The impressive machines of the Kyoto Railway Museum

The new Kyoto Railway Museum features bullet trains, steam locomotives, subway cars and more. Check out nearly 150 years of train travel in Japan.

Geoffrey Morrison
Geoffrey Morrison is a writer/photographer about tech and travel for CNET, The New York Times, and other web and print publications. He's also the Editor-at-Large for The Wirecutter. He has written for Sound&Vision magazine, Home Theater magazine, and was the Editor-in-Chief of Home Entertainment magazine. He is NIST and ISF trained, and has a degree in Television/Radio from Ithaca College. His bestselling novel, Undersea, and its sequel, Undersea Atrophia, are available in paperback and digitally on Amazon. He spends most of the year as a digital nomad, living and working while traveling around the world. You can follow his travels at BaldNomad.com and on his YouTube channel.
Geoffrey Morrison
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The Kyoto Railway Museum is about a 20-minute walk from the city's main rail station, through a lovely park and past the aquarium.

For the full story behind the tour, check out From steam to Shinkansen: The massive machines of the Kyoto Railway Museum.

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Built to mimic a train station platform, the Promenade features a 1948 JNR Class C62, a 1950 80 Series EMU and a first-generation 0 Series Shinkansen from 1964.

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The first "bullet trains" could hit 140 mph (220 kph). Current models can go over 185 mph (300 kph) in certain parts of the country. The last 0 Series were retired in 2008.

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For something so high tech (in its day) the cab is remarkably simple.

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Comfy seats

There's no bench seating on Shinkansens, then or now. These are the regular seats.

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Green cars

The step-up green car seating is a bit bigger, a bit nicer. Modern models have power plugs for each seat, trays and so on.

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The '50s

This style of train, called an EMU or Electric Multiple Unit haven't changed too much from this 80 Series, which was Japan's first. Each (or most) of the cars have their own electric motors. These types of trains are all over Japan, and indeed most countries. Modern trains are sleeker and and faster, of course, but the basic designs aren't radically different.

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The interiors however, are pretty different. You'd be hard pressed to find wooden bench seating anymore.

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Steam machine

Amazingly, this train is roughly the same age as the 80 Series. It was capable of 62 mph (100 kph).

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More plush seating and a lovely wooden cabin.

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Snack time

Inside this 20 Series coach from 1970 you can get snacks, sort of like a dining car.

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103 forever

How's this for well designed. This is a 103 Series. They were designed in the '60s and built from then until the '80s. Many are still in use. This one includes rail maps of Osaka.

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Not often you get to see an empty train in Japan.

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Twilight Plaza

Next to the Promenade is the Twilight Plaza, named after the Twilight Express route from Sapporo to Osaka. The green JNR Class EF81 is painted in this livery.

The other train is an EF58.

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Main building

The spacious main building is bathed in natural light. These three greet you, starting with...

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500 Series

It's pretty amazing that this 500 Series is 20 years old. It was in the Guinness Book of World Records as the first train to operate at speeds of 185 mph (300 kph).

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581 Series

This massive-looking beast is a KuHaNe 581 Series EMU from 1968. It was primarily used as an overnight service between Niigata (on the northwest coast) to Osaka. These days, using the Shinkansen, the same journey takes about 5 hours.

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The berths can be folded up so the train can be used for daytime service. I rode a train with a similar setup in Thailand. It's more comfortable than it looks.

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489 Series

The 489 Series was built in the '70s and were in use for nearly 40 years.

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489 cab

Though you can't get inside the full 489 car, nearby is this partial cab. There are stairs up (as you probably guessed). The view is commanding, or, it would be if it weren't inside.

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The history

Along one wall is a detailed history of rail travel in Japan.

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100 Series

Nestled in the corner, behind the history of rail exhibits, is a 100 Series Shinkansen. Though they're 20 years newer than the 0 Series, they honestly don't look much different. The nose is slightly more pointed.

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The science of trains

Throughout the museum, and especially here, roughly in the center, are exhibits about the science and technology of rails and trains. An impressive mix of people, young and old, wanted to take a look.

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This JNR DD51 is elevated slightly, and has a dugout underneath so you can see how their undersides look.

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Unusual view

This is not a view I imagine most people get to see (thankfully).

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Truck on steroids

Honestly, it looks like the underside of a truck, just way beefier. This one must still leak, as there was a layer of plastic film.

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This JNR EF66 from 1974 mostly hauled freight, and could hit 70 mph (110 kph).

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A clean look under the EF66.

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Light(ish) rail

In the middle of the museum there's a cutaway train car showing various bits normally unseen. Reflections on the plexiglass made my pictures rather poor, other than this one of the cab and controls.

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Upstairs the museum had a few more treats in store. Here it offered a great view down onto the trains from the main entrance.

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Lunch with a view

The restaurant had some decent noodles, but a better view of the rails running through Kyoto. Every few minutes one of the new Shinkansens would zoom past, like the N700 seen here.

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This was pretty amusing. Two ticket machines, an older model (seen here), next to a new model (to the right, just a touchscreen, basically). People lined up to get tickets that got you...nowhere. All they did was let you use the mockup ticket readers you'll see in the next slide.

(Yes I did it. Yes I kept my ticket.)

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Ticket reader

These machines are used throughout Japan. They read the magnetic paper tickets at lightning speed, as well as read RFID cards that you can get at most stations, and work all over the country. It's pretty awesome.

You can see a short video I made of the machine above devouring a ticket and spitting it back out.

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Train simulators

There were lines to try out the train simulator games on big screens. There are PC games that offer this too.

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The big board

Next to the train simulators is a mockup of a rail control room.

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There is something elegant in the simplicity of a control board like this.

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Model trains

The massive model train set. There are lots of little touches, like trains seen in the museum, rare cars and more.

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The two on the left are the 500 and 0 Series as seen in the museum. The two on the right are the newer 700 Series, including "Doctor Yellow."

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More minis

The top and bottom are mini versions of trains on display at the museum. The 485 Series (top) and JNR Class EF81 (bottom) sandwich a 287 Series and...not sure of the other one. Any ideas?

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Control board

Not that much different from the switchboard for the real things.

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Roundhouse and controls

The view from the other end. Note the monitors that give views down among the trains.

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Wasn't this in the last image?

The roundhouse has 20 steam locomotives, some small, most huge. This was part of the former Umekoji Steam Locomotive Museum which grew and became the Kyoto Railway Museum.

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Adjacent to the roundhouse there's a service shed that helps keep these trains in beautiful shape.

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Ah, so that's where they got the idea for HDTV resolution.

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What's the opposite of miniaturization? Massive locomotives with massive parts.

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This was Japan's largest steam locomotive, a JNR Class C62 from 1948.

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The cab of the huge D52 from 1946.

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Walkways connect several of the engines, so you can walk from cab to cab.

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Coal+water=steam. I'm guessing it was a little brighter in there normally.

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The view

This is the view out of the cab. This window is about 8 inches (20 cm) across.

After this it was the gift shop and back to the hostel. An afternoon well spent.

For the full story behind the tour, check out From steam to Shinkansen: The massive machines of the Kyoto Railway Museum.

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