The Beauty of Rail Travel: Japan's Most Scenic Train Routes
These days, it seems that we human beings just never have enough time. Whether it’s the rush to get to and subsequently return home from work, the way we condense our daily lives into 100 or so characters for social media posts, or the fact that just stopping for a simple moment of reflection amid the daily chaos seems somehow impossible.
Well friends, I think I may have finally found a means of respite from these modern day curses.
As you know, being a travel writer, I like to get around Japan as much and as often as I can whilst bringing you some, hopefully, enjoyable ramblings along the way.
Ordinarily, when travelling around Japan for work, the emphasis is on expediency over pleasure. Hence, a flight to Tokyo which only takes an hour or so is usually preferable over getting there by train, car or some other means.
But what if you want to take your time? Perhaps you see yourself as more of a tortoise and less of a hare?
This is what I have been doing recently, and I have to say, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed every second of it. Taking slower trains allows you not only the time to relax and unwind without all those needless check-ins, baggage checks and other paranoid nonsense we need to endure at a 21st century airport, but it also allows you to reconnect with nature and remind yourself of just how beautiful a country Japan really is.
So, today with this in mind, I present my personal favourite slow train journeys around Japan that allow both spectacular views and a suitably relaxing ambience.
1) Nagoya to Nagano
This trip takes just under 3 hours using the limited express Shinano service from JR Nagoya Station. The trains leave hourly during the day. The route of the Shinano stretches right across the very centre of Japan, from Nagoya on the southeast coast to Nagano in the northwest. The drastically changing landscape makes for some stunning views as the cityscape of Nagoya gives way to the forests, creeks and rolling hills of rural Aichi prefecture. Later, as we approach Matsumoto, the wintry mountains of Nagano prefecture, dubbed the “Japanese Alps” come into full focus. Were it not for the chirpy little Japanese voice reminding you of your next stop one could be forgiven for thinking you had been magically transported to some far-flung stretch of the legendary Trans-Siberian Expressway.
The Sinano Limited Express Train. Photo by neepster on Flickr
The Kamikochi area. Visible from the Shinano Train. Photo by Jason Downey on Flickr
If possible, I recommend setting off from Nagoya around 3pm. That way, as you approach Nagano, the sun will be setting. It is at this time that one can fully appreciate the beauty of these hills and mountains as the setting sun casts a gorgeous red glow on those snowy peaks.
The Kisogawa River. Visible from the Shinano Express Train. Photo by neepster on Flickr.
2) Osaka to Okayama
This route requires taking 2 trains to get the full effect, but that little bit of hassle is certainly worth it.
You’ll start off from Osaka Station, where your journey on the JR rapid service bound for Himeji will take about 1 hour and 15 minutes. The first half of this journey isn’t all that interesting as you cover the urban sprawl that is the overspill between Osaka and Kobe. However, as you approach Kobe, you can enjoy some nice views of Mount Rokko off to the west side.
Kobe. Photo by m-louis .® on Flickr
Mount Rokko in Kobe. Photo by t-rodesign on Flickr
It is once you get south of Kobe that things become interesting. The route down the coast towards Himeji offers some lovely seaside views. Amateur geologists among you will marvel at the different types of rock and mineral deposits visible in the various peaks, outcroppings and coves dotted along the shoreline. If you’re especially lucky, on a clear day you might even be able to spot Shikoku and the prefectures of Tokushima and, later, Kagawa.
Iya Valley in Shikoku. Photo by RachelH_ on Flickr.
You’ll then need to change trains at this point. Depending on which train you took from Osaka you will change trains at either Himeji or Aioi, which is about 15 minutes further south.
From here, as with the aforementioned Shinano Limited Express to Nagano, the landscape changes in swift, dramatic yet undeniably beautiful fashion.
The rocky outcroppings of the coast and the urban overspill of Himeji City gives way to farm lands, lush forests and rolling hills. In many ways the landscape actually reminds me of the Scottish lowland countryside. You won’t see any real mountains around here, but you’ll see plenty of these characteristically gentle hills which one would imagine would make for some great hiking at the right time of year.
3) Himeji to Tottori:
This is one of the shorter trips on today’s agenda, a mere 95 minutes by way of the Super Hakuto Limited Express at Himeji Station. However, it is certainly one of the more impactful routes. Of all the routes I have mentioned today, this route represents perhaps one of the most drastic shifts in environment, perhaps due to Tottori being of a considerably higher altitude than Himeji.
The Super Hakuto Limited Express. Photo by Rsa on Wikimedia Commons
The first time I travelled this route it was a mild February morning in Himeji, and yet by the time I reached Tottori, less than 2 hours later, it was greeted by around 10 centimeters of snow and ice.
However, the increase in altitude as you travel along the rail line is a gradual one. Although you will become aware of the higher altitude as the train reaches its destination, you are unlikely to experience earache, lightheadedness or any of the other associated discomforts associated with a sudden change in altitude. It’s also a very direct route. Since this is about as rural as Japan gets, there are a mere handful of stops along the way before you reach Tottori.
Mountains of Tottori. Photo by Yoshizumi Endo on Flickr
The farmlands of Hyogo, give way to the woodlands of Tottori, and the alpine theme, with accompanying sporadic snow in winter continues to thicken almost all the way to Tottori. If you’ve ever seen the classic American movie “Christmas Vacation” then you will remember the scene where Clark and his family go hunting in the forest for that authentic Christmas tree and you’ll have an idea of what to expect. Though hopefully your scenic trip through the Japanese countryside won’t have as many mishaps as the unfortunate family in the aforementioned movie!
These trips are but a mere sample of the beauty and elegance that awaits you in Japan. Just make sure you take the time needed to fully appreciate it!