For most 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 — and it’s a great place to visit with kids.

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

The size and scale of the 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 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 though 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.

Children learn about train signals train signals at a display in the Kyoto Railway Museum. | JASON JENKINS
Children learn about train signals train signals at a display in the Kyoto Railway Museum. | JASON JENKINS

At the end of the Promenade is the main entrance to the Kyoto Railway Museum, a cavernous hall housing trains, their gleaming surfaces shimmering 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 detail the mechanics of train travel. Concepts like universal joints, gear ratios and the “right angle Cardan method” meant little to us until we were able to use 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.

Nearly every aspect of railways is explored. 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, but 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 with cross sections removed to show how they function.

Our favorite diorama shows how rail companies dig tunnels underneath the country’s mountains and rivers, and a few steps from this sits one of the massive boring blades responsible for burrowing through earth and stone. Nearby you’ll also find train simulators, where kids of all ages can act out their conductor fantasies.

Of all the attractions, however, the best one is not in the main building. It’s the Roundhouse, a wagon-wheel-shaped steam engine garage built in 1914. Here you’ll find staff cleaning and oiling train engines almost reverentially. After all, many of these engines are over 100 years old. Some are still in operation, and for an extra fee you can board them and go for a ride.

For visitors with strollers or wheelchairs, the Kyoto Railway Museum was designed to be accessible with ramps and elevators throughout. That said, the area around the Roundhouse has lots of ruts and gaps near the tracks. Wheels could get stuck and little feet could trip, so use caution here.

In all, this is a world-class institution and a great option for families who’ve seen one too many Kyoto temples and are looking for more fun. From learning about the engineering and mechanics of trains to the simple pleasure of hearing a steam whistle, the Kyoto Railway Museum is on the right track for a great day out.

Entry to the Kyoto Railway Museum is ¥1,200 for adults, ¥1,000 for university and high school students, ¥500 for junior high and elementary students and ¥200 for ages 3 and over. For more information, visit www.kyotorailwaymuseum.jp/en.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.