Japan is a country built for trains. Its multiple large cities situated relatively close to one another make it the ideal environment for trains over planes. In the 1960s Japan pioneered the "bullet train," or shinkansen, a high-speed rail connection that was faster than any other ground transport.
Today, seven companies operate routes that crisscross the country, but one of the largest is East Japan Railway Company, or JR East. The largest of the JR corporations, JR East operates between the megacity of Tokyo and the northern island of Honshu. Like several of its counterparts, the company runs a museum celebrating the history of Japanese rail travel dating as far back as the age of steam.
The Railway Museum is in a massive building just north of central Tokyo and it houses dozens of locomotives and passenger cars from throughout Japan's long rail history. Here's a look around.
High-speed steam and steel
I arrived at the museum by train, naturally, as it's basically attached to a station in Saitama. First impressions were fantastic: After I headed into the museum, it opened up into a cavernous and carefully lit space that was as dramatic as it was impressive. Most of the rolling stock faced inward, towards a rotating turnstile that held a huge C57 class steam locomotive. Twice a day this behemoth gets spun around, blowing its loud whistle to entertain or terrify depending on your age and how much you were paying attention.
Adjacent rooms and buildings housed bullet trains ranging from one of the original 0 series to the newer 400 and E5 series.
Several cars are reserved for something rare for a museum: eating. Visitors can bring their lunch and have a meal on the tables in retired 183/189 series rail cars. But perhaps a better spot for that snack is on the top floor. Here, the Shinkansen Lounge offers a viewing area that's level with the adjacent shinkansen tracks. Every few minutes one zooms by in one direction or another.
There were also several kid-friendly sections dedicated to the science and technology of trains. These areas feature a series of games and interactive displays.
One thing I liked best about the Railway Museum were the extensive walkways around the main viewing area, which they call Rolling Stock Station. It's one thing to be up close to these huge machines of steel and sometimes wood, but seeing them from above can literally offer a different perspective. The ability to go into many of the cars and locomotives is a welcome bonus.
Trains of Tokyo
This is the closest train museum to Tokyo, but it's not the only one in Japan. JR West operates the Kyoto Railway Museum,. JR Central has the SCMaglev and Railway Park, which we'll take a tour of shortly.
Given its easy accessibility from Tokyo, and excellent presentation courtesy of its huge, open main hall, the Railway Museum stands out among other train museums. I wish the weather had been better during my visit as I definitely would have liked to drive one of the miniature trains out back.
Check out the gallery above if you're not planning on going to Tokyo anytime soon.
As well as covering TV and other display tech, Geoff does photo tours of cool museums and locations around the world, including nuclear submarines, massive aircraft carriers, medieval castles, epic 10,000 mile road trips, and more. Check out Tech Treks for all his tours and adventures.