Japan’s awe-inspiring mountains offer spectacular views and incredible railway journeys. Today we'll look at the Hakone Tozan line and more.
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Two facts about Japan - it has arguably the world’s best domestic rail system and it’s surprisingly mountainous. Bring these two things together and you have some of the most unique and beautiful mountain railway journeys on the planet. Let’s take a look at Japan’s Mountain Railways, including its oldest and longest running, the Hakone Tozan Line, as well as other routes you can access using the JR Pass. Japan is packed with amazing train journeys and its mountainous areas are no exception - in fact, they might be among the most spectacular.
Incredibly, almost four fifths of Japan is mountainous. This may surprise you, especially considering that the country is an archipelago essentially composed of more than 6,000 islands. This includes the five main islands of Kyushu, Shikoku, Honshu, Okinawa, Hokkaido. The largest island is Honshu, which is home to the Japanese Alps while the country’s highest and most famous mountain is the iconic landmark of Mount Fuji at 3,776 metres. You can climb Mt Fuji between July and September. Our guide to Climbing and Hiking Mt. Fuji has more information. A hugely popular and well-travelled train route - the Tokaido Shinkansen line from Tokyo to Kyoto - will also give you a spectacular view of Mt. Fuji (look out the right side of the train about an hour after leaving Tokyo when heading to Kyoto and out the left side if you’re travelling in the opposite direction).
Fuji is actually an active volcano and a clue to Japan’s location atop three of the Earth’s tectonic plates. This is one of the reasons for Japan’s mountainous and beautiful landscape. Many of the country’s mountains can be found in national parks that have become hugely popular for climbing and hiking as well as in winter resorts where the tall peaks offer some of the world’s best skiing and snowboarding. Naturally, in a country known for its exceptional rail network, you’ll also find train journeys that not only connect you to these wonderful mountain locations, but also offer incredible views en-route.
What Is A Mountain Railway?
Technically, a mountain railway is any train that operates through a mountainous area, from lines that weave between and around great peaks to routes that offer outstanding views of rugged cliffs and towering rocks. Japan’s oldest mountain railway is the Hakone Tozan Line, which we will explore in detail below. However, it can also be used to describe funicular railways, a specific type of cable railway system for ascending and descending steep slopes. The Takaotozan Railway operates a funicular line and a ropeway to Mount Takao. Takao is a remote mountain valley about 1 hour north of Kyoto. Famous for its three historic temples and beautiful natural scenery. Read our Guide to visiting Takao, Kyoto, for more information on this beautiful mountain destination.
A Guide To The Hakone Tozan Line
The oldest mountain railway in Japan, the Hakone Tozan Line is as picturesque as it is historic and makes for a popular day trip from Tokyo. As the train carriage makes its way through the steep mountains you’ll cross bridges, enter tunnels, explore lush forests, and stop at small old-fashioned stations. There are two sections of the Hakone Tozan - Odawara to Hakone-Yumoto, which is a regular service, and the upper section, Hakone-Yumoto to Gora, which is the true mountain railway and a must experience for train enthusiasts or anyone who loves a beautiful journey. From Gora there is also a cable car to Lake Ashinoko - a lake in the caldera of Mt. Hakone with views of Fuji.
As well as views of the mountains, the line is also known for the hydrangeas which bloom in June and July. There are also special night-time trains with illuminated flowers during the summer for a doubly beautiful experience. To get there, simply take a JR train to Odawara station before transferring to the Hakone Tozan line.
The town of Hakone also has much to offer as an alternative to the fast-pace of a mega city like Tokyo. A mountainous city in the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park just west of Tokyo, Hakone offers a variety of activities, from onsen hot spring resorts to wondrous views of Mt. Fuji. The most efficient and stress-free way to get to Hakone is by train. By obtaining a Japan Rail Pass, tourists can take the shinkansen, which will get you there in a little under two hours from Tokyo (you can also get there via Kyoto). If you don’t have a pass, then you can take a regular train to the Hakone-Yumoto station, the main station in Hakone. For more on the Hakone area read our Guide to Hakone, Japan, with the JR Pass.
The Kurobe Gorge Railway
Located in the Northern Japanese, the Kurobe Gorge Railway offers some of the most spectacular experiences across the whole of the country. With the peaks of Mt. Tateyama and Mt. Akazawadake – known as the Roof of Japan - and Kurobe’s famous snow corridor on one side, and the deep, forested gorge with its sightseeing railway on the other, the Kurobe area in Toyama has two incredible adventures for the price of one. Geographically close, but accessed from completely different directions, these experiences combine to create a once-in-a-lifetime experience. For more read our dedicated guide to Exploring The Kurobe Gorge Alpine Route.
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.
Japan’s Most Beautiful Mountain Railway Journeys
10. Fujisan View Express
The Fujikyu Railway will take you from Otsuki station to Kawaguchiko station at an altitude of 500 metres with incredible views of Mt Fuji.
9. Mitake Tozan Railway
Mitake Tozan Railway runs a traditional cable car line built in 1927, which takes visitors to the top of Mt. Mitake. Mitake is 90 minutes away from Tokyo by train. From Shinjuku Station, take the JR Chuo Line train bound for Ome. Change to the Ome Line at Ome Station bound for Okutama and get off at Mitake Station.
8. The Hohi Main Line
This route across central Kyushu offers outstanding views of Mt. Aso.
7. Alps Express
The Alps Express journeys along the Toyama Chihou Railway, from the wide-open Toyama Plain to the magnificent Tateyama Mountain range, Toyama Bay and its famous mirages, and Unazuki Hot Springs.
6. Soya Main Line
Offering views of Mt. Rishiri, the Soya Main Line is well worth a visit as it heads across the Sarobetsu Plain towards Wakkanai in the north. Wakkanai is actually Japan’s northernmost train station and is where you’ll need to start (or finish) if you want to attempt Japan’s Longest Rail Journey from one end of the country to the other. See our dedicated blog on this topic for the full story.
5. Minami Aso Railway
Also, with views of Mt. Aso - an active volcano known for its smoking craters - Minami Aso Railway features a trolley train called ‘yuusuge’.
4. Hokuriku Shinkansen
Multiple mountain views make this one of the best routes on the list. You’ll begin with the sight of Mt. Asama before spectacular views of the Northern Alps, including the Five Peaks in Hokushin, before finally being greeted by the Tateyama Mountain Range towards the end of your journey between Tokyo and Toyama. A must for mountain lovers.
3. Hakodate Main Line
The Otara section of the Hakodate Main Line in Hokkaido - Japan’s northernmost islands - gives passengers the chance to experience views of Mt. Yotei.
2. Kurobe Gorge Railway
Simply one of the most scenic railway journeys in all of Japan. See our detailed guide further above for why this journey through Kurobe Gorge is so special.
1. Hakone Tozan
Japan’s oldest mountain railway had to be number one on our list (although the rest of the list is generally in no particular order as they are all beautiful journeys). Hakone Tozan might just be the king of the mountain, however.
· Here at www.jrpass.com, you’ll find an extensive list of blogs and other resources about Japan’s train network.
· We have a long list of guides on our blog about individual trains, journeys, and routes for you to read, from sightseeing trains such as the Ametsuchi, steam trains like the SI Hitoyoshi, luxury trains like the Saphir Odoriko, and of course, the famous Shinkansen bullet trains. This is just a small selection of our guides to individual trains. Explore our blog for more.
· Meanwhile, for practical help getting around Japan via train, read our Visitors Guide to Japanese Trains and Railways.
· Finally for mountain lovers, don’t miss our many blog posts about beautiful mountain destinations. There are a wide range of fascinating posts to read, from Mt. Mitake near Tokyo to Kamikochi in the Japanese Alps to winter snow resorts such as Hakuba and Zen retreats in Koya-San, Japan is packed with diverse and unique mountain destinations to visit.