A peek at Japan’s most luxurious trains
Trains are often one of the more affordable ways to get from point A to point B, especially if you’re traveling in a foreign country. However, although Japan is known for its high-tech bullet trains, did you know that it also has luxury trains that offer unforgettable and lavish experiences?
From elegant, sophisticated interiors and ultra-spacious, comfortable seats, to private bathtubs and decadent cuisine, to live piano performances and unrivalled views of the outside scenery, sometimes you’ll have a hard time believing you’re on a train.
Let’s have a look at some of these luxurious trains, which vary among overnight cruise trains, sightseeing trains, and a first-class experience on a bullet train.
Overnight cruise trains
Luxury overnight cruise trains are not just a train ride, but a full travel experience. Like a cruise, these trains have bedrooms and living quarters onboard for guests to spend the night, and have stops along their routes where guests get off and go on excursions. They also have dedicated staff offering top-notch hospitality, fully functioning kitchens and bars onboard, and have live performances to entertain guests. In Japan, there are currently three of these luxury cruise trains in operation, which run in different parts of Japan. Let’s have a look at them:
① Train Suite Shiki-shima
Operated by: JR East
Train Suite Shiki-shima passing by Mount Iwaki. (Image credit: JR East)
The Train Suite Shiki-shima (トランスイート四季島) is JR East’s most luxurious train, and brings guests around Eastern Japan to experience hidden gems and local traditions while enjoying the sheer beauty of the transience of time.
Making its debut in May 2017, the elegant, champagne gold, 10-car train was designed by industrial designer Ken Okuyama, and offers seasonal courses ranging from 2D1N to 4D3N trips. The train’s name “Shiki-shima” means “island of four seasons”, and is a homophone for an old name of Japan, "敷島" (Shikishima).
Note: Earlier this month I wrote an in-depth article about the Train Suite Shiki-shima, which you can read here. To minimise repetition, this section will only mention a shortened description.
Layout of the Train Suite Shiki-shima. (Image credit: JR East)
Unique window designs give the effect of komorebi. (Image credit: JR East)
A trip on the Train Suite Shiki-shima starts at Ueno Station in Tokyo, where an exclusive platform, Platform 13.5, awaits guests. Komorebi (木漏れ日), a Japanese word that refers to sunlight that filters through tree branches, is the concept behind the views that the Train Suite Shiki-shima wants to offers its guests. The train’s beautiful wooden décor resembles tree branches stretching up into the sky, and when combined with the uniquely-shaped windows, they recreate the effect of light passing through tree branches.
Guest rooms onboard the Train Suite Shiki-shima. (Image credit: JR East)
Incorporating delicate designs and traditional Japanese craftsmanship in a modern way, the Train Suite Shiki-shima accommodates up to 34 guests in its 17 suites. Of these suites, there is 1 Shiki-shima Suite room, 1 Deluxe Suite room, and 15 Suite rooms. The Shiki-shima Suite and Deluxe Suite even come with their own private cypress bath tubs, made from 300-year-old cypress wood from Nagano Prefecture.
Dining on the Train Suite Shiki-shima. (Image credit: JR East)
The Train Suite Shiki-shima’s dining car could easily pass for an elegant, fine-dining restaurant, with most seats situated by the window and offering fantastic views. All meals are tenderly prepared with seasonal ingredients from Eastern Japan. As the train travels around Eastern Japan, the dining menu moves along with it, reflecting the local ingredients and culinary traditions of the regions that the train passes through.
For April–June 2022 departures, prices for a ride on the Train Suite Shiki-shima range from ¥370,000 per person for a 2D1N course to ¥1,000,000 per person for a 4D3N course based on double occupancy. Single travellers are also welcome to ride this train.
You can find out more about the Train Suite Shiki-shima in my previous article here, or on its English website here.
② TWILIGHT EXPRESS MIZUKAZE
Operated by: JR West
TWILIGHT EXPRESS MIZUKAZE crossing the Sogogawa Bridge. (Image credit: ©Takashi Karaki)
JR West’s luxury train is the TWILIGHT EXPRESS MIZUKAZE (TWILIGHT EXPRESS 瑞風), which has the concept of a hotel rolling through the beautiful Japanese landscape, featuring superior quality with a touch of nostalgia. The 10-car TWILIGHT EXPRESS MIZUKAZE was designed by architect, interior designer Kazuya Ura, and industrial designer Tetsuo Fukuda, and debuted in June 2017. It offers five different routes to guests, which range from 2D1N to 3D2N trips that go around the Sanyo and Sanin regions, regions rich in stunning natural landscape and coastal views.
Exterior of the TWILIGHT EXPRESS MIZUKAZE. (Image credit: ©Takashi Karaki and JR West)
Accented with gold emblems and trimmings, the train’s body boasts a signature Mizukaze Green colour, which it inherited from the Twilight Express. In the past, JR West operated a sleeper train between Osaka and Sapporo called the Twilight Express, which ceased services in 2015.
The name “MIZUKAZE” literally means “fresh wind”, and expresses the idea of the new TWILIGHT EXPRESS MIZUKAZE bringing joy to the beautiful Mizuho-no-Kuni (瑞穂の国), an ancient name for Japan which uses the same “mizu” kanji character.
Layout of the TWILIGHT EXPRESS MIZUKAZE. (Image credit: JR West)
The Suite on the TWILIGHT EXPRESS MIZUKAZE. (Image credit: JR West)
The TWILIGHT EXPRESS MIZUKAZE accommodates up to 30 guests in its 16 guest rooms, which comprise of 1 The Suite room, 13 Royal Twin rooms, and 2 Royal Single rooms.
Located in Car 7, The Suite is a lavish guestroom occupying an entire car, and is furnished with a large dining table, two comfortable beds, and two large sofas which can double up as extra beds. It also has a private balcony, from which guests can enjoy the outside breeze and scenery. This exclusive room also has a full-sized bathtub, which is located by a window so that guests can look at the passing views while soaking in the bath.
Royal Twin and Royal Single rooms on the TWILIGHT EXPRESS MIZUKAZE. (Image credit: JR West)
12 Royal Twin rooms occupy Cars 2, 3, 8, and 9, while Car 4 houses 2 Royal Single rooms and 1 wheelchair-accessible Royal Twin room. All rooms are decorated with custom-made, traditionally crafted items from various regions along the TWILIGHT EXPRESS MIZUKAZE’s route, and come with a shower and a toilet. During the day, the comfortable beds can be retracted and transformed into sofas, making the rooms more spacious.
Top: Diner Pleiades and open kitchen. Bottom: Meals served in guestrooms. (Image credit: JR West)
Planned by renowned food columnist Kadokami Takeshi, the TWILIGHT EXPRESS MIZUKAZE’s unique cuisine is one of the highlights of a trip on this train. All food is made onboard the train, overseen by top-class culinary artisans who create delightful dishes containing an extravagant variety of local ingredients from regions along the train’s route.
The dining car, Diner Pleiades (ダイナープレヤデス), is located in Car 6 and has a very special feature: an open kitchen. Guests can witness how the food artisans meticulously prepare their meals from the window.
Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, all meals are currently served in guestrooms instead of in the dining car. The friendly and attentive TWILIGHT EXPRESS MIZUKAZE crew personally hand-deliver and set up meals in each guestroom, for a private dining experience.
Relax at the lounge onboard the TWILIGHT EXPRESS MIZUKAZE. (Image credit: JR West)
Decorated in a nostalgic-modern way inspired by the Art Deco style that was popular in the 1920s and 1930s, the lounge car in Car 5, Salon De L’ouest (サロン・ドゥ・ルゥエスト), is decked out with tables and chairs, and is a place where guests can relax. The lounge is home to the drink bar, and is also where live musical performances (violins, violas, and other instruments) are held.
Observation car on the TWILIGHT EXPRESS MIZUKAZE. (Image credit: JR West)
Finally, on both ends of the train, in Cars 1 and 10, are the observation cars. These cars feature plush, window-facing sofas and tall, floor-to-ceiling windows, which stretch all the way to the top of the car. This provides guests with spectacular views, and even lets them take in views of the skies and the stars at night.
Staff and crew of the TWILIGHT EXPRESS MIZUKAZE. (Image credit: JR West)
For March–June 2022 departures, prices for a ride on the TWILIGHT EXPRESS MIZUKAZE range from ¥325,000 per person for a 2D1N course to ¥610,000 per person for a 3D2N course based on double occupancy in a Royal Twin room. Single travellers are also able to ride this train.
You can find out more about the TWILIGHT EXPRESS MIZUKAZE on its English website here.
③ Cruise Train Seven Stars in Kyushu
Operated by: JR Kyushu
The Seven Stars in Kyushu with Mount Yufu in the background. (Image credit: JR Kyushu)
Over in the southern island of Kyushu is the pioneer of Japan’s current luxury cruise trains, JR Kyushu’s Cruise Train Seven Stars in Kyushu (クルーズトレインななつ星in九州). This train was designed by renowned industrial designer Eiji Mitooka, and made its debut in 2013. The name “Seven Stars in Kyushu” represents the seven prefectures of Kyushu, the seven cars that make up the train, and the seven major attractions of Kyushu: nature, food, hot springs, history/culture, power spots, humanity, and trains.
Exterior of the Seven Stars in Kyushu. (Image credit: JR Kyushu)
The Seven Stars in Kyushu has an elegant wine-red exterior that resembles the colour of ancient lacquer, and represents the majestic journey around Kyushu that awaits its guests. Gold lines and accents like the train’s emblem and logo, as well as the names of Kyushu’s seven prefectures decorate the exterior.
This train offers a variety of seasonal 2D1N and 4D3N trips that go around Kyushu’s diverse and abundant nature, with plenty of sightseeing stops along the way.
Layout of the Seven Stars in Kyushu. (Image credit: JR Kyushu)
Inside the guestrooms. (Image credit: JR Kyushu)
Accommodating up to 30 guests in its 14 suites, the Seven Stars in Kyushu has 12 Suite rooms and 2 Deluxe Suite rooms. Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the train currently operates with a maximum capacity of 26 people over 12 rooms. The two Deluxe Suite rooms are in Car 7, the end car, while the Suite rooms are spread out over Cars 3–6, with three rooms per car. Each Suite room can sleep up to two guests, while each Deluxe Suite room can sleep up to three guests.
All rooms have showers and toilets, and something special is the unique washbasin made with Arita porcelain, which has a different design in each room. Each room’s furnishings also feature many different types of wood, such as oakwood, cherrywood, maple wood, rosewood, pearwood, walnut, quince, and more.
Inside the Deluxe Suite A room, which has a massive window. (Image credit: JR Kyushu)
Although all rooms have side windows that provide views of Kyushu’s spectacular natural scenery, the Deluxe Suite A room, which is located at one end of the train, has windows on three sides, including a massive wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling window that is like a moving painting—offering unbeatable views of the passing landscape and railway tracks.
Inside the lounge car Blue Moon and the dining car Jupiter. (Image credit: JR Kyushu)
Blending modern Western styles with traditional Japanese styles, the interior of the Seven Stars in Kyushu is a magnificent sight to behold, boasting exquisite woodwork from the floors, to the ceilings, to the furniture. Also amazing is the intricate Okawa kumiko (大川組子) latticework designs that decorate the walls and furnishings. A traditional Japanese craft from Fukuoka’s Okawa City, Okawa kumiko is a technique where thin pieces of wood are fitted together by hand to create beautiful, elaborate patterns.
The lounge car Blue Moon (ラウンジカー「ブルームーン」) in Car 1 features swivelling chairs and elegant sofas, and is a place where guests can relax and enjoy live musical performances. The island of Kyushu is a treasure trove of food, and in the dining car Jupiter (ダイニングカー「木星」) in Car 2, guests can feast on gourmet meals that make use of Kyushu’s seasonal ingredients.
People sending off the Seven Stars in Kyushu. (Image credit: JR Kyushu)
While these luxury trains offer exquisitely designed interiors, heavenly meals, and impeccable hospitality, for many of their guests, what leaves the greatest impression is the warm welcomes from the local people, who gather around the station and along the train tracks as the train passes by their region. From young schoolchildren to volunteers to local farmers and fishermen, their excitement, eager waving of flags and banners, and enthusiastic cheers create lasting memories for the guests and brings smiles to their faces.
For March–June 2022 departures, prices for a ride on the Seven Stars in Kyushu range from ¥402,000 per person for a 2D1N course to ¥855,000 per person for a 4D3N course based on double occupancy in a Suite room. Single travellers can also ride this train.
You can find out more about the Seven Stars in Kyushu on its English website here.
While luxury overnight cruise trains are like travel packages that have guestrooms for guests to sleep in and sightseeing stops for guests to go on excursions, there is another type of luxury trains which can be enjoyed as day trip: luxury sightseeing trains. These sightseeing trains feature luxurious seats for extra comfort, with some even serving up sumptuous meals. Let’s have a look at JR East’s SAPHIR ODORIKO and JR Kyushu’s 36+3.
④ SAPHIR ODORIKO
Operated by: JR East
SAPHIR ODORIKO. (Image credit: JR East)
Making its debut on 14 March 2020, the SAPHIR ODORIKO (サフィール踊り子) runs daily between Tokyo and Izukyu-Shimoda, and is a luxury sightseeing train featuring JR East’s new Premium Green seats, a seat class positioned between Green and Gran Class (more on the Gran Class later).
SAPHIR ODORIKO’s stunning sapphire-blue exterior. (Image credit: JR East)
Often referred to as a resort train, the SAPHIR ODORIKO was a deluxe train built to replace the older Super View Odoriko, and brings passengers from Tokyo to the Izu Peninsula in 2.5 hours, passing by dazzling views of the sea.
The SAPHIR ODORIKO features a deep blue exterior, and was inspired by the stunning sapphire blue colours of the sea and the sky (“saphir” means “sapphire” in French) along the Izu Peninsula.
Premium Green Car seats on the SAPHIR ODORIKO. (Image credit: JR East)
The SAPHIR ODORIKO comprises of eight cars, with Car 1 being the coveted Premium Green Car. The car’s windows are large and wide, with added skylights for a more expansive view. Providing extra space and privacy, there are only two single seats per row, all on the side facing the sea. These comfortable and plush leather seats can even swivel towards the window to give passengers an even better view.
All Premium Green Car seats have leg rests and feature powered reclining. Each seat is also fully equipped with electrical outlets, and has a personal storage space underneath where passengers can stow their belongings.
Private compartments on the SAPHIR ODORIKO. (Image credit: JR East)
Cars 2 and 3 are the Green Car Private Compartments, which seat up to four or six passengers. These luxe and comfortable private compartments offer more intimate spaces, and are perfect for families and special moments.
All compartments have large windows facing the sea, as well as skylights for an even more expansive view. Unlike regular seats, the seats in the compartments are like large sofas, and together with the compartment’s warm wooden finishes they provide a luxurious atmosphere to kick-start your trip to the Izu Peninsula.
Cafeteria car on the SAPHIR ODORIKO. (Image credit: JR East)
Car 4 is the cafeteria with an open kitchen. In the cafeteria, passengers can enjoy freshly cooked pasta, or sweet treats like gelato and madeleines, while gazing as the passing scenery. Do note that there are a limited number of servings available, and advanced reservations are required to be made via the SAPHIR Pay website. You can check the official website for more details.
Green Car seats on the SAPHIR ODORIKO. (Image credit: JR East)
Finally, Cars 5 to 8 have the Green Car seats, which are roomy and can be reclined for further comfort. Electrical outlets are available for each seat, and all cars have dedicated luggage racks for passengers to put their baggage. Large windows and skylights provide good views of the passing scenery.
SAPHIR ODORIKO. (Image credit: JR East)
Prices for a ride on the SAPHIR ODORIKO from Tokyo to Izukyu-Shimoda range from ¥9,110 per person for a Green Car seat to ¥11,430 per person for a Premium Green Car seat. Private compartments have an extra surcharge, which is split among the number of passengers using the compartment.
Good news for holders of a JR East Pass (Tohoku area), JR East Pass (Nagano, Niigata area), JR TOKYO Wide Pass, or JR East-South Hokkaido Rail Pass: these rail passes cover the basic fare of the SAPHIR ODORIKO, so users of these passes only need to pay the Green Car surcharge of ¥5,150 or Premium Green Car surcharge of ¥7,470 for a ride from Tokyo to Izukyu-Shimoda.
You can find out more about the SAPHIR ODORIKO in my other article here, or on its English website here.
Operated by: JR Kyushu
The 36+3. (Image credit: JR Kyushu)
The next luxury sightseeing train we’ll be introducing, the all Green Car 36+3 (36ぷらす3), is also the newest, having just debuted in October 2020. The train celebrates its first anniversary this year, and was designed by Eiji Mitooka, who also designed the Seven Stars in Kyushu and most of JR Kyushu’s D&S Trains.
The “36” in the train’s name comes from Kyushu being the 36th largest island in the world. The “+3” represents the passengers, the local community, and JR Kyushu—three groups of people who contribute to the successful running of the train, and also symbolises surprise, impression, and happiness, which the train hopes to provide its passengers. Finally, 36+3=39, which is pronounced as “sankyū” in Japanese, similar to how “thank you” is pronounced, and represents thanks and gratitude.
Operating daily from Thursdays to Mondays, the 36+3 runs on different routes around different parts of Kyushu each day:
- Thursdays: Hakata to Kagoshima-Chuo
- Fridays: Kagoshima-Chuo to Miyazaki
- Saturdays: Miyazaki to Oita
- Sundays: Oita to Hakata
- Mondays: Hakata to Nagasaki in the morning, and Nagasaki to Hakata in the afternoon
Green compartments in Cars 1, 2, and 3 of the 36+3. (Image credit: JR Kyushu)
Like the Seven Stars in Kyushu, the interiors of the train’s six cars are a blend of modern Western styles and traditional Japanese styles, with features such as intricate Okawa kumiko latticework designs and shoji screen windows.
Cars 1 to 3 house private Green compartments of varying sizes, each one beautifully designed and furnished with chic wood and fabrics. These compartments can only be used by passengers who purchase a meal plan, which vary depending on the course, and feature local ingredients and menus created by established restaurants in the regions they pass through.
Car 1’s four compartments feature tatami flooring and seat 3–4 passengers each, Car 2’s three compartments have wooden floors and seat 3–6 passengers each, and Car 3’s six compartments seat 1–2 passengers each.
Car 4 is a multi-use space. (Image credit: JR Kyushu)
Even if they don’t purchase a meal plan, passengers can grab a bite to eat from the bar counter in Car 3, which sells drinks, snacks, and local souvenirs.
Car 4 is a multi-use car, where passengers can freely use the seats to enjoy the passing scenery out the windows. Exclusively for its passengers, 36+3 offers special hands-on experiences and events, which are held in Car 4.
- Thursdays: Tea tasting (paid)
- Fridays: Black vinegar sampling (free)
- Saturdays: Plum wine/plum syrup making (paid)
- Sundays: Konpeito candy sampling (free)
- All routes: Washi crafts for children (free), soap-making for children (free)
Green Car seats in Cars 5 and 6. (Image credit: JR Kyushu)
Finally, Cars 5 and 6 host the Green Car seats, which have a 1+2 configuration. Like the rest of the train, the Green Car seats are furnished with beautiful wood and unique seat fabric patterns, as well as Okawa kumiko latticework accents on the shoji screen windows. All seats have retractable tables and pockets for storing items, and the floors of Car 6 are tatami, so customers can take off their shoes and enjoy a comfortable ride.
Prices for a ride on the 36+3 from Hakata to Nagasaki (Monday morning route) range from ¥8,570 per person (no meal) / ¥13,500 per person (with meal) for a Green Car seat, to ¥18,500 per person for a compartment seat (with meal).
Good news for holders of the All Kyushu Rail Pass: the rail passes covers the basic fare of the 36+3, so pass users can ride Cars 5 and 6 (no meal) and only need to pay the Green Car surcharges, which can be found here.
Other than 36+3, JR Kyushu also operates another luxury sightseeing train, the ARU RESSHA (或る列車), which you can find out more about on its English website here.
⑥ Gran Class
Operated on: E5/H5 series trains on the Tohoku Shinkansen and Hokkaido Shinkansen, E7/W7 series trains on the Hokuriku Shinkansen, E7 series trains on the Joetsu Shinkansen
Gran Class seats on the Tohoku Shinkansen. (Image credit: JR East)
Many of us might be familiar with Ordinary Car and Green Car seats on the shinkansen (新幹線), but did you know that there is another even more premium seat class, the Gran Class? The Gran Class (グランクラス) is the highest seat category on bullet trains on the Tohoku Shinkansen, Hokkaido Shinkansen, Hokuriku Shinkansen, and Joetsu Shinkansen, and features ultra-luxe seats in a private space—there are only 18 Gran Class seats on each train.
Amenities in the Gran Class. (Image credit: JR East)
“Gran” is a French word that means “large”, and Gran Class seats offer plenty of space, a high level of comfort, with ergonomic and well-balanced support for passengers. They feature electric reclining for the backrest, seat, and leg rest, and come with a suite of features like plush headrests, reading lights, power outlets, dining tables, cocktail trays, privacy partitions, and even a call button to call the attendant.
Just like airplanes, overhead baggage racks on the Gran Class can be closed, and amenities such as slippers, eye masks, shoehorns, and blankets are available for Gran Class passengers to ensure their comfort.
Gran Class attendant serving a beverage. (Image credit: JR East)
Dedicated Gran Class attendants are on duty to offer warm hospitality to the 18 Gran Class passengers, and are always ready to help with providing a comfortable train ride. Once the train departs the station, they offer wet towels and hand passengers a menu.
Meals and drinks on the Gran Class. (Image credit: JR East)
Another feature of the Gran Class that sets it apart from the rest is the light meal and drink service. An exclusive bento lunch box that uses premium local ingredients from different locations along the train’s route is served to Gran Class passengers. The contents of the bento are different for each route (Tohoku/Hokkaido Shinkansen and Hokuriku Shinkansen) and direction (outbound from Tokyo or inbound to Tokyo).
Other than the bento, pound cake, crackers, and beverages are also served. Passengers can choose from over 10 varieties of beverages, including teas, coffee, apple juice, and an assortment of alcohol.
Note: Due to COVID-19, service of alcoholic beverages is temporarily suspended.
Gran Class entrance and reclining seats. (Image credit: JR East)
Gran Class (No Beverage and Light Meal Service)
All E5/H5 trains and most E7/W7 trains have the Gran Class seats, but the shorter service routes do not have Gran Class attendants or beverage/meal services. These shorter service routes are:
Tohoku Shinkansen and Hokkaido Shinkansen
- All Nasuno, Hayate, and Yamabiko train services
- All Hayabusa train services that only operate between Tokyo and Sendai
- All Hayabusa train services that operate to/from Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto that do not start or end at Tokyo
- All Asama train services
- All Hakutaka train services that only operate between Nagano and Kanazawa
- All Toki and Tanizawa train services that utilise the E7 train
Note: Despite being a E7/W7 train, all Tsurugi train services operating between Toyama and Kanazawa do not have Gran Class seats.
A Gran Class train ticket is made up of three costs:
① Basic fare
② Limited express surcharge
③ Gran Class surcharge
If you are travelling with a Japan Rail Pass or JR East Rail Pass, they only cover ①, so you will need to pay extra for ② and ③ if you wish to ride the Gran Class.
You can find out more about the Gran Class in my other article here, or on its English website here.
Luxury trains range from overnight cruise trains to sightseeing trains to speedy bullet trains, and are fancy experiences that many of us dream about. For sure, they offer passengers unforgettable journeys and precious experiences that will last a long time. If you had the chance, would you ride one of these trains?
Header image credit: JR East, ©Takashi Karaki, JR Kyushu