Japan Rail Times
The
Rail Way
to Travel
2403-Banner-Left
Rail Travel

A “rail-ly” nostalgic trip to The Railway Museum

A “rail-ly” nostalgic trip to The Railway Museum

Did you know that rail travel has been part of Japan’s livelihood for almost 150 years? The first railway service opened on 14 October 1872, and since then, railway networks have been rapidly expanded throughout the country, from the northern region of Hokkaido to the southern region of Kyushu. If you would like to learn more about Japan’s history in rail travel, there is a particular building that you should not miss, located in the city of Saitama (さいたま市) in Saitama Prefecture.

 

Feast your eyes on The Railway Museum (鉄道博物館 Tetsudō Hakubutsukan), a museum where visitors can learn more about railway travel in Japan since its advent in the 19th century. Opened on 14 October 2007, it was envisioned as a place that tells the story of the relationship between trains and people in Japan, and visitors here can have a hands-on experience of how trains have changed people’s lives forever.

 

The Railway Museum. (Image credit: The Railway Museum)

 

I had the opportunity to visit The Railway Museum recently, and though I had read a bit about Japan’s railway history, the museum showed me just how much more there was to railways in the country that I didn’t know about. I found myself being transported back in time to a distant past when trains were still run by steam during my time at the museum, and I also had a glimpse of where railway travel will go from here in the future.

 

In this article, I will share my experience at this museum and what I discovered there, from photo galleries depicting railway travel in the past to actual trains that have been carefully preserved for people to see.

 

What’s more, 14 October this year marks the 150th anniversary of railways in Japan, so it was also a particularly momentous occasion for me to set foot into this building this year. Without further ado, join me for a “rail-ly” eye-opening time at The Railway Museum, so let’s go!

 

Making my way to the museum

Arriving at Ōmiya Station (left) and directions to The Railway Museum. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

The journey to the museum began at Ōmiya Station where, upon arrival, I had to make a transfer to the New Shuttle (ニューシャトル Nyū Shattoru) and make my way to Tetsudohakubutsukan Station (鉄道博物館駅 Tetsudō-Hakubutsukan-eki). Ōmiya Station is a major interchange station, and for those who have never been there, it can be intimidating to navigate through the bustling station, especially during the morning rush hour.

 

Here’s my tip to first-timers to the museum: upon reaching Ōmiya Station, take the Central Gate (North) , and make a right turn to head to the New Shuttle. There are also signs that direct you to the museum, so fret not if you’re not sure of the way.

 

150th railway anniversary in Japan. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

Remember how I said earlier that this year marks the 150th anniversary of railways in Japan? I got a vivid reminder of just that at Ōmiya Station, where I spotted a huge sign depicting the momentous occasion on the floor. And not just that, but since The Railway Museum opened on 14 October 2007, this year also marks the 15th anniversary of the museum’s establishment. How lucky for me to be there during a historic moment!

 

Arriving at Tetsudohakubutsukan Station. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

From Ōmiya Station, it’s another short 2-minute ride on the New Shuttle to Tetsudohakubutsukan Station, with The Railway Museum located right next to the station. Fun fact: it was originally named Ōnari Station when it opened in 1983, but after the opening of the museum in 2007, it was renamed Tetsudohakubutsukan Station.

 

Stepping into the museum

Inside The Railway Museum. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

The Railway Museum is a sprawling museum that has a display area of up to 9,500 square metres, and features various areas showcasing different aspects of railway travel in Japan, such as vintage railway cars, train model dioramas, train cab simulators, photo and artefact galleries, and many more. The museum is generally divided into five different “stations”: the Rolling Stock Station, the Job Station, the History Station, the Science Station, and the Future Station.

 

Let me show you some of the highlights of my tour of the museum.

 

① Exploring the trains of the yesteryears

The Rolling Stock Station. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

Perhaps the most prominent station is the Rolling Stock Station, which makes up the largest space among all stations in the museum. The station occupies the main exhibition hall in the museum’s Main Building, and here, up to 36 vintage railway cars are on display. Visitors can have an up-close look at these historical relics that once plied the railway tracks throughout Japan.

 

Locomotive No. 1. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

One of the most prominent railway cars on display at the Rolling Stock Station is the Locomotive No. 1, Japan’s first steam locomotive (SL) train. Imported from the United Kingdom, the train once ran on the first railway line in Japan, between the old Shimbashi Station (新橋駅 Shinbashi-eki) and the former Yokohama Station (present-day Sakuragichō Station). It is also the first train in Japan to be designated as an Important Cultural Property in 1997.

 

The third-class passenger car (left), and Shimbashi Station’s old reading. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

Visitors can also check out the passenger car that is attached to Locomotive No. 1, which is a reconstruction of the actual cars that passengers used to ride. The passenger car is carefully replicated to showcase what third-class passenger cars used to look like.

 

Another thing that may seem peculiar to visitors is the old reading of Shimbashi Station: しばん志. Contrary to today’s writing style, station names used to be written and read backwards, hence the unusual writing style. Plus, the station name was stylised with the use of the character 志 (read as “shi”), which means “will / ambition”. Fascinating, don’t you think?

 

The Kumoha 40 Electric Railcar. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

Guess what? You can have a firsthand experience of riding in a vintage railway car too. For example, you can step inside the Kumoha 40 Electric Railcar and have a seat inside to feel what it was like travelling on this car in the past.

 

The KiHa 41300. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

In another railway car, the KiHa 41300, the car can be put into motion, and the windows are also fitted with screens depicting moving images of the outdoors to simulate a train ride. You will feel like you’re actually riding the train!

 

The 0 Series (left), and the opening of the New Tokaido Line. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

As I toured further around the hall, I learned that one of the most significant watershed moments in Japan’s railway history happened on 1 October 1964. It was when the New Tokaido Line, more popularly known as the Tokaido Shinkansen, opened to the public, and it marked the opening of the country’s first shinkansen service that enabled passengers to travel between Tokyo and Shin-Osaka via the first-generation 0 Series high-speed trains in just a few hours.

 

Imagine that: people have been travelling around Japan by shinkansen for more than 50 years. We have come a very long way, haven’t we?

 

Delve into Japan’s historical railway timeline

Railway chronological table. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

The Rolling Stock Station is made up of two levels, and after exploring the different railway cars on the first floor, I made my way up to the second floor where I found another impressive exhibit. There, a railway chronological table was on display that showed a graphical timeline depicting iconic railway cars that once plied the railway tracks around the country in different times of history.

 

Some of the train models that were on display. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

What was fascinating was that not only the timeline graphically showed the evolution of the railway cars throughout the years, but there was also a gallery of train models right below it. The models were scaled-down representations of the actual railway cars, and by walking down the aisle to see the models, I could clearly see the cars have changed over the years, from the early days when they were operated by steam, to the sleek modern ones that passengers ride today.

 

It’s fun to spot the ones that I have ridden before, so the next time you visit the museum, why not have a look and see if you can spot (or even name) the different cars that you have taken before?

 

Becoming an SL train conductor

Inside the D51 train simulator. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

I returned to the first floor of the main exhibition hall because there was one particularly special exhibit that my colleagues and I had an exclusive look at. At the corner of the Rolling Stock Station is a D51 train simulator, where visitors can witness an accurate reconstruction of the driver’s cab of the SL train.

 

The simulator offers visitors a hands-on experience of conducting an SL train for themselves. It accurately replicates the actual driver’s cab found in the D51 SL train down to the smallest detail, and it includes all the different parts that a train conductor must operate while conducting the train, such as control valves, pressure gauges, and reverse brakes.

 

My colleague trying out the simulator. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

I must admit that when I first saw the D51 train simulator, I was a little intimated by the numerous valves, switches, and gauges that made up the driver’s cab. It was a huge mechanical contraption that starkly reminded anyone that being an SL train conductor was a difficult and tedious task.

 

My colleague Julia had the opportunity to try her hands on the simulator, with generous help from the museum’s staff. It proved to be an eye-opening experience; while handling the different knobs and levers, the simulator showed moving images of the outdoors and even produced a shaking motion to replicate the experience of riding a moving SL train.

(Note: visitors can only try out the D51 train simulator if they take part and win the lottery on The Railway Museum Raffle App.)

 

④ Get blown away by the train’s whistle

The C57 SL train. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

At the centre of the Rolling Stock Station is a huge turntable featuring a selected railway car that changes from time to time. During my visit to the museum, the railway car sitting on the turntable was the iconic C57 SL train, a historical relic that was often known as “noble lady” (貴婦人 kifujin). It was here that I got to experience something breathtaking.

 

Experiencing the train whistle. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

A few minutes later, all the visitors in the Rolling Stock Station were startled by the deafening sound of the train whistle that blew from the centre of the turntable. It was a firsthand experience for everyone to know what a train whistle sounded like, and it was yet another eye-opening moment that people don’t get to experience often, especially in the current modern day.

 

Discover the technological evolution of Japan’s trains

The History Station. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

Next, I moved on to the History Station, which occupies the third floor of the South Building. The station features a mini-gallery where visitors can explore the 150-year history of railway travel in Japan and how it evolved over the years since the first train service in 1872. The gallery displays vintage photos and images of trains and railway stations collected from historical archives, as well as exhibits that showcase some of the prominent people who made significant contributions to railway development.

 

A giant bell that was used in the past. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

Visitors to the History Station will be struck by the presence of a giant bell hanging from the ceiling in the middle of the gallery. It is a replica of the original one at Zōjōji Temple (増上寺), and in the past, the bell was planned to be relocated near the former Shimbashi Station to inform passengers of the time. However, it was too difficult to relocate the bell because of its size and weight, and hence the plan was not realised. Another fun fact: in the past, passengers did not have the concept of hours and minutes, as their way of counting the time was in two-hour blocks. 

 

Learning about it made me realise the sheer convenience of railway travel in the current age when information such as train schedules are easily available, and trains run smoothly daily.

 

⑥ Witness a passing shinkansen

The Panorama Deck. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

Want to see an actual shinkansen train pass by you? Then head up to the Panorama Deck on level four of the museum, a rooftop observation space where visitors can enjoy a panoramic view of the museum’s surroundings. The space also comes with benches, so visitors can relax and take in the amazing view all around them.

 

Shinkansen train schedule. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

The best part about the Panorama Deck is that visitors can actually see shinkansen trains passing by the museum from here. The museum is located very close to Ōmiya Station, which is a stop for many shinkansen train services, so visitors can get to see inbound and outbound shinkansen trains passing by the museum from here.

 

The Hakutaka 554 bound for Tokyo. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

What’s more, there is also a shinkansen train schedule that shows which train will pass by the museum at approximately what time. The trains' times are calculated according to their respective arrival and departure times at Ōmiya Station, and during my time on the Panorama Deck, I got to see the Hakutaka 554 (bound for Tōkyō) at 10:08am and the Asama 607 (bound for Nagano) at 10:10am. How lucky for me!

 

⑦ Limited edition souvenirs galore

Museum Shop TRAINIART. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

After an exciting tour around the museum, why not drop by the museum’s souvenir store? Located on the first floor of the Main Building, just outside the Rolling Stock Station, is the Museum Shop TRAINIART where visitors can browse and explore the numerous train-themed and limited-edition souvenirs, from small gifts to delicious snacks.

 

Food snacks and souvenirs galore. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

The shop sells everything, from aesthetic goods to novelty items, but the part that caught my attention the most was the food section, which was filled with limited-edition snacks packed in cutely designed packages. All kinds of snacks were available, from cookies inspired by iconic trains in real life, to foods packed in wrappings adorned with shinkansen images.

 

Cookies in containers shaped after shinkansen trains. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

I must admit that it was tempting to buy many of the adorable souvenirs that were on showcase in the section. One of the most outstanding ones was a range of cookies that were specially packed in containers shaped after shinkansen trains, such as the E5 and E6 series, and even the Doctor Yellow train that is rarely seen deployed for testing and maintenance.

 

If you are paying a visit to The Railway Museum, be sure to check out the museum shop and browse through all the wonderful goodies available!

 

The Railway Museum (鉄道博物館)
Address: 3-47 Onari-cho, Omiya-ku, Saitama-shi, Saitama 330-0852
Access: 1-minute walk from New Shuttle Tetsudo-Hakubutsukan Station (ニューシャトル鉄道博物館駅)
Operating hours: 10am–5pm (last entry at 4:30pm, closed every Tuesday and New Year holidays)
Admission fee: ¥1,330 per adult

(Note: The Railway Museum requires advanced ticket purchases which can be made at 7-Eleven, Lawson, or Mini Stop convenience stores. The tickets cannot be bought at the museum.)

 

Closing

I got to spend the entire morning touring the museum and have a glimpse of Japan’s historical railways and current modern technology. Even if it was a wholly satisfying experience, there were still many other sections in the museum that I didn’t get to visit and experience, some of which were closed due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic or for maintenance.

 

However, that simply meant that I have more reason to visit the museum again whenever I have the opportunity. I highly recommend the museum to anyone who loves riding trains in Japan, and those interested to know more about how far trains have come in the country.

 

JR TOKYO Wide Pass

TWP_New.jpg (811 KB)

The JR TOKYO Wide Pass and where you can use it. (Image credit: JR East)

 

Want to visit The Railway Museum and other nearby destinations for day trips while staying in Tokyo? Then check out the JR TOKYO Wide Pass, an affordable pass that offers unlimited rail travel on JR East lines (including bullet trains) and some non-JR lines in the valid area for 3 consecutive days. At only ¥15,000, the pass enables travellers to travel from Tokyo to Omiya and around the Kanto Region, including Kamakura, the Izu Peninsula, and Kawaguchiko. You can also make seat reservations online for free, up to 1 month in advance, on the JR-EAST Train Reservation.

 

The JR-EAST Train Reservation. (Image credit: JR East)

 

The JR TOKYO Wide Pass can be used for automatic ticket gates, and foreign passport holders living in Japan are also eligible to use this pass.

(Note: the pass is not eligible for the New Shuttle, so pass holders must buy a separate ticket for it).

 

Header image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang

 

Related Articles

Share this article:
TSC-Banner
2403-Hokuriku-Right