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From steam to Shinkansen: The massive machines of the Kyoto Railway Museum

The new Kyoto Railway Museum showcases nearly 150 years of train travel in Japan, from early steam locomotives to the ultramodern Shinkansen bullet trains. Here's a full tour.

Kyoto is best known for its myriad temples and shrines, and its gorgeous Gion district. But for fans of mighty machines, the new Kyoto Railway Museum offers a few hours of diversion from beautiful, ancient wood structures.

Just a few minutes walk west of Kyoto station, the museum houses 53 trains dating back to 1880. Hulking steam locomotives, lavish wood-lined rail cars and streamlined Shinkansen bullet trains all await.

More than just a display for trains, the museum also features exhibits about how trains work, how Japan's rail network is managed, and even a massive model railroad.

Here's a full tour.

Trains galore

When you first enter the museum grounds, three historic trains greet you: a 1948 JNR Class C62, a 1950 Hitachi 80 Series EMU and a 0 Series Shinkansen. The design of the latter is, of course, iconic. So iconic, in fact, its silhouette is still the icon still used in Japan to denote Shinkansen lines.

You can't go inside these trains, though you can look in on their period-correct interiors. These are as different as the designs themselves. Plush seats furnish the Shinkansen, while the others have lightly padded wooden benches.

Inside the cavernous museum a 20-year-old 500 Series bullet train still looks positively sci-fi compared to the 1963 583 Series and 1971 489 Series next to it. Along the far wall are exhibits detailing the history of train travel in Japan.

Cooler, though, are two trains set up that you can walk under them. Seeing a view like this, one most of us will (hopefully) never see, was worth the price of admission. You can see the photos in the gallery above.

The whole central area is dedicated to how trains work. It's kind of like a science museum inside a train museum. It's one of the best integrations of this that I've seen -- you'd think this area would be dominated by kids, but each display had adults reading and playing as well.

The far end of the museum has three coaches you can see from above, via stairs and a gangway. I'm guessing this was put in to be the counterpoint to the trains you could go under nearby, but there's not much to see on the roofs.

The upstairs area has some exhibits centered around the management of trains and riders (including a cutaway of a ticket-reading machine that's way more interesting than it should be).

The biggest area, though, is a massive model train set. The amount of time that went into designing and building it I can't imagine.

Outside the older trains sit. Huge black steel beasts loom inside a roundhouse. Many of these you can actually climb into. Stairs and ramps connect the wheelhouses of multiple trains. I guess they assumed there's not much you can do to break these ancient beasts.

I didn't partake, but you can also take a 10-minute ride on coaches pulled by a steam train.

End of the line

Kyoto is an amazing place. It needs no additional reason to be added to your travel list. That said, the Railway Museum is an afternoon well spent for any fan of trains, or huge machines in general.

Tickets for adults are 1,200 yen (about $12, £8 or AU$16), and it's open every day but Wednesdays and New Year's.

And if Japan isn't in your upcoming travel plans, check out the gallery above for a full photo tour.

In his alternate life as a travel writer, Geoff does tours of cool museums and locations around the world including nuclear submarines, medieval castles, iconic music studios and more. You can follow his exploits on Twitter and Instagram, and on his travel blog BaldNomad. Got a tour-worthy spot you think he should check out? Let him know!