This Lesser-Known Train Between Kyoto and Osaka Is an Affordable, Peaceful Ride
Do some quiet sightseeing on the Kyo-train Garaku.
Kyoto might be one of the most beautiful cities in the world. The former capital of Japan hosts many of the country’s most notable shrines, temples, and even a bamboo forest—all available to visit even when they aren’t decorated with spring cherry blossoms or autumn leaves. In contrast with this beauty, the Kyoto Kawaramachi train station looks more or less like every other station you might have visited—which is to say gray and unremarkable and visited by ordinary trains. One train, however, is different from the rest, with a sleek burgundy exterior and a tendency to be boarded by well-dressed women clutching picnic baskets.
Introduced in March of 2019, Hankyu Kyoto Line’s Kyo-Train Garaku or “Good Luck” train is a low-key take on Japan’s fascination with train travel. The country’s luxury railway offerings include the Seven Stars, a route through Kyushu designed to bring a small group of travelers face-to-face with the region’s most talented artisans. Shiki-Shima, which moves through Eastern Japan, provides sleeper cars featuring handwoven futons from Fukushima Prefecture and traditional closets designed to resemble chests from Sendai City. And of course—for those on a more modest travel budget—there’s the Shinkansen, a bullet train with an average of only 18 seconds of delay that has become the stuff of legend.
The Kyo-train Garaku falls on the less opulent side of luxury, and has the price tag to prove it. It runs on weekends and holidays for the same price you’d pay on a normal train ride (that’s roughly $3 each way), closing the distance between Kyoto and Osaka-umeda, two stations about 45 minutes apart. Its lack of publicity is apparent from the way that passengers boarding between the two stations often do a double take when the atypical train arrives.
Inspired by wooden houses in pre-1950s Kyoto, the train plays with traditional symbols of Japanese national heritage, reinterpreting them across the design of the train. Seats are covered with tatami, a thickly-woven mat often used as a floor covering in sleeping areas. And each of the six cars represents a season, with a design and color scheme to march the vibes.
This decision to highlight seasons ties back to Japanese heritage. Although now largely a secular country, the country has roots in Shintoism, a belief system that emphasized connectivity to the earth and its cycles. It’s an ideal that has influenced Japanese poetry, festival celebrations, food, and art (including wall art you might see at a bathhouse or onsen). The decor of the cars ranges from autumn leaves to winter bamboo, spring cherry blossoms to summer hollyhock (represented by shippo-mon—a traditional Japanese pattern made of circle), and even bonus cars featuring early autumn susuki grass and early spring plum blossom.
There are also two gardens onboard, a detail that seems to come as a photo-worthy surprise to most of the riders. There’s a karesansui garden (otherwise known as a zen garden) filled with raked sand and rocks, and a tsubo-niwa version, typically a micro garden one might tend at home, here taking up a luggage rack's worth of space.
There’s more to see beyond the interior of the cars. While you can get a driver’s “Garaku View” via the train wifi, there’s also the option to peek through circular windows to catch glimpses of scenery. The train is billed as a sight-seeing experience, allowing passengers the opportunity to gaze upon some of the city’s older architecture and the brief strip of countryside that connects Kyoto and Osaka.
Planning to ride the train? No special reservations are needed, so you’ll only need to swipe a transit card, or buy a standard one-way ticket at the station machines. While the Kyo-train Garaku doesn’t run often enough to treat it as hop-on-hop-off transportation, it could serve as a stylish way to get to your first sightseeing point of the day. Among its stops are plenty of tourist staples. Looking to march through the endless torii gates of Fushimi Inari-taisha Shrine or a stroll through Nijō Castle? This is your ride. (Arashiyama, Kyoto’s idyllic bamboo grove is also visible, but you’ll have to change trains in order to make that a port of call.) If you’re feeling more ambitious, you could take the train a bit further along the route to visit Asahi Breweries Suita Brewery. And if it’s a travel day for you and you find yourself moving between cities, the train could easily serve as a cheap way into Osaka proper. (Just keep in mind it might be a tight squeeze with large luggage.)
Whatever your ultimate destination, the ride is an incredibly peaceful experience, with passengers talking quietly, munching on convenience store sushi and fried chicken as the world rushes by. There’s no better way to watch the seasons unfold.