Travel Japan By Train: - Bookshelf Memories

Travel Japan By Train:

Ride through Japan on High-Speed Bullets, Scenic Slow Rides, or Luxury Sleepers to Cruise the Lines for Days!

All the main cities in Japan have rail connections. Regular too, and reasonably priced. Unless you plan to travel off-the-beaten-path, it’ll be a smoother experience to travel Japan by rail. That’s because every city is connected, and the best hub to start is Tokyo because that’s the main hub for hopping aboard Japans' famous bullet trains.

Discover Shinkansen (Japanese Bullet Trains)

SHINKANSEN - a Japanese bullet train in the station

Bullet trains are how to zip around Japan fastest. The fastest trains reach speeds up to 200 mph. But, they only stop at main stations. If you aren’t traveling into another major city, there’s another category of semi-fast trains that stop at more stations. Local trains stop in at every station. If you’re traveling into rural Japan, stations in cities become interchanges where you switch to a local train to get where you want to go.

Popular Shinkansen Journeys

  • The Hayabusa runs from Tokyo to Hokkaido.
  • The Komachi runs from Tokyo to Morioka, Akita and Omagari. This is one of the newer, narrower trains and the only ones (currently) requiring reservation in advance.
  • The Nozomi runs from Tokyo to the Shin-Ōsaka Station stopping at major cities including Odawara, which is the gateway to Hakone.
  • The Yamabiko connects Tokyo with Morioka
  • The Tsubasa connects Tokyo to Fukushima and Shinjo.
In total, there are 9 Shinkansen lines. 7 are high-speed, 2 are semi-fast. 

Cruise the Rails Of Japan on Luxurious Sleeper Trains

Asides from commuting, Japan has several cruise trains offering overnight train journeys of of 2 days, 1 night (2D1N) trips to 4 days, 3 nights trips (4D3N). The most luxurious names in the cruise train space are:

Shiki-Shima

Shiki-Shama train at the platform

By Eiichi Kimura | CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The Shiki-Shima is operated by the East Japan Railway Company (JR East). Itineries are overnight to four day rail cruises in the regions of Tohoku, Hokuriku, and Hokkaido. On board, guests are treated to gourmet-dining with the freshest seasonal ingredients.

Twilight Express Mizukaze

The Twilight Express Mizukaze out in the open country

By MaedaAkihiko | CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The Twilight Express Mizukaze is operated by West Japan Railway Company (JR West). Similar to JR East’s Shiki-Shima, JR West offer a similar high-class experience with luxury rail travel, fine dining, and different journeys. The two day, one night (2DN1) excursions are on the Sanyo course that runs from Kyoto to Shimono-seki along the coastline of the Seto Sea. Stops along the route are Osaka, Setonaikai national park, Wake, Onomichi and Miyajima. The Sanin course goes north from Kyoto, stopping at Kinosaki-Onsen, Hagi, Fukawa bay. The longest is the 4D3N rail cruise that covers parts of both courses.

Seven Stars in Kyushu

Front and angled view of the Seven Stars in Kyushu train capturing the panoramic viewing windows

By Rsa | CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

This is the birthplace of Japans’ luxury sleeper trains. The Seven Stars is operated by the Kyushu Railway Company (JR Kyushu). The name is representative of the 7 Prefectures of Kyushu the journey takes you through, and 7 key elements experienced throughout the journey: space, food, service, nature, peace, health, and friendship. Along the way, stops are made letting you experience the local tradition and authentic culture.

Scenic Sightseeing Rail Lines Around Japan

SL Fuyu-no-Shitsugen

Steam on full display from SL Fuyu-no-Shitsugen as it powers through the snowy hillsides

Image Credit: Hokkaido Railway Company

Operating annually in January and February only, this is the perfect chance to take in the scenes of the Kushiro Wetland - Japan's largest marshland. The train is steam powered, and only runs five cars. Seats need to be reserved. Cars 1 and 5 got a makeover in 2022. On one side are counter seats giving riverside views, to the other are box seats with views of the mountains. Dried seafood is sold on the train and there’s a vintage stove to grill it.

The Royal Express

View from cabin window on the The Royal Express in Japan

Image Credit: The Royal Express

The Royal Express takes takes you around the Izu Peninsula. It’s design is luxurious, as is the experience, which can include meals on-board. Scenic trips can be one-way, return journeys, or if you want to venture further, they do cruise plans with sightseeing activities at various locations. For multi-day rail journeys, the Royal Express gets paired with the Royal Bus for private coach travel to and from the hotel accommodation, usually Onsen (Hot Spring) hotels. 

Sagano Scenic Railway

Side-angle camera shot from aboard the Sagano on Kyotos romantic train ride

By pang yu liu from Taoyuan, TW | CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The Sagona is better known as Kyoto’s Romantic Train, and it’s a trip best enjoyed in spring (Cherry Blossom season), or in the fall. The train used is a boxcar train, historically used as freight trains for light cargo. It moves at the speed of a bicycle taking 25-minutes to travel the 7km route through the Arashiyama mountains. Tickets can be one-way or return. One-way tickets are popular because at the other end, a small bus ride to the Hozugawa River, and you take a river boat cruise back to Kyoto.

The SL Paleo Express

Rustic view capturing the vintage scenes of Western Japan with the The SL Paleo Express steam locomotive riding through the countryside

By MaedaAkihiko | CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The Paleo Express is the nearest steam locomotive to Tokyo and one of the longer journeys, taking around 160-minutes. It runs at weekends only from March through to November. Tickets need to be reservered, and you can also book a bento box lunch for the journey. The train boards at Kumagaya Station, ending at Mitsumineguchi Station in Chichibu.

The 'Joyful Trains' of Japan

In Japan, "Joyful Trains" tend to have themed travel experiences with distinctive interiors, themed decorations, and services that highlight regional culture, cuisine, and attractions

Some of the most notable trains include:

Shu*Kura

front-side view of the Koshino Shu*kura pulling into station

羽吹舞, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons


In the Niigata Prefecture, the Shu*Kura trains are a perfect pairing of scenic rail with local sake. These run at the weekends in Spring and Summer only because in the autumn/winter, the lines are a blanket of snow. There's 3 routes. The Ryuto Shu*kura, the Koshino Shu*kura, and the Yuzawa Shu*kura. The longest trip is on the Ryuto Shu*kura running between Niigata and Joetsu Myoko.

Pokémon with YOU

Pokémon with YOU train photographed as it crosses a high bridge

By Sukhoi37 | CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

This is one for families traveling with younger kids. It sets off at Ichinoseki Station traveling to Kesennuma on the JR Ōfunato Line.

The High Rail 1375

The 2 car The High Rail 1375 pulling into station

By D-s-yama, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

This travels at the highest elevation of 1375m providing splendid panoramas of highland scenery around the Yatsugatake Mountain Range.

Kurofune (Black Ship) Train

The Kurofune (Black Ship) Train ready to depart

Rsa, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The theme of the Kurofune train is inspired by the arrival of Commodore Perry's Black Ships, making it suitable for historians or families looking for educational trips to teach their kids about the history of Japan, like the opening of two ports to foreign ships. One of those ports was Shimoda, and it’s where the train goes. It runs between the Atami Station and the Izukyu Shimoda Station in the Shizuoka Prefecture.

In Japan, the railways are terrific for regular relaxing commuting and for scenic sightseeing, no matter what line you travel. One thing's for certain, unless you plan to travel off-the-beaten-path, you'll get wherever you need to be in Japan by rail. Forego the car hire, the International Driver Permit to hire a car, and the collossal amount of traffic in the busy cities around Japan. Make your trip more relaxing by planning to travel Japan by train!