Trains make up a very integral part of life here in Japan, and there are plenty of train museums to go around. During a trip to Kyoto, we decided to take the plunge and go full train mode and learn a bit more about railway history and see a visiting celebrity!
Inside the Museum
First, it must be noted that this museum is huge. It’s grand, sprawling both outside and in, nestled up right next to an actual working railway yard that you can observe from a variety of observation decks in the building. Neat touch!
Making your way inside first involves walking by a series of trains through history, showing you how the interiors and the mechanics of each have changed over time. There’s even a train at the end where you can sit in the conductor’s chair! This was very popular with children, and always had a pretty sizable line for entry during our time there.
In the main building, you can learn just about everything you could ever have wanted about railways in Japan (if you can read Japanese)! There are displays dedicated to the various railway companies that came and went through modern history, displaying their logos, advertisements, uniforms, tickets, signage, you name it! The most interesting part for me was that the train conductors carried ceremonial swords and their uniforms almost looked like that of early police uniforms.
There are also side exhibits, away from the trains, where you can learn about the great feats of engineering required to build the infrastructure to get the trains going and to keep them safe. There are sections about bridges, types of rails and how they are made, and an entire section on train safety for pedestrians: You can cross through a recreation right there in the station, next to a veritable cornucopia of signals and lights for you to enjoy. There’s even a hand cart you can hop on and pump your way down a small stretch of tracks! This too was wildly popular with the children, so the line was always present and significant.
The Train Yard
Once you get back outside, you enter the train yard. This train yard for the museum used to be a working train yard where trains would go to rest and receive maintenance once upon a time. The rotating platform that allows the trains to move into each bay is massive; I’ve not seen anything quite like it!
And during our visit, that platform was occupied by the one, the only Thomas the Tank Engine (I, sadly, neglected to get his photo, foolishly thinking I was “too cool” to take a picture of Thomas. How misguided I was…)! He was there, he was smiling, spinning, moving his eyes, and speaking in fluent Japanese! As someone who has only seen the English version, it was a bit strange to hear him speaking in Japanese. The kids there, unsurprisingly, were going wild. They love themselves some Thomas here in Japan! And why wouldn’t they? Trains are so integrated into the culture that a sentient train makes perfect sense as a popular children’s media.
Finishing your journey, you wind back out through the old train station’s main building (refurbished into a gift shop), where you can exit immediately or take some time and buy yourself some train cookies, train stationery, or train accessories.
I really enjoyed the time I spent here, with my favorite parts being able to see all the old train tickets, uniforms, and items from the dawn of commercial train travel in Japan. If you’re into Japanese history or you have a passing interest in trains, then you will find something there to keep your attention. If you’re not, still give it a shot! The worst that can happen is that you spend some yen on something that isn’t for you. You’ll never know unless you try, right?