16 March 2018 by Eleanor Kania
In 2012 – the year of the Japanese tsunami – the average delay of the bullet train was just 36 seconds. Just last month, I turned on the six o’clock news to a story, simply titled: “Apology after Japanese train departs 20 seconds early”. But, it’s not just the ruthless efficiency that makes the Japanese rail network so appealing. On Shikoku, express trains pass hilltop shrines and ancient burial grounds, while main-island Honshu sees routes skirt dramatic coastlines, wind through the Japanese Alps and circumnavigate great lakes. What’s more, rail travel is not only often the quickest way to travel, but also the most affordable. To help guide you, I’ve put together the following itinerary, knitting together secret gems and Japan’s famous highlights with some of its most scenic train trips.
It all begins in Tokyo. While you’ll stay next to historic gardens, we’ll include a pre-loaded transport card so you can get started on your rail journey early and explore the capital. A private guide will also tailor a full-day tour of the city to your interests. There’s everything from Akihabara’s neon and Shinjuku’s skyscrapers to hole-in-the-wall ramen joints and the Shinto shrines of Yoyogi Park. You’ll even enjoy entrance to the world’s tallest tower – the Tokyo Skytree. It’s then time for your first bullet-train sprint, whipping you between Mt. Fuji and the coast to arrive at Kyoto. Here, we’ve arranged for you to be greeted by a private tea ceremony, your guide educating you on the tradition’s ancient Buddhist principles. You’ll also contrast the sleek style of your luxury hotel with Kyoto’s rich heritage, enjoying a personalised private tour. Choose from 17 unesco-listed treasures, 400 Shinto shrines and 1,600 Buddhist temples as you dip between bamboo groves and Imperial-Palace gardens. I’d then recommend making further use of your rail pass with a day trip to Nara. It’s where Buddhism first made land in Japan; something evidenced by the city’s grand monasteries and terraced temples.
Back on the Shinkansen, you’ll next skirt Honshu’s southern coast to Okayama where you’ll change onto an express train, heading inland to Matsue. Set between twin lagoons and a maze of waterways, this prefectural capital welcomes with spectacular sunsets and an imposingly tiered 17th-century castle. You’ll have two days to explore; Matsue even features one of the country’s finest gardens, all spindly bonsais and raked gravel swathes. At day’s end you’ll retire to your traditional ryokan inn where timber rooms, hot-spring soaks and included dinners of local delicacies recall Japan’s quieter past. Your next scenic train ride follows the coast down to Hagi. A quiet seaside town, its old castle centre has changed little since the feudal era. It’s said that you can still navigate its white-walled streets and orange-tree gardens using Edo-Period maps. Then, after visiting its samurai residences, merchant houses and carp-filled moat, you’ll also taste the region’s culinary heritage with a pair of included dinners.
Back on the rails, you’ll head inland, swapping coasts to arrive at Hiroshima. Although the events of 6 August 1945 are memorialised in hauntingly beautiful dome ruins and the superb Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, the city’s wide, leafy avenues are built anew, vibrant with art museums and teahouse-dotted gardens. It’s all showcased on your private guided tour, again tailor-made to your interests. I’d also point you towards next-door Miyajima, the island of floating shrines whose temple-capped mountain offers stunning archipelago views. The floor-to-ceiling panoramas of Hiroshima from your hotel aren’t bad, either.
From Hiroshima, head east on the Shinkansen to Okayama where you’ll change to a local line to reach Kurashiki. A key intermediary in the Edo-Period rice trade, its canals are lined with 18th-century storehouses – one of which will be your ryokan home for the next two nights. Here, you’ll enjoy kaiseki multi-course feasts and long soaks in onsen baths. Stepping out of your front door, you’ll be able to follow the willow-lined waterways to merchant houses that have been converted into everything from archaeological museums to art galleries. I also highly recommend a trip to Okayama’s gardens and jet-black castle. Retracing your railway route, you’ll spend your last day in Osaka – Japan’s third largest city. Here, neon signs cover whole buildings and giant Ferris wheels perch atop department stores. Remember to also take some time to navigate the doubled moat of Osaka Castle and summit one of the city’s ultra-modern skyscrapers before your flight home. To experience this journey head on our spectacular Cultural Highlights of Japan by Rail itinerary, where you'll speed past floating shrines and exquisite gardens alongside stays in traditional ryokans.