Drive a train for real (well, almost) at Japan's riveting Railway Museum

Drive a train for real (well, almost) at Japan's riveting Railway Museum

From bullet trains to commuter clunkers, there's a nerdy draw for all at this amazing attraction
Tokyo Railway Museum
All aboard the lunch train -- a parked express is now a dining hall.

Whether you live in Japan or are just visiting, it's pretty hard to spend a day without using the train at least once.

Trains are an important part of modern urban life in Japan and -- let's face it -- Japanese rolling stock looks pretty darn cool.

Which is why, about 45 minutes out of Tokyo, there's a museum dedicated entirely to these heroes of the daily commute. It's called the Tetsudo Hakubutsukan -- the Railway Museum.

Over 30 actual train cars that were rescued from their fate of being sold for scrap are displayed inside and outside the museum.

Starting with the classic steam locomotives of the 19th and early-20th century, the museum has a train car from just about every period.

They include a first-generation Shinkansen, or bullet train, preserved in its original form.

History on rails

Tokyo Railway MuseumTrains R Us -- the view of the museum's main floor.

The main building of the museum is built like a giant warehouse, with the history zone display on the first floor being the biggest attraction.

Here, you can hop aboard a bullet train to see what it was like to be on the world's fastest train in 1964 or maybe check out what the average commuter train looked like in the 1930s.

The Imperial train car used by Emperor Hirohito himself is even on display.

Powerful locomotives -- steam, diesel and electric -- are also something not to miss.

Every day at noon and 3 p.m., the steam locomotive at the center of the museum goes for a spin (literally) on a giant turntable and blows its horn a few times to let the crowd know it's not going to sit in the museum quietly like the rest of its friends.

Tokyo Railway MuseumThe really old gets a look-in too. And that's just the visitors.

Don't forget to head to the information desk to ask about borrowing English language guide devices before you start exploring.

These little machines scan QR codes on plaques and translate the descriptions of the displays for you. Video displays are also available in English -- all you need to do is press a button located near each screen.

For anyone looking for a bit of a challenge, the museum has train simulators that let you test your train-operating skills on some of the major commuter lines around Tokyo.

Each of these simulators is built to look like the driver’s cab of a specific train and is equipped with a panorama screen in front displaying actual footage from the train line.

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Dining car

Tokyo Railway MuseumInside the lunch car -- only the domestic air conditioner hints at the refit.

When you start hearing your stomach growl, head outside the main building to the kiosk that sells “Eki ben.” These are packed lunches that are usually sold only at particular stations throughout the country and are filled with local specialties.

After you've made your choice, hop aboard the “lunch train.”

All four of these train cars were in service at one point and have been preserved so that you can enjoy your lunch in the comfortable, air-conditioned environment of a real express train.

If packed lunches aren't your style, head for one of the two restaurants located inside the museum.

Nihon-Shokudo, near the entrance, serves a variety of Western and Japanese-style dishes, while Restaurant TD on the second floor serves a selection of light bites.

Both restaurants have a view of the JR train tracks outside so you can enjoy a little train spotting while you eat.

Visitors with kids might also want to check out the miniature train rides and the train-themed playground that's located outside near the lunch train.

Tokyo Railway MuseumThe miniature passengers inside this bullet train must be terrified.

The observation deck on top of the museum is another great spot to visit. This is prime real estate when it comes to watching bullet trains; they pass right by the museum every few minutes.

There's a whole day's worth of exploring and almost a century and a half of history to enjoy at the Railway Museum.

If nothing else, it proves that trains are a lot more than just big metal boxes that get you there and back again.

Getting there (by train, of course)

Take the Saikyo Line, Keihin-Tohoku Line or the Shonan-Shinjuku Line to Ōmiya Station and transfer to the New Shuttle. Hop off at Tetsudo Hakubutsukan (Onari) Station; the museum is connected directly to the station.

The entrance fee is ¥1,000 (US$13) for adults, ¥500 for students up to high school and ¥200 for children under elementary school age. Children aged under three enter free. Open 10 a.m.-6 p.m., closed on Tuesday; www.railway-museum.jp

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