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Thomas the Tank Engine1/9
Photo: ©2020 Gullane [Thomas] LimitedThomas the Tank Engine
Aru Ressha2/9
Photo: Frap Inc./Hirokazu Fukushima/JR KyushuAru Ressha
Aru Ressha3/9
Photo: Frap Inc./Hirokazu Fukushima/JR KyushuAru Ressha
Pokémon with You Train4/9
Photo: ©2020 Pokemon ©1995-2020 Nintento/Creatures., Game Freak Inc. Pokemon is a trademark by Nintendo/Creatures Inc./Game Freak Pokémon with You Train
Pokémon with You Train5/9
Photo: ©2020 Pokemon ©1995-2020 Nintento/Creatures., Game Freak Inc. Pokemon is a trademark by Nintendo/Creatures Inc./Game Freak Pokémon with You Train
Panda Kuroshio6/9
Photo: West Japan Railway Company
Panda Kuroshio7/9
Photo: JR WestPanda Kuroshio
Hello Kitty shinkansen8/9
Photo: ©1976, 2020 Sanrio, Co. Ltd, Approval No. L613133Hello Kitty shinkansen
Hello Kitty shinkansen9/9
Photo: ©1976, 2020 Sanrio, Co. Ltd, Approval No. L613133Hello Kitty shinkansen

Hop on these 8 amazing novelty trains in Japan

Aside from having the world’s best train network, Japan also offers unique trains for sightseeing and leisurely rides

By Youka Nagase
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Japanese trains are known for their efficiency and immaculate cleanliness, but there are other reasons people enjoy riding the rails here. From Tokyo all the way down to southern Kyushu, you'll find special themed trains designed to look like Hello Kitty or Pikachu, along with plenty of old-school steam trains and luxury locomotives running at certain times of year. 

Best of all, these novelty trains take you to some of Japan's most scenic locations – so don't forget to look out the window. Here are some of our favourite Japanese trains to brighten up your next big railway adventure.

RECOMMENDED: See the country on four wheels with these Japanese road trips

All aboard

Thomas the Tank Engine
Thomas the Tank Engine
Photo: ©2020 Gullane [Thomas] Limited

Thomas the Tank Engine

Seven decades after the first ‘Thomas the Tank Engine’ book, the fictional steam locomotive has finally come to life. You can ride this beloved British children’s book and cartoon character through the lush countryside of Shizuoka prefecture every year from around May to October.

There are two 70-minute round trips a day between Shin-Kanaya and Ieyama stations, and passengers will be treated to the accompanying Day Out with Thomas festival, where you’ll meet Thomas’s other locomotive friends Winston and James (these are non-functioning lifesized replicas), and shop for Thomas-themed snacks and souvenirs.

To score a seat on this fun ride, enter the ticket lottery in advance through Lawson Ticket, which is only accessible within Japan. A round-trip ticket costs ¥3,050 for adults, while it’s ¥1,530 for kids.

Aru Ressha
Aru Ressha
Photo: JR Kyushu

Aru Ressha

The most luxurious and grown-up train on this list, Aru Ressha was built based on a model created by the late Nobutaro Hara, a railway enthusiast and founder of the Hara Model Railway Museum in Yokohama. This elaborately designed train runs in Kyushu, mostly between Huis Ten Bosch and Hakata stations, taking customers on a roughly three-hour scenic ride through nature.

The gold-coloured exterior features intricate arabesque art along the bottom half of the train. The opulent interior, meanwhile, is filled with furniture made from maple and walnut wood, coffered ceilings and traditional muntin craftsmanship that’s also found in Japan’s most famous sleeper train, the Seven Stars Kyushu. For an all-out experience, opt for the private compartments in the second car.

A one-way ticket for this top-class experience will set you back at least ¥26,000 (price per person when reserved for two), but it comes with drinks and a dessert course served during the journey. The food is created by Yoshihiro Narisawa, the chef and owner of Narisawa in Tokyo, one of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants.

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Pokémon with You Train
Pokémon with You Train
Photo: ©2020 Pokemon ©1995-2020 Nintento/Creatures., Game Freak Inc. Pokemon is a trademark by Nintendo/Creatures Inc./Game Freak

Pokémon with You Train

Pokémon trainers will go crazy for this two-car train in the Tohoku region with its exclusively yellow and brown colour scheme to match the franchise’s most recognisable character, Pikachu. The first car has reserved seating and features Pikachu motifs everywhere, from the floor to the curtains, while the second car is a space where children can nap, play and take pictures with a massive soft toy version of the electric rodent. The train runs year-round from Ichinoseki to Kesennuma  stations (two hours one way). Tickets start from ¥420.

Panda Kuroshio
Panda Kuroshio
Photo: JR West

Panda Kuroshio

Running between Kyoto and Shingu stations on the Tokaido and Kisei main lines since 2017, the adorable Panda Kuroshio train recently received a makeover to highlight the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and educate children about the importance of sustainability.

The train is not all just outer beauty, though; the interior is decorated with animals from Wakayama prefecture’s Adventure World wildlife park including lions, zebras and polar bears. Even the seats feature a special panda headrest cover (except those in the green car and women’s-only car).

Tickets are priced the same as any other limited express train on the line: ¥5,700 one way for a reserved seat from Shin- Osaka to Shirahama. The entire journey takes four hours.

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SL Gunma
SL Gunma
Photo: JR East

SL Gunma

Relive the bygone days of rail travel with the family-friendly SL Gunma steam locomotives. The historical trains run between Takasaki and Minakami stations, taking you through the scenic countryside of Gunma prefecture. There are two old-school steam engines on offer: the more powerful D51 498, which was designed to pull freight cars, and the smoother, more relaxed C61 20, which was built to pull passenger cars.

The journey is filled with plenty of fun activities for children including the chance to make an announcement over the train’s loudspeaker, as well as put on a driver’s uniform and pose for a photo. Families with children of primary school age and under can book out a lounge car box seat, which fits up to six people and comes with board games and origami to keep the kids busy.

The SL Gunma trains only operate on weekends and holidays, and the entire journey takes about two hours. Tickets cost ¥970 per person, with an additional ¥520 for reserved seats.

Hello Kitty Shinkansen
Hello Kitty Shinkansen
Photo: ©1976, 2020 Sanrio, Co. Ltd, Approval No. L613133

Hello Kitty Shinkansen

Japan’s most famous character, Hello Kitty takes over an entire shinkansen with its signature pink and white colours. The passenger car, also known as the ‘kawaii room’, is as adorable as it sounds, all decked out with Hello Kitty print.

There’s lots to explore on this train: in the other cars you’ll find small exhibitions, photography areas, souvenir kiosks and rest areas that are awash in pink and adorned with images of Hello Kitty and friends. This bullet train runs between Hakata and Shin-Osaka stations on the Kodama line (one round-trip per day, with some exceptions). Tickets are priced the same as the regular shinkansen plying that route.

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Omocha Densha
Omocha Densha
Photo: Wakayama Electric Railway; Design: Eiji Mitooka + Don Design Associates

Omocha Densha

Wakayama prefecture’s Omocha Densha, also known as ‘Omoden’ to the locals, appeals to the kid inside all of us. Just as its name ‘omocha’ (‘toy’ in Japanese) suggests, the train is filled with all sorts of toys and figurines displayed in glass cases; there’s even a carriage with capsule toy machines, which you can spin for a surprise souvenir.

While the bright red train may look minimalist on the outside, its interior is more elaborate and colourful. Parents will be glad to know that there are even playpens for toddlers. Omoden runs year-round from Wakayama to Kishi stations on the Kishigawa line – which takes 30 minutes – and tickets cost ¥410 one way. You could also get a one-day unlimited ride pass for ¥800.

Medetai Densha
Medetai Densha
Photo: Nankai Electric Railway

Medetai

Tai, or red snapper, is said to bring good luck in Japan, and that’s what you can hope for with this novelty train in Wakayama inspired by the fish. Running between Wakayamashi and Kada stations, the Medetai train comes in three colours – red, blue and pink.

The latest addition in the lineup, Nana the red train, is decked out with more lucky motifs inside, such as the beckoning cat, daruma dolls and of course, more tai. The Medetai train runs year-round, with a one-way trip costing anywhere from ¥160 to ¥340, depending on your stop. An entire journey takes 30 minutes.

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