National | NATIONAL SPOTLIGHT

Rural Japan rail tours push scenic, luxurious journeys into the unknown

by Shusuke Murai

Staff Writer

When planning a trip to Japan, tourists are most likely to pack destinations like Mount Fuji, Kyoto and Akihabara all into the space of a few days.

But for those who have been there and done that, railways are offering a fresh alternative — a laid-back ride on a sightseeing train through the countryside, exploring the unexplored while accompanied by the pleasures of sake and local cuisine.

As tourist numbers continue to swell, Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka — the most popular destinations — are suffering from a shortage of accommodations while areas outside these bustling cities are jealous for being left out of the action.

The government is thus thinking of ways to lure more visitors to the countryside to support rural areas, and the nation’s vast railway network is naturally playing a role in the initiative.

Seibu Railway Co. just launched a “restaurant train” between Tokyo and the city of Chichibu in mountainous Saitama Prefecture. Tickets for the 52 Seats of Happiness train, its first sightseeing train, have been selling like hotcakes since it debuted in April. A ticket for the brunch course costs ¥10,000 per person, with dinner going for ¥15,000.

During the three-hour ride — longer than the 80-minute ride on the commuter train — passengers are served a course meal as the four-car train, with galley and dining tables, leaves the hustle and bustle of Tokyo for the rural greenery of Seibu’s home prefecture.

Architect Kengo Kuma, designer of the National Stadium for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, developed the train’s exterior, which was inspired by Chichibu’s landscape over the four seasons. He also designed the interior by using traditional crafts honed in areas where the train runs.

“Amid today’s sightseeing boom, people are starting to look for a new, unprecedented experience in their journey,” said Norio Kawasaki, a Seibu Railway official in charge of the sightseeing train.

Seibu hopes the trains, which are especially popular with seniors, will generate more revenue both for the company and the economy of Chichibu, known for its pink shibazakura (moss phlox) carpeting Hitsujiyama Park in spring, and white-water rafting on the Arakawa River, Kawasaki said.

“We want people to recognize Chichibu as one of the major sightseeing destinations in the Kanto region after Hakone (in Kanagawa Prefecture) and Nikko (in Tochigi Prefecture),” he said.

Seibu’s next goal is to convey that to foreign tourists, especially the Taiwanese who tend to be repeat visitors in search of rural destinations.

In July, the carrier invited Taiwanese media and travel agencies to experience the restaurant train.

“It will surely get the attention of people in Taiwan,” Shirley Chen of Taiwan-based airline TransAsia Airways Corp. said after the ride. “It was like an oriental world coming out of a TV drama.”

Other railways are also cashing in on the trend.Although similar trains have existed, East Japan Railway Co. (JR East) increased the number of sightseeing services after the March 2011 mega-earthquake and tsunami in Tohoku, said Gyo Taguchi, a JR East marketing manager.

“Our rail lines there were heavily damaged in the 2011 disasters,” he said. “To help with the reconstruction of Tohoku, we came up with the idea of running sightseeing trains to boost the region’s value as a tourism destination.”

Since the JR East trains don’t depart from Tokyo, however, people have to get to the northeast to ride them. Even so, tickets for these trains are selling so well there’s even a waiting list.

Other areas covered by the trains include the Joshinetsu region and the coastline along the Sea of Japan.

JR East’s Genbi shinkansen, touted as the world’s fastest museum, is one of its latest bullet trains dedicated to sightseeing. As its name — short for gendai bijutsu (contemporary art) — suggests, passengers can admire artwork in the carriages while traveling between Niigata and Echigo Yuzawa stations. The exterior, inspired by the Nagaoka fireworks festival in Niigata Prefecture, is the work of famed photographer Mika Ninagawa.

With these trains, JR East aims to draw not only enthusiastic travelers in search of hidden attractions, but also casual sightseers interested in lesser-known regions, Taguchi said.

“There are many underrated spots that have breathtaking scenery. Our role is to offer information so people can discover that hidden beauty,” he said.

What is getting even more popular is a luxurious sleeper train in Kyushu that is combined with a local tour.

Kyushu Railway Co.’s Seven Stars cruise train has drawn heavy attention since its debut in October 2013. The train’s itinerary took it on a loop around the island, but it was forced to change course earlier this year after the earthquakes in Kumamoto and Oita prefectures. Despite the change, it remains one of JR Kyushu’s most profitable services, with prices ranging from ¥250,000 to ¥1.4 million for a three-night trip.

JR East meanwhile plans to launch the first-class Train Suite Shiki-Shima (Island of Four Seasons) next May. The train, which departs from Ueno Station in Tokyo, is part of a package tour offering top-notch cuisine made with local ingredients, stays at Japanese-style hotels, and tours of places known for traditional craftsmanship as it winds its way through eastern Japan.

Despite the lofty price tag — ¥950,000 per passenger for a three-night package tour featuring a two-person suite — the high demand only allowed 1 in 76 people to acquire the premium tickets for its debut run in May.

Although the sightseeing train has become popular with Japanese tourists, the existence of these trains — and the allure of the regions they travel to — are not yet known to most foreigners, Taguchi said.

“Many travelers today want to discover new, undiscovered spots. I hope our train can be a good opportunity for them to step outside the box,” he said.

To ensure sightseeing trains don’t become another passing fad, carriers must continue to offer fresh experiences by varying the menus and destinations, said Junichi Sugiyama, a journalist versed in the train industry.

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