Reaching for the stars: HIGH RAIL 1375
With a concept of "the train closest to the sky", the HIGH RAIL 1375 offers panoramic views of the scenic Yatsugatake Mountain Range in Nagano along the JR Koumi Line (小海線), which is home to some of the highest train stations in Japan. The train runs on the highest elevation of railway tracks of all JR lines, at 1,375m, hence its name: HIGH RAIL 1375!
Although somewhat underrated, I really enjoy this train, and it has become one of my favourite Joyful Trains. Home to many majestic mountains and scenic nature spots, Nagano is my favourite prefecture in Japan, and I often visit for hiking. On recent trips, I have been making time to squeeze in rides on the HIGH RAIL 1375, and to date, I have ridden it four times—once in the morning, once in the afternoon and twice in the evening. Each offer different enjoyable experiences!
Enjoy highland scenery of the Yatsugatake Mountain Range
View of the Yatsugatake Mountains as seen from on board the HIGH RAIL 1375. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
Plying the JR Koumi Line between Kobuchizawa and Komoro, this train offers some pretty amazing views of the Yatsugatake Mountains and the vast green fields, right from the comfort of your seat. The view of the Yatsugatake Mountain Range is such a highlight, that the JR Koumi Line is sometimes also referred to as the Yatsugatake Highland Line (八ヶ岳高原線). The HIGH RAIL 1375 features many window-facing single and couple seats, for you to enjoy the highland scenery. If you have time, I would recommend taking a stop to climb the Yatsugatake Mountains. There are many peaks and a wide variety of courses, ranging from day trips to overnight.
Domed planetarium on board the HIGH RAIL 1375. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
True to its theme of being close to the sky, the train’s most prominent feature is its cool domed planetarium and mini astronomy book corner. Astronomy aficionados riding the evening train will also enjoy the free stargazing tour at Nobeyama, one of the best places in Japan to view stars!
Window-facing couple seats (left), window-facing single seats (centre), and close up of the seat cover design (right). (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
The train’s interior features dark blue seats covered with images of constellations, and yellow accents. On most days, there are three trains per day—one each in the morning, afternoon, and evening. If you have the time, I recommend trying once during the daytime, and once during the evening.
Delicious and healthy brunch
Brunch on the HIGH RAIL 1375. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
Unlike other Joyful Trains, the HIGH RAIL 1375 has “Meal Options”, which must be reserved by three days in advance. The morning train offers a brunch set (~¥2,500), the afternoon train offers a dessert set (~¥1,600), while the evening train offers a cutlet sandwich set (~¥1,700).
Reserved seat ticket and tickets for the brunch set (left), and the delicious fresh vegetables (right). (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
I was able to try the brunch set once, and it was unbelievably delicious! The set featured a roasted ham and vegetable sandwich, made with fresh, locally-produced ingredients from around Nagano. It came with a side of grilled baby potatoes, seasonal vegetables with miso dip, handmade granola, and a bottle of green tea.
My favourite item was the seasonal vegetables with miso dip. I have never tasted such flavour-packed, delicious vegetables before! Coming from Singapore where most of our vegetables are imported, the freshness of these vegetables was pleasantly delightful. It was also my first time seeing yellow peas.
Highland vegetable farms along the JR Koumi Line. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
The highland region along the Koumi Line is famous for growing highland vegetables (高原野菜 kōgen yasai), and there are many farms along the line which produce cabbage and lettuce. During the daytime, you can even see some of these farmlands while on your ride on the HIGH RAIL 1375. The clean highland air and elevation provide good conditions for growing these vegetables.
Special events on the evening train 「Hoshizora」
Timed ticket for the planetarium show (left), and the show inside the domed planetarium (right). (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
When riding the evening train, don’t forget to take a reservation card for the planetarium show at the entrance! Limited to the evening trains is a short 6-minute planetarium show, which takes place in the train’s impressive domed planetarium. A show is projected on the domed ceiling, while a local guide gives a commentary.
Nobeyama Station at night (left), and dark streets surrounding the station (right). (Image credit: JR East (left), JR East / Carissa Loh (right))
In addition, only for the evening trains, the train will stop for about 50 minutes at Nobeyama Station (野辺山駅), the JR train station with the highest elevation. Nobeyama was selected by astronomers as one of the top three places in Japan with the most beautiful view of the stars, and here a local guide will take you on a free stargazing tour. The local city office cooperates with this event, turning off the street lights and park lights in the area for the duration of the tour, so that we can better see the night sky.
Our kind guide for the evening star-watching tour. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
For both times I went on the evening tour, my guide was this gentleman who used to work at a space centre. During the tour he would point out the constellations we could see, as well as explained some of the stories behind them.
Tip: winter nights are the best period for clear night skies as the weather is drier compared to the rest of the year. During summer time it might be clear during the day, but it usually gets cloudy at night, meaning less chances of seeing stars. If it is raining or if the sky is too cloudy, the tour will bring you to a gymnasium, where a video clip will be shown instead. Due to the high elevation, nights can get chilly even in summer, so don’t forget to bring a jacket!
Nobeyama: the JR station at the highest elevation
Short stop at JR Nobeyama Station. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
During the daytime, the train stops for about 10 minutes at Nobeyama Station for you to take photos at the highest railway station. A fun thing about train stations on the JR Koumi Line is that the station name signboards have a special HIGH RAIL 1375 design! Instead of the regular white boards, they have a blue and green background depicting the mountains and the sky, matching the décor of the train.
The highest elevation of JR railway tracks. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
Between Nobeyama Station and Kiyosato Station (清里駅) is the highest elevation of JR railway tracks in Japan (JR鉄道最高地点), standing at 1,375m. There is a monument to mark this spot, and while approaching, the train will slow down for you to take photos.
Souvenir postcard corner on board the HIGH RAIL 1375 in autumn (left) and summer (right). (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
On board the train near the entrance, there is a mini model of this monument. You can also get a free souvenir postcard on the train, which changes with the season.
Omotenashi: hospitality is never lacking on the HIGH RAIL 1375
Station staff welcoming riders to Nakagomi Station. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
When riding Joyful Trains, one can always expect omotenashi, the Japanese spirit of hospitality. At Nakagomi Station (中込駅), station staff dressed in happi coats with a HIGH RAIL 1375 design carry a large banner and cute fans to say hello. The fans feature Arukuma, Nagano’s prefectural mascot, in a JR station master’s uniform. The staff’s warm smiles and energetic waving can’t help but bring a smile to your face.
Taking photos with the props on board the HIGH RAIL 1375. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
On board the train, there are various photo boards and props to make memories of your journey, with a different selection for different times of the day. Throughout the journey, the friendly train attendants go around asking if anyone would like to take photos with the props, and help you take photos whenever you need them.
HIGH RAIL 1375 attendants. (Image credit: JR East)
The bright and cheerful attendants are always happy to help, and make the journey so much more fun!
HIGH RAIL 1375’s summer 2019 SNS campaign gift (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
Sometimes, there are seasonal events on board, like the social networking service (SNS) campaign that was ongoing when I rode in August 2019. Post about your journey on the HIGH RAIL 1375 on SNS with the specified hashtag, and get an original HIGH RAIL 1375 coaster and sticker as a gift!
The HIGH RAIL 1375 with the Yatsugatake Mountain Range in the background. (Image credit: JR East)
The HIGH RAIL 1375 is made up of two cars, with Car 1 having the window-facing seats and sales corner, and Car 2 having the regular front-facing seats and domed planetarium. The exterior of the train features shades of blue to represent the sky, and has images of the Yatsugatake Mountains and stars in the sky.
Pick out some souvenirs on the HIGH RAIL 1375
Souvenir corner on board the HIGH RAIL 1375. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
At the sales corner, you can buy a variety of snacks and HIGH RAIL 1375 limited souvenirs. There are a lot of stationery like pens, pen cases, files, and keychains to cater to students. Did you know? The HIGH RAIL 1375 is popular amongst students for another reason: the Japanese pronunciation of HIGH RAIL (ハイレール hairēru) sounds like haireru (入れる), which means “to be able to enter”. The stationery has a tag line, “Let your studies enter your mind!” (お勉強が頭にはいれ～る!), and many students get the keychains as a lucky charm to pray that they will be able to enter a school of their choice.
¥100 gachapon souvenirs in the sales corner (left), and my souvenir loot (right). (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
One of the most popular souvenirs is the gachapon (ガチャポン capsule toy). For only ¥100, you can get a pin badge with various constellations. There are a total of 12 designs, including two “secret” designs. After multiple attempts and three sets of pairs, I managed to get both of the secret designs.
A beautiful sunny day at Kaikoen. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
With beautiful highland scenery and only a short distance away from major cities like Tokyo and Nagano, the HIGH RAIL 1375 makes a convenient day trip for travellers to the region. The stops along the line also have sightseeing spots and places to visit, such as Kaikoen (懐古園) from Komoro Station, Shirakoma Pond and Koke-no-mori (白駒の池・苔の森) from Yachiho Station, Seisenryō (清泉寮) from Kiyosato Station, and the RESORT OUTLETS YATSUGATAKE (八ヶ岳リゾートアウトレット) from Kobuchizawa Station.
A trip on the HIGH RAIL 1375
Running mostly on weekends and Japanese public holidays, with extra services from Friday to Tuesday during the summer period, the HIGH RAIL 1375 makes up to three trips per day between JR Kobuchizawa (小淵沢駅) and JR Komoro Station (小諸駅). Check out the timetable and schedule here.
The HIGH RAIL 1375 can be accessed from JR Sakudaira Station, which is 80 minutes by bullet train from JR Tōkyō Station (東京駅), or 20 minutes by bullet train from JR Nagano Station (長野駅). Alternatively, it can also be reached from JR Kobuchizawa Station, which is about 2 hours by Limited Express Azusa from JR Shinjuku Station (新宿駅). All seats are reserved seating only, so don’t forget to make a reservation to secure your seats here.
Meal options can be reserved from JR East Travel Service Centers at major train stations like Tokyo Station, Ueno Station, Shinjuku Station and more. The ones at the major stations even have English-speaking staff to better assist you with your travel needs.
Money-saving rail passes
The new JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area) and JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area). (Image credit: JR East)
The HIGH RAIL 1375 can be ridden for free with various JR East rail passes, such as the JR TOKYO Wide Pass, the JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area), and the JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area). Depending on your itinerary and travel needs, all offer huge savings on rail travel! Rail pass holders can make seat reservations for the HIGH RAIL 1375 for free, either online (here) up to 1 month in advance, or in-person after arriving in Japan. From April 2021, you can also make seat reservations from vending machines at selected stations. These three rail passes can be used for automatic ticket gates, and foreign passport holders living in Japan are also eligible to use them.
NOTE: From 1 April 2021, there have been some changes in the validity and pricing of the JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area) and JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area). For more information, please check here.
Header image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh