Take a nostalgic journey on Japan's Top 10 steam locomotives

Often referred to as "SL" for short in Japanese, steam locomotives are currently experiencing a bit of renaissance in Japan thanks to the increasing popularity of local transportation and the recent opening of the Kyoto Railway Museum. These are the top 10 steam locomotives as voted by local Japanese members of Rakuten Travel!

Take a nostalgic journey on Japan's Top 10 steam locomotives
  1. ShizuokaSL Express (Oigawa Railway, Oigawa Main Line)

    • SL Express (Oigawa Railway, Oigawa Main Line)
    • SL Express (Oigawa Railway, Oigawa Main Line)
    • SL Express (Oigawa Railway, Oigawa Main Line)

    In first place is the SL Express, offering excellent views of the idyllic Oigawa River landscape. The trip from Shin-Kanaya to Senzu Station takes approximately one hour and 20 minutes. The cars preserve their retro feel with seating unchanged from their original days. The boxed lunches available on the journey are also exceptionally good. It is also known as the only steam locomotive in Japan that runs almost every day.

    One passenger says:

    A sense of power and presence completely unlike anything found with the Shinkansen, conventional trains or electric or diesel locomotives!

    Places to stay in Shizuoka

  2. Yamaguchi–ShimaneSL Yamaguchi (West Japan Railway Company, Yamaguchi Line)

    • SL Yamaguchi (West Japan Railway Company, Yamaguchi Line)
    • SL Yamaguchi (West Japan Railway Company, Yamaguchi Line)
    • SL Yamaguchi (West Japan Railway Company, Yamaguchi Line)

    Built in 1937, the Steam Locomotive Yamaguchi is a steam locomotive that was subsequently retired and was then restored in 1979. Featuring a five-car configuration, it takes approximately two hours to make the 63-kilometer one-way journey from Shin-Yamaguchi to Tsuwano. It operates on Saturdays from March through November.

    One passenger says:

    As a child, we had contact with steam locomotives on a daily basis, in the city as well as the countryside. For me, this represents my sense of nostalgia for the Showa Period.

    Places to stay in Yamaguchi

    Places to stay in Shimane

  3. Niigata–FukushimaSL Banetsu Monogatari (East Japan Railway Company, Shintetsu Main Line/Banetsu Line)

    • SL Banetsu Monogatari (East Japan Railway Company, Shintetsu Main Line/Banetsu Line)
    • SL Banetsu Monogatari (East Japan Railway Company, Shintetsu Main Line/Banetsu Line)
    • SL Banetsu Monogatari (East Japan Railway Company, Shintetsu Main Line/Banetsu Line)

    The final steam locomotive retired from operation on the Banetsu West Line in 1969 was brought back into service in April 1999, with its nostalgic whistle echoing along the Banetsu route. It runs between Niigata and Fukushima's Aizu-Wakamatsu on Saturdays and holidays from April through September.

    One passenger says:

    From the days of its original operation through its retirement to its return and operation today, this steam locomotive has been loved, adored and treasured by the people of the region.

    Places to stay in Niigata

    Places to stay in Fukushima

  4. KumamotoSL Hitoyoshi (Kyushu Railway Company, Kagoshima Main Line/Hisatsu Line)

    • SL Hitoyoshi (Kyushu Railway Company, Kagoshima Main Line/Hisatsu Line)
    • SL Hitoyoshi (Kyushu Railway Company, Kagoshima Main Line/Hisatsu Line)
    • SL Hitoyoshi (Kyushu Railway Company, Kagoshima Main Line/Hisatsu Line)

    This sightseeing train began operation on the 100th anniversary of the full opening of the JR Hisatsu Line. The classical interior features a viewing lounge and a buffet. Passengers can enjoy the sights of the majestic Kuma River Valley coupled with the sound of the whistle. The train operates on Saturdays and holidays from April through November.

    One passenger says:

    Steam locomotives were a common sight for children of my generation. The sounds, the smells, the feel... it reminds me of my father. The true enjoyment comes not from getting somewhere, but from the journey itself.

    Places to stay in Kumamoto

  5. HokkaidoSL Fuyu-no-Shitsugen (Hokkaido Railway Company, Senmo Main Line)

    • SL Fuyu-no-Shitsugen (Hokkaido Railway Company, Senmo Main Line)
    • SL Fuyu-no-Shitsugen (Hokkaido Railway Company, Senmo Main Line)
    • SL Fuyu-no-Shitsugen (Hokkaido Railway Company, Senmo Main Line)

    This special train runs only in January and February on the Senmo Main Line between Kushiro Station, Shibecha Station and Kawayu-Onsen Station. It is a fantastical sight as it cuts through the snowy landscape, offering views of the cranes and other wild animals of Kushiro.

    One passenger says:

    Steam locomotives are great for getting into the mood of a trip as you travel! If only the trip could be longer!

    Places to stay in Hokkaido

  6. SaitamaSL Paleo Express (Chichibu Railway, Chichibu Main Line)

    • SL Paleo Express (Chichibu Railway, Chichibu Main Line)
    • SL Paleo Express (Chichibu Railway, Chichibu Main Line)
    • SL Paleo Express (Chichibu Railway, Chichibu Main Line)

    This train runs on Saturdays and holidays from April through early December between Kumagai and Mitsumineguchi, a trip of approximately two hours and 40 minutes. There are also many sightseeing spots along the route, such as Nagatoro Line Kudari (River Boating) and Shibazakura (Moss Pink) Hill, and the train's reputation as "the closest steam locomotive to Tokyo" also has it bustling with passengers.

    One passenger says:

    There were quite a few people waving and taking photos along the route. Even when viewed from outside, steam locomotives are a beautiful and nostalgic sight.

    Places to stay in Saitama

  7. GunmaSL Minakami (East Japan Railway Company, Joetsu Line)

    • SL Minakami (East Japan Railway Company, Joetsu Line)
    • SL Minakami (East Japan Railway Company, Joetsu Line)
    • SL Minakami (East Japan Railway Company, Joetsu Line)

    This train serves the Joetsu Line between Takasaki and Minakami Stations during the tourist season and on Saturdays and holidays. It's a great opportunity to explore the area around Minakami Station, visit places such as Suwakyo Bridge and take a day trip to a hot spring.

    One passenger says:

    The beautiful scenery combined with the whistle of the locomotive along the journey from Takasaki to Minakami was a truly wonderful experience.

    Places to stay in Gunma

  8. Tochigi–IbarakiSL Moka (Moka Railway Company, Moka Line)

    • SL Moka (Moka Railway Company, Moka Line)
    • SL Moka (Moka Railway Company, Moka Line)
    • SL Moka (Moka Railway Company, Moka Line)

    Linking Shimodate, Moka, Mashiko and Motegi, the Moka Railway was a cotton-producing region in the Edo period and was also known as the "Cotton Way." The locomotive makes one round trip each Saturday and Sunday throughout the year.

    One passenger says:

    Little things available (like hats) allow you to take photos of your children pretending to be engineers and conductors.

    Places to stay in Tochigi

    Places to stay in Ibaraki

  9. FukushimaSL Aizu-Tadami (East Japan Railway Company, Tadami Line)

    • SL Aizu-Tadami (East Japan Railway Company, Tadami Line)
    • SL Aizu-Tadami (East Japan Railway Company, Tadami Line)
    • SL Aizu-Tadami (East Japan Railway Company, Tadami Line)

    This train runs on the Tadami Line from Aizu-Wakamatsu to Aizu-Kawaguchi. The view of the Tadami River Valley as it crosses the bridge is simply breathtaking. It runs during the budding season of early summer and the fall foliage season of October and November.

    One passenger says:

    This train evokes childhood memories. You can connect with the movement of the wheels just as though they were the movements of a person.

    Places to stay in Fukushima

  10. ShigaSL Kita-Biwako (West Japan Railway Company, Hokuriku Main Line)

    • SL Kita-Biwako (West Japan Railway Company, Hokuriku Main Line)
    • SL Kita-Biwako (West Japan Railway Company, Hokuriku Main Line)
    • SL Kita-Biwako (West Japan Railway Company, Hokuriku Main Line)

    Running 22 kilometers from JR Maibara Station to Kinomoto Station, this train runs on an irregular basis throughout the year. It is a perfect opportunity to enjoy the incredible natural beauty in the Kohoku area near Lake Biwa and Mount Ibuki and visit the historical spots around Nagahama and Kinomoto.

    One passenger says:

    There is a certain feeling of luxury that comes with intentionally taking a slow train.

    Places to stay in Shiga

*This list was created by ranking the steam locomotives that received the most votes in answer to the question "Which steam locomotive are you the happiest you had a chance to ride?" in a survey conducted among readers of the Rakuten Travel News email newsletter (total number of votes: 2,936).

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