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The fine-dining restaurant train: TOHOKU EMOTION

The fine-dining restaurant train: TOHOKU EMOTION

Located in the north-eastern part of Japan, the Tohoku region is a treasure trove of natural resources and tradition—especially for seafood, vegetables and wood. To celebrate this amazing region and to promote tourism to the Sanriku area, the TOHOKU EMOTION (東北エモーション Tōhoku Emōshon) Joyful Train was created in 2013.

 

As the flagship of JR East’s dining Joyful Trains, 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 tantalize your taste buds with locally-produced Tohoku ingredients in all of its dishes, and delight you with five-star service from the dedicated staff.

 

I am a huge fan of themed trains, having previously introduced another dining-type Joyful Train, the FruiTea Fukushima, as well as others that run in the Tohoku region, like the Toreiyu Tsubasa, POKÉMON with YOU Train, and Resort Shirakami. Believe me when I say that a trip on the TOHOKU EMOTION is simply unforgettable, and will leave you wanting to ride it again!

 

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

 

Even with my first look at this train, I was already excited. The exterior and interior are designed to look like a fancy restaurant, right down to the details like the canopy and lamp hanging at the entrance, and the rolled-out red carpet. The on-board service was impeccable, and the staff really made me feel like a VIP customer.

 

Lunch course on the outbound journey (Hachinohe → Kuji)

April 2018’s lunch on the TOHOKU EMOTION. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

I had the opportunity to feast on the TOHOKU EMOTION's scrumptious lunch once, about two years ago in April 2018. The four-course lunch was a French-inspired menu, created by Chef Ogata of the restaurant 「nacreé」 in Sendai. It began with shrimp starters, followed by an assortment of seafood and vegetable appetizers, a pork chop and asparagus main dish, and ended off with a selection of desserts served in an exquisite lacquer box.

 

All meals on the TOHOKU EMOTION are created with locally-sourced Tohoku ingredients, using food to introduce the region to the riders. Even the materials and techniques used to create the dishes and containers are from Tohoku.

  • Magewappa (曲げわっぱ bent wood) craftwork and cedar wood from Akita is used for the starter’s oval box
  • Paulownia wood from Aizu is used for the square appetizer box
  • Ceramic-ware from Iwate is used for the main dish
  • Lacquer artwork from Aizu is featured on the dessert box

 

The thought and detail that go into creating this dining experience is amazing!

 

Welcome drink (left), Aomori Cidre (centre), Iwate sake (right). (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

When you first take your seat, you are served a welcome drink of non-alcoholic sparkling apple cider, produced in Aomori. After that, drinks are free-flow. Locally-produced alcoholic selections include Aomori Cidre, a locally-brewed apple cider from Hirosaki in Aomori Prefecture; white and red wines from the Takahata region in Yamagata Prefecture; and sake from Iwate Prefecture. I highly recommend the refreshing and delicious Aomori Cidre! Locally-produced non-alcoholic selections include apple juice from Aomori, and mineral water from Iwate’s Ryusendo.

 

June 2019’s lunch on the TOHOKU EMOTION. (Image credit: JR East / Akio Kobori)

 

My boss rode the TOHOKU EMOTION again in June 2019, and this time, the menu was a Japanese-Western-Chinese fusion created by four chefs from Hotel Metropolitan Morioka in Iwate. The six-course lunch had a tofu starter, six different seafood and vegetable appetizers, an herbal soup, chirashi don (チラシ丼 assorted sashimi on rice), a roast beef main dish, and a selection of desserts. Again, the meal is created with locally-sourced Tohoku ingredients, using dishware made with local Tohoku materials and techniques.

 

Menu for April to September 2020. (Image credit: JR East)

 

The TOHOKU EMOTION’s menu changes every three to six months, so you can look forward to something new the next time you ride it! For April to September 2020, the outbound lunch menu will feature creations from Chef Harada of 「trattoria LIPAGIO」, a popular Hirosaki-based Italian restaurant. It will consist of an appetizer, a pasta dish, a main course and a selection of dessert. The inbound dessert buffet will continue to be overseen by pâtissier Chef Kumagaya from Hotel Metropolitan Morioka.

 

Coastal scenery and Japanese omotenashi

View from the TOHOKU EMOTION. (Image credit: JR East / Akio Kobori)

 

The outbound journey from Hachinohe to Kuji takes about 2 hours, giving you ample time to eat and enjoy your ride. In addition to the delightful food, the views of the ocean are also a highlight of the TOHOKU EMOTION.

 

Staring at dynamic scenery like endless blue waters and friendly locals waving to you as you dine is an experience you cannot have at a regular restaurant. The train even slows down at scenic spots, so that you can have more time to enjoy the views and take photos! The entire trip was wonderful, and easily one of the best dining experiences I have ever had. I really hope to be able to have lunch on this train again someday!

 

Volunteers waving flags (left) and staff bidding farewell at Hachinohe Station (right). (Image credit: JR East / Akio Kobori (left) and Carissa Loh (right))

 

The TOHOKU EMOTION runs along the Sanriku Coast on a local line, the JR Hachinohe Line, from Hachinohe to Kuji. Along the route, you will see local volunteers welcoming you with flags, and residents waving their hands as the train passes by their homes! The Japanese spirit of omotenashi (おもてなし hospitality) is present everywhere, and can really be felt in the warm countryside. At the platform before departing Hachinohe, staff hold a banner saying “Bon voyage, have a nice trip” to bid riders farewell.

 

Train design

Interior of the TOHOKU EMOTION. (Image credit: JR East)

 

The TOHOKU EMOTION is made up of three cars: an open-dining car resembling a restaurant, a private compartment car where you can have more privacy for your group, and a live kitchen car.

  • Car 1 is the private compartment car, which has seven compartments each seating up to four. All compartments have doors, and the windows face the ocean.
  • Car 2 holds the live kitchen, and here you can observe the chefs prepare your food right before your eyes!
  • Car 3 is the open-dining car, seating up to 20 diners.

 

Even in the interior decorations, local crafts and materials are heavily featured:

  • Compartment rooms have sashiko ori fabric from Fukushima.
  • The open kitchen's counter wall is made of Nambu iron from Iwate.
  • Car 3's open-dining area has kogin sashi embroidery from Aomori on its floor.

 

Dessert buffet on the inbound journey (Kuji → Hachinohe)

Fixed dessert platter on the TOHOKU EMOTION. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

Get ready to satisfy your sweet-tooth, because for the inbound journey from Kuji to Hachinohe, it is an afternoon dessert buffet. First, you will be served a drink of your choice, followed by a fixed platter with three creations, including a specially-made TOHOKU EMOTION white chocolate. After you are done, you can help yourself to the buffet in Car 2, which will be open until about 30 minutes before arriving at Hachinohe.

 

Dessert buffet on the TOHOKU EMOTION. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

The buffet consists of a variety of cakes, tarts and jellies. Don’t worry if you are not a fan of sweet stuff, there are also savoury hors d’oeuvres like cheese, ham and seafood, made with Tohoku ingredients! Drinks are free flow, and for the non-alcoholic selection I highly recommend the Aomori apple juice—Aomori produces most of Japan’s apples. Alcoholic beverages are also available, depending on how much is left from the outbound journey.

 

Happy diners. (Image credit: JR East / Akio Kobori)

 

The inbound trip from Kuji to Hachinohe takes slightly less than two hours, giving you plenty of time to enjoy dessert, delight in the scenery, take a lot of photos, and chat with your family and friends.

 

A Trip on the TOHOKU EMOTION

 

Sightseeing

Most people take a round trip (lunch course + dessert buffet) on the TOHOKU EMOTION, departing from and returning to Hachinohe Station. However, if you are looking to explore the Sanriku Coast more in depth, you can take a one-way journey and check out some of the sightseeing spots in this charming area.

 

Kabushima Jinja Shrine (蕪島神社)

  • 15-minute walk from JR Same Station (鮫駅)

Kabushima Jinja. (Image credit: 青森県)

 

Kabushima Jinja is a Shinto shrine on top of the tiny island of Kabushima. The island is a nesting ground for black-tailed gulls (うみねこ umineko), so you can often catch the sight of thousands of gulls gathered around the shrine between March and August. The shrine completely burnt down in 2015, but has recently re-opened in March 2020.

 

Kosode Coast (小袖海岸)

  • 20-minute drive from Kuji Station (久慈駅)

Ama diver. (Image credit: 岩手県観光協会)

 

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. You can also enjoy scenic cliffs along the drive to the Kosode Coast.

 

How to ride

As meals are part of the experience, the TOHOKU EMOTION is considered a travel package, and CANNOT be ridden for free with the Japan Rail Pass, JR EAST PASS or any rail pass. It is only sold as a package comprising of:

  • Train fare
  • Reserved seat
  • Lunch course OR dessert buffet*
  • Free flow drinks (alcoholic* and non-alcoholic)

*As a COVID-19 precaution, for restaurant trains like the FruiTea Fukushima and TOHOKU EMOTION, items from the self-service or buffet area will now be brought to customers on an order basis instead.

**Alcoholic drinks are available on the outbound journey, and are subject to availability on the inbound journey. Please check with your server if you would like an alcoholic beverage on the inbound journey.

 

A package on the TOHOKU EMOTION costs around:

  • ¥7,900 for the lunch course from Hachinohe to Kuji
  • ¥4,500 for the dessert buffet from Kuji to Hachinohe
  • ¥11,900 for a round trip (Hachinohe → Kuji → Hachinohe)

There is a supplement of ¥3,000 per room for the private compartments. Unfortunately, single diners are not permitted, and reservations can only be made for two people and above.

 

The TOHOKU EMOTION usually operates four times a week on Fridays to Mondays, with one round trip per day. The outbound lunch course is around 11:05~12:56, while the inbound desserts buffet course is around 14:15~16:07.

 

Reservations can be made at JR East View Travel Service Centers around eastern Japan. Major stations like Tokyo Station, Shinjuku Station, and Ueno Station have English-speaking staff to assist with your reservation. Click here for more information on the TOHOKU EMOTION in English, or here for Japanese.

 

Getting there

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 any 5 days of your choice within a 14-day period. At only ¥19,350 when purchased overseas, it costs less than a round-trip between Tokyo and Hachinohe (~¥33,000), and the 5 days do not have to be consecutive.

 

Header image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh

 

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