None of this choo-choo stuff – Byun! Shu! are the sounds that a Japanese train makes. And while bullet trains – shinkansen – are one of the symbols of modern Japan, the Japanese adore trains in all their forms. Some of the best loved are “sightseeing” Japanese trains, which run along lines with gorgeous landscape views – nowhere else on the planet does them quite like Japan. Some are simple, some come with quips and quirks and others are utterly luxurious (2017 has been a big year for the latter).
From the offbeat to the outlandishly lavish, here are Japan's best sightseeing trains.
Who’s the fairest of luxurious sightseeing Japanese trains 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.
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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.
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.
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.
Shhh – train carriages in Japan are quiet. But if you feel like getting rowdy, there’s a sightseeing train for that.
The Seibu line offers its services to organisers of school and uni reunions – dousoukai – which are embraced more in Japan than in other countries. As the Google translation of the rail company’s website puts it, “With old-fashioned cars, flowers can be blooming in memories talking with old friends while enjoying plenty of plans that cannot be done in the usual car”.
In other words, feel free to get drunk and talk crap. Loudly.
With their eye-watering ticket costs, the luxury sightseeing trains in this list have a big element of seeing and being seen about them. But a new one set to launch in 2018 is all about stealth – dubbed the "invisible" train, it’s designed to merge into whatever landscape it passes through on its route from Tokyo to Chichibu.
The artist’s impressions make it look a little like it’s trying to push its way out through some particularly tenacious cling film. But with Kazuyo Sejima as the mastermind behind it, you know it’s going to be good: she has London’s Serpentine Pavilion, Tokyo’s Christian Dior Building and the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York City on her CV.
Tickets, purrrrrrrlease. The Wakayama Railway’s Kishigawa line, which runs for a 14km stretch through Honshu island’s Kii peninsula, is generally unremarkable.
Except, of course, that it acquired a new employee in 2007 that sent it into the cuteness stratosphere (a very important stratosphere in Japan): the line’s bosses made Tama, a cat, the station master of the line’s Kishi terminus. Tama, who wore a fetching hat to greet passengers, died in 2015, at which point she was enshrined as a spirit goddess and replaced by – wait for it – Tama II.
If this train is a bullet, then it’s one fired from a spud gun. A single timeworn-looking carriage muddles its diesel-fuelled way for 45 minutes through the sleepy rural landscapes of the Tsugaru peninsula in northern Honshu’s Aomori prefecture.
That it’s about as hi-tech as a tractor is its USP: local handicrafts are sold at stations along the route, while the snowy months see a potbelly stove fired up on board for cockle-warming conviviality and the sharing of dried squid prepared by its glow.
Top image: Twilight Express in Japan © N.Sakamoto/Shutterstock