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Aki-citing autumn train rides: 4 magical train rides to enjoy autumn views in Japan

Aki-citing autumn train rides: 4 magical train rides to enjoy autumn views in Japan

What is your favourite season to visit Japan? Many might pick spring for the pretty, pink cherry blossoms, or winter for the magical snowy landscapes, but I personally find autumn (秋 aki) to be the most mesmerising and beauti-fall. Mention autumn foliage, and places that come to mind might be castles, parks, or shrines, but I feel that the most aki-citing experience would be viewing the dazzling fall colours from a train.

 

Trains can take you to amazing places, and there is something especially captivating about embarking on a railway ride through nature, gazing out the window while enjoying colourful scenery roll by, don’t you think so? 

 

In this article, I will introduce four railway lines and train rides to enjoy fantastic fall foliage and awesome autumn colours. Are you ready? Let’s go!

 

① JR East Tadami Line | Fukushima Prefecture & Niigata Prefecture

Autumn leaves viewing period: Late October to mid-November (varies each year)

Route: Aizu-Wakamatsu Station Koide Station

 

The No. 1 Tadami River Bridge in autumn. (Image credit: East Japan Railway Company)

 

We’re starting our list strong with one of Japan’s most popular autumn scenic railway routes. Mention autumn and railways, and one place that comes to mind for railway enthusiasts would be the No. 1 Tadami River Bridge along the JR Tadami Line (只見線 Tadami-sen). 

 

Enchanting autumn scenery along the Tadami Line. (Image credit: East Japan Railway Company)

 

Known for its spectacular scenery and picturesque photo spots that have long enchanted photographers, the 135km-long Tadami Line runs between Aizu-Wakamatsu Station (会津若松駅) in Fukushima Prefecture and Koide Station (小出駅) in Niigata Prefecture. 

 

Autumn views along the Tadami River. (Image credit: Carissa Loh)

 

Mostly meandering around the Aizu Region in Western Fukushima, the Tadami Line runs along the scenic and tranquil Tadami River (只見川 Tadami-gawa), crossing numerous bridges, with many mountains visible in the distance. Much of the train tracks were badly damaged by a flood in July 2011, and after over 11 years, the entire line finally resumed operations in October 2022. It takes a whopping 4 hours for a one-way ride, but the journey is filled with captivating views at every turn, and the trains are always packed during autumn!

 

Special trains in autumn have large windows and reserved seats. (Image credit: East Japan Railway Company)

 

If you want to snag a seat, I suggest arriving at the station early to board your train, as most trains on the Tadami Line are local trains with non-reserved seats. Another alternative would be to reserve a seat on one of the special autumn services. During autumn, JR East operates special trains along the Tadami Line on selected weekends in October. Known as the Fūkko Tadami-sen Mankitsu Gō (風っこ只見線満喫号), these trains have larger windows to enjoy the autumn colours, and best of all, feature reserved seats (指定席 shiteiseki).

 

Heading towards the No. 1 Tadami River Bridge Viewpoint. (Image credit: Carissa Loh)

 

If you have the time, I highly recommend staying a night at Aizu Wakamatsu and taking a day trip to the No. 1 Tadami River Bridge Viewpoint, one of the higher elevation viewpoints that is easy to reach by public transport. A short 10-minute climb from the bus stop brings you to several viewpoints which overlook the No. 1 Tadami River Bridge and the Tadami River below. In the peak of autumn, you’ll be surrounded by vibrant shades of yellow and orange.  

 

② Watarase Keikoku Railway | Gunma Prefecture & Tochigi Prefecture

Autumn leaves viewing period: Late October to late November (varies each year)

Route: Kiryū Station Matо̄ Station

 

Watarase Keikoku Railway’s Torokko Wasshī train. (Image credit: Carissa Loh)

 

Next on the list is the Watarase Keikoku Railway (わたらせ渓谷鐵道 Watarase Keikoku Tetsudо̄), which I had the pleasure of visiting last year. Running 44km between Kiryū Station (桐生駅) in Gunma Prefecture and Matо̄ Station (間藤駅) in Tochigi Prefecture, this railway line passes by the picturesque Watarase River and scenic gorges, with amazing views that you can enjoy from the train windows. 


Open-air carriages make the scenery look like a moving painting. (Image credit: Carissa Loh)

 

You can expect beautiful scenery along this railway in all seasons, but the vibrant autumn foliage will definitely leave a lasting impression. For the best experience, I highly recommend riding an open-air carriage (トロッコ torokko) train, which has larger windows than regular trains. 

 

Watarase Keikoku Railway operates two such trains, which run year-round mostly on weekends, with extra weekday services during autumn (October to November) and spring (April to May):

  • Torokko Watarase Keikoku (トロッコわたらせ渓谷号)
  • Torokko Wasshī (トロッコわっしー号)

 

For these special trains, half of the cars are open-air carriages, while the other half have windows. During winter (December to March), glass panes are installed in the open-air carriages to protect against the cold temperatures.

 

Fantastic autumn views. (Image credit: Carissa Loh)

 

The altitude difference between Kiryū Station and Matо̄ Station is about 550m, so you can enjoy autumn colours over an extended period of up to a month. A one-way trip takes about 100 minutes, and the best thing about open-air carriages is the large, open windows, which offer unbeatable views of the surrounding scenery, making it like a colourful, moving painting. Plus, being able to feel the crisp autumn air blowing through your hair gives the ride a “4D” experience!

 

Seiryu, a restaurant operating in two old train cars. (Image credit: Carissa Loh)

 

Want to check out something unique? Make a pitstop at Gо̄do Station (神戸駅) to find out! On the station platform there is a restaurant, Seiryū (清流), that is built in two old 1720 series train cars that used to service Tobu Railway. If you have time, be sure to stop by, as you can sit down and dine inside these vintage train cars. I visited during lunch time and tried the maitake udon (舞茸うどん), which had generous portion of delicious maitake mushroom tempura atop udon noodles. At the restaurant, you can also purchase ekiben (駅弁 lunch boxes for eating on the train).

 

Watarase Keikoku Railway (わたらせ渓谷鐵道)
Access from major JR station: From JR Takasaki Station (高崎駅), take the JR Ryōmo Line to Kiryū Station (桐生駅) and transfer to the Watarase Keikoku Railway Line to start the journey.

 

③ Kurobe Gorge Railway | Toyama Prefecture

Autumn leaves viewing period: Late October to mid-November (varies each year)

Route: Unazuki Station Keyakidaira Station

 

Setting off from Unazuki Station and crossing the Shin-Yamabiko bridge. (Image credit: とやま観光推進機構)

 

Heading over to Toyama Prefecture, we have the renowned Kurobe Gorge Railway (黒部峡谷鉄道トロッコ電車 Kurobe Kyōkoku Tetsudō Torokko Densha), which brings you on a winding 20km route through the gorge-ous Kurobe Gorge (黒部峡谷 Kurobe kyōkoku). Known for its deep V-shape, Kurobe Gorge is a scenic gorge that separates the Tateyama Mountain Range and the Northern Alps, and is the deepest gorge in Japan, with nearly vertical cliffs. The gorge was carved out over thousands of years by the flowing waters of the Kurobe River. 

 

Kurobe Gorge Railway’s open-air carriages offer unobstructed views. (Image credit: Carissa Loh)

 

Initially constructed in 1923 to carry materials for building the Kurobe Dam, the Kurobe Gorge Railway was converted to a scenic sightseeing railway which opened to the public in 1971. Running between Unazuki Station (宇奈月駅) and Keyakidaira Station (欅平駅), this railway is known for its bright orange trolley trains with open-air carriages. With no windows separating you from the scenery, you can enjoy fantastic views without any obstruction, and breathe in the fresh mountain air!

 

Autumn views of Kurobe Gorge and at Keyakidaira. (Image credit: photoAC)

 

A one-way ride takes about 80 minutes to complete, with ample opportunities and time to take in the stunning autumn colours along the gorge. At Keyakidaira, the terminal station of the line, I recommend taking a 1–2 hour pitstop to walk around and enjoy views of the beautiful blue Kurobe River, the mesmerising autumn colours on the mountains, and even soak your feet in free footbaths (足湯 ashiyu) with a view!

 

Kurobe Gorge Railway (黒部峡谷トロッコ電車)
Access from major JR station: From JR Toyama Station, walk 2 minutes to the adjacent Dentetsu-Toyama Station (電鉄富山駅) building, and take the Toyama Chihou Railway to Unazuki Onsen Station (宇奈月温泉駅). From there, walk 3 minutes to Kurobe Gorge Railway’s Unazuki Station (宇奈月駅) to start the journey.

*Note: Due to heavy snowfall, the Kurobe Gorge Railway does not operate in winter. In 2023, it will operate from 6 May–30 November. (Varies each year)

 

Sagano Scenic Railway | Kyoto Prefecture

Autumn leaves viewing period: Mid-November to early December (varies each year)

Route: Saga Torokko Station Kameoka Torokko Station

 

The Sagano Romantic Train brings you to stunning views of the Hozukyo Ravine. (Image credit: photoAC)

 

Last but not least, when thinking of autumn in Japan, Kyoto instantly comes to mind for its marvellous maples, which are usually enjoyed in the city’s temples and shrines. However, another way to experience Kyoto’s maple leaves is by riding the Sagano Romantic Train (嵯峨野トロッコ列車 Sagano Torokko Ressha), operated by Sagano Scenic Railway (嵯峨野観光鉄道 Sagano Kankō Tetsudō).

 

The Sagano Romantic Train. (Image credit: photoAC)

 

Running 7.3km along the scenic Hozukyo Ravine (保津峡 Hozukyō) between Saga Torokko Station (トロッコ嵯峨駅) and Kameoka Torokko Station (トロッコ亀岡駅), the Sagano Romantic Train is a diesel-run train featuring large windows, from which you can feel the cool breeze while gazing at the dazzling autumn colours from the train windows. 

 

For the best experience, sit in Car 5, the Rich Car (リッチ号), which is open-air from floor to ceiling. Cars 1 through 4 have large windows with glass panes that can be lifted up and down, but Car 5 has no glass panes. Despite the short journey time of 25 minutes, there are many opportunities to bask in the beautiful scenery on the leisurely ride. Except for late December to late February, the train operates almost daily, and is usually closed on Wednesdays. 

 

Hozugawa River Cruise. (Image credit: photoAC)

 

Along the route, you can also look down at the traditional boats sailing down the Hozu River (保津川 Hozugawa). If you have time, I recommend taking the Sagano Romantic Train one way, and taking the Hozugawa River Cruise (保津川下り) back, so that you can enjoy the Hozukyo Ravine’s autumn colours in two different ways.

 

Sagano Scenic Railway (嵯峨野観光鉄道)
Access from major JR station: From JR Kyoto Station (京都駅), take the JR Sagano Line to JR Sagano-Arashiyama Station (嵯峨野嵐山駅) and walk 5 minutes to Sagano Scenic Railway’s Saga Torokko Station (トロッコ嵯峨駅) to start the journey.

 

Closing

Image credit: Carissa Loh (top) and photoAC (bottom)

 

With beauti-fall, colourful leaves, enchanting scenery, and the crisp and cool air, autumn is one of my favourite seasons to visit Japan. Some of the best autumn foliage can be found at gorges, valleys, and ravines, with trains being the best way of enjoying their scenery. Japan has so many scenic railway lines with incredible autumn views. And these four are just the tip of the iceberg. So the next time you visit Japan in autumn, why not hop on an open-air carriage and explore these exciting train rides?

 

Header image credit: photoAC

 

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