The Kyoto Railway Museum – The Trainspotter’s Museum in Kyoto

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The Kyoto Railway Museum is one of the newest and most interesting museums in Kyoto. Sure, you may have come to Kyoto for the temples and shrines. But the train museum in Kyoto is one of the best of its kind in the world. If you have time and interest in trains, then this may be the one museum in Kyoto you can’t miss. 

Kyoto Railway Museum Cover

The Kyoto Railway Museum 

I remember my first visit to Kyoto in 1997. The historical sites around the city blew me away. Years later I moved to Tokyo and became enamored with Japan’s more modern side. I grew up in the USA, where cars were so integrated into daily life that it was hard to imagine living without one. Then I lived in Taiwan, where a motorcycle became my mode of transportations. When I moved to Tokyo in 2001 and it was the first time I didn’t have my own set of wheels. No car. No motorcycle. I didn’t even have a bicycle then. 

It took a little getting used to depending on trains, but now I love it. I wouldn’t consider myself a train nerd — I don’t know the models or the routes by heart. However, I love the lifestyle it offers. Don’t get me wrong: I love getting behind the wheel for a road trip. But when it comes to day-to-day commutes, I LOVE taking the train. 

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My Favorite Museum in Kyoto

The Kyoto Railway Museum is an incredible place to spend an afternoon. As I said, I’m not obsessed with trains, but their history and mechanics are fascinating to learn about. And that’s exactly what you’ll do at this Kyoto museum. I recently wrote about it for my column in the Japan Times. Below is an excerpt, and you can find the entire thing at the Japan Times Child’s Play column. My feature comes from the perspective of a dad with kids, but this isn’t merely a kids’ museum in Kyoto. It’s great for anyone interested in trains or in the history of Japan in general. 

From the Japan Times: All aboard the Kyoto Railway Museum

Trains Main Building - Kyoto Railway Museum

Lights Kyoto Railway Museum

For most of Japan’s city residents, trains and subways are an integral part of daily life, and few countries have embraced rail travel like Japan. With that in mind, it should come as no surprise that one of the best train museums in the world is found here. The Kyoto Railway Museum is one of the best museums in Kyoto, and a great place to visit with kids or without.

Kyoto Railway Museum History

Opening its doors in 1972 as the Umekoji Steam Locomotive Museum, this Kyoto museum received a ¥7 billion makeover in 2016 and reopened as the Kyoto Railway Museum you see today. It’s an astounding space, covering 30,000 square meters, it includes modern, interactive exhibits. In addition, there are 53 trains on display, ranging from steam locomotives to today’s shinkansen technology.

The size and scale of the Kyoto Railway Museum can be felt as soon as you present your ticket and enter the Promenade, a 100-meter covered walkway showcasing examples from three eras of rail transport. On the left is a steam locomotive while on the right an early-model shinkansen bullet train. In the center is a bright orange and green EMU (Electric Multiple Unit) the type of commuter train used nationwide.

The Train Museum in Kyoto

Promenade - Kyoto Railway Museum

gears train museum in kyoto-

The Promenade is also built to resemble a train platform and, like most of the trains at the museum, the vehicles’ railcar doors are open for you to walk through. Follow the pathway and you’ll encounter more historically significant trains, as well as a “dining car” where you can buy a bento or eat your own packed lunch. Walking through these train cars, it’s easy to get a sense of their various ages and eras by simply looking at their interiors. Some older ones have wood paneling and upholstered seats. Others are all steel and white paint. Some have benches facing the center while others utilize bucket seats and tables.

At the end of the Promenade is the main entrance to the Kyoto Railway Museum. This cavernous hall houses dozens of trains. Their gleaming surfaces shimmer under the skylight three stories above. There’s plenty of vehicles for visitors to climb aboard and wander through, but what my family likes best are the unique perspectives some exhibits give you.

For example, some engines give you access to the conductor’s seat. Others have walkways beneath so you can see the pistons, rods, and valves up close. Other first-floor exhibits in the Kyoto Railway Museum detail the mechanics of train travel. Concepts like universal joints, gear ratios and the “right angle Cardan method” meant little to us beforehand. Yet there we were, using our own hands to turn a wheel on an interactive display and see colorful cogs spin furiously from our efforts. Similar exhibits give you hands-on experience with wheels, disc brakes and more.

A Trainspotter’s Museum in Kyoto

lights 2 kyoto museum of trains

model - train museum in kyoto

Here you can explore nearly every aspect of Japan’s railways. From crosswalks and rail gauges to the bells and horns of oncoming engines, each exhibit is designed for you to experience how everything works. It could have done with more English signage for non-Japanese train lovers. However, each exhibit has translations for the main points. If you want to learn more, audio guides are available in English, Chinese and Korean.

Up the escalator on the second floor, you encounter a massive glass-encased train set where visitors can control the tracks each miniature engine takes. There are also a few tunnels for kids to crawl through so they can stand in the middle of the display for a unique perspective on the action. A few meters away is a play space for toddlers with plenty of plastic train tracks to connect like Lego blocks.

No Japanese museum would be complete without some elaborate dioramas, and the Kyoto Railway Museum has several of them. The largest of these is more like a shrunken village complete with pocket-sized express lines. Then there are smaller exhibits such as train cars in miniature. Here cross-sections removed to show how they function.

>>> Read the full feature in the Japan Times

Want More Museums in Kyoto?

Is there a museum in Kyoto you’re interested in? Or have you been to any Kyoto museums that you’d recommend? Let us know in the comments?

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Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links. This means, at no extra cost to you, we might receive a small commission if you make a purchase or book any Kyoto hotels or tours through our links. My opinions are my own and I only recommend places/services that I believe will genuinely help you find the best things to do in Kyoto. 

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