Riding the Rails in Japan – 10 Top Railfanning Ideas

Now you’ve gotten yourself to Japan. What are you going to do? Most likely, you have a few ideas or you wouldn’t have flown all those miles. But, just in case, here are a few suggestions from JRM.

Start railfanning at the airport. The international airports at both Tokyo (Narita) and Osaka (Kansai) have rail stations in their basements. Each airport is served by two different railroads, each providing service to different parts of the cities nearby. Both feature express services direct to downtown as well as slower and cheaper local trains. Whatever you choose will be a great way to work off the rigors of your long flight across the Pacific.
Find a hotel near the tracks. In Tokyo both the Prince hotels at Shinagawa and Shinjuku feature rooms that overlook the station tracks. JR East and JR West have a number of hotels adjacent to their stations. In Kyoto, JR West runs an ultra modern hotel atop the train terminal, and the nearby New Miyako Hotel has many rooms overlooking the Kyoto Shinkansen tracks and platforms. Look at the maps in your guidebooks for more ideas.
Ride a bullet. You don’t want to return home from Japan without having ridden the famous Shinkansen, do you?
Circle Tokyo. Most model railroads feature loops of track. After you’ve been to Tokyo you can say it’s prototypical. Ride the double track Yamanote Loop line (your choice, clockwise or counterclockwise) which circles Tokyo’s downtown neighborhoods. It stops at all the mainline terminals and will provide a great 60-minute tour of the city. 11-car trains run every two minutes or so each way.
Escape from Tokyo the way the locals do. Ride the well-loved Enoden Railway in Kamakura and Enoshima to Pacific Ocean beaches a little over an hour from the big city. Or, if mountains are more your thing, take the Hakone Tozan up through three switchbacks to catch a funicular and cable car for great views of Mt. Fuji on clear days. Both make for easy day-trips from Tokyo, and connect with frequent trains to the city.
Spend time quality time train-watching at some of the world’s busiest stations. Soak up the atmosphere and the wide variety of trains at Tokyo, Shinjuku or Ueno Stations. Kyoto station also offers good vantage points to see and photograph all the action. And the best way to experience (see, hear and feel) the speed of the Shinkansen is to stand on a platform while one passes by on the non-stop center tracks at full speed. To do this you’ll need to travel outside of the main cities – trains run fastest south of Kobe.

Ride up front. Several types of Japanese trains allow you to sit directly behind the driver with panoramic views of the track ahead. Several of the Odakyu Railway’s trains go one better. They put the driver in a cab on the roof, giving the front row passengers a completely unobstructed view out front.


Take some circle route day-trips. Look closely at a map of Japan showing the rail routes and consider these daylong possibilities.

  • From Tokyo take the busy Chuo mainline to Matsumoto, change to another limited express route to Nagano and then the speedy Shinkansen from there back to Tokyo. Or go north on the Shinkansen to Yamagata, then the scenic Senzen line across the mountains, and return to Tokyo from Sendai on a bullet train.

  • If you are based in Kyoto, the ride-up-front Ocean Arrow will take you through downtown Osaka and then for miles along Pacific beaches to Shingu. There you can pick-up a diesel multiple unit train (also allowing over-the-driver’s-shoulder views) up the hills to Nagoya where a Shinkansen will return you to Kyoto.
See the country. The Shinkansen network (and its connections) make it possible to move your base camp to the northern island of Hokkaido or south to Shikoku, Hiroshima or Kyushu. Check out the wide variety of colorful equipment, scenery and routes Japan has to offer.
Ride a real monorail. In Japan, monorails aren’t just for amusement parks. The Tokyo area features four monorail lines – to Hanada Airport, in nearby Chiba and Tama, and a single track line with passing sidings and tunnels in the Shonan area. All are integral parts of thousands of people’s daily commutes.

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