Riding in Style on Japanese Trains

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Japan’s public transportation is known for its punctuality, efficiency and high-quality service, which means train travel is a great way to see the countryside and to experience Japanese culture — even if you’re squeezed into Tokyo’s crowded Yamanote line at rush hour or experiencing the popular high-speed Shinkansen bullet train.

But many savvy visitors crisscross the country in another way, using luxury trains that resemble five-star hotels on rails.

Luxury rail travel appeals to “someone who wants slow travel, the experience of excellent service in a contained environment, the finest dining, the most exquisite accommodation with private bathrooms,” Simon Pielow, co-founder of the Luxury Train Club, said by phone from Wiltshire County, England. “Things that many people have no idea is possible on anything other than a royal train.”

One trip chartered by his agency starts and ends at Hakata station in the city of Fukuoka, crossing the southern Japanese island of Kyushu on the Seven Stars, a seven-car luxury sleeper train. Journeys for either two days and one night (per person, double occupancy) range from 650,000 to 900,000 yen (about $4,292 to $5,942), or four days and three nights from ¥1.2 million to ¥1.6 million. (A single supplement would apply.)

“The train is very much sought-after because of the quality of the service on the train and its exclusivity,” Mr. Pielow said. “The people who come to us are desperate to travel on the train.”

With limited space, most would-be travelers need to apply several months in advance.

The Seven Stars, or Nanatsuboshi in Japanese, was named in part after the number of its carriages, in part after the seven prefectures of Kyushu: Fukuoka, Saga, Nagasaki, Kumamoto, Oita, Miyazaki and Kagoshima, and for seven of the main attractions of the region, including its nature, food and hot springs. (Other stars have been known to ride these rails: The actress and producer Margot Robbie told Vogue last year that she and her husband had traveled to Japan in part to ride the Seven Stars.)

The train consists of a lounge car, a bar, a tatami-mat tearoom and a souvenir shop, as well as eight 108-square-foot private rooms and two larger suites, the biggest measuring 226 square feet.

Guests don’t necessarily have to spend all their time on board. They can also get off to participate in activities such as a guided walk along the Wakimoto coast, a seaside area of Kagoshima Prefecture, that lasts about an hour.

Meals can be consumed aboard the train or at restaurants along the way, and one night can be spent in a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn.

So how does that work on a train? Some stops last an hour or more, enough time for guest excursions. But often, the train will keep rolling and pick up the guests at a later station.

But there also are other luxury trains in Japan. (Seven Stars and the Shiki-Shima, detailed below, can be booked from overseas. The others listed here must be booked from within Japan.)

The Twilight Express Mizukaze is an Art Deco-inspired sleeper train decorated from traditional crafts such as pottery and cut glass. Onboard entertainment includes a tea ceremony, live music and a signature cocktail from the bar. Five routes are offered, including a two-day, one night one-way trip and a three-day, two-night round trip. A suite includes a private balcony and bathroom with a tub at ¥875,000 for a shorter journey and ¥1.4 million for a longer one. A “royal” twin room with windows on both sides of the car was recently listed at ¥385,000 per person, double occupancy.

The Aru Ressha is known as a “dessert train” that runs between Hakata and Yufuin in Kyushu. The one-way, three-hour itinerary is just enough time to indulge in appetizer, fish, meat and dessert courses for ¥35,000 per person. The train is decorated with black and gold arabesques on the outside and baroque styling inside.

The Spacia X offers a more budget-minded luxury experience. This six-carriage train equipped with plush sofas and private lounges links Tokyo to Nikko, a picturesque city in Tochigi Prefecture. Simran Nagra, a 33-year-old Canadian actuary who lives in Tokyo, used the train for a two-hour, ¥3,840 trip in July to the hot springs resort of Kinugawa Onsen. “I was really excited to ride it because it’s a luxury train, but has very affordable pricing,” she said. “The windows are huge and hexagonal, to highlight the views,” she said, and the cafe car featured Nikko specialties including craft beer on tap, two types of sake and locally sourced coffee.

GranClass was the choice out of necessity for the Australian journalist Jake Sturmer, 35, and his wife, Rachel, in 2018. “We had just moved to Japan, some friends invited us on a trip, and the only seat available for us to travel was on GranClass,” he said, referring to the first-class cabin on the Shinkansen. “What a luxury it was,” he said, mentioning the large, cushy seats, the hot towels to cleanse hands and faces, and bento boxes they were served during a two-hour ride from Tokyo to Iiyama in Nagano Prefecture.

The Train Suite Shiki-Shima was created to contribute to the recovery from the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in northern Japan.

Riders can choose from four seasonal routes lasting from one to three nights and departing from Tokyo. One goes northward along the Sea of Japan to Hakodate and the Upopoy National Ainu Museum and Park in Hokkaido Prefecture. Another is a wintertime itinerary through the snowy Tohoku region, where guests will get off the train to view traditional dancing and participate in woodwork or sewing workshops with local artisans. Prices range from ¥420,000 to ¥1.3 million per person, based on double occupancy in a sleeper car.

Shinobu Ohashi, 34, a paper-cutting artist who lives and works in Saitama, Japan, used the Shiki-Shima in December 2020 and April 2022. “I wanted to experience the design of the Shiki-Shima train, which I had seen on TV and in magazines, and the hospitality provided,” she wrote in an email.

The attention to detail impressed her: “When my companion complimented the garnishes that were offered only to the women on the dishes,” she said, “he was then also brought the same ones. We were both surprised.”

During one trip the cherry blossoms in Hakodate were in full bloom, she said: “We were taken to a cherry blossom viewing spot that was not on the trip schedule.”

The train has special meaning for her. “I am from the Tohoku region, from Fukushima Prefecture,” she said. “Even though a lot of time has passed since the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami in Japan, I believe that Shiki-Shima is a reassuring presence.”

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