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Luxury train designer went to bat for Kyushu

by Miyuki Wakabayashi

Kyodo

Yoshio Naka, 38, has never been an avid fan of trains, but he is the man behind the recent dazzling debut of Kyushu Railway Co.’s Seven Stars in Kyushu cruise and sleeper train.

“People like me (who get sick on trains) will not get on a train unless they need to,” the deputy director of the cruise train’s headquarters said. “So there has to be a special meaning if we ask people to choose Seven Stars.”

Kyushu Railway, better known as JR Kyushu, launched its new Seven Stars luxury train in mid-October. The Seven Stars can carry 30 guests in 14 compartments across seven cars. Building the diesel-powered train cost ¥3 billion.

The Seven Stars travels around Kyushu on either a one-night-and-two-day or three-night-and-four-day tour that visits tourist spots in several prefectures.

The most luxurious compartment is priced at ¥1.1 million for two people. Yet, tickets for all rooms are already sold out until next June.

Naka played an important role in every step of the process toward launching the service, including examining candidate routes, negotiating with hotels and other tourism facilities, selecting dishes and plates, and even training crew members.

He visited Arita potteries many times to get their help in equipping passenger compartments with Arita ware.

Naka, a native of Hofu, Yamaguchi Prefecture, who graduated from Kyushu University, was handpicked for the post in September 2012, despite his age.

“Since I was involved even when the launch of the service had yet to be decided, I think it is only natural that I was assigned the position,” Naka said.

“Seven Stars is a project to build something we have never had in the railway industry and I was very anxious (about getting it done).”

When considering what he could offer to the Seven Stars, Naka said he drew on his own experience riding a luxury train in Europe as part of an inspection trip.

On the train, passengers enjoyed drinking around a grand piano. Once he took a seat, a Japanese children’s song called “Furusato” (“Home”) was played.

“The pianist saw a Japanese being seated and started playing the song,” Naka said. “I was so impressed and thought this is what I should try for with the Seven Stars.”

Naka sticks to his beliefs no matter what. He even went to see JR Kyushu President Koji Karaike to tell him his opinions, which sometimes triggered criticism that he was being too impertinent.

“I always go up to him to report in detail what we have discussed and ask for his decision,” he said. “A president cannot always be right.”

Although his idea of setting up a grand piano on the Seven Stars was turned down, one was placed in a special lounge for the service at JR Hakata Station instead.

“We have to develop the Seven Stars into a train that passengers want to recommend to their families and friends,” he said. “Our battle has only begun.”