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Rail Report: Feasting aboard JR East’s flagship restaurant train, the TOHOKU EMOTION

Rail Report: Feasting aboard JR East’s flagship restaurant train, the TOHOKU EMOTION

What better way to discover a region than by feasting on its fantastic food? The Tohoku Region (東北地方 Tōhoku Chihō) is a treasure trove of natural resources and tradition—especially for fresh and delicious seafood and produce.

 

The TOHOKU EMOTION (東北エモーション Tōhoku Emōshon) is the flagship of JR East’s dining Joyful Trains, and runs on the Hachinohe Line between Hachinohe Station (八戸駅 Hachinohe-eki) in Aomori Prefecture (青森県 Aomori-ken) to Kuji Station (久慈駅 Kuji-eki) in Iwate Prefecture (岩手県 Iwate-ken).

 

The TOHOKU EMOTION runs along the Sanriku Coast. (Image credit: JR East)

 

Created in 2013 to celebrate the incredible region and to promote tourism to the Sanriku Coast, the TOHOKU EMOTION is a fine-dining restaurant train that incorporates the elements of local and luxury into its dining experience. A journey on board this “Tohoku Restaurant Railway” will tantalise your taste buds with locally-produced Tohoku ingredients in all of its dishes, and delight you with stellar five-star service from the dedicated staff.

 

The TOHOKU EMOTION’s menu changes every 3–6 months, so I highly recommend riding it again and again to enjoy the food and the mesmerising coastal scenery. I had the privilege to ride this amazing train a few times, and in this article, I will be showing you what a trip aboard this train was like in October 2022. Are you hungry yet? Let’s dig in!

 

Heading off from Hachinohe Station

Hachinohe Station. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

We took the Tohoku Shinkansen to Hachinohe Station, and had some time to kill while waiting for the TOHOKU EMOTION, so we wandered around to look at souvenirs. In December 2022, the Tohoku Shinkansen between Morioka to Hachinohe celebrated its 20th anniversary, and I spotted and bought this bottle of local sake (酒 rice wine) from Aomori which had a special design commemorating the anniversary. Other popular souvenirs were snacks infused with seafood products, which Aomori is famous for.

 

Excited to ride the TOHOKU EMOTION. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

Time went by in a flash, and we soon had to make our way to the platform to board the TOHOKU EMOTION. The train usually arrives at the platform quite some time before departure, so I recommend heading over early if you would like to take photos of or with the train.

 

Exterior of the TOHOKU EMOTION. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

The train’s exterior is white, with a design meant to look like a brick walls. Little details like rolling out a red carpet, and having a small canopy and lamp above the door, really made me feel like I was about to enter a fancy restaurant.

 

The TOHOKU EMOTION is made up of three cars: an open-dining car meant to resemble a restaurant, a live kitchen car where you can watch the chef prepare your meals, and a compartment car which has seven private compartments that seat up to four people each.

 

Lunch course from Hachinohe to Kuji

Compartment car in the TOHOKU EMOTION. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

We were lucky to be able to get a compartment car, which offered space and privacy, as well as an unbeatable view of the Pacific Ocean as the train travelled along the Sanriku Coast.

 

On the outbound journey from Hachinohe to Kuji, diners are served a 4-to-5-course lunch. When I rode the TOHOKU EMOTION in October 2022, the four-course lunch was a French-inspired menu, created by Chef Uehara of the restaurant 「Lien」 in Tokyo, which offers dishes made with local Aomori ingredients.

 

Welcome drink and appetisers to start the ride. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

The meal began with a welcome drink, followed shortly by an assortment of seafood and vegetable appetisers, red sea bream with mushroom sauce for the fish dish, a roasted duck breast main dish, and ended off with a selection of desserts served in an exquisite wooden box.

 

Aomori Cidre is a must-try. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

Drinks are free-flow throughout the ride while stocks last, and I highly recommend the Aomori Cidre, a tasty sparkling cidre made with local apples from Aomori. Other local beverages include red and white wine from Yamagata Prefecture’s Takahata region, apple juice from Aomori Prefecture, and mineral water from Iwate Prefecture’s Ryusendo Caves. Beer, non-alcoholic beer, iced Earl Grey tea, hot Darjeeling tea, coffee, orange juice, and other drinks are also available.

 

Delightful appetisers. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

A short while after our welcome drinks were served, the appetisers arrived in a box made from Paulownia wood from the Aizu region. The lid revealed a selection of five beautiful and delicate creations with an autumn theme:

  • Marinated autumn vegetables (秋野菜のマリネ)
  • Pacific saury escabeche (秋刀魚のエスカベッシュ)
  • Fromage de tête (フロマージュドテッド)
  • Chiffon cake made with sake lees from Akita Prefecture (秋田県産酒粕のシフォンケーキ)
  • Onion mousse (玉ねぎのムース)

 

Each appetiser was a delight to eat, with a very varied flavour palate. My favourites were the delicious Pacific saury and the fluffy chiffon cake.

 

Moving meal with a view. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

Deep blue skies dotted with a strip of low-hanging white clouds—the weather was fantastic when we rode the train, and as we ate, we kept pausing to take in views and admire the endlessly blue Pacific Ocean. Being in a private compartment, we had a huge window all to ourselves, and the stunning views were definitely a highlight of the train ride.

 

The fish dish was red sea bream served with the most delicious sauce. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

After appetisers came the fish dish: red sea bream meuniere served with mushroom cream soup (真鯛のムニエル 数種のキノコのクリームスープ仕立て), garnished with cashew nuts on the top. This was hands-down my favourite dish of all; the sea bream was soft and tender, and when paired with the mushroom soup—made with various types of mushrooms—it was heavenly.

 

Words cannot describe how good it was! The dish came with a side of bread to soak up the scrumptious soup, and I can assure you that not one drop remained after I devoured this dish.

 

The main dish was roasted duck. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

The main dish was roasted Tsugaru duck breast (津軽鴨むね肉のロースト), served with an assortment of vegetables, and salt on the side. The meat was tender and tasty, and the plate used was made with ceramic-ware from Iwate.

 

Local volunteers waving fisherman flags. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

As we looked out the window, we could see locals waving at the train as it passed by the fields and their homes, and it was such a welcoming feeling. There were even some volunteers waving large fisherman flags by the shore.

 

Final dish of the course: dessert. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

Finally, dessert came in an exquisite wooden box, which opened up to reveal a cheesecake, pudding, and fig with red wine jelly. I had some Darjeeling tea with my dessert, and it was a great end to this fantastic meal.

 

Kuji Station

JR Kuji Station. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

The train arrived at Kuji Station, and we had about an hour to explore before taking the train back to Hachinohe. Notice the cute sea urchin details on the exterior of the station building?

 

Kuji Station is where you can transfer to the Sanriku Railway Rias Line, to explore the Sanriku coast. Kuji is well-known as the stage for Amachan, a 2013 NHK morning drama about the ama of the Kosode Coast. Ama (海女) are female free divers who catch abalone, sea urchins and other shells from the sea, with sea urchin being very well-known product of the area.

 

Detour to Sanriku Railway Kuji Station to buy the famous uni bento. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

The Sanriku Railway Kuji Station building is right next to the JR Kuji Station building, and I had to head over to buy something very special…

 

This day of feasting doesn’t end! At Sanriku Railway’s Kuji Station is a small eatery called Rias Tei (リアス亭), which serves a delicious uni bentо̄ (うに弁当 sea urchin lunch box). This is a must-buy while at Kuji Station, and I bought one for dinner.

 

Delicious uni bento. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

Don’t let the unassuming box fool you, once you open it you will be greeted with a gleaming golden layer of fresh uni waiting to be devoured! Each bento contains 5–6 sea urchins’ worth of uni, and underneath is a tasty bed of rice simmered in umami-filled uni broth. Only 20 boxes are for sale each day, so be sure to come early to avoid disappointment.

 

I had been dreaming of eating this bento for a long time, but it was always sold out the previous times I visited Kuji Station. This time, I finally got to try it and it was such a satisfying dinner!

 

Dessert course from Kuji to Hachinohe

Boarding the train back to Hachinohe. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

In the blink of an eye, it was time for the train back to Hachinohe to depart. The TOHOKU EMOTION’s inbound journey from Kuji to Hachinohe is a dessert buffet, and you don’t want to miss this if you love sweet treats.

 

Helmed by Hotel Metropolitan Morioka's pastry chef, the dessert buffet selection offers a variety of pastries ranging from cakes to tarts to jellies, as well as a small selection of savoury bites like ham, cheese, and seafood salad. Like the lunch course, drinks are also free-flow while supplies last. 

 

Starting platter of desserts. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

To start off, you are served a platter with a selection of three desserts, one of which comes with a TOHOKU EMOTION chocolate. This time, we had a chestnut cream puff, pear cake with Bavarian cream, and a tangy blackcurrant sorbet.

 

View from our seats. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

For the journey back to Hachinohe, we were seated in Car 3, the open-dining car, and were on the side facing the sea. The views from our seats were fantastic; they were like vividly-coloured moving paintings.

 

A la carte buffet menu. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

A short while after the platter is cleared, the staff will explain the buffet to the diners. The buffet used to be a buffet line where you could heap on the desserts to your own plate, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the buffet is now an a la carte buffet.

 

Diners are shown a sheet with pictures of all the available desserts, and you can order as many as you want. Like the lunch course menu, the dessert menu is also changed every 3–6 months, so there are new things to try.

 

Started off with one of everything on buffet menu. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

There were six sweet desserts to choose from:

  • Classic chocolate cake (ガトークラシックショコラ)
  • Anise-flavoured pain de Gênes (アニス風味のパンドジェーヌ)
  • Red berries tart (赤い果実のタルト)
  • New York cheesecake with caramelised apple (N・Yチーズケーキ&リンゴキャラメリゼ)
  • Strawberry panna cotta (苺のパンナコッタ)
  • Aomori apple jelly (青森りんごのジュレ)

 

The portions are quite small, so I recommend getting one of everything at the beginning, trying them out, seeing which ones you prefer, then reordering the ones you enjoyed. Of these buffet desserts, my favourites were the chocolate cake and the apple jelly, they were so good.

 

Savoury items. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

Other than pastries, there were also a few savoury selections, like ham, cheese on baguette, nuts, and my favourite: marinated seafood.

 

Marinated seafood, my favourite savoury dish. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

The marinated seafood was an unexpected gem, so succulent and scrumptious that I had five…or more. It was a petite dish that came with marinated shrimp, scallop, and clams; the tomato-based marinade was delicious and really complemented the seafood.

 

View of Kabushima from our seats. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

The weather was still fantastic, and we were soon nearing the end of our trip. As we neared Same Station, we passed by Kabushima, a small island famous for its shrine, and famous for being a breeding ground for umineko (うみねこ black-tailed gulls). Between March and August, you can catch the sight of thousands of gulls gathering around the island and the shrine, but since we were here in October, we just got a wonderful view.

 

Shortly after passing Same Station (鮫駅 Same-eki), we approached Hachinohe Station, where we had to end our amazing journey on the TOHOKU EMOTION.

 

Closing

Dishes I’ve tried on the TOHOKU EMOTION. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

I’ve ridden a number of dining and restaurant trains in Japan, and so far, the TOHOKU EMOTION remains my favourite for a number of reasons: the taste and quality of the dishes, the spectacular seaside scenery, and the warm hospitality of everyone along the line—be it the train staff or the locals and volunteers who wave at you. Oh, and the free-flow drinks are also a plus point.

 

As mentioned earlier, the menu changes every 3­­–6 months, and the scenery changes with every season too, so it’s a new experience each time I ride the train. If you can fit it into your itinerary, I highly recommend taking a ride on the TOHOKU EMOTION, JR East’s fine-dining restaurant train!

 

TOHOKU EMOTION (東北エモーション)

Route: Hachinohe ↔️ Kuji on the JR Hachinohe Line
Price (one-way): ¥8,600/adult for lunch course, ¥5,100/adult for dessert buffet. Additional charge of ¥3,600 per compartment for private compartments in Car 1.
Booking limit: Minimum two pax / maximum four pax per booking
Booking deadline: 4 days before departure

Note: The TOHOKU EMOTION is a package-only train. You will not be able to board this train with just a rail pass.
Note: Prices are correct as of March 2023. Prices will increase from April 2023, so please confirm when booking.

 

JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area)

The JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area) and usage area. (Image credit: JR East)

 

If you are visiting the Tohoku region to ride the TOHOKU EMOTION and explore the northern prefectures of Aomori and Iwate, check out the JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area), an affordable pass offering unlimited rail travel on JR East lines (including bullet trains) in the area for 5 consecutive days. At only ¥30,000, it costs less than a round-trip between Tokyo and Hachinohe (~¥33,000). You can also make seat reservations for bullet trains and some Joyful Trains online for free, up to 1 month in advance, on the JR-EAST Train Reservation.

 

The JR-EAST Train Reservation. (Image credit: JR East)

 

The JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area) can be used for automatic ticket gates, and foreign passport holders living in Japan are also eligible to use this pass.

 

Do note that the TOHOKU EMOTION is a package-only train, and you will not be able to board this train with just a rail pass. You will need to make dining reservations via the dedicated website here (Japanese language only).

 

Header image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh

 

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