Trains in Japan
Japan is a paradise for train lovers and railway aficionados. The country is famous for the sleek highspeed trains, called Shinkansen, as well as cool local and sightseeing trains. In comparison to other countries with extensive networks, Germany for example, the trains across the regions are all different in look and design. The Japanese are rightly proud of their rail system and use it frequently to get around the country. The network is so extensive that many people do not use cars as much as in other parts of the world. The trains in Japan are also known for always being on time, hard to believe for some Westerners that are used to trains being constantly delayed or cancelled even on good days. For the Japanese it is not only a means of transport though, it is an experience in its own right. There are special trains specifically designed with children in mind, with play areas on board and themed on famous Japanese cartoon characters like the Anpanman, there are scenic tracks with special carriages and even trains with honeymoon suites.
Getting to Omiya from Tokyo Station
For one of the days during our stay in Tokyo we had planned to visit the Railway Museum in Omiya, a 45 minute train ride from Tokyo station. Of course, the best way to get there is by Shinkansen. The tickets for the return journey can either be reserved at the counter, but expect to queue for a while, or simply using one of the many ticket machines available. Make sure you get a reserved seat as it can get busy on the trains, especially during rush hour and holidays. We made sure to arrive early at the platform, as it is part of the experience to watch the trains come in and being cleaned by the professional cleaning teams. They make it possible for the trains to be completely spotless in no more than seven minutes and to also change the seats into direction of travel while doing so.
Waiting for the Shinkansen
Jerome has always been fascinated by Shinkansen trains, even though he grew up with taking the ICE trains in Germany and sometime Eurostar to London, they somehow have kept their grip on him. There are different types of Shinkansens and most people will probably immediately think of the white and blue duck nosed trains. These are definitely the most common type of Shinkansen and they run from Tokyo station towards the west of the country, including Kyoto and Osaka. Other Shinkansen whilst having similar designs come in different colour combinations, such as red or green. We had only seen and used the white and blue Shinkansen before and Jerome was over the moon when he found out that we would be going on a different one on our way to the Railway Museum.
Standing at the platform, waiting to board our train, it was a white Shinkansen with a blue and pink stripe that would take us to Omiya station. We looked out for our train carriage and stood in line behind the other passengers to board, commuters in Japan are very disciplined! The train’s information is displayed in both Japanese and English language, which makes finding the right train and platform much easier. On board the train we sat down in our seats and shortly after the train started to speed up and whizz out of Tokyo. We could see the high-rise buildings rush past outside our window for a long time, before reaching the outskirts of this vast metropolis.
A Ride on the Bullet Train
Shortly after our departure the friendly trolley lady passed through the carriage, selling hot and cold drinks and snacks. Jerome got out his recent purchase, a book about Japanese vehicles, including a large variety of Japanese trains. Thankfully there were lots of photos inside as we were not able to read any of the Japanese writing. Jerome ticked off the trains we had just seen at Tokyo station and the journey to Omiya station was over rather too fast. Once we had exited the train we stayed on the platform to look out for more Shinkansen, an easy task, considering that there is one every few minutes, either stopping or rushing through the station. Jerome was in awe when one of the Shinkansen arriving at our platform was a double decker train, with two levels of seats in each carriage. We also saw a green and a red one come through.
The Railway Museum
In order to get to the train museum we needed to change to a local train, called the New Shuttle that runs from Omiya to Tetsudo-Habutsukan Station every few minutes. The ride took us high up on elevated tracks past apartment and office blocks. Exiting at the station it was a short walk to the entrance of the museum.
As soon as we got inside we were blown away by the huge display of original trains in the vast hall. There was everything on display, from a vintage steam train to one of the first Shinkansen from the 1960’s. We started to walk around, climbing up onto the trains, looking inside the driver’s cabs and carriages. The most lavish carriage was one used by the Japanese emperor, the soft seats protected by sheets underneath the intricate ceiling.
The steam engine was one of the largest trains in the hall, placed on a track on a fully functioning turntable. At the times displayed on a board nearby indicate the demonstration of the turntable. The next one was up soon and there was already a gathering of kids and adults around the closed off area. The driver climbed into the train and got into the cabin and shortly after the whistle blew and the table started to turn slowly. Everyone watched the action excitedly and I could also see the excitement in Jerome’s eyes.
The Tokaido Shinkansen
My favourite part was definitely the original Tokaido Shinkansen from 1964, the first ever high-speed train built and brought into service just in time for the first Tokyo Olympics. Initially connecting Tokyo and Osaka, the bullet train cut down journey times considerably, running at a speed of 210km/h. The train with its classic bullet nose was left in its original state, including seats and toilets. The latest bullet trains now reach 320 km/h in operation, but for the 1960s, 210 km/h was extremely fast. Apparently the fastest test run has reached over 440 km/h. Jerome would love to try the new maglev trains that can reach over 600 and are planned to replace the Shinkansen around 2020 so he will need to wait a few years for that!
Lunch at the Museum
When it was time for lunch we went outside to the playground and garden. There were playground rides made to look like Shinkansen trains, including a slide and seesaws. In between were two train carriages that served as a restaurant and picnic spot. We bought two bento boxes (that’s what Japanese do when going on a train journey) in the shape of a Shinkansen, one with classic kids fare of chicken katsu, the other one with noodles and chicken. Chris went for the adult version without the cool bullet train style box. We happily sat on our seats in the air-conditioned train carriage and enjoyed our bentos.
The Train Simulator
After lunch we made our way up to the 2nd floor, where we watched the demonstration of train models on the largest diorama of its kind in Japan. In the next room along we found the history of the Japanese railway on large boards. Sadly they mostly were in Japanese but there were some interesting photos to look at.
Jerome’s favourite part of our visit was the train simulators. For a small fee one could drive a Shinkansen train along one of the many tracks in Japan. It was very realistic and gave Jerome a great insight into what it would be like to control one of these fast bullet trains. He probably could have spent all day driving from one end of the country to the other, but there were other kids and adults waiting for their chance too.
The Viewing Platform
Before leaving the museum we went outside on the 3rd floor and watched the Shinkansen pass the museum on the high speed line. There is a board with the times of all the trains and twice a day it is possible to snap a green and red one passing each other.
Worth a Visit
Our visit to the Railway Museum was without a doubt a success, an educational, yet fun visit themed around Japanese railways. Are you in need of some other suggestions on what to do with kids in Tokyo? Read my tips here.