in Mie Prefecture. The route takes you from Iga-Kambe Station to Ueno-shi Station, where several ninjas lurk in the corners – can you find them all?
More info: igatetsu.co.jp
Sagano Scenic Railway’s “Romantic” Train
Best for: Sentimental sightseers
Where: Kyoto Prefecture
For the best view of the Arashiyama area in Kyoto, hop aboard the Sagano Romantic Train, a retrofitted freight train with a diesel locomotive. It runs along the Hozugawa River Ravine, offering breathtaking views of Kyoto’s scenic nature without having to fight through the crowds of tourists. It runs on a 7.3-kilometer track, which takes about 25 minutes from one end to the other, including when the train slows down at especially scenic spots for photo snapping. There are stops between the end stations where you can get off and explore – Arashiyama Torokko Station lets you off just short of the famous bamboo forest, while Hozukyo Torroko Station has easy access to a number of hiking trails near the river. Note: Passengers are free to disembark at any point of the journey, but bear in mind your ticket will become invalid once you get off. The trains don’t run in winter, or on Wednesdays.
More info: sagano-kanko.co.jp/en/