After two days of visiting temples in glorious sunshine, and feeling rather like we were in a cultural theme park, it was time for a change—in weather and activities. With so much Shinkansen travel being one of the highlights of our year, the Kyoto Railway Museum seemed worth a visit. Forewarned by TripAdvisor that food options are limited and oversubscribed once inside, we made sure to have an early lunch in the labyrinth that is Kyoto station, before taking a local train one stop and arrived at the museum hopeful for a couple of hours of entertainment.
Once past the ticket barrier, there is an outside (covered) gallery featuring an original 1960s Shinkansen prototype and other vintage carriages. The exhibit on the development of the Shinkansen gave a fascinating insight into the number of independent significant problems that had to be solved—trains may have been a Victorian invention but elevating them to the speeds of the Shinkansen required ground-breaking developments across multiple disciplines.
This first gallery was enjoyable but unremarkable, and faced with the choice of continuing outside to the steam trains, or seeing what was inside, we chose the latter. It was at this point the enormous size the museum became apparent and what we had seen so far was in fact just a small appetiser for a feast. Across the two huge floors there were both historical artefacts explaining the development of the railways, including some from Britain, plus interactive exhibits illustrating how various aspects of the railway function, from automated ticket machines to signalling and the track inspection “bicycles”. For those with a desire to drive a train, there was a free simulator that controlled some large scale models equipped with cameras (providing a “driver’s eye view”), while adult rail enthusiasts could pay to experience real training simulators. For younger children there was a large play area with lots of fun Plarail toys. The hourly railway diorama show was also delightful, and a welcome chance to sit and rest our feet while watching little Hornby-scale trains zoom around a beautiful representation of the Japanese landscape.
If you manage to make it through all of that and out of the other end of the building, this is where you find the steam engine roundhouse. There were about 15 steam engines to look at up close, and four of them setup so you could go inside the cab and play with all the levers and knobs. A steam train ride is available, again approximately hourly, but it is fairly short and runs alongside a public park. The children enjoyed the experience, and the open-sided carriages certainly ensure you get the full smoke and soot effect, but I think watching it is better than riding it.
Having gone in hope of a few hours of child-friendly, rain-proof entertainment, I was very impressed by the quality and variety on offer here. This is a superb attraction for families with children but also a worthwhile option for adults wanting to add some diversity to their Kyoto visit.