The bullet train isn’t the only way to get around Japan. Some of the most scenic train rides are on local lines, which travel through remote and unspoiled parts of the country at a more leisurely pace.
If slow travel is your thing, the Seishun 18 ticket is a great option for train journeys around Japan. Available each spring, summer and winter, it gets you five days of unlimited travel on local trains on the nationwide Japan Railways (JR) network for 12,050 yen (2,410 yen per day). Service on many lines tends to be infrequent, so using use a travel app to plan your itinerary is ideal—but that’s all part of the fun. We recommend the Japan Official Travel App from JNTO, which lets you research train routes, buy tickets, book hotels and “favorite” the spots that inspire you.
Take a ride past sea and mountains on the JR Gono Line (Aomori/Akita)
Whether you’re traveling in spring, summer or the middle of winter, you can always expect something spectacular on the JR Gono Line.
The 147-kilometer route winds along the craggy coastline of the Sea of Japan, past windswept stations and the mountainous forests of Shirakami Sanchi, a UNESCO Natural World Heritage Site. If you want to explore the latter, take a bus from Juniko Station to the Juniko lakes, a popular sightseeing spot. Like most of the lines featured here, there’s also a faster limited express service, which can be used with the Japan Rail Pass.
Savor the picturesque countryside on the JR Tadami Line (Fukushima)
When the fall foliage is at its finest, photography buffs head to Fukushima Prefecture to catch the perfect snap of the JR Tadami Line. Some stretches of this 135-kilometer route from Aizu-Wakamatsu to Koide are so picturesque, you may be tempted to get off and take a few photos yourself.
Photo credit: Autumn leaves train (No. 1 Tadami River Bridge, Mishima Town) © Koichi Hayakawa
There are also numerous temples and hot springs to explore along the way. For much of the journey, the line follows the Tadami River, and in summer you can see mist rising from the surface of the water at dawn and dusk. Note that a replacement bus service currently operates between Aizu-Kawaguchi and Tadami stations.
Journey along the rugged coastline on the JR Kisei Main Line (Wakayama/Mie)
You’ll need to make an early start if you want to cover the whole of this marathon coastal route by local train in a single day, but it’s worth the effort.
The 384-kilometer line from Wakayamashi to Kameyama stations follows the jagged coastline of the Kii Peninsula, which has been sculpted by the elemental force of the Pacific Ocean. The first leg of the trip offers sweeping ocean vistas, followed by spectacular cliffs and rock formations around the tip of the peninsula. Later on, you can catch glimpses of sheltered fishing harbors as the train works its way up the east coast.
Ride high through the mountains on the JR Koumi Line (Yamanashi/Nagano)
Train travel in Japan doesn’t normally take you to such lofty heights as the JR Koumi Line. At 1,345 kilometers above sea level, Nobeyama Station is the highest railway station in the country, and many other stops along the line rank in the Top 10.
Traversing a mountain plateau between Yamanashi and Nagano prefectures, the route delivers panoramic views of the Japan Alps and the imposing Yatsugatake Mountains, and its winding course means you’ll have plenty of time to savor the scenery while planning your next hike. The stretch between Kobuchizawa and Kai-Koizumi stations is particularly popular with photographers.
Experience stunning views of the Inland Sea on the JR Yosan Line (Shikoku)
In Japan, even people who’ve never taken the JR Yosan Line may recognize Shimonada Station, where the platform looks out straight onto the sea. A favorite spot for Instagrammers and romancing couples wanting to watch the sunset, it’s just one of the highlights on this 298-kilometer line.
Shikoku’s main arterial route runs from Takamatsu, the island’s largest city, to Uwajima in Ehime Prefecture, alternating between rustic countryside and dramatic views of the Seto Inland Sea. The scenic train journey is popular for cherry blossom viewing during springtime, but each season brings a different landscape.
Feeling inspired? These are just a few of the picturesque rail trips that await in Japan. When it’s time to travel again, consider doing it slowly with the Seishun 18 ticket.
About the author
Author: James Hadfield
Profile: Originally from the UK, James Hadfield has been living in Japan for nearly 20 years and still hasn’t got bored. He writes about lifestyle and culture for publications including The Japan Times and ele-king.