Experience Autumn with Tohoku’s Joyful Trains: Pikachus, Footbaths, Nature Walks & More!

Experience Autumn with Tohoku’s Joyful Trains: Pikachus, Footbaths, Nature Walks & More!

This is our personal account of an unforgettable adventure on Tohoku’s themed rails, best enjoyed during autumn.

Avid wanderlusters frequently flock to northeast Japan to witness the incredible colours of autumn, from the later parts of September to the end of November. When I was recently told about this, it wasn’t new information for me. But when I found out that you could enjoy Japan’s best autumn sights while riding in the Joyful Trains, I was immediately drawn in.

I already had the pleasure of riding the Joyful Trains in the Nagano and Niigata area, and since the fancy train cabins played a big part in my first furore into the Land of the Rising Sun, that’s the only way I know to roll in Japan.

Read also: Experience Nagano & Niigata’s Joyful Trains: Sake Tastings, Art Galleries, Planetarium Onboard and more!

For the benefit of those who’re new to the idea of Joyful Trains, in a nutshell, here’s what they are: Instead of regular rail systems that bring people from Point A to Point B, these ‘happy’ trains have unique themes, features and activities that make the journey a lot more enjoyable. It’s literally an experience in itself!

In the Tohoku area, I feel that the trains are more lit than those in the Nagano and Niigata area (not that they are bad or anything, quite the opposite), and if you do visit Japan during autumn, here’s how I suggest you do it.

#NoobRider Tip: All these Joyful Trains can be ridden FOR FREE with the JR East Pass. Seat reservations (also free with the Pass) are required for boarding, so visit the website (up to one month in advance) or any JR East ticketing office before you go!

With the JR East Pass (Tohoku area), all shinkansen, express and regular trains, and Joyful Trains are available to travel in! You get unlimited rides all over Tohoku and from/to major airports. What’s more, it’s priced at less than a shinkansen round trip between Tokyo and Sendai!

Explore each destination (and train) to its fullest before you head off to your next, as the Pass allows for any five days of usage within a 14-day period.

Learn more about JR East Pass (Tohoku area)

POKÉMON with YOU: Gotta catch this one!

pokemon with you train

Image credit: Carissa Loh (East Japan Railway Company) 

Without thinking too much, you would have already figured out what this train is all about. The entire dual-cabin train is decked in a Pokémon theme — specifically in the colours and motifs of the loveable Pikachu. 

Although I’d personally prefer to see a variety of characters from the Pokémon universe in the belly of the cabins (this was the case before the makeover in 2017), you’ll have plushies, ear headbands, conductor hats and other Pikachu accessories to play and take selfies with, which makes up for it!

pokemon with you joyful train interior

Image credit: Carissa Loh (East Japan Railway Company)

pokemon with you joyful train play area

Image credit: Carissa Loh (East Japan Railway Company)

One of the cabins is a fully-dedicated play area. Apart from interacting with the dolls and taking photographs, kids (and adults too) have the privilege of being the train captain for a few minutes in the mock Pikachu console. Apart from that, there is the highly exclusive Pokémon snacks and bento, which are always sold out within minutes of going on sale. Collectors, keep a lookout for those!

pokemon with you joyful train merchandise

Image credit: Carissa Loh (East Japan Railway Company)

And just to make sure you have a pleasant experience on this route, you should book your seat days ahead, because there are only 46 seats on the train (all reserved seating!) and the train runs only on weekends and public holidays.

How to experience autumn with this train

If you are one of the fortunate few who have the opportunity to ride the POKÉMON with YOU Train, make sure you allocate a couple of hours to visit the Geibikei Gorge, a must-see spot at the Geibikei Station.

There’s a boatman waiting to take you through the monumental gorge, where you’ll get a front-row seat to see majestic cliffs, waterfalls and rock formations. The entire ride will take about 90 minutes, so you’ll have more than enough time to snap once-in-a-lifetime shots of this place. 

geibikei gorge

Image credit: Geibi Kanko Center

For those who consider yourselves superstitious, take a moment to participate in a mini-game, where you can purchase ‘lucky stones’ to try throwing into a small hole in the cliff here — this is about halfway through the journey through the gorge. Legend has it that, if you manage to ‘score,’ good fortune awaits. 

And if that isn’t enough, the boatman will give you goosebumps with his rendition of a local folk song as you make your way back to the train station.

pokemon with you joyful train route

Route: Ichinoseki ↔ Kesennuma on the Ofunato Line  

Accessible from: Ichinoseki Shinkansen Station

Timetable & operating dates

Resort Shirakami: A journey for nature lovers

resort shirakami joyful train

There are three different versions of the Resort Shirakami train, all of which have varied designs and are named after natural features in the area: Buna (beech trees), Aoike (blue pond) and Kumagera (black woodpecker). No matter which one you ride, however, they all have one thing in common: you will definitely get great views of the ocean as the train traverses the Gono Line.

As a lover of all things related to the sea, I had a ball riding the Buna and Aoike trains. The views are absolutely stunning. The spacious leg room along with the compartment box seats and large windows made sure that the experience was that much better for me. There’s also the pristine ‘blue pond’ that I thoroughly enjoyed exploring — more about this below.

resort shirakami joyful train interior

Besides the uber comfy seats and mind-blowing views, I was also treated to storytelling and a shamisen (a traditional Japanese musical instrument) performance. On other days, passengers can enjoy a puppet show, but I missed out on that because I was too snug in my booth. Probably one of the best things about the Resort Shirakami trains is that they are easier to book because they run almost every day!

Along my journey in the Resort Shirakami, there were a couple of pit stops at the Noshiro and Senjojiki stations. The former is home to Noshiro Technical High School, which won the basketball National Championships over 50 times in their storied past and became the inspiration for the popular manga series Slam Dunk. Here you can try your hand at a classic free throw to win a special souvenirs like collectors’ coasters and postcards — only if you score! 

noshiro and senjojiki stations

Image credit: Carissa Loh (East Japan Railway Company)

At Senjojiki station, I had one of the best 15 minutes of my life when I walked towards the ocean with the chilly sea breeze in my face. The long coastline was an immediate draw for me, and I spent all of the allocated time watching the waves crash onto the rocks onshore. My short-lived daydream caused me to miss out on the tasty grilled squid sold at the store next to the station, so don’t repeat my mistake!

resort shirakami joyful train

How to experience autumn with this train

When riding the Resort Shirakami train, you will delve into the Akita and Aomori prefectures, both of which are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. With that said, there are many ways to enjoy autumn in these areas.

First, I would highly recommend the beautiful blue Aoike and the beech forest near Juniko station — the location I mentioned earlier. The moment I got here, I was enveloped in the peace and tranquility the place exuded. With no buildings in sight, I was lost in the lush greenery and left overwhelmed by clear waters in the pond. And if you’re here in autumn, the beech trees turn a bewitching bright yellow!

sadat at aoike

lake towada and oirase keiryu stream

Image credit: Aomori Prefecture

Other autumn sightseeing spots in the vicinity of Akita and Aomori that I proudly prescribe are the Oirase Keiryu Stream and Lake Towada, where you can hike along a scenic path by the stream and get up close with waterfalls and virgin forests. Also visit the Kakunodate Samurai Residences, a place where you can tour old samurai houses and gaze at sakura trees that turn bright orange-red in the fall.

Kakunodate Samurai Residences

Image credit: Akita Prefecture

And if you have the luxury of time, have a go at the Koganezaki Furofushi Onsen that faces the sea, where you’ll get fantastic panoramas of the water. I guarantee you won’t regret it!

resort shirakami route

Route: Akita ↔ Aomori on the Gono Line  

Accessible from: Akita Shinkansen Station or Shin-Aomori Shinkansen Station

Timetable & operating dates

Toreiyu Tsubasa: Give your feet a treat

toreiyu tsubasa joyful train

If you’re like me and don’t have time to soak yourself in a full-on onsen, book a ride on the Toreiyu Tsubasa — a shinkansen with built-in footbaths. For only ¥380, I got myself a 15-minute relaxation session for my feet, with great views to boot. As part of the deal, I received a special Toreiyu Tsubasa towel-and-bag pack too! Before indulging in the footbath, make sure you have shorts on, or pants that you can easily roll up. Mine were too tight to pull up and they got soaked!

toreiyu tsubasa joyful train interior

toreiyu tsubasa joyful train interior

Once you’re done dipping your toes in the water, get a load of the Yamagata sake, wine, and juice available at the bar onboard. The dark carpets and bright red seats give this train a premium feel, and with a stiff drink in hand, the tatami mat seating is just the icing on the cake I needed to have a ride I’ll never forget.

How to experience autumn with this train

views of yellow rice fields from toreiyu tsubasa joyful train

Image credit: Carissa Loh (East Japan Railway Company)

If the astonishing views of the yellow rice fields you’ll get from riding the Toreiyu Tsubasa aren’t enough, set aside time to visit Yamadera, a breathtaking temple in the mountains between Yamagata and Sendai. 

yamadera

Image credit: JNTO

Disclaimer: you need to climb 1,000 steps to reach the top, but if you’re up to the task, you’ll be rewarded with a bird’s eye view of the valley from above — it’s a sight you’ll have to see to believe.

toreiyu tsubasa route

Route: Fukushima ↔ Shinjo on the Yamagata Shinkansen Line  

Accessible from: Fukushima Shinkansen Station, Yamagata Shinkansen Station 

Timetable & operating dates

Resort Minori: A harvest for the eyes

resort minori joyful train passing through rice field

Image credit: East Japan Railway Company

While the exterior of the Resort Minori train is rather plain, I was blown away by the sights offered to me along the journey. The route goes through many rice fields, but the ones along the Naruko Gorge are a cut above the rest – especially during autumn (more on this below).

Meaning “fruitful”, the name ‘Minori’ can represent a fruitful harvest, a fulfilling hot spring visit or the abundance of beautiful leaves of warm colours in autumn — all amazing sights and experiences that you can get during a trip on this train.

resort minori joyful train interior

On the inside of the train, I was treated to spacious seats and if you are travelling with kids, the mini library is perfect for keeping them occupied. The juvenile in me was consumed by the train and I even took it upon myself to snap a keepsake while sitting on a miniature Resort Minori cabin meant for children!

resort minori joyful train interior

In between the views on this route that will leave you in awe for most of the journey, take some time to exit the train at Naruko Onsen station to grab a couple of free services. Choose to have a complimentary foot or hand bath at the station, or if those don’t tickle your fancy, a short stroll is just as great.

How to experience autumn with this train

ofukazawa bridge

Image credit: Miyagi Prefecture

During autumn, the Resort Minori train is popular with tourists and locals alike, thanks to the fiery red and orange hues of the 2km-long Naruko Gorge. The train periodically slows down at key parts along the route so that you can enjoy stunning views of the oncoming harvest and the grandiose Ofukazawa Bridge

Especially in autumn, allocate some time to explore the area around Naruko Onsen station, or even stay the night. You’ll have opportunities to hike trails and paint your own kokeshi dolls. 

entsuin temple in matsushima

Image credit: Visit Matsushima

For those with more free days on their itineraries, head over to Matsushimakaigan Station. Here you can see the pine islets of Matsushima (one of Japan’s Three Great Views), cruise along Matsushima Bay or visit two of Tohoku’s prominent temples, Zuiganji and Entsuin.

resort minori route

Route: Sendai ↔ Shinjo on the Riku East Line  

Accessible from: Sendai Shinkansen Station

Timetable & operating dates

SL Ginga: Night on the Galactic Railroad

SL ginga joyful train

Image credit: East Japan Railway Company

Apart from train enthusiasts, fans of Japanese literature and all things history, will love a ride in the SL Ginga train. A snippet about the train name: ‘SL’ is short for ‘Steam Locomotive’, and ‘Ginga’ is translated as ‘galaxy’, and you’ll immediately see why. 

The interior of this train is filled with decor that brings Kenji Miyazawa’s (a famous Japanese poet) Night on the Galactic Railroad to life. With installations mimicking gas lamps, stained glass windows and astrological partitions, you’ll delve into the past during this journey.

sl ginga joyful train interior

Image credit: East Japan Railway Company

Everything inside the train pays homage to Miyazawa and his legendary work. You will enjoy every inch of the cozy compartment-like cabins, before you embrace the culture and natural beauty of the Tohoku area. While doing all that, make sure you experience the planetarium. What you’ll see is simply out of this world!

sl ginga joyful train interior

Image credit: East Japan Railway Company

How to experience autumn with this train

To the contentment of travellers who can’t get enough of the red and yellow shades of autumn, the SL Ginga passes through mountains with unadulterated views of flourishing crops. For a full experience of this season, I suggest you spend a night or two at the Hanamaki Onsen town, where you can get unobstructed perspectives of autumn on full display while soaking in the hot spring.

sl ginga route

Route: Hanamaki ↔ Kamaishi on the Kamaishi Line  

Accessible from: Shin-Hanamaki Shinkansen Station

Timetable & operating dates

The Joyful Trains in the Tohoku area are incredible no matter the season, and I can vouch for that after my new-found kinship with these machines. While autumn is a hot season for tourists to flock to Japan, you should consider braving the crowds and taking a trip during this season. 

The views and experiences that come with your troubles are worth it. I mean you could always come back during the off-season to ride the trains again — I know I would! 

Just remember to book your seat in advance via the website (up to one month ahead of your trip) or at any JR East ticketing offices, as reservations are required for all Joyful Trains. Of course, seat reservations are free if you already have the JR East Pass (Tohoku area)!

jr east pass tohoku service area map

The JR East Pass (Tohoku area) offers UNLIMITED RIDES on all JR East Rail Lines in the designated area, and is also valid for the Narita Express to/from Narita Airport, Tokyo Monorail to/from Haneda Airport and all Shinkansen lines.

With a JR East Pass, you also get free rides on the uniquely-themed Joyful Trains above, and more! 

The pass is valid for use for any five days within a 14-day period after collection, giving you flexibility and ample time to explore each area without rushing to the next.

Make advance reservations for free up to one month before departure, and you can get your pass in Japan or through licensed sales agents overseas.

Psst! The pass is ¥1,000 cheaper if you purchase it from travel agents!

Contact any of the travel agencies below to purchase your JR East Pass (Tohoku area) and hop on one of these delightful Joyful Trains en route to your destinations!

 


Wendy Tour
Tel: 6225 8324
Website


Azza Travel & Tours 
Tel: 6292 7110
Website


Centour Travel
Tel: 6344 3492
Website


Changi Recommends 
Tel: 6701 1185 
Website


Euro Asia Holiday
Tel: 6339 9133
Website


J-Horizons (Malaysia)
Tel:+60 (03) 2161 0922
Website


Brought to you by JR East (East Japan Railway Company).

About Author

Sadat Osman
Sadat Osman

Always drawn to the ocean, Sadat is a lover of all things involving the sun, sand and the sea. If he's not planning his next fishing expedition, this fitness addict is busy lifting iron or rocking it on the football pitch.

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