Field Report: Kyōto Railway Museum, Japan (12 November 2016)

When it comes to Japan, my main areas of interest are castles and trains – and no visit is ever complete without me adding to my knowledge of one or the other (usually both). In this post, we turn the spotlight upon the country’s newest major railway museum: a veritable playground for train-obsessed chaps like myself, and a welcome addition to the already massive list of sightseeing spots in Kyōto.

After a quick side trip to admire some lovely autumn colours at Tōfuku-ji, I doubled back to Kyōto Station for a late lunch. By the time I’d finished, it was already mid-afternoon, with just a couple of hours or less remaining before major tourist spots would start to close for the evening.

Since time was running short, I weighed my options and settled on a brand-new attraction just a short bus ride away.

Opened in April 2016, the JR West-run Kyōto Railway Museum (京都鉄道博物館, Kyōto Tetsudō Hakubutsukan) is the latest addition to Japan’s growing list of large-scale train exhibition facilities, alongside JR East’s Railway Museum in Saitama (north of Tōkyō) and JR Central’s SCMaglev and Railway Park in Nagoya. There are more than 50 preserved vehicles on display – ranging from steam locomotives to shinkansen cars – as well as a wide range of related exhibits and activity zones for visitors of all ages.

That last part might seem like something straight out of a theme park pamphlet, but it’s quite true: there’s something here for almost everyone, adults and children alike. In fact, I daresay more than half of the people present at the time of my visit were families enjoying a day out, rather than solo tourists like myself.

The first exhibition zone beyond the main entrance is the 100-metre-long Promenade: a large roofed space with sides partly open to allow natural light and air through (almost making it a semi-outdoor facility).

Amongst the highlights of this zone are four 0 Series Shinkansen cars, from the first generation of trains built in the early 1960s to serve Japan’s new high-speed rail line. One of the lead cars is open to visitors, and you can well imagine my sheer joy at being able to get a rare glimpse into the driver’s cab of this early (and historically significant) shinkansen model.

Note how the speed gauge only goes up to 260 kph, and is marked for normal operation only up to 210 kph. Ahh, the good old “slow” days.

Compare that with the next shot: the cutting-edge, highly computerised cockpit of a contemporary N700 Series Shinkansen (as recreated for a functional driving simulator), taken during my 2014 visit to the SCMaglev and Railway Park. The chap in the driver’s seat is yours truly – face blotted out as usual, of course. (^_^)

To say that times have changed would be the understatement of the decade. One can only imagine what the view from the driver’s seat would be like another half-century from now (unless teleportation devices or artificial wormhole technology render trains obsolete by then).

At the other end of the promenade is the entrance to the Main Building, consisting of themed exhibition zones spread out over two floors. (There’s also an open-air observation deck on the third floor with views of the busy train lines running past the museum; alas, I didn’t get to use it as I’d arrived not long before closing time and had to prioritise the main indoor areas.) Amongst the exhibits is, as expected, a large train diorama – always great fun to have in a railway museum.

If one’s preference leans more towards steam locomotives, the best part will no doubt be the museum’s huge roundhouse and the trains sheltered within it. Once a working facility for the maintenance of rolling stock, it became part of the Umekōji Steam Locomotive Museum (the present museum’s predecessor institution, which opened on the same site in 1972), and was then incorporated into the newly renovated compound.

The historical lesson didn’t end there; indeed, it continued all the way up to the end of my visit. As I made my way out of the museum, I passed through a rather beautiful structure from 1904 that now serves as the primary exit and souvenir shop. It was the main building of Nijō Station on the San’in Main Line, but was disassembled and moved south nearly three kilometres in 1996 when a new station house was constructed to replace it.

In the next post, we’ll shift gears and look at something related to my other great Japan-related obsession – namely, castles. Well, one castle in particular.

Until then, cheerio.

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