Japan has a lot of museums devoted to railways and transportation, and we’ve visited the best of these near Tokyo, Nagoya, and Kyoto. During our two-month stay in Japan last year (documented in our Brickers’ Fall & Winter Japan Trip Report), we used the trains countless times and took several Shinkansen rides courtesy of our unlimited Japan Rail Passes.
While we’ve long been fans of Japan’s punctual and efficient public transportation, having the privilege to visit these railway museums reinforced that, and gave us an even deeper appreciation for the trains of Japan. If you’re thinking of incorporating a railway museum (or several) into your trip to Japan, there are the “Big 3” followed far behind by everything else. We’ve been to all of these, and will offer our rankings in this post, including the pros & cons and similarities & differences among them.
Japan’s three major railway museums have a ton in common. Each has a 4.5 score on TripAdvisor and a 4.3-star or higher average on Google, which put them among the top attractions in all of Japan. Each has dozens of rolling stock, which are retired trains that you can walk inside or under, and are awesome to see up close. Each also has a huge, detailed diorama that’s worth spending some time watching operate. And of course, each of these museums focuses on the history of railroads, and their impact on Japan.
Although we’ve stated as much in the individual reviews, it’s worth underscoring that although these museums cover the specific topic of transportation in Japan, they also use the motif of trains as a mechanism for exploring life, culture, history, and even food in Japanese life. They are fascinating cultural experiences, and that can be valuable for the parents out there who aren’t so hyped on trains. (To those parents, I’d implore you to let your inner child out, but not doing so is certainly a mistake you’re free to make!)
Here’s a brief look at each of the Big 3 railway museums in Japan and how they rate as compared to one another. Click the name of each to open our full reviews (featuring many additional photos) of each in a new tab…
A good mix of history, interactive displays, and info on how trains contribute to Japanese culture, Kyoto Railway Museum is an incredibly well-rounded experience that isn’t just for lovers of railroads. As with the other railway museums, this one also has a diorama, but it doesn’t impress like the others.
Kyoto Railway Museum is home to 53 rolling stock trains, from historic steam locomotives to modern Shinkansen bullet trains. This is the largest collection of retired trains of any of the major railway museums, but fewer of these are available for entering, and several are outside in the roundhouse area, so it doesn’t seem like Kyoto Railway Museum has a larger collection than the other museums.
Despite ranking “last” here, Kyoto Railway Museum is likely one of the top 5 museums in all of Japan (easily in the top 10), so it’s hardly a slouch. It also should be noted that Kyoto Railway Museum is located not far from Kyoto Station, making it (by far) the most convenient of these to access for most visitors to Japan. Read and see more in our full Kyoto Railway Museum post.
2. Railway Museum in Saitama (Tokyo Suburb)
Home to “only” 36 different retired trains, Saitama’s Railway Museum is the least-impressive railway museum if we’re judging based on the quantity of rolling stock. However, each of these is displayed thoughtfully, and a good number can be entered. All things considered, I’d consider Saitama’s and Kyoto’s railway museums roughly tied for second in terms of rolling stock.
Another highlight here is the largest train diorama in Japan, measuring 23 meters by 10 meters with more intersecting train lines than I can count. When it’s being operated, at which time all of the railway lines run, night falls, and the lights within the trains and diorama itself are illuminated, it’s really impressive. This is the second-best diorama from my perspective.
All things considered, this is the most balanced railway museum with a good mix of hands-on exhibits, trains to explore, history, technology, and more. It’s not as “exciting” as the SCMaglev Park, but it’s a great option, especially as a day-trip from Tokyo. Read and see more in our full Railway Museum post.
SCMaglev Museum and Railway Park is more forward-looking than the other museums, and serves a secondary purpose of being JR’s public pitch for the super-conducting maglev. There’s also a focus on the Shinkansen, which gives it a lot of appeal to international visitors because this technology is still very foreign and wow-inducing. Other areas emphasize technology and science, with smaller exhibits on history and culture, the latter of which plays a smaller role here.
SCMaglev Museum and Railway Park has 39 rolling stock displays, including the most Shinkansen and other high speed trains. While the most impressive of these cannot be entered, even seeing the experimental Shinkansen, super-conducting maglev, and Dr. Yellow Shinkansen is something special. On balance, this is the best rolling stock lineup.
This museum is also home to my favorite train diorama: “A Day in the Life of the Railway.” This is smaller than Saitama’s but the diverse train lines running through meticulously designed real-life locales from Osaka, Kyoto, Nara, Nagoya and even Tokyo puts it over the top.
SCMaglev Museum and Railway Park is the decisive winner here for its rolling stock, diorama, and tech-forward presentation. The science on display and demonstrations here are really cool, and I’ll admit that I’m a total sucker for the Shinkansen, which still blows my mind. Read and see more in our full SCMaglev Museum & Railway Park post.
With all of this said, we still have not visited every railway museum in Japan. I am making it my life’s mission to accomplish this noble feat, and hope to have the rest ‘accomplished’ and reviewed within the next couple of years. With that said, here are the major railway museums we’ve yet to visit:
- Tobu Museum
- Ome Railway Park
- Kyushu Railway History Museum
- Tokyo Subway Museum
- Hiroshima City Transport Museum
- Hara Model Railway Museum
- Nagoya City Tram & Subway Museum
- Hokkaido Railway Museum
- Otaru Railway Museum
- Sapporo City Transport Museum
- Usui Toge Railway Culture Village
Ultimately, we think exploring a railway museum is a quintessential Japan experience right up there with visiting temples & shrines, grabbing breakfast from convenience stores, or even using the trains. These museums offer fascinating windows into not just the trains that play an integral role in Japanese daily life, but also slices of culture and the history of Japan. These museums do not disappoint, and are each likely to be among your most memorable experiences in Japan.
Have you ever visited any of these (or other) railway museums in Japan? What did you think of the museum(s) you visited? If you’ve been to all three, how would you rank them? Any feedback or tips of your own to add? Any questions about the railway museums? 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!