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Rail Report: My railway adventure on the HIGH RAIL 1375

Rail Report: My railway adventure on the HIGH RAIL 1375

Would you like to ride on a train that runs on the highest JR line in Japan? The Koumi Line (小海線 Koumi-sen) is a train line that bears the honour of having the highest elevation in Japan, and offers spectacular views of mountains and plains. One of the best ways to enjoy the wonders of the train line is none other than the HIGH RAIL 1375, a Joyful Train that has the concept of being “a train that runs closest to the sky”!

 

The HIGH RAIL 1375 plies the Koumi Line, running between Kobuchizawa Station (小淵沢駅 Kobuchizawa-eki) in Yamanashi and Komoro Station (小諸駅 Komoro-eki) in Nagano. As the train makes its way along the line, passengers will get to enjoy stunning views of the Yatsugatake Mountain Range and the highland scenery of Nagano and Yamanashi, and as the line reaches higher in elevation, they will also feel like they are getting closer to the sky.

 

Map of HIGH RAIL 1375’s route. (Image credit: Google Maps)

 

The HIGH RAIL 1375 is one of the Joyful Trains that has been on my bucket list for some time, and I finally got the opportunity to ride it not once, but twice in a single day. Although I was already excited to be able to ride the train in the afternoon, the one I was truly looking forward to was the Hoshizora (星空), the train’s evening service that features a special stargazing tour.

 

In this article, I will share with you my firsthand experience of riding the HIGH RAIL 1375, and what I discovered on the train and along the Koumi Line. Never had I ridden a train that runs closer to the sky than this one, and for once, I got to fully enjoy wondrous views of mountains and vast plains as well as gazing at stars at night on the same train!

 

① Starting off from Sakudaira

Sakudaira Station. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

My adventure on the HIGH RAIL 1375 started from Sakudaira Station (佐久平駅) in Nagano. The station is a stop on both the Koumi Line and the Hokuriku Shinkansen (北陸新幹線), and is also the Joyful Train’s second stop after departing from Komoro Station. Since it is directly connected to the Hokuriku Shinkansen, most passengers coming from the major cities would board the HIGH RAIL 1375 from here, making for a seamless and very convenient transit.

 

Transferring to the Koumi Line at Sakudaira Station. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

I arrived at Sakudaira Station after taking the Hokuriku Shinkansen from Nagano, and I learned for myself just how easy it was to gain access to the Joyful Train from here. I had some spare time before the train’s arrival, and explored the train station a bit.

 

If there is one tip I would share with everyone, it’s to take a step out of the station’s Tateshina Entrance (蓼科口 Tateshina-guchi). You will notice that the station’s building is shaped like mountain peaks, a tribute to the many mountains found in Nagano!

 

The HIGH RAIL 1375’s arrival at Sakudaira Station. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

The HIGH RAIL 1375 arrived at the station’s Koumi Line platform at 2:44pm, and I could see it coming from afar because of its exterior’s iconic dark blue hues and shining star images. The exterior design was based on the starry night sky that passengers would get to enjoy on its evening service’s stargazing tour, and I couldn’t wait to take part in it later in the evening.

 

② Inside the train

Inside Car 1. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

The HIGH RAIL 1375 is made up of only two cars, with Car 1 featuring single, paired, and box seats, and Car 2 featuring two-by-two reclining seats. The great thing about the variety of seat configurations available is that it caters to different types of passengers on the train: whether you’re travelling alone, as a couple, or as a family or a small group, there’s a seat type suitable for everyone.

 

Seeing as how I love to travel by myself, I thought it was very welcoming to have a single seat. And not only that, but the single and paired seats were also oriented towards the large windows so I could have a full view of the outdoor scenery all to myself.

 

Souvenirs and other surprises on the HIGH RAIL 1375. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

There are plenty of surprises on the HIGH RAIL 1375. Passengers will notice many images of constellations, stars and the night sky in the train cars, from the interior walls to even the seat upholstery, staying true to the train’s central theme of the stars. What’s more, passengers can head to the end of Car 1 and check out the snacks, beverages, and limited-edition souvenirs at the sales counter too.

 

If you’re a railway enthusiast, the one thing you will notice is a stamp counter where you can get HIGH RAIL 1375’s special stamp. Fun fact: this Joyful Train is one of the only three that run within Nagano, with the other two being the Oykot and the Resort View Furusato. If you have the chance, take all three of Nagano’s Joyful Trains and complete your stamp collection for the prefecture!

 

The domed planetarium. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

Perhaps the most outstanding feature of the HIGH RAIL 1375 is the HIGH RAIL Gallery, which features a mini-astronomy library and an eye-catching domed planetarium. Fans of astronomy can read up more about the different constellations here, and even see them on the ceiling animating before their very eyes.

 

③ Wondrous scenery and warm hospitality

Amazing outdoor scenery throughout my train ride. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

As the HIGH RAIL 1375 departed from Sakudaira Station, I slowly began to witness all the stunning natural scenery that the Joyful Train is famous for. From picturesque rivers to sprawling paddy fields to stunning mountain ranges, the breathtaking scenery made me feel thankful to be on the train, and my day was also blessed with clear weather to make the views even more wondrous.

 

Train staff welcoming the passengers at Nakagomi Station. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

One of the train stations that the HIGH RAIL 1375 stops at along the Koumi Line is Nakagomi Station (中込駅), and all passengers (including myself) were in for a pleasant surprise when our train arrived here. Train staff donning happi coats designed after the Joyful Train were enthusiastically waving at us and welcoming us to the station, and the train will stop here for a few minutes so that passengers can get off and take photos with them as a memento of their trip.

 

Taking a group photo with train staff. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

Seeing the train staff warmly welcoming us at Nakagomi Station was an uplifting experience for me, and the gesture made me realise just how hospitable the locals are. It made passengers like myself grateful for riding the HIGH RAIL 1375, and it also made for an unforgettable railway travel experience. After a brief stop at Nakagomi Station, I hopped back on the train and resumed my railway adventure.

 

A brief stop at Shinano-Kawakami Station. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

My train continued its journey towards Kobuchizawa, and along the way, it made another stop at Shinano-Kawakami Station (信濃川上駅), where the passengers could get off and explore the surroundings for a few minutes before the train departed again. Fun fact: this is actually the fourth highest JR station in Japan, with an elevation of 1,138m. The Koumi Line is home to 9 of the 10 highest JR stations in Japan, and this is among the top 5.

 

Being at a train station with such a high elevation surreal feeling for me, and it really felt like I was going higher up the clear blue sky as my train was making its way along the line. Best of all, it wasn’t the “height” of my railway adventure yet; the next train station that I was about to visit was the most memorable one yet.

 

④ Welcome to Japan’s highest JR station

Nobeyama Station. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

After a short stop at Shinano-Kawakami Station, the HIGH RAIL 1375 finally reached Nobeyama Station (野辺山駅), where the train made another brief stop and passengers could get off and explore the surrounding area. At 1,345.67m, it is the highest train station on the Koumi Line, as well as the highest JR train station in Japan.

 

Finally reaching and setting foot at Nobeyama Station felt like a personal achievement for me, and it felt great to visit a unique station unlike any other that I have been to before. Like the other passengers on the train, I alighted brimming with excitement and decided to explore the station and around it.

 

Inside Nobeyama Station. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

Even before stepping out of Nobeyama Station, the station already caught my attention with some interesting features. For instance, the station had a chart of the Koumi Line and the altitudes of all the train stations on it so that visitors can see for themselves just how high the stations are along the line.

 

On the building’s ceiling, there is an image of a starry night sky that Nobeyama Station is famous for. It is also regarded by astronomers as one of the three best places for viewing stars at night, and it would be the venue for the stargazing tour taking place later that evening.

 

Delightful discoveries around Nobeyama Station. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang (left), JR East / Suzuki Kei (right))

 

The HIGH RAIL 1375 made a 10-minute stop at Nobeyama Station, and during this short time, I tried to see if I could find anything interesting around it. The one prominent discovery I made that would speak to the hearts of train enthusiasts was Ginga Park (銀河公園 Ginga-kōen), which was a 1-minute walk from the station. Here lies a C56 96 steam locomotive train, which used to ply the railway lines in Japan in the past. Retired in 1974, the train is exhibited in the middle of the park, and visitors can go and have a look at the impressive historical relic before hopping back on the Joyful Train.

 

Another discovery I made near Nobeyama Station? There is a souvenir shop named White Rabbit (ホワイトラビット) opposite the station that sells local souvenirs and other nifty gifts, and its most popular item is the soft-serve ice cream. Irresistibly creamy and light, it proved to be a must-have among all visitors to Nobeyama Station, and a pleasurable treat before hopping back on the train.

 

The highest point of JR railway tracks. (Image credit: photoAC)

 

If you are wondering why the HIGH RAIL 1375 bears the number “1375” in its name, the answer can be found between Nobeyama Station and Kiyosato Station (清里駅). Somewhere along the section lies the highest altitude among all JR railway tracks in Japan, at 1,375m (hence the name). It is marked with a wooden monument for people to see, and the train will slow down a little for passengers to catch it.

 

Here’s my tip to have a clearer view of the monument: when travelling in the direction from Nobeyama Station to Kiyosato Station, try to get a seat on the right side of the train where you will get a closer view of the monument. Also, get your cameras ready in advance, or you might miss your prized shot.

 

⑤ Pit stop at Kobuchizawa

Kobuchizawa Station. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

At around 5pm, I finally arrived at Kobuchizawa Station, the terminal station for the HIGH RAIL 1375. The station is a popular point of transit among hiking enthusiasts, since the area around the station is famous for its hiking trails, as well as among visitors based in Tokyo, as it is directly connected to Shinjuku Station (新宿駅) via the Limited Express Azusa.

 

This is where I got off the HIGH RAIL 1375 and waited for the Joyful Train’s evening service back to Sakudaira Station. I had around an hour of spare time before the departure of the evening train, so what better for me to do than to explore the station building itself!

 

Views from the station’s rooftop observation deck. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

The Koumi Line is famous for its splendid views of mountains and the Yatsugatake Plains, but guess what? You can enjoy wonderful views from Kobuchizawa Station too. Visitors can head up to the station’s rooftop observation deck, where they will be treated to a 360-degree panoramic view of the surrounding mountains. On a clear day, they can see the Southern Alps, and if they’re really lucky, they can even see the majestic Mount Fuji in the distance!

 

I was impressed by the incredible views from the deck, and although it was a slightly cloudy evening, I still got to enjoy some great scenery. A station with splendid mountain views is not something I get to do often, and it’s a great way for visitors such as myself to pass the time. As the clock hit 6:17pm, the HIGH RAIL 1375’s “Hoshizora” evening train finally departed, and I was off for the second leg of my trip on the Joyful Train.

 

⑥ In search of a starry night sky

Nobeyama Station after sundown. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

As the HIGH RAIL 1375 left Kobuchizawa Station and headed back towards the direction of Koumi Station, the sun began to set and the sky gradually turned darker, slowly revealing a view that passengers onboard were happily looking forward to. I was one of those excited passengers, and we were on our way back to Nobeyama Station for the much-anticipated stargazing tour.

 

Our guide for the evening’s star-gazing tour at Nobeyama Station. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

The name of the HIGH RAIL 1375’s evening train service is “Hoshizora” (starry sky), where the evening sky will be shimmering with stars, and what better way to appreciate the sight than to go on a stargazing tour at the same station where I alighted earlier that day. Before reaching there, passengers onboard were greeted by a gentleman who would be our guide for the tour.

 

The guide used to work for the space centre, and has been observing the stars in the sky for many years. Armed with a wealth of knowledge of astronomy, he explained to everyone on the train the different seasonal constellations and regaled them with stories of the stars in the sky.

 

Making our way to the gymnasium. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

When the train reached Nobeyama Station, the evening sky was still a tad bright to fully see the stars, so our guide led us to the local gymnasium to view a special video. Made from clips captured and compiled by the guide himself, the video featured time-lapse videos of the evening sky at Nobeyama, with brilliant colours changing according to different seasons, and brilliant stars spreading across it and beyond the horizon.

 

It was incredible to see how the guide captured so many images of the stars and the sky that seemed so surreal and out-of-this-world. From his shots alone, I could see his sheer passion and patience in filming over the course of years, and his enthusiasm for sharing his love for astronomy with his guests.

 

Looking for stars around Nobeyama Station. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

By the time we left the gymnasium, the sky had darkened further, and everyone began to look up and check for stars in the sky. Unfortunately, the weather got even cloudier that evening than in the daytime, so visible stars were very few. Plus, given the time of the year that we were there, the sky was still relatively bright, so it was harder to spot them.

 

Given how the stargazing tour was the highlight of my whole trip on the HIGH RAIL 1375, I will admit that I was a little disappointed that I couldn’t see as many stars as I had hoped for. Nevertheless, I did get to see some, and the crescent moon was also shining brightly which made my day (or night, in this case).

 

The guide explained that it is usually harder to see the stars during warmer months because of more clouds in the sky, and that the best time for stargazing is often during winter when the air is cooler and thus less chance of cloudy weather.

 

Hopping back on the HIGH RAIL 1375. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

After spending around 50 minutes at Nobeyama Station, the passengers and I hopped back on the HIGH RAIL 1375 and headed our way back towards Komoro Station. I got off the train at Sakudaira Station and caught my connecting train on the Hokuriku Shinkansen for my trip back to Nagano where I was based at for the night.

 

My ekiben dinner for the evening. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

Last but certainly not least, I wrapped up my day with dinner onboard the HIGH RAIL 1375, and when it comes to meals on the train in Japan, what better way for me to do so than with ekiben (駅弁 railway lunchbox)! Bought at Kobuchizawa Station, my ekiben included fresh vegetables harvested from Yamanashi’s plateaus and generous portions of chicken cutlets. Perhaps needless to say, it was scrumptious and fulfilling, making for a perfect end to my ride on the train.

 

My last tip for this article: if you plan to have ekiben on the “Hoshizora” evening train, get it as soon as possible once you arrive at Kobuchizawa Station. The station is popular as a landing point for visitors, and many would buy ekiben at this station too. Most ekiben would be sold out, especially in the evening, so get yours whenever you can.

 

Closing

Giving my thumbs up for the HIGH RAIL 1375. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

I had a great opportunity of riding the HIGH RAIL 1375 twice in one day, for the afternoon train and the “Hoshizora” evening train. With the afternoon train, I got to witness some of Nagano and Yamanashi’s magnificent mountain and highland views, and I was also lucky to have had favourable weather during that time. For the evening train, it was an entirely different experience, where I got to see some stars in the sky and learn more about constellations thanks to a friendly guide.

 

The HIGH RAIL 1375 opened my eyes and made me realise how splendorous it is to have mountains and vast plains as outdoor scenery while riding a train. Personally, I hardly look out the window whenever I’m riding a train in Singapore. But looking out the window is one of the best things about railway travel in Japan, and Joyful Trains such as this made my railway trip one filled with “joy”.

 

See you again soon, HIGH RAIL 1375. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

Do I want to ride the HIGH RAIL 1375 again? I sure do! Travelling on a railway line that boasts some of the high altitudes in Japan was a momentous occasion for me, and I would never want to pass on another opportunity to do it again. In particular, maybe next time I would love to ride it in winter when the evening sky would be clearer, and I would have a higher chance to see more stars. In the meantime, perhaps you can have your chance at riding the Joyful Train and reach for the stars yourself.

 

JR East rail passes

The JR TOKYO Wide Pass (left), the JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area) (top-right), and the JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area) (bottom-right). (Image credit: JR East)

 

If you want to ride the HIGH RAIL 1375, as well as travel to other destinations in Eastern Japan, then check out the different JR East rail passes that you can use for your travelling needs. Have a look at the passes below for more details

 

 

The passes above offer unlimited rail travel on JR East lines (including bullet trains and selected limited express trains) in their respective valid areas, and they can be used to ride the HIGH RAIL 1375 as well as other Joyful Trains for free. They can also be used at automatic ticket gates, and to make seat reservations up to 1 month in advance.

 

Header image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang, illustAC

 

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