Railway Museum in Saitama showcases the history of railways in Japan, with train cars you can go inside, interactive simulators, and exhibits detailing the evolution of railway technology. In this post, we’ll take a photo tour of the Railway Museum, and offer thoughts on whether it’s worth the commute to visit as a half-day trip from Tokyo.
The Railway Museum’s huge collection of rolling stock (used trains, retired series of Shinkansen, freight cars, plus steam and diesel locomotives) occupies most of the first floor of this enormous venue. The second and third floors of the museum house educational exhibits on the past, present, and future of railways, plus Japan’s largest train diorama. Finally, the top floor features a restaurant and observation deck with views of train lines in the area.
Saitama’s Railway Museum was the first we visited in Japan, and it’ll always hold a soft spot in my heart for that reason. Walking inside so many historic train cars and seeing the incredible diorama are memories I’ll never forget. At the time, I was absolutely blown away by the sheer number of retired train cars and Shinkansen, and the detail of the diorama is staggering.
Even prior to our visit, the Railway Museum is something we had wanted to do for a while, and it has just never worked out because the museum is located in Saitama City, which is about 90 minutes north of Tokyo Station by train.
During our trip to Tokyo last fall, we were staying north of the city-center, so the commute was more like an hour, so we figured it was time to finally set aside the half-day and visit the Railway Museum.
One highlight of the Saitama Railway Museum is the rolling stock, or retired trains that are on display. The first floor is dedicated to these, with 36 different train cars.
Although I didn’t count the exact number, I’d say you can walk-through at least half of these, which is a sizable portion of the rolling stock. The Saitama Railway Museum is definitely strong in terms of the trains you can actually enter.
Then there’s the diorama. Billed as the largest train diorama in Japan, this is 23 meters by 10 meters, and has a vast number of train lines that criss-cross one another.
While you can look at the diorama whenever, there’s a daily schedule for it to be operated, at which time all of the railway lines run, night falls, and the lights within the trains and diorama itself are illuminated. You will definitely want to set aside time to watch the diorama running.
The most in-demand exhibit in the Railway Museum is the Simulator Hall, which offers the chance to drive 4 different trains for an additional fee of 500 yen per experience.
If this interests you or your kids, we’d recommend going early, as these tickets are distributed starting at 10 a.m. for time slots later in the day, and can sell out on popular days.
In addition to these highlights, there are the Jobs Station, History Station, Science Station, and Future Station, each of which are exhibits detailing an aspect of the railway in Japan. The names should be pretty self-explanatory.
If you want more insight into what each individual exhibit at the Railway Museum contains, here’s a PDF of the map.
On the lower level behind the train turntable and rolling stock area filled with historic trains you can board, there are several Shinkansen trains and an exhibit about the history of the Shinkansen, plus a mini-Shinkansen ride.
Even though the diorama is awesome, the highlight of my visit was the Shinkansen exhibit. Riding the Shinkansen is a Japan “attraction” unto itself for me, and I love the scenic trip between Kyoto and Tokyo.
Seeing how the Shinkansen has evolved over the course of the last few decades is remarkable. It still boggles my mind that the Shinkansen has been operating in Japan for over 50 years. Meanwhile in America, most of our major cities lack even basic public transportation networks.
Admission to the Railway Museum is 1300 yen for adults, 600 yen for students, and 300 yen for pre-school age children. There’s also an annual pass available if you’re really serious about trains.
We saw a number of elderly visitors napping aboard the walk-through trains or enjoying lunch, which might sound funny at first, but taking a daily nap aboard a Shinkansen is basically living the dream for me.
Operating hours for the Railway Museum are 10 a.m. until 6:00 p.m., with the last admission at 5:30 p.m. The museum is closed on Tuesdays and New Year’s holidays.
Free volunteer tour guides are available at select times of the day, as are free lockers and WiFi. Expect to spend about 2-3 hours at the Railway Museum, perhaps more if you intend upon taking a nap in one of the comfier trains.
English is limited in the Railway Museum, likely a result of its suburban location away from other tourist attractions. (We didn’t see more than a handful of other Westerners during our visit.) I’d say about half of the placards include both Japanese and English, but some are just in Japanese.
Fortunately, trains are a universal language, so we never really had an issue with this. There were a couple of displays where I wish translations were present, but the bulk of the offerings are easy to understand without English placards.
If you’re staying near one of the major stations, or along the Yamanote Line, you should anticipate a 90 minute commute to the Railway Museum from Tokyo. If it’s your first trip to Japan and you only have a few days to explore Tokyo, that’s tough to justify.
Even with all of my gushing about the Railway Museum, I have a difficult time recommending it to first-timers to Japan. The Kyoto Railway Museum is more easily accessible for visitors to both cities, and the SCMaglev and Railway Park in Nagoya is a great option for those commuting between Kyoto and Tokyo who have the Japan Rail Pass.
The Railway Museum would be easier to recommend if there were another compelling draw in or around Saitama, but in our research, we couldn’t find anything. Saitama is basically a suburb for Tokyo, and aside from this museum, bonsai tree nurseries, and Hikawa Shrine, it doesn’t have any major points of interest.
We ended up visiting a Book-off Superstore in Stellar Town, a huge mall located about 20 minutes from the Railway Museum. Stellar Town is interesting in that it’s a suburban Japanese mall, which differs from the city malls in that it has big box retailers, such as Muji…which is like IKEA meets UNIQLO. The most interesting store in the complex is a 7-11 Supermarket, which is like the normal convenience store on steroids.
Visiting Stellar Town to see Japanese big box stores and the world’s largest 7-11 (probably?) might sound like an odd way to spend time in Japan, but it was actually quite a fascinating experience. We’d recommend Stellar Town to anyone who does make the trek to Saitama for the Railway Museum.
Overall, the Saitama Railway Museum is an incredible place and ranks for us as one of the top 5 museums in all of Japan. It’s fun, interactive, and educational–all of which makes for a really enjoyable experience. Unfortunately, its location in a suburb of Tokyo makes it difficult to recommend to first-time visitors to Japan. Unless this topic is of serious interest to you and you won’t have the opportunity to visit one of the other major railway museums, you probably should not go on your first visit to Japan. For repeat travelers to Japan, it’s much easier to justify, and the opportunity to see suburban Tokyo is fascinating on its own, adding another wrinkle to the half-day trip from the city.
For all of your planning needs–from places to stay to things to do and much more–please consult our Ultimate Tokyo, Japan City Guide. If you’re planning a visit to other cities, please check out my other posts about Japan.
Have you visited the Saitama Railway Museum? Did you think it was worth the commute time from Tokyo? How much time did you spend here? Would you recommend the Railway Museum to first-timers in Japan? Any additional tips or thoughts from your visit to add? If you haven’t been to Japan, does this interest you? Any questions? Hearing your feedback about your experiences is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts or questions below in the comments!