The Japanese countryside is exceptionally beautiful, and we think the best way to see it is by train. Let’s take a look at the best rural train journeys.
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Whether you’ve a fascination for the beauty of traditional Japan and the Edo Period, a fan of scenic train journeys, or simply a nature lover, Japan’s idyllic countryside has everything you could hope for and more. It’s also extremely diverse with rice fields and lush forests, towering mountains and volcanic rocks (complete with hot springs), winding rivers and serene lakes, green tea plantations, and beautiful beaches. Travelling by train gives you the opportunity to gaze longingly out of the window at these beautiful vistas while stopping off at ancient villages and towns to explore. In this guide, we’ll take a look at reasons to explore the Japanese countryside, how to get around by train using the JR Pass, and our recommendations for the best rural rail journeys.
Exploring Japan’s Countryside
While Japan is famous for its futuristic cities, that is only one side of the story. Japan’s countryside is renowned for its beauty, charm, and diversity. It is arguably the best way to experience traditional Japan and step back in time to the Edo Period. The Japanese animation studio and filmmakers, Studio Ghibli, have done a wonderful job of capturing the simple beauty of life in rural Japan and sharing it with international audiences in films such as My Neighbour Totoro and Ponyo. You can even visit the inspiration for the latter film in the fishing village of Tomonoura - the real-life Ponyo town. Just like in those films, nature is very important to the Japanese people. They even have a word for it ‘satoyama’. This translates loosely into ‘countryside’ in English and is a conjunction of the words for ‘village’ and ‘mountain’. However, it’s generally used for regions that sit between the mountains and rural farmland, where communities live in harmony with the natural world in a traditional manner. Satoyama essentially describes a way of life, where old-fashioned customs related to agriculture and spirituality are followed and embraced. Villages that stick to the ways of satoyama still use traditional techniques for farming and living. For more, read our guide to Satoyama: Japanese life in the countryside.
From the picturesque and traditional wooden homes to the lush green landscape, it’s no surprise therefore that visitors to Japan are just as interested in travelling around and exploring the countryside as they are the cities. The traditional Japanese way of life and culture continues to live on in parts of rural Japan and the beauty of this incredible landscape is simply unmissable. For nature lovers, remote rural locations such as the breath-taking Iya Valley, Shikoku, or the enchanted forests of Japan’s Yakushima Island – the real-life inspiration for Studio Ghibli’s fantasy masterpiece Princess Mononoke - are practically one in a lifetime destinations. Meanwhile, if you’re interested in experiencing traditional rural life in Japan and the aforementioned ‘satoyama’, here are a few recommendations from our blogs:
Hidden away in the mists of the Japanese Alps, the region of Shirakawa-go was long isolated from the outside world. The result is a unique local culture and history, marked by the Gassho-style houses and sustainable way of living in local, sometimes harsh, conditions. It is not without reason that Shirakawa-go is a UNESCO world heritage site. Today Shirakawa-go and the local villages of Ogimachi, Ainokura, and Suganuma are rare examples that show the older Japanese lifestyle. To get there from Tokyo, take the Hokuriku Shinkansen with your JRailPass across to the far coast and Shin-Takaoka Station. From there, you’ll need to board a 1 hour 45 minutes bus that runs all the way to Shirakawa go, stopping at Gokayama along the way. There are also buses that run to Shirakawa go from other large cities such as Nagoya and Kanazawa.
The town of Miyama - whose name literally means ‘beautiful mountains’ - is located roughly 50 kilometres north of Kyoto among the mountains of Kyoto Prefecture. What makes Miyama so special is the way that its traditional rural culture of community and sustainability has survived. Throughout the town of Miyama and its 26 surrounding villages there are over 200 thatched roof farmhouses or kayabuki and roughly 4,200-5,000 residents. The region’s sense of history and adherence to old-fashioned farming values makes it one of the best places in Japan to visit to experience satoyama.
The epitome of small-town village life, Biel-Cho is the place to go for tourists who want to escape from the hustle and bustle of Japan’s busier areas. It’s common to see tourists and locals alike cycling through the area’s rich flower fields; you can also opt to rent buggies or tractors to explore Biei-Cho’s rolling hills and valleys. Photography fans will definitely have a field day here and can even top off their trip with a visit to the Takushinkan exhibition hall. Here, you’ll find beautiful landscape photography from all over the country.
Located in the Yamanashi prefecture, Hakayawa-cho contains a stunning mountain range that’s part of the Japanese Alps. Hayakawa is the place to go if you want to experience a traditional Japanese onsen, as you’ll be hard-pressed to find other onsens that are immersed in such lush surroundings. This village also houses the country’s smallest population. So, it’s no surprise that the locals are therefore extremely in touch with nature and see it as a crucial part of their everyday lives.
Fans of historical buildings and traditional architecture from the Edo period will be at home in Nagiso. Visitors are welcome to venture inside these historic buildings, and of course you can finish your trip with some local delicacies such as roasted chestnuts or fried tofu with lotus root. Nagiso can be reached using your JR Pass in less than 1 hour from Nagoya using a local JR service. Take a local train to Nakatsugawa station, from there local buses and taxis run to Nagiso.
For more recommendations read our guide to Five of the Most Beautiful Villages in Japan.
Best Rural Train Journeys
We’ve put together our recommendations of the best rail journeys through the Japanese countryside.
1.) Takayama Main Line / The Wide View Hida Express Train
The Wide View Hida train is one of the most scenic train routes in Japan and frequently used to travel to Takayama and the Japanese Alps. The route starts at Nagoya station and follows the Miyagawa river into the Japanese alps. Along the way there are plenty of scenic views from the Japanese countryside to the mountain landscape of the Alps. The route is considered one of the most beautiful in Japan, and certainly worth making on its own. The Wide View Hida train is a limited express service operated by JR-Central between Nagoya – Takayama and Toyama. A limited number of trains also service Kyoto and Osaka. is included in the Japan Rail Pass.
2.) The Aizu Railway
The line is reachable from both Asakusa and Shinjuku in Tokyo and features picturesque scenery on the way to the onsen town of Aizu.
3.) Sagano Scenic Railway
This famously beautiful railway often makes top ten lists for the most beautiful train journeys in Japan. Situated near Kyoto, it runs from Arashiyama to Kameoka along the banks of the Hozugawa and features an old-fashioned diesel locomotive. It is particularly popular during the koyo viewing autumn season.
4.) Gono Line
The Gono Line is home to a famous ‘joyful train’ - the Resort Shirakami train. One of the most beautiful train rides in Japan, the Resort Shirakami train travels between Aomori and Akita, following the scenic coastline of northern Tohoku. The JR Pass can be used on the Resort Shirakami train, all you have to do is sit back and enjoy. The train travels through the Tohoku countryside, giving rise to magnificent panoramas, sunsets and UNESCO designated mountain range of the Shirakami Sanchi (this loosely translates to land of the white mountain Gods). All seats on this train are reserved so make a reservation before boarding the train. For a detailed overview of this sightseeing service, and how to reserve seating, read our guide to travelling on the Resort Shirakami Train. This line is also home to a famously picturesque train station, Todoroki Station, which has become an attraction in itself.
5.) Hisatsu Line
Journey along the Kumagawa River past densely forested hills on the Hisatsu Line in Kumamoto Prefecture, Kyushu.
6.) The Senmo Main Line
The last of the lines running around the wintry northeastern countryside of Hokkaido between Shiretoko-Shari and Abashiri, the Senmo Main Line takes you through three national parks, Kushiro, Akan, and Shiretoko. Although this is a different kind of countryside to the lush greens elsewhere in Japan, the wintry landscape of Hokkaido is just as beautiful.
7.) The SL Hitoyoshi
The SL Hitoyoshi (SL 人吉) is a special excursion steam train operated by JR Kyushu, that takes you back to a time when mighty steam engines powered the world. And if that was not enough, the SL Hitoyoshi travels from Kumamoto city to Tosu, following the scenic Kuma river with the scenic Kyushu mountain range in the distance. Finally, to put the cherry on top, the SL Hitoyoshi is covered by the JR Pass as well as the JR Kyushu Pass. For more on vintage trains, read our Expert Guide to Steam Trains.
8.) The Oigawa Railway
Another old-fashioned steam locomotive, the trains running on Oigawa line through Shizuoka also enjoy beautiful views of the countryside which are particularly in demand during the Cherry Blossom season and also in autumn.
9.) The Tadami Line
Located in Fukushima, Niigata, the Tadami Line crosses stunning ravines and winds through thick forest. It is said to be particularly beautiful in autumn with the golden foliage as it is in winter after snowfall.
10.) Kurobe Gorge Railway
Offering views of spectacular and rugged cliffs, mountains, untouched forests, and natural volcanic hot springs, Kurobe Gorge Railway is a beautifully scenic sightseeing rail journey with some open-sided carriages to appreciate the full splendour of the incredible views. It was originally built to help with the construction of Kurobe Dam but has become a major tourist attraction in recent years. The journey runs from April through to November and is famous for offering travellers incredible views of the red, gold, orange, and brown foliage of Kurobe Gorge. You can reach Kurobe Gorge with the JRailPass from both Tokyo and Kyoto/Osaka using different routes. From Tokyo, take the JR Hokuriku Shinkansen to Kurobe Unazuki onsen. The famous sightseeing train departs from a separate station a short walk away. From Kyoto or Osaka, take the JR Thunderbird limited express before transferring to the JR Hokuriku Shinkansen and following the same route as above. For more read our dedicated guide to Exploring The Kurobe Gorge Alpine Route.
- You can read more about rural Japanese destinations in our guides to Visiting Japan’s Historic and Beautiful Rice Fields and Itinerary Trip: Japanese Alps.
- If rural, off-the-beaten path destinations are your thing, why not read our guide to The Most Remote Locations in Japan.
- There’s also our guide to Cape Nosappu: The most eastern point in Japan.
- Meanwhile, for getting around, a guide to The Regions of Japan might also be helpful reading material.
- Here at www.jrpass.com, you’ll also find an extensive list of blogs and other resources about Japan’s train network. From practical help getting around Japan such as our Visitors Guide to Japanese Trains and Railways and our list of reasons Why The JR Pass Is Worth It, to fun and interesting articles such as our Top 10 Facts about Japan’s Trains and list of Japan’s Biggest and Busiest Train Stations, we have everything you need to prepare for your trip.
- For rural trains, it may also be useful to have an understanding of Japan’s Private Railway lines and Popular Local Passes alongside your trusty Japan Rail Pass.