Meals on wheels: 4 must-ride train restaurants in Japan
There are many ways to enjoy trains in Japan, from rides on the various types of trains available from the shinkansen (新幹線) to the Joyful Trains, to savouring different types of ekiben (駅弁), and to admiring station buildings with their interesting structures and facades!
One kind of Joyful Train is the restaurant train, where travellers get to enjoy curated meals and beverages, often in collaboration with famous local restaurants, on their ride—be it tea sets with cakes and pastries made with local fruits on the Fruitea Fukushima (フルーティアふくしま), or a multi-course meal that satiates both the eyes and the stomach aboard the TOHOKU EMOTION, JR East operates many such trains, or trains with specialised dining cars like the KAIRI (海里).
Did you know, though, that there are many other rail operators around the country offering similar experiences? From local lines that traverse lush greenery to those that offer fantastic views of the sea, there are many settings in which you can enjoy a meal aboard a train. Read on to find out more about four restaurant trains that offer something unique!
1. Train Restaurant Seiryū
Watarase Keikoku Railway Watarase Keikoku Line, Gunma Prefecture
The entrance to Train Restaurant Seiryū. (Image credit: Watarase Keikoku Railway)
The first restaurant train (so to speak—read on more to find out why!) can be found on the Watarase Keikoku Line (わたらせ渓谷線 Watarase Keikoku-sen) in Gunma Prefecture (群馬県 Gunma-ken)!
The Watarase Keikoku Line (わたらせ渓谷線 Watarase Keikoku-sen), operated by the Watarase Keikoku Railway (わたらせ渓谷鉄道 Watarase Keikoku Tetsudō), start from Kiryu Station (桐生駅 Kiryū-eki) in Gunma Prefecture and makes its way up to Mato Station (間藤駅 Matō-eki) in Tochigi Prefecture (栃木県 Tochigi-ken), from where one can catch a bus to Nikkō (日光), a popular tourism spot known for its autumn leaves. The entirety of the line runs along the Watarase River (渡良瀬川 Watarase-gawa), making for a picturesque view with its beautiful greenery and clear waters.
The exterior and interior of Train Restaurant Seiryū. (Image credit: Watarase Keikoku Railway)
It makes sense, then, that the restaurant train on this line should be named as such, though Train Restaurant Seiryū (列車のレストラン清流 Ressha no Resutoran Seiryū) is not an actual train like the others featured in this article. Situated at Godo Station (神戸駅 Gōdo-eki), it is made up of two decommissioned luxury train cars that used to operate as part of a Limited Express service along the Tobu Nikko Line (東武鉄道日光線 Tōbu Tetsudō Nikkō-sen). The interior of the cars has been retained as it was, allowing travellers to experience a time slip when they step in.
The two ekiben available for purchase: the torokko bento and the Yamato pork bento. (Image credit: Watarase Keikoku Railway)
Separating the two cars is a restaurant where one can order ekiben or regular meals like udon and soba, as well as rice sets made with locally grown maitake (舞茸) mushrooms, one of the area’s famed products, and various tidbits and drinks. The ekiben are freshly made and packed upon order, so you can rest assured that you will receive something piping hot for your enjoyment.
The maitake rice set meal at Train Restaurant Seiryū. (Image credit: Watarase Keikoku Railway)
Of the food items available for order, the Yamato pork bento (やまと豚弁当 Yamato buta bentō) (¥1,100 for takeaway, ¥1,200 for eat-in with miso soup), with its pork slices coated in a special sauce made with locally-made soy sauce and maitake, as well as the maitake rice set meal (舞茸ご飯定食 maitake-gohan teishoku) that comes with maitake tempura and a small bowl of soba (¥1,250), are your best bets.
Train Restaurant Seiryū in the four seasons. (Image credit: Watarase Keikoku Railway)
Situated right next to the tracks, one can watch trains enter and leave Godo Station as they savour their meal, making for an interesting experience.
Train Restaurant Seiryū (列車のレストラン清流)
Address: 886-1 Gōdo, Azuma, Midori-shi, Gunma 376-0304
Nearest station: Watarase Keikoku Line Godo Station (わたらせ渓谷線神戸駅)
Access: Within Godo Station
Operating hours: 11am–4pm daily (closed on Mondays between December and March)
Writer’s note: The Watarase Keikoku Line starts from Kiryu Station on the JR Ryomo Line, which can be accessed via two ways from Tokyo—take the Nasuno or Yamabiko train on the Tōhoku Shinkansen to Oyama Station, then transfer to the Ryomo Line. Alternatively, take an Asama or Hakutaka train on the Hokuriku Shinkansen to Takasaki Station, then transfer to the Ryomo Line.
The whole ride, including the portion on the Watarase Keikoku Line from Kiryu Station to Godo Station, takes around 3 hours 10 minutes to 3 hours 30 minutes.
2. fifty two seats of happiness
Seibu Railway Seibu Shinjuku/Ikebukuro Lines, Saitama Prefecture
The “fifty two seats of happiness” train. (Image credit: SEIBU RAILWAY)
Unlike the Joyful Trains operated by JR East, there is one that can be taken from Tokyo itself, making it a convenient option for those of you who are unable to travel out of Greater Tokyo to take JR East’s Joyful Trains.
Seibu Railway (西武鉄道 Seibu Tetsudō) is one of the biggest private line operators in and it operates a few lines that traverse Tokyo (東京) and Saitama Prefecture (埼玉県 Saitama-ken). It is between Seibu-Shinjuku Station (西武新宿駅 Seibu-Shinjuku-eki) or Ikebukuro Station (池袋駅 Ikebukuro-eki) in Tokyo and Seibu-Chichibu Station (西武秩父駅 Seibu-Chichibu-eki) in Saitama that Seibu Railways’ restaurant train, “fifty two seats of happiness” (52席の至福 go-jū-ni-seki no Shifuku), runs!
Attendants on the “fifty two seats of happiness” train greeting travellers with a warm smile. (Image credit: SEIBU RAILWAY)
Operating since April 2016, trains operating towards Seibu-Chichibu Station in the late morning offer brunch, while dinner is served on trains operating towards Seibu-Shinjuku Station in the early evening, the ride lasting from 2.5–3 hours each way.
The interior of the “fifty two seats of happiness” train. (Image credit: SEIBU RAILWAY)
True to its name, the train offers 52 seats over its four-carriage span in Cars 2 and 4. Car 1 houses an open area that can be converted into an event space, while Car 3 houses the kitchen. With the exterior and interior both designed by famed architect Kuma Kengo (隈研吾), the train takes inspiration from the rich nature of the Chichibu area, the exterior of its four cars decorated with images of the four seasons in Chichibu area.
In addition, as a play on its name, the tablemats, napkins, and other items all feature the train’s logo of the four suits found in a deck of 52 playing cards, so it is hard to miss this train with its light blue exterior and colourful pop logo!
A sample of the food served on the “fifty two seats of happiness” on the Brunch Course (left) and Dinner Course (right). (Image credit: SEIBU RAILWAY)
The brunch and dinner menus, which change every three months, are supervised by famed chefs in Japan and feature a mouthwatering array of delights covering all sorts of cuisine ranging from Italian to Chinese! For instance, dishes planned for October to December 2022 are prepared by Mr Tsuji Daisuke (辻 大輔), the chef of popular restaurants in Tokyo, Kitasando “Convivio” (コンヴィヴィオ) and Shinjuku "Yukai" (YUKA伊). For the brunch course, you can enjoy the Saitama Pork Arista Salsa Peara (埼玉豚肉のアリスタ サルサペアラ) as your main dish, while for the dinner course, you can look forward to the Stewed Beef Amazon Cacao Dolce Forte (牛煮込み アマゾンカカオのドルチェフォルテ).
The drinks menu, in addition to a selection of free-flow drinks like coffee, Sayama (狭山) green tea, Perrier sparkling water and juices, also features a wide range of spirits, wines and sakes all proudly made in Chichibu, making the experience a truly local one.
(Image credit: SEIBU RAILWAY)
The price of the plan also include a 1-day free pass on the Seibu lines, so you can make use of the time before or after your ride to explore the Chichibu area and do some sightseeing. With its rich nature and rustic scenes, a trip to Chichibu on the “fifty two seats of happiness” is a good way for some rest and relaxation, coupled with good food and alcohol!
fifty two seats of happiness (52席の至福)
Runs on: Saturdays and Sundays, as well as selected public holidays
Writer’s note: While almost all trains on the “fifty two seats of happiness” run between Seibu-Shinjuku Station or Ikebukuro Station and Seibu-Chichibu Station, please refer to the link above for more information.
Shinano Railway Shinano Railway Line, Nagano Prefecture
The okumon train awaiting departure. (Image credit: to~san / photoAC)
The next restaurant train can be found traversing the mountains of Nagano Prefecture (長野県 Nagano-ken), a stone’s throw away from Tokyo. Shinano Railway (しなの鉄道 Shinano Tetsudō), formed when the then-Nagano Shinkansen (長野新幹線) opened in 1997, operates trains between Karuizawa Station (軽井沢駅 Karuizawa-eki) and Shinonoi Station (篠ノ井駅 Shinonoi-eki) in Nagano, although trains operationally go on to Nagano Station (長野駅 Nagano-eki). It is on this Shinano Railway Line (しなの鉄道線 Shinano Tetsudō-sen) that our next restaurant train, Rokumon (ろくもん), runs!
The interior of the “rokumon” train. (Image credit: Rsa / CC BY-SA 3.0)
Rokumon, which made its debut in July 2014, operates between Karuizawa Station and Nagano Station. Trains departing from Karuizawa offer a Western-style three-course brunch curated by a local Italian restaurant. For trains departing from Nagano, there are two options—a Japanese lunch course curated by a famous Japanese restaurant, complete with matcha freshly whisked aboard the train, or a more casual refreshment course, coming with a two-tiered bento of small bites and desserts.
The night view at Obasute Station. (Image credit: 極地狐 / CC BY-SA 2.0)
For those of you who are looking for something more romantic, a newly launched plan, the Obasute Night Cruise (姨捨ナイトクルーズ), allows you to enjoy the night view at Obasute Station (姨捨駅 Obasute-eki), considered to be one of the best views in the whole of Japan, while listening to a live violin performance, complete with a three-course dinner and wine.
The pool of wooden balls on the train. (Image credit: Rsa / CC BY-SA 3.0)
The interior of Rokumon, done up with locally-sourced wood, exudes a warm feeling, and car 3 even comes with Japanese sliding doors for each compartment to create a more private atmosphere. For those of you with children (or an inner child!), car 1 has a pool filled with wooden balls which one can play in as the train continues its journey.
Unlike Seibu Railway’s “fifty two seats of happiness”, the dining plans for Rokumon can also be booked by solo travellers, making it a friendly option for those of you who like to travel by yourself. In addition, for those who wish to experience the train itself but are not in the mood for a full meal or would prefer to save the money to splurge elsewhere, Rokumon also offers an option where you can purchase a reserved seat ticket to enjoy a ride on the train! For this plan only, you can bring your own food and drinks aboard, or you can also pre-order a special Rokumon ekiben to consume aboard the train for a different experience.
Matsutake, one of autumn’s most prized delicacies in Japan. (Image credit: kunishi / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Apart from the above standard plans, there are also special seasonal Rokumon plans, such as one showcasing the wines of the Chikuma Wine Valley (千曲ワインバレー), as well as a special night cruise train with a Japanese dinner featuring the matsutake (松茸) mushroom, one of Japan’s finest autumn delicacies. With so many options available for Rokumon, there is something that will appease all travellers, so consider checking this train out if you intend to travel to Nagano!
Runs on: Fridays to Mondays, as well as selected public holidays
Address: 13-19 Tokida, Ueda City, Nagano 386-0018
Writer’s note: The address given above is for the Shinano Railway Customer Centre, while the telephone number given above is for the rokumon reservation centre. Although Rokumon runs between Fridays and Mondays, some days offer two services, while some days offer only one—check the link above for more information.
4. Orenji Shokudō
Hisatsu Orange Railway Hisatsu Orange Line, Kumamoto Prefecture
The Orange Shokudō awaiting departure. (Image credit: kimuchi583 / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
The last train restaurant in this article can be found all the way down south, in Kagoshima Prefecture (鹿児島県 Kagoshima-ken)! The Hisatsu Orange Line (肥薩おれんじ線 Hisatsu Orenji-sen), operated by Hisatsu Orange Railway (肥薩おれんじ鉄道 Hisatsu Orenji Tetsudō), connects Yatsushiro Station (八代駅 Yatsushiro-eki) in Kumamoto Prefecture (熊本県 Kumamoto-ken) with Sendai Station (川内駅 Sendai-eki) in Kagoshima Prefecture. It is on this line that the Orange Shokudō (おれんじ食堂) operates. Making its first appearance in 2013, the train makes up to three trips a day on weekends.
A sample of the breakfast served aboard the Orange Shokudō. (Image credit: kimuchi583 / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
What sets the Orange Shokudō apart from other restaurant trains is that it is one of the few to offer breakfast! The first Orange Shokudō train of the day, “Morning”, departs from Izumi Station (出水駅 Izumi-eki) in Kagoshima and heads towards Shin-Yatsushiro Station (新八代駅 Shin-Yatsushiro-eki) on the Kagoshima Main Line (鹿児島本線 Kagoshima-honsen) operated by JR Kyushu (JR九州), one station after Yatsushiro Station. With freshly baked bread, coffee, and juice, having a late breakfast while enjoying views of the Shiranui Sea (不知火海 Shiranui-kai) is surely a good start to a day.
A sample of the food served aboard the “Orange Shokudō” train. (Image credit: Norio.NAKAYAMA / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
The other two trains, named “Special Lunch” and “Sunset” respectively, allow travellers to enjoy leisurely meals as the train slowly makes its way towards its destination. The lunch menu, which alternates between Japanese cuisine in the even-numbered months and French cuisine in the odd-numbered months, makes use of fresh local ingredients, ensuring that diners get to enjoy the best of what Kyushu (九州) has to offer. In addition, at stops en route to Sendai Station, visitors can purchase local goods at station markets and interact with the locals, as well as alight the train to explore the environs and enjoy the sights, making a ride on the Orange Shokudō more than just about food!
On the other hand, travellers can look forward to fantastic views of the sun setting in the Shiranui Sea on the “Sunset” train, as they tuck into their food (sweets, light bites and a main course in summer, and a French course dinner in winter), ensuring an unforgettable journey.
A view of the Shiranui Sea from the “Orange Shokudō”. (Image credit: Norio.NAKAYAMA / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Just like Rokumon, boarding the Orange Shokudō without a meal plan is possible, although this is limited to only the “Special Lunch” service. All you have to do is pay the price of a reserved seating ticket, together with the fare for the distance you wish to cover. In addition, solo travellers can also book meal plans on the Orange Shokudō, yet another reason for cheer for those of us who enjoy travelling alone!
The interior of the “Orange Shokudō” train. (Image credit: kimuchi583 / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
The train itself is only two carriages long, but much care and thought has been put into their design and refurbishment. Car 1 is modelled after a hotel dining space, with its long tables and counter seats facing the ocean, while Car 2 has a more private living room concept, with curtains partitioning each table that can be drawn for a more intimate time. With a total of only 43 seats aboard this train, a trip of luxury is promised aboard the Orange Shokudō!
Orange Shokudō (オレンジ食堂)
Runs on: Weekends and selected public holidays
Address: 717-2 Kami-Sababuchi, Izumi-shi, Kagoshima 899-0203
Writer’s note: The address given above is for the Hisatsu Orange Railway sales department, while the telephone number given above is for the Hisatsu Orange Railway reservation centre. The number of Orange Shokudō services operated each day differs—refer to the link above for more information.
The four restaurant trains showcased in this article are but a fraction of all those that run throughout Japan, be they JR East’s Joyful Trains or those run by non-JR lines. Restaurant trains, though costing more than what a usual ride on that particular line would, offer a chance to enjoy the train from a different point of view—for those who have the time and the spare change, a trip on such trains is highly recommended!