Kyoto Railway Museum shares the the history of Japan’s railways from steam trains to the Shinkansen. In this post, we’ll review Kyoto Railway Museum, compare it to other major train museums we’ve visited in Japan, share photos from our visit, and offer tips & info.
Japan has a lot of railway museums, and Kyoto Railway Museum is the newest of these, having opened less than 2 years ago. When I first started researching the topic, I was taken aback by how many museums are dedicated to various forms of trains. I probably shouldn’t have been, since Japan has a lot of museums in general, and given that the advanced rail network is a point of national pride.
Kyoto Railway Museum’s mission statement reflects exactly that: to value tradition and innovation, and be a “hub of railway culture that progresses with its community” while promoting the social significance of the railway. The museum’s purpose is to contribute to regional revitalization while creating a museum that’s a “place of rest” and “place of learning” where visitors can discover, touch, and experience history for themselves.
Against that backdrop, let’s discuss Kyoto Railway Museum, starting first with basics such as getting there, what is presented in the museum, and then wrapping up with our comparison to the other big railway museums near Tokyo and Nagoya.
Info & Tips
Getting to the museum is pretty simple, as a ton of different buses stop at the Umekoji Park bus stop. Bus 205 is the main one, but from Kyoto Station there are also a half-dozen other buses that stop there on their way to other destinations. Keihan buses also stop there.
Nevertheless, the easiest way to get to Kyoto Railway Museum from Kyoto Station is walking. It’ll take a little longer, but about half the walk is through Umekoji Park, and it’s fairly pleasant. Unless you have small children, we’d recommend skipping the bus and just going by foot.
Kyoto Railway Museum is open from 10:00 a.m. until 5:30 p.m. (last admission at 5:00 p.m.) daily, except for Wednesdays, when it’s closed. Admission costs 1,200 yen for adults and 200 yen for children, with various discounts for students.
Upon arrival, you’ll purchase your tickets from a vending machine, and enter through the promenade into the first floor. Between the promenade and main building, there are more than 50 trains are on display, an impressive collection that dates from the early history of Japanese railways in the late 1800s up to today’s Shinkansen.
You can go inside some of these trains and under others, and as with any railway museum in Japan, this is the highlight of the visit. While you’ll have a lot of exposure to trains throughout your visit to Japan, there’s something to be said for the up close and personal nature of these displays.
While this aspect of the museum is definitely cool, I’d say it’s weaker than both the other ‘big’ railway museums in Japan. Saitama City has more trains and Nagoya has more cutting edge ones, but that does not diminish what you see here. If this is the only railway museum you visit in Japan, you’ll be very impressed.
Where we think Kyoto Railway Museum outshines the others is its historical displays. In the “Advances in the Railway” section of the museum, there’s a ton of historical information. We thought it was especially cool to see the various graphic designs over the decades. Personally, I wish the gift shop sold some of these designs on merchandise, as some of them are awesome.
On the second floor, there’s a similarly fascinating exhibit called “Life and the Railway.” This covers the day-to-day grind of railway employees, and I think it’s supposed to impart a sense of respect for the labor these people put into their occupations.
That’s not the sense we got, as this exhibit focuses heavily on just how overworked the employees are. Pictured above is a bed inside a railway station with an automated device that lifts up part of the body when it’s time for their naps to end.
You hear stories about how the Japanese work ethic is unparalleled, so perhaps it’s just the lazy American in me, but this was a bit unsettling. (It was still really fascinating, though.)
Throughout, there are also a number of hands-on engineering displays and information that highlights the technical innovations of Japan’s railways. These are not only fun, but they’re impressive.
With all of these railway museums, the national pride the Japanese have for their railways comes shining through, and that is something that’s respectable. It’s really staggering to see just how far advanced Japan is beyond the United States when it comes to railways.
Other interactive options include a simulator used by driver training, and a large model railway that you can pilot. We thought this was pretty cool, although it was slightly awkward as Sarah and I were the only two adults waiting in line with a bunch of kids for our chance to pilot a Shinkansen.
There’s also a diorama with set show times, which is a must-do if you don’t see this at one of the other railway museums. The show component is cool. On these upper levels, there’s also a terrace with nice views of the city and down into the railway tracks that connect to Kyoto Station.
Back downstairs and outdoors, there’s the Roundhouse, which is a semi-circular building built in 1914 that houses an assortment of trains. This is actually considered an important cultural property of Japan.
It’s still a functioning turntable that changes the direction of the steam locomotives by rotating them. The characteristic steam locomotives used from the Meiji to the Showa periods are on display here. In this area there’s also Twilight Plaza, which features the famed Twilight Express, a sleeper train that ran between Sapporo and Osaka.
In terms of tips, this is definitely the busiest museum we’ve visited in the city, and we did see a school group or two there during our visit.
Its large size means it can absorb crowds really well, so unless you’re visiting on a national holiday or encounter a half-dozen school groups, you probably don’t need to worry too much about crowds. Just go whenever–it’s going to feel less crowded than Kyoto’s popular temples.
English audio guides are available for 500 yen, and you might want to consider getting one. They definitely provide more information than the placards throughout the museum, only some of which are translated. If you’re interested in the history of Japan’s railway system, the audio guide is a must. If you primarily want to see trains and operate the hands-on displays, you can skip the guide.
Another recommendation, if you want to call it that, is to stop by the gift shop. This is particularly true if you have kids or are taking gifts back for kids. There is a ton of train and Shinkansen-themed merchandise for children, and some is incredibly cute and clever. Every time we visit a railway museum in Japan, we see multiple kids wearing train outfits. The fondness for trains among children transcends cultures, and that always makes us chuckle.
Our Review & Railway Museum Comparison
Of the many railway museums in Japan, I’d say Kyoto Railway Museum is part of the “Big Three.” With the other two located in Nagoya and Saitama City, a suburb of Tokyo. From my perspective, the museum in Nagoya is the best of the bunch, and truly one of the greatest museums in the world, full stop.
However, a first-timer to Japan probably isn’t going to be visiting Nagoya, whereas you are likely to be visiting both Tokyo and Kyoto. The question thus becomes which of those two railway museums you should visit. While I personally prefer the Railway Museum in Saitama City, both are very good. It’s a close call.
With that in mind, I’d give the edge to Kyoto Railway Museum when building your itinerary for a couple of reasons. First, it’s within walking distance of Kyoto Station, whereas Saitama City requires a half-day trip from downtown Tokyo. Second, Kyoto Railway Museum is by far the best museum in Kyoto, whereas Tokyo offers an incredibly strong slate of museums.
Finally, it offers diversity in your Kyoto itinerary that could otherwise be bogged down with temples, whereas your Tokyo itinerary is likely to be heavy on museums as it is. Of course, you could always do both, or even make the ‘Grand Circle Tour’ with a Shinkansen stop in Nagoya for the best of the bunch, too!
Overall, Kyoto Railway Museums is one of the top things to do in the city, and arguably the top thing to do that is not a temple or shrine. It’s definitely the best museum, and ranks highly among all museums in Japan. Even in light of our ranking it as the third-best railway museum, it’s no doubt among the top 10 museums we’ve visited in Japan (and we’ve been to many). We had no clue we’d enjoy railway museums so much until we visited these. If you have kids, Kyoto Railway Museum is an absolute must visit. Even if you don’t, it’s a surprisingly compelling museum that can be appreciated by guests of all ages and interest levels.
If you’re planning a visit to the Japan that includes Kyoto, please check out my other posts about Japan. I also highly recommend the Lonely Planet Kyoto Guide to determine everything you should see and do while there.
Have you visited the Kyoto Railway Museum or any other train museums in Japan? Which did you prefer? Would you recommend Kyoto Railway Museum to a first-timer visiting Japan? Any thoughts or tips of your own to add? Does visiting this museum interest you? 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!