Traveling by train in Japan is one of the wonders of our modern world, whether that’s whizzing through the countryside on the Shinkansen at up to 320 kilometers per hour (200 mph), relaxing on a comfortable regional express train (known as Limited Express trains in Japan) or enjoying a peek into Japanese culture on a ‘Joyful Train’ day-trip excursion.
With Japan closed for so much of 2020-2022 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, visitors who missed riding the country’s trains have many new options.
Kyushu: The Nishi Kyushu Shinkansen to Nagasaki
The long-mooted high-speed line connecting Nagasaki to the rest of the Shinkansen (bullet train) network is now running to its interim end at Takeo-Onsen. A total of five stations are now complete in the hilly coastal region in far western Japan, which was previously served by slow conventional trains.
These have now been replaced by Kamome (Japanese for “seagull”) services aboard brand-new N700S trains featuring a smart white livery and striking cabin interiors designed by Mitooka Eiji, the Kyushu Railway Company’s design partner. It’s a must-ride for any train lover, not least because of how you get to it.
Local politics means that the rest of the line has yet to be built. In the meantime, passengers cross the platform to one of the Relay Kamome or other Limited Express trains to connect to the rest of Japan, usually at Shin-Tosu Shinkansen station or the Hakata station in Fukuoka.
At Nagasaki, the newly redeveloped train station features a fantastic new dining and shopping precinct, with delicious local fare to sample – try the traditional Castella cake adapted from recipes brought by Portuguese sailors visiting Japan.
Kyushu: New tourist trains
Japan’s Joyful Trains – tourist excursion day-trip trains focusing on culture and local specialties – are a delight for travelers. To mark the opening of the Nishi Kyushu Shinkansen, JR Kyushu also started a new Joyful Train called the Two Stars 4047.
Its route begins at Takeo-Onsen and traces the old Nagasaki Main Line that the Kamome services on the Nishi-Kyushu Shinkansen have replaced, climbing around rocky coves, inlets and bays.
The name comes from the charming vintage railcars from which the Joyful Train has been converted – a KiHa 40 and KiHa 47 set.
Don’t miss the fresh fruit and snacks on sale at the platform at Kohoku, or the sake bar in the waiting room at Hizen-Hama station – you can also make purchases to take onto the train with you. A special bento lunchbox set is also available.
Kyushu is also home to some of Japan’s loveliest Joyful Train routes, including the wonderfully programmed long-weekend train 36+3 and the jazz music-focused A-Train.
Several Kyushu Joyful Train schedules have been disrupted by storms washing out rural tracks in recent years. Keep an eye out for their return on the JR Kyushu website, and book well in advance.
Okayama: New Sakubi Sakura sightseeing train
In the mountainous area west of Osaka, JR West’s new bright pink Sakubi Sakura train wends its way north from Okayama to the hot springs region near Tsuyama.
The train itself is an atmospheric old KiHa 40 railcar that has spent more than 40 years in service in the area, and the inside is a vintage green and wood color – no pink overload when you’re inside the train.
The train, which operates on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays, offers special lunch boxes and dessert sets to enjoy as you trundle through the countryside.
Tokyo to Nikko/Kinugawa: New Limited Express Spacia X N100 trains
The “Limited Express Spacia X,” a series of new N100 trains from private train line Tobu Railway, take to the rails this July. It will offer six separate kinds of seating options – the Cockpit Suite at the front of the train, private compartments, the Cockpit Lounge café zone, semi-private Box Seats, wider Premium Seats and standard seats.
Running between Asakusa station in Tokyo and the Tochigi prefecture cities of Nikko and Kinugawa Onsen, these new trains look set to make escaping Tokyo for a break in the countryside north of the metropolis a must-do.
Nagano/Yamanashi: New High Rail 1375 Joyful Train
Introduced at the end of last year, JR East’s newest Joyful Train is found in the mountains of Nagano and Yamanashi prefectures, just over an hour northwest of Tokyo on the Hokuriku Shinkansen line.
Scaling the Japanese Alps on the rural Koumi Line, the country’s highest railway line, the High Rail is astronomy-themed, with an onboard mini-planetarium. On its evening run between Kobuchizawa and Komoro stations, there’s a 50-minute stargazing experience at Nobeyama – Japan’s highest station and home to the Nobeyama telescope observatory.
The JR East region offers many other fabulous Joyful Train excursions. The steam train trips from Takasaki (SL Gunma – SL is short for steam locomotive) and between Niigata and Aizu-Wakamatsu (SL Banetsu Monogatari) particular delights. The latter has unfortunately been suspended since August 2022 after tracks washed out following a storm, but work is reportedly underway to restore the line.
Hokkaido: New cars on the steam train Fuyu-no-Shitsugen
Birdwatchers and nature lovers will know the Kushiro Shitsugen wetlands, home to the endangered red-crowned crane, one of the symbols of Japan. Found in the far northeast of Japan on the island of Hokkaido, the Fuyu-no-Shitsugen train chuffs through this national park with retro style in the winter months.
With a 2022 refurbishment of two carriages, the train now offers new scenic Tancho Cars. On one side, seats face out towards the wetlands, with elevated box seats on the other side, allowing a view over the heads of those passengers from the other side of the train.