Farewell Toreiyu Tsubasa: It’s hard to say goodbye...
After nearly 8 years of operations as a sightseeing train, the Yamagata Shinkansen’s iconic footbath bullet train, the Toreiyu Tsubasa (とれいゆつばさ), ended regular operations on 6 March 2022.
Having ridden it six times, the Toreiyu Tsubasa was one of my favourite Joyful Trains, and I always looked forward to riding it again. Unfortunately, due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, foreign travellers have been unable to visit Japan for the past 2 years, and the news of the train’s retirement has saddened many fans around the world.
Luckily, my friends Jak and Emmie were able to catch the Toreiyu Tsubasa one last time before it retired, and in this article, we’ll bid this much-loved train adieu, pay tribute to its history, as well as take a look back at some of the good times we’ve had aboard.
Transfer sign at JR Fukushima Station. (Image credit: Japanmase)
Running between JR Fukushima Station (福島駅) and JR Shinjо̄ Station (新庄駅) along the Yamagata Shinkansen, the Toreiyu Tsubasa was a one-of-a-kind bullet train (新幹線 shinkansen) that featured footbaths (足湯 ashiyu) onboard. The train was started in 2014 to promote tourism to Yamagata Prefecture (山形県), a prefecture famous for its charming hot spring towns like Ginzan Onsen (銀山温泉), Tendо̄ Onsen (天童温泉), and Kaminoyama Onsen (上山温泉), all of which the train passed by.
Station staff posing for photos with the Toreiyu Tsubasa’s logo. (Image credit: Japanmase)
If you look at the logo of the Toreiyu Tsubasa, you’ll notice that it features a lot of fruits. This is because Yamagata is also famous for its delicious fruits and produce, which grow well with the blessings of the sun. Fun fact: the name “Toreiyu” came from combining the words “torein” (トレイン), the Japanese pronunciation of “train”, and “soreiyu” (ソレイユ), the Japanese pronunciation of “soleil”, the French word for “sun”!
Limited edition “Arigato Toreiyu Tsubasa” merchandise and bento. (Image credit: Japanmase)
Jak and Emmie rode the Toreiyu Tsubasa on Saturday, 5 March 2022, one day before the train ended its regular operations. As part of the farewell and thank you celebrations for the retirement of the Toreiyu Tsubasa, the platform at Fukushima Station was selling a selection of limited edition “Arigato Toreiyu Tsubasa” merchandise, such as notebooks, rulers, A4 files, mugs, and keychains.
Another popular item specially made for the train’s farewell was the Arigato Toreiyu Tsubasa Bento (ありがとうとれいゆつばさ 弁当), a special lunch box filled with Yamagata’s local delicacies, made with local ingredients. Dishes included imoni with Yonezawa beef, tama-konnnyaku, sakura mochi, grilled salmon and lotus root, and Haenuki rice grown in Yamagata.
Toreiyu Tsubasa tickets and special gift. (Image credit: Japanmase)
Passengers riding the Toreiyu Tsubasa during its final days received a special gift for riding the train. Jak and Emmie got band-aids decorated with images of the Toreiyu Tsubasa, how cute are they? I wouldn’t bear to use them. As part of the farewell project, advertisements, station decorations, and merchandise carried a special “Arigato Toreiyu Tsubasa” logo, which can be seen on the packaging in the photo above.
The special logo is based on the Toreiyu Tsubasa’s exterior colours of “Gassan green” and “Zao white”, with Mount Gassan and Mount Zao being two prominent and iconic mountains of Yamagata. The logo design also features an arc, which represents Yamagata’s mountainous location. Fun fact: “Yamagata” literally means “mountain shape”, and the prefecture is surrounded by many beautiful mountains.
Special meal package for the Toreiyu Tsubasa. (Image credit: Japanmase)
Although Jak and Emmie really wanted to try the special Arigato Toreiyu Tsubasa Bento, they had to forgo it as they were already taking the special meal package for the Toreiyu Tsubasa.
Like most Joyful Trains, the Toreiyu Tsubasa was free to ride for holders of the JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area). However, it also had special meal packages, like the Koshino Shu*Kura and KAIRI trains, which added an extra level of enjoyment to the ride.
To commemorate their first (and last) ride on the Toreiyu Tsubasa, Jak and Emmie booked the special meal package, which not only came with a two-layer lunch box, but also an assortment of snacks and drinks produced in Yamagata.
Special Toreiyu Tsubasa Beef Domannaka (left) and regular Beef Domannaka (right). (Image credit: Japanmase (left) and Nguyen Duy Khanh (right))
When you think of ekiben (駅弁 lunch box for eating on the train) from Yamagata, the most familiar one would probably be Beef Domannaka (牛肉どまん中 Gyūniku Doman-naka). Did you know? Yamagata Prefecture is famous for its renowned Yonezawa beef, one of Japan’s three most famous beef brands. The other two are Kobe beef from Hyogo Prefecture and Matsusaka beef from Mie Prefecture.
While the regular Beef Domannaka ekiben features Yonezawa beef on a bed of locally-grown Domannaka rice, the special Toreiyu Tsubasa version has extra side dishes like tama-konnyaku (玉こんにゃく konjac balls simmered in soy sauce), as well as a whole other tier of dishes like grilled salmon, a variety of vegetables, and more!
Tatami seats on the Toreiyu Tsubasa. (Image credit: Japanmase)
One of the features I loved about the Toreiyu Tsubasa was its striking, vibrant red upholstery and tatami mat seating. It’s rare to find Japanese-style seats on trains, and the Toreiyu Tsubasa’s tatami seats were extremely comfortable to sit on. Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, clear acrylic partitions were installed in the middle of the tables to minimise the spread of droplets.
The tatami seats had quaint blue cushions that also paid tribute to Yamagata—featuring illustrations of Yamagata motifs such as shōgi (将棋 Japanese chess) pieces, Hanagasa Festival hats (Yamagata Hanagasa Festival is Yamagata’s most well-known summer festival), safflower (紅花 benibana, Yamagata’s prefectural flower), and cherries (さくらんぼ sakuranbo, Yamagata’s most famous fruit).
Fruit motifs on the Toreiyu Tsubasa. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
Speaking of fruits, Yamagata is also known as the “Kingdom of Fruits” (果物の王国 Kudamono no О̄koku), and produces much of Japan’s fruits. Other than the prominent fruit designs on its logo, the Toreiyu Tsubasa also featured fruit motifs on the partitions between seats. Aren’t they cute?
Although Yamagata is most famous for its cherries—it produces a whopping 70% of Japan’s cherries—which can be picked from June to mid-July, it is also known for its sweet La France pears, which can be picked from September to October. Juicy peaches can be picked from August to mid-September, and yummy grapes from August to October.
Many fruit orchards can be found near some of the stations that the Toreiyu Tsubasa stopped at, such as Sakurambohigashine Station (さくらんぼ東根駅), Akayu Station (赤湯駅), and Takahata Station (高畠駅). Which fruit would you like to try? I definitely recommend cherries, the ones I've tried have all been so sweet and juicy!
Booking a footbath slot and exploring the footbath car. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
The interior décor of the Toreiyu Tsubasa was unique and unlike any other train or bullet train, but for me and many other riders, the highlight of the Toreiyu Tsubasa was without a doubt the footbaths. Footbath tickets could be purchased onboard from the bar counter on a first-come-first-served basis, at ¥450 per person. The Toreiyu Tsubasa was foreigner-friendly, with TV screens in each car showing the availability of the footbath slots in English.
Fun times taking a dip in the footbath. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh and Akio Kobori, and Japanmase)
Taking a dip in the footbath was like going for a mini spa session, and it was always a wonderful feeling being able to relax while enjoying the passing scenery outside the window. Many passengers would tell you that soaking your feet in the Toreiyu Tsubasa's footbaths is an unforgettable experience, and I'm so grateful I was able to experience it multiple times. With vibrant red tubs and wooden décor, this stylish footbath car was literally a spa on wheels, as soothing music played in the background as well.
View while soaking in the footbath during winter (left) and autumn (right). (Image credit: Japanmase (left) and JR East / Akio Kobori (right))
It was always an amazing experience to take a dip in the footbath on this moving train, and observe the outside scenery change before your eyes. During winter you could see the vast, snow-covered fields of Yamagata’s countryside, and in autumn you could see the gleaming golden colours of the rice fields. In the far distance, you could gaze at the mountains that surround Yamagata. Without realising it, the 15-minute footbath session was over in the blink of an eye.
Take a break at the Yuagari Lounge. (Image credit: Nguyen Duy Khanh (left) and Japanmase (right))
A trip on the Toreiyu Tsubasa didn’t end after the footbath, there was still more to be enjoyed. After the relaxing footbath session, it was a must to head on over to the Yuagari Lounge, grab a drink and some snacks, and cool down.
Just like how hot spring resorts in Japan have yuagari dokoro (湯上り処), the lounge car aimed to mimic that experience, and was well-stocked with locally-brewed sake, locally-produced fruit juices, and other local snacks and drinks. The car also had a casual and relaxed tatami seating area, and it was always such fun to sit there and have a drink.
Yamagata Shinkansen cookies. (Image credit: Japanmase)
Earlier, I mentioned the origin of the name “Toreiyu”, but did you know that the other half of the train’s name “Tsubasa”, which means “wings” in Japanese, comes from the train service that runs on the Yamagata Shinkansen?
Even before the Yamagata Shinkansen first started operations in 1992, there was an express train service linking Tokyo with Yamagata and Akita, called the “Tsubasa”. After the Yamagata Shinkansen started, the new shinkansen service retained the “Tsubasa” name, and utilised 400 series (400系) trains. After the 400 series trains were scrapped and replaced with E3 series trains, again the “Tsubasa” name remained. The Toreiyu Tsubasa, which also runs on the Yamagata Shinkansen, also kept this “Tsubasa” in its name.
For fans of trains and the Yamagata Shinkansen, a popular souvenir from the lounge was the Yamagata Shinkansen cookies, which featured images of the 400 series Tsubasa, the E3 series Tsubasa, and the Toreiyu Tsubasa.
Toreiyu Tsubasa attendants posing in front of the train. (Image credit: Japanmase)
As can be seen from the train’s decorations, logo, name, and even exterior colours, the Toreiyu Tsubasa was a cherished train that paid tribute to all of Yamagata blessings, from its majestic mountains to its hot spring towns, delicious fruits, fun festivals, railway history, and much more.
The Toreiyu Tsubasa was repurposed into a sightseeing train from an old E3 series train, so one of the reasons for its retirement is deterioration of the train vehicle, which has been in service since 2002. As fervently as we wish that it can continue running forever, it’s time to say goodbye to our dearly beloved Toreiyu Tsubasa. Sayonara, you will be greatly missed!
Artist’s impression of the E8 series train. (Image credit: JR East)
After the Toreiyu Tsubasa’s retirement, there are no plans for a replacement sightseeing train or Joyful Train in Yamagata, but you can look forward to the upcoming E8 series shinkansen train, which is scheduled to make its debut along the Yamagata Shinkansen in spring 2024.
Header image credit: Japanmase