Seven Stars sleeper promises railway luxury

by Reina Kurobori

JIJI

The Seven Stars in Kyushu, the new luxury train operated by Kyushu Railway Co., pulled out of the station for the first time Tuesday with the aim of delivering a new travel experience to customers from both Japan and abroad.

As well as the luxury of the train itself, the trip offers a variety of attractions in Kyushu, including local cuisine, vistas and culture, aided by the hospitality of the staff.

Since tickets went on sale a full year ago, JR Kyushu has been flooded with applications and tours are almost fully booked through next June. The railway is now setting its sights on tourists from overseas to raise the region’s global recognition.

JR Kyushu has been operating sightseeing trains that take in the best of the island’s natural beauty and help maintain routes that are expected to suffer from a fall in everyday demand due to depopulation. Billed as Japan’s first “cruise train,” the Seven Stars is a culmination of this initiative.

Named after the Big Dipper, whose seven stars have traditionally helped people navigate the oceans, the concept of the ¥3 billion train is “a journey to discover a new way of life.”

The railway further explains that there are seven prefectures in Kyushu, which has what it says are seven main attractions: nature, cuisine, hot springs, history and culture, spiritual sites, friendliness and sightseeing trains.

With its exterior painted in an old-style lacquer reddish-brown, the Seven Stars is an eight-car train made up of the locomotive, a dining car, a lounge car and five cars with a total of 14 suites. It is designed to carry no more than 30 passengers.

Wood has been used throughout the interior, from the walls to the floor. A mixture of Western and Japanese decorations gives the interior a unique atmosphere.

Beatrice Rowlatt, a writer for Britain’s Daily Telegraph, was astonished to see the Japanese woodwork. “It was just breathtaking,” said Rowlatt, who attended a media preview of the train.

The lounge car has a large window at the end that can double as a movie screen. A piano and a bar promise passengers a relaxing time.

In the dining car, in addition to a number of comfortable chairs, there is a small stand-up tearoom where customers can enjoy Japanese tea. Ceiling lighting changes depending on the time and locality.

Each passenger compartment is equipped with a shower room made of “hinoki” cypress wood and a wash basin made of Arita porcelain from Saga Prefecture. Some of the ceramic work was created by the 14th Sakaida Kakiemon, a living national treasure who died in June.

Windows of different sizes allow passengers to enjoy the scenery even while lying in bed.

“I don’t remember how many times I redrew the blueprint while imagining the world’s best luxury train,” said Eiji Mitooka, the lead designer.

“When I saw the interior of the carriage, I was so thrilled that I couldn’t sleep. I think the carriages surpass the Orient Express,” said Koji Karaike, president of JR Kyushu, which from the beginning has aimed this project to compete against globally famous luxury trains.

Karaike believes the quality of service will be key to the success of the Seven Stars. “Now the issue is how we can offer hospitality.”

Departing from and returning to Hakata Station in the city of Fukuoka, the Seven Stars offers two journey plans—a three-night, four-day trip around Kyushu and an overnight, two-day package that visits northwestern Kyushu.

Passengers can enjoy a wonderful view of the local landscape, as well as conversation and live music in the lounge. The tours also offer off-train sightseeing and overnight stays at hot springs.

On the last night of the four-day trip, passengers visit Kagoshima Prefecture and eat dinner in a special room in Senganen, a Japanese garden laid out by the Shimazu clan in 1658.

“We haven’t used this room for meals for the past 121 years. The last time we used this room was to welcome Nicholas II, the last Russian czar, when he was prince,” said Tadahiro Shimazu, the heir apparent of the clan. “However, I wanted to provide passengers with something special as the finale of the trip.”

A four-day trip in the deluxe suite, the most expensive accommodations on the train, costs more than ¥1 million per couple. Still, an avalanche of applications, mainly from people in their 50s and 60s, means the suites are booked up by Japanese customers through next June.

JR Kyushu is looking to the future to welcome visitors from overseas. The company has decided to set aside two rooms on each train after April for foreign visitors.

Kyushu isn’t as well known overseas as major tourist attractions such as Kyoto, but Karaike is confident about the future. “In two to three years, I hope half of the passengers will be from overseas,” he said.

JR Kyushu concluded a sales contract with Hong Kong travel agency EGL Tours in September and is in negotiations with other foreign agencies.

As part of an effort to attract foreign tourists, JR Kyushu and other groups invited reporters from 14 newspapers and magazines in four European countries in late September. The highlight of their trip was a ride on the Seven Stars as its first passengers.

“It will help Europeans to realize that there is more to Japan than just Tokyo,” Jonathan Thompson, a writer from the British newspaper Metro, said after the ride. “It is a fantastic ambassador of the island.”