7 Scenic Trains Offer the Best Views of Japan

7 Scenic Trains Offer the Best Views of Japan
Ⓒ Provided by Condé Nast Traveler

By Marianna Cerini, Condé Nast Traveler

Japan—where remaining pandemic travel restrictions drop today—knows a thing or two about great train rides. The country boasts a solid railway system that’s fast, punctual, and relatively affordable, particularly if you get a discount rail pass—from the country-wide Japan Rail Pass (most commonly known as JR Pass, which must be purchased outside of Japan) to local ones homing in on specific regions.

But it also includes some of the splashiest private train lines there are, with on-board services akin to those you’d find in an ultra-luxury hotel, comfortable private cabins, lounges that are essentially salons on wheels, and elevated gastronomic offerings.

Simply put, whatever area in Japan you decide to focus on, there’ll be a captivating train journey to zip you around it. Here are seven of the very best trains in Japan, from glamorous to panoramic and plain romantic.

Read more:10 Mistakes to Avoid on Your First Long Train Ride

Kurobe Gorge Railway

7 Scenic Trains Offer the Best Views of Japan
Ⓒ Provided by Condé Nast Traveler

The Japan Alps—the mountain ranges running along the spine of central Honshu (the country’s main island)—have long been the nation’s geographical and spiritual heart, home to shrines and sacred sites, hot springs, and traditional farmers’ villages. A trip to the region is an absolute must, and the Kurobe Gorge Railway is the perfect sightseeing train to set the mood for it.

Originally built in the mid-1950s to serve the construction of the Kurobe dam, the line operates along a winding 12.4-mile stretch that crosses the Kurobe Gorge—one of the deepest gorges in Japan—linking the stations of Unazuki and Keyakidaira. On the 80-minute ride, guests can take in views of rugged mountain landscapes and steep cliff sides, a forested ravine and the gurgling Kurobe River, as they traverse more than 20 bridges and some 40 tunnels. Different stops along the way offer plenty of opportunities to go for a hike or, why not, stop at an open-air onsen.

Tickets start at $18 (or 2,610 yen). Be aware that the train operates seasonally from late April through November, and it’s most popular in October, when the fall foliage turns the hillsides into a tapestry of reds and yellows. If you go then, bring a jacket: most of the cabins are open-sided.

Gono Line

7 Scenic Trains Offer the Best Views of Japan
Ⓒ Provided by Condé Nast Traveler

Running along the western coast of the Aomori and Akita Prefectures in northern Japan—a region brimming with wild nature and volcanic mountain ranges—the 91.5-mile Gono Line is an important route for residents of the area. It also happens to be one of the country’s most scenic railways. Depending on the season, the train passes through lush forests and snowy landscapes, rice paddies and the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Shirakami-Sanchi, a virgin forest of Japanese beech trees. Expect the standard quality of Japan trains—efficient, fairly comfortable, and extremely reliable. 

Word to the wise: Add an extra layer of entertainment to your sightseeing experience by booking the Joyful Train that runs along the Gono Line (Joyful Trains are concept trains featuring on-board activities, special dining cars, and special station events). Called Resort Shirakami, it includes live “shamisen” (traditional three-string guitar from the Tsugaru region) performances and storytelling sessions in the Tsugaru dialect. JR Rail Passes can be used for the Gono Line and all Joyful Trains if reserved in advance.

Sagano Scenic Railway

7 Scenic Trains Offer the Best Views of Japan
Ⓒ Provided by Condé Nast Traveler

At only 4.35 miles long and a mere 25 minutes one-way, the Sagano Scenic Railway is the shortest route on the list, but possibly the most romantic. Running from the Torokko Saga Station in Arashiyama—the second-most important sightseeing district in Kyoto—to the town of Kameoka, the train snakes leisurely through the mountains along the Hozugawa River, offering front row seats to the surrounding wooded ravine. Each train is outfitted with retro-nostalgic touches like wooden benches—a nod to its original debut back in 1899—and made up of one fully open cabin and four enclosed cars (with windows that can be opened). It is particularly popular during the autumn foliage season as the leaves along the way change their colors, but spring passengers can enjoy pretty views too, when the cherry blossoms are in full bloom. The line doesn’t operate from late December through February. Tickets start at $6 (880 yen), and can be purchased at Torokko Saga Station or at JR ticket offices in the Kansai Region.

Tokaido Shinkansen Line

7 Scenic Trains Offer the Best Views of Japan
Ⓒ Provided by Condé Nast Traveler

No trip to Japan would be complete without getting a glimpse of Mount Fuji. The Tokaido Shinkansen Line (a bullet train) is the easiest way to achieve that. Connecting Tokyo and Kyoto in around two hours and 20 minutes, the route passes the majestic mountain in both directions, delivering picture-perfect vistas of the country’s highest and most famous peak. Pick a seat on your right if you’re headed to Kyoto, or on your left if you’re going to the capital. Even better, reserve the window-side E row for the very best views. Plus, access to the Tokaido Shinkansen line is covered by the JR Pass.

Train Suite Shiki-shima

7 Scenic Trains Offer the Best Views of Japan
Ⓒ Provided by Condé Nast Traveler

A hybrid electric/diesel deluxe sleeping train, the Train Suite Shiki-shima is one of the world’s most exclusive and expensive railroad rides in the world—so much so that passengers have to submit an online application to get on, and are chosen by a random draw. With interiors by industrial designer Ken Okuyama, known for his luxury car work with Ferrari, Maserati, and Porsche, the 10-cabin, 34-passenger service features a lavish east-meets-west aesthetic, (think Japanese seating and western style beds), floor-to-ceiling windows in some of the carriages, and a futuristic observatory car kitted out with sinuous white chairs and grass-green carpets. Rooms are over-the-top spacious, and categorized as suites, flats, and maisonettes.

Once you’re on board, you’ll be heading from Tokyo into Japan's far north, namely Tohoku and Hokkaido—wide-open regions boasting spectacular nature and enduring traditions.

Itineraries are either two or four days long, and include sightseeing stopovers and overnight hotel stays, as well as some seriously superb culinary experiences, from breakfast to dinner. New routes are scheduled to start from April 2022 onwards. Tickets start at $3,830 (555,000 yen) for single occupancy in an entry-level suite.

Twilight Express Mizukaze

7 Scenic Trains Offer the Best Views of Japan
Ⓒ Provided by Condé Nast Traveler

One of Japan’s most luxurious trains, the 10-cabin Twilight Express Mizukaze (also referred to simply as Mizukaze) rides some of the most breathtaking routes on the western side of the country. Five different itineraries take passengers along the coastline of the Seto inland sea, making stops in Osaka, Setonaikai National Park, Miyajima, and the lesser-visited San'in region, depending which way you go. On board, passengers—a maximum of 34—can expect five-star service from the dining car to the six ‘rooms,’ the swankiest of which consists of an entire railcar that comes with its own tub (it’s aptly called ‘The Suite’). Tickets for it are quite hard to get, with a waitlist that can be over half a year, but snag yourself a seat, and you’ll be in for one of the most exclusive train journeys in the world. Tickets—only purchasable in Japan—start at $2,800 (400,000 yen).

Seven Stars

7 Scenic Trains Offer the Best Views of Japan
Ⓒ Provided by Condé Nast Traveler

The luxury sleeper Seven Stars, which cruises around Kyushu island—Japan's southern and westernmost main island—is worth adding to your Japan bucket list if you’re ready to splurge. Launched in 2014, the 28-passenger, seven-cabin train is as fancy as it gets, with plush interiors across its 14 suites (all of which are built in maple, walnut, or teak wood), a fine dining restaurant run by Kyushu’s master chefs, and a lounge car that even has its own piano. The Seven Stars name refers to the region’s seven prefectures—Fukuoka, Nagasaki, Saga, Kumamoto, Oita, Miyazaki, and Kagoshima—which the train passes on two- and four-day circular itineraries, covering some 1,864 miles in total. Tickets are steep, but, on the plus side, include a series of activities that go beyond the train journey: sightseeing trips to mountain ranges, volcanoes, and traditional pottery villages, onsen experiences, and overnight stays at traditional (but still top-of-the-class) ryokan. Tickets start at $2,550 (370,000 yen) per person for a two-day trip, or $5,400 (780,000) per person for a four-day sojourn.

Read more:6 Destinations in Japan Where the Locals Love to Go

If you’re after something less pricey, Kyushu also has plenty of simpler sightseeing trains, like the Hisatsu Line, a slow, local railway line (currently suspended due to floods caused by heavy rains last July).

See more at Condé Nast Traveler

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Travel Magazine: 7 Scenic Trains Offer the Best Views of Japan
7 Scenic Trains Offer the Best Views of Japan
Here are 7 of the greatest train journeys in Japan, from countryside sightseeing routes to city-bound bullet trains and private train cars.
Travel Magazine
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