Bring some joy to your commute by riding one of Japan’s many themed rail cars.

Japan’s famous for its train-centric transportation system, and those trains range from sleek, cutting-edge lines, like the shinkansen, to down-home local lines that take their sweet time, stopping at every station. Years ago I lived in Tottori (the least populated prefecture in the country), and some of our local trains had a little extra character—literally. The prefecture is known for its GeGeGe no Kitaro trains, inspired by the manga of the same name created in 1960 by Shigeru Mizuki. The manga is based around a world of ghosts and supernatural creatures, and each station along the train line is decorated with characters with names like Nezumi-Otoko (Rat Boy) and Medama-Oyaji (Eyeball Father). Tourists can take the train all the way to Mizuki’s hometown of Sakaiminato and see a street lined with his manga characters. There’s even a museum dedicated to Mizuki’s work.

The GeGeGe no Kitaro train isn’t the only character-themed line in Japan. In fact, Japan Rail has a whole host of “Joyful Trains,” each created to delight a particular audience. Pikachu and his fellow Pokémon are featured in the bright pastel colours of the Pokémon with You trains, a line designed to bring hope and happiness to the children of the Tohoku region in the wake of the 3/11 disaster. Old-school anime fans can also be delighted by Toyama Prefecture’s bright blue Doraemon streetcar. It’s no dokodemo door (anywhere door), but it is a nice tribute to Fujiko F. Fujio’s well-loved character, who was named the country’s “anime ambassador” in 2008. Travellers interested in the edgier, 90s-era Evangelion, on the other hand, have probably already heard about the 500 TYPE EVA Shinkansen, the Fukuoka-bound, Evangelion-themed bullet train, which ran until spring of this year. It used to play the anime’s theme song when it pulled up to the platform, and even featured an exhibit of show memorabilia in the front car—a dream for Evangelion fans who managed to hop on before the line said farewell.

Not a big fan of anime or manga characters? You’re in luck, because not all the Joyful Trains are cartoon-themed. One of the most popular lines is Niigata’s Genbi Shinkansen, which, broken down literally, means “modern” (現) and “beauty” (美). Literally a moving museum, the train is wrapped with vibrant photographs by Mika Ninagawa. Inside, exhibits showcase work by contemporary painters, sculptors and visual artists, which you can enjoy at over 300 kilometres per hour while noshing on local treats in the café. Now that’s character-building. Or, for an old-timey ride, you can hop on the oddly named Oykot (Tokyo spelled backwards), which is designed to mimic the interior of Grandma’s rustic, traditional home among the rice paddies.


How to train your travel character 

You probably already know how to ride a train … right? We hope so, anyway. But if you plan to build character on these special lines, here are some handy tips for you.

DO NOT expect a silent ride

These trains aren’t just for kids, but kids will definitely be in the mix!

DO take photos

Boggle your friends’ minds with a shot of you and Pikachu riding the rails.

DO NOT steal the advertisements

Even the ads complement the theme—taking one is like stealing a piece of the puzzle.