SAITAMA, Japan — The Shinkansen glides swiftly along the rails that crisscross Japan. The high-speed bullet trains that whisk travelers from one side of Japan to the other are an icon of the country and a model for high-speed rail.
While these trains are the symbol of the country today, they are just the latest chapter in Japan’s long railroad history, which that dates to Oct. 14, 1872, when the country’s first railroad opened, connecting Shimbashi (Tokyo) and Yokohama. Nine years later, the country’s first private railroad, Nippon Railway, was created, and the railroad revolution in Japan was well under way.
The Railway Museum offers a cross-section of the trains that have operated throughout— Japan over the last 130-plus years – from the earliest steam trains that helped revolutionize the nation to the commuter trains that help keep cities moving to the Shinkansen that took rail travel to the next level. As the country grew and modernized, so too did the railroads.
The museum is home to about three dozen pieces of rolling stock, including the early steam engines that once pulled the trains across the country. The earliest of the locomotives on display is a British-built Class 150 — the first locomotive used on the Shimbashi-Yokohama line.
At the center of the museum’s main showroom is a C57 locomotive. Built in 1940, this is the last steam locomotive in Japan used to pull passengers. In 1975, when the engine was last used, the steamer operated between Iwamizawa and Muroran on the Muroran Main Line.
Perhaps, the most interesting piece in the museum is locomotive No. 1, a British built class 150 steamer and the first engine to operate in Japan, running over the Shimbashi-Yokohama line.
Of course, the story of Japan’s rail network would not be complete without the modern Shinkansen. The museum features a Series 0 Shinkansen built in 1964. The last of this first generation model operated in 2008, having been replaced by more modern successors.
The Railway Museum traces its origins to October 1921 and is operated by the East Japan Railway Culture Foundation. In addition to the static displays, the museum also offers a number of educational exhibits about the operation of railroads. There are also train simulators that allow guests to sit behind the throttle, while an outdoor miniature train whisks willing guests around the grounds of the museum.
Saitama is located about 15 miles north of Tokyo and is easily accessible by — what else — rail.