1. Twilight Express Mizukaze and Train Suite Shikishima
Who’s the fairest luxurious sightseeing train of them all? 2017 saw the arrival of two preening new contenders. In June, western Japan’s Twilight Express Mizukaze sashayed onto the scene. One entire carriage (and there are only ten in total) is occupied by the swankiest suite, with its own dining room and a private balcony for Sea of Japan and Mount Daisen views.
A month earlier, Northeastern Japan’s Train Suite Shikishima had started making its play for the Japanese public’s affections. The train’s futuristic observatory car – with its sensuously curved white seating and grass-green carpet – looks more suited to viewing planets than paddy fields.
Otherwise, Shikishima goes down the nostalgic “Golden Age of Travel” route, with intricately crafted wooden decor. Food comes from a Michelin-starred chef, but put your money away – all berths are booked until spring 2018.
2. Seven Stars
Kyushu – the third-largest of Japan’s main islands – boasts the country’s original luxury sightseeing train. The 30-passenger Seven Stars launched in 2014 and still sets the standards.
With plush interiors of maple, walnut and teak, it’s as if the train’s seven carriages have been carved out from some particularly choice trees. Exclusive access gained by the company includes the possibility of a meal at Sengan-en, long-time headquarters of the Shimazu family and UNESCO World Heritage Site – Seven Stars guests eat in the room where Edward VIII and Nicholas II of Russia were welcomed.
If you can’t make it onto the Seven Stars, note that the Kyushu region is good for simpler sightseeing trains too.
3. Royal Express
With space for up to one hundred guests, the Royal Express is partly a response to the huge popularity of the other sightseeing trains, whose limited capacity has fomented much FOMO of the locomotive variety.
The Royal Express runs southwest from Yokohama, near Tokyo, to the stunning Izu peninsula. Its maiden voyage was in September 2017 and one-way tickets start from around £170/person.
Train of Gono Line at Fukaura Senjojiki, Aomori, Japan © Tatsuo Nakamura/Shutterstock
4. The Gono line
Japan’s sightseeing trains are hugely about local pride, and that sometimes informs the on-board experience. With the more luxurious trains, you’ll enjoy fine dining using local ingredients. But even the less fancy trains get in on the act.
The picturesque Gono line, for example, entertains passengers by drafting in musicians to play a local instrument – a three-stringed shamisen guitar from the northern Honshu Tsugaru region that the train serves. At other times on this line, there’s a commentary given in the distinctive local dialect.