Japan's Best Train Stations that are Worth the Stop
I contend that no country in the world can rival Japan in trains. Sure, there are many impressive train lines across the globe (probably none as iconic as the Trans-Siberian railway), but once Japan began introducing railroads in the late 1800s, the country has never stopped innovating. From bullet trains to the unique tourist liners (ever wanted to enjoy a hot tub on a train?) to the most recent breakthrough technology in magnetic levitation (Maglev), Japan offers residents and visitors the most variety of high quality, interesting trains in the world.
The same is true of train stations, which run the gamut from historical landmarks to architectural masterpieces. Some stations are classically grandiose, like Tokyo Station, while others push the edge of modern design, like Kanazawa. Still others are beautiful in their simplicity, or at peace with their natural surroundings.
Today, I’d like to introduce you to some of my favorite train stations throughout Japan. Some are world renowned that you may already know, but I’m pretty sure there will be a few that surprise you and could even warrant a detour along your journeys in Japan.
So without further ado...
Kyoto Station (Kyoto Prefecture)
When most people think about Kyoto, traditional images of Japan usually come to mind: shrines, temples, Ryokan, palaces, and things of that nature. I was of that same mindset the first time I went to Kyoto, so imagine my surprise when I stepped off the Shinkansen and saw this modern architectural masterpiece. Interestingly, it was built on the 1200th anniversary of the founding of the nation's original capital in Kyoto, so the station marks 1200 years of technological progress, and it sure doesn't disappoint. The station offers a skywalk which is free for visitors, and offers an incredible view both of the station and the surrounding city in all its glory.
Kyoto Station is a junction for the following train lines: (JR Central)
- Tokaido Shinkansen
- Tokaido Main Line (Biwako Line and JR Kyoto Line)
- Sanin Main Line (Sagano Line)
- Nara Line
- Kintetsu Railway
- Kyoto Line
(Kyoto Municipal Subway)
- Karasuma Line
Tokyo Station (Tokyo Prefecture)
While Kyoto station trades the old for the new in its design, Tokyo station holds on to the traditional red and white brick that has now become an iconic symbol for the high-end Maronouchi area where the station is located. The station itself is a landmark representation of Japan in its industrial era in a city otherwise known for its towering skyscrapers. Adding to its allure is its close proximity to the Imperial Palace, which is only about a five minute walk away from the station. One of the coolest ways to enjoy Tokyo Station is to stay a night in the Tokyo Station Hotel, which offers an unforgettable sojourn for anybody looking for memorable accommodations (though it can be pricey!).
Tokyo Station is a hub for the following train lines: (JR East)
- Tohoku Shinkansen
- Yamagata Shinkansen
- Akita Shinkansen
- Joetsu Shinkansen
- Hokuriku Shinkansen
- Hokkaido Shinkansen
- Tokaido Main Line
- Ueno–Tokyo Line
- Keihin-Tohoku Line
- Yamanote Line
- Chūō Main Line
- Sōbu Main Line
- Yokosuka Line (including the Narita Express)
- Keiyo Line
- Tokaido Shinkansen
￼ (Tokyo Metro)
- Marunouchi Line
Kanazawa Station (Kanazawa Prefecture)
One of the most beautiful stations in all of Japan has to be Kanazawa station. The Motenashi (“Hospitality”) Dome is reminiscent of Kyoto station’s glass and metal structure, but the towering torii gate (the "Tsuzumi-mon," or Wooden Drum gate) at the entrance is a sight to be seen. That alone makes it worth the trip, but the inside of the station offers the best assortment of specialty shops (offering locally produced goods) and restaurants of any I have visited in Japan.
While it used to be harder to access, the opening of the Hokuriku Shinkansen line a few years ago has made Kanazawa one of the easiest stations to visit from Tokyo. Here are the other lines that run through Kanazawa:
- Hokuriku Shinkansen
- Hokuriku Main Line
- Nanao Line
- Asanogawa Line
(IR Ishikawa Railway)
- IR Ishikawa Railway Line
Harajuku (Tokyo Prefecture)
When I was a kid, I didn't really appreciate how cool Harajuku station really was. Sure, I enjoyed going there to get to one of my favorite parts of Tokyo, but I used to think to myself that it had to be the least climate controlled and efficiently designed station in Tokyo. Of course, I didn't realize back then that the reason for that is the fact that the Harajuku station building is the oldest original station building still standing in Tokyo. Now when I go, I feel the charm of the historic building that stands on its own merits in an area that combines everything from sports (Olympic stadiums), tradition (Meiji Shrine), Nature (Yoyogi Park), off-beat counterculture (Takeshita Dori), and ritzy shopping (Omote Sando).
Unfortunately, if you want to see this iconic station, you’ll have to go soon, since it is slated to be rebuilt to accommodate the upcoming Tokyo Olympics. To me, that’s a crying shame, but I hope that you have a chance to visit before it's too late.
Owing to its small size, Harajuku is only accessible via the JR Yamanote Line, but it has an underground connection to the Tokyo Metro Meijijingu-mae Station.
Yurakucho (Tokyo Prefecture)
This station is less iconic for the actual station itself than for what is under it. Just one stop away from Tokyo station, Yurakucho could easily be a stop one breezes past, but the restaurants and izakaya that operate under its tracks make for some of the most charming (and foodie-friendly) stations not just in Tokyo, but all of Japan. There is something about Yurakucho that just transports you back to a bygone era, as if you were suddenly back in the 50s or 60s enjoying some food and drinks in Showa-era Japan. Yurakucho is a must-visit station for that reason. Hop off the train and head under the tracks for your time traveling experience.
Yurakucho is accessible via the following train lines:
(JR East) - Keihin-Tohoku Line - Yamanote Line (Tokyo Metro) - Yurakucho Line
Minato Mirai (Kanagawa Prefecture)
Yokohama is one of the great places to visit in Japan. It offers all of the great things about Tokyo, but more of a carefree atmosphere. As a major port city (and one of the first to open up to foreign traders), it offers a interesting cultural history with great food, interesting architecture, and cool places to see. Given this, you would think that Yokohama station would be the place to go. On the contrary, you should head to Minato Mirai.
Minato Mirai (Port of the Future) is the train station that rests in the heart of Yokohama's business and port districts. Literally, the train station is right in the middle of it (underground, to be exact), and it opens up into the Mark IS Minato Mirai mall (check out the pic below--you can see the train platform and train under the escalator). When you depart the Mark IS building, Queen's Square Shopping Center is right next door and Landmark Tower and the Akarenga Red Brick Buildings are just a stone's throw away. Keep walking and you'll get to enjoy the seaside park and eventually you'll even hit Chinatown.
So if you're interested in visiting Yokohama, Minato Mirai Station is your hub for doing so. Conveniently, the station is a stop on the Minato Mirai line that turns into the Toyoko line towards Shibuya Station (and later becomes the Tokyo Metro Fukutoshin Line).
Maihama (Chiba Prefecture)
Ever wonder what it’s like to catch a train in the city and step out into a fantasy land? That’s what Maihama offers. Literally as soon as you pass the turnstiles, you are in the Disney resort areas, including the entrances to Disneyland and Ikspiari (though you’ll have to take the Disney monorail to get to DisneySea). The other thing is, when your options for traveling to Disneyland are car, bus, or train, and two of those three options promise to sit you in traffic for hours, the train easily becomes the most desirable option. So Maihama has a special place in my heart for serving as the gateway to Disneyland all those times I've visited the parks over my life.
When I was a child, the trains to Maihama ran relatively infrequently, but now it is a constant stream of trains on the JR Keiyo Line.
Daiba (Tokyo Prefecture)
Odaiba is one of the must-see places in Tokyo. After all, who doesn't want to see a 50 foot tall Gundam Statue or travel back in time in an Edo-inspired hot spring theme park at Oedo Onsen Monogatari? The gateway to those places is Daiba Station on the Yurikamome Monorail. The station itself is nothing to write home about, but it's what you see on your way there and when you immediately step out that makes it so incredible.
First of all, your trip to Odaiba from Tokyo proper gives you some of the most beautiful panoramic views of Tokyo Bay that you'll be able to enjoy. Then, when you step out at Daiba station, you're greeting by views of the uniquely designed Fuji Television building, the iconic Tokyo Bay bridge, and Diver City Mall (home to the Gundam Statue) just a few minutes walk away. For good measure, there is even a mini Statue of Liberty in Daiba Park right next to the station which makes for an odd but memorable sight during your visit.
Daiba Station is only accessible via the Yurikamome Line, and I recommend starting your journey from Shimbashi Station in Tokyo proper if you're inclined to head that direction.
Shimonada Station (Ehime Prefecture)
Ehime prefecture is not known for its train lines, but it certainly offers some unique and memorable stops along the way. Perhaps none in Japan can beat the beautiful simplicity of Shimonada station. With a single platform and just two benches, there isn't much to this train stop, but location is everything. Situated right on the coast, this station has become a favorite for people who just want to sit and watch the ocean or a beautiful sunset. For the price of a single train ticket, you can buy yourself some much needed serenity.
Shimonada is on the Shikoku Railway Yosan Line and most easily accessible from Matsuyama City.
Hakodate Station (Hokkaido Prefecture)
One of the coolest ways to travel to Hokkaido is via train. After all, this train journey requires passage under the Tsugaru Straits via the Seikan tunnel, a 54 km undersea tunnel that connects the islands of Hokkaido and Kyushu. Considering that the only way for folks to travel to Hokkaido before the tunnel was completed in 1988 was by plane or ferry, the experience of taking a train under the sea is pretty incredible.
Of course, Hakodate station offers other incentives for visiting. Although most of the station building is fairly new, it is still a hub for some of the old school diesel trains that are better known for operating in the cold, snowy climates of Hokkaido. Further, the station is even more easily accessible now that the Shinkansen extends there (again via the Seikan tunnel). That is great, since right outside the station is my favorite market in all of Japan.
The Hakodate Morning Market (Asa-ichiba) is literally adjacent to Hakodate Station, and it offers some of the best seafood that I have eaten in my entire life. Naturally, I had to track down this ramen below:
Of course, Hakodate offers many more great sights to see and things to do, and this station serves as the primary hub to do so.
As I mentioned, the shinkansen runs up there, but it also services the following train lines:
- Esashi Line
- Hakodate Main Line
- Tsugaru-Kaikyo Line
Wakkanai Station (Hokkaido Prefecture)
Ever wondered what's no kidding at the end of the line? Well, in Japan, you can find it at Wakkanai station. Located on the northern tip of the island of Hokkaido, Wakkanai Station is closer to Russia than it is to Hokkaido’s capital city of Sapporo. Certainly, it's not a short trip to get up there, but it can be one of the most of the most memorable for you. Wakkanai station offers monuments to its status as the northernmost train station in Japan, and the surrounding area is wonderful for its rich culture, delicious seafood, and traces of Russian influence.
So there you have it...
...some of the best train stations Japan has to offer. If you have a rail pass, you may be intrepid enough to try to visit all of these on your journey, but even if you can only squeeze in one or two, I say zehi, make your own memories at these incredible stops!