Those who love the relaxation, elegance and allure of train journeys, complete with dining cars offering fine meals, have had to sadly witness the decline of Japan’s “Blue Trains.” Those bygone trains, named for the color of the cars, featured overnight journeys with dining and sleeping available and offered travelers the romance associated with a more nostalgic time. However, the spread of shinkansen bullet trains and the increasing numbers of regional airports hastened the elimination of these experiences. Sadly, today only luxury tourist trains such as the “Seven Stars in Kyushu” and scant few other overnight express trains remain available. That said, there are several local railway companies that are working to change that.
52 Seats of Happiness
Seibu Railways launched the most noticeable dining train last year when they introduced “52 Seats of Happiness,” a restaurant train that brings back the train dining experience.
The four-car train, which runs between Tokyo and Chichibu in Saitama Prefecture, has been completely remodeled by renowned designer and architect Kengo Kuma, who was selected to design the new national stadium for the upcoming 2020 Olympics. Kuma used the terrain through which the train passes as the inspiration for the exterior of the cars, which are finished in light blue with a landscape motif. As the name implies there are just 52 seats in total spread between car two and car four that Kuma finished in wood and earth tones, creating a calm and elegant atmosphere. The interior of the dining cars uniquely mirrors the landscape sliding past the windows. Locally sourced wood was used in the wall paneling, while Chichibu Meisen silk was used for the partitions between cars. The third car of the train houses an open kitchen where guests can watch the skilled chefs create the gourmet dishes served on the train, while the first car is an observation car.
Seibu offers both brunch and dinner set courses, with brunch featuring an appetizer, soup, salad, main and dessert buffet, while dinner adds a pasta course and prepared dessert. Produce from the Chichibu area is prominently featured in the dishes and the food is well complemented by whiskey brewed in Chichibu. Soft drinks are included in the price and a variety of beer, red, white and sparkling wines, sake, sours and whiskey is reasonably priced.
Japan is known for its quality of customer service and “52 Seats of Happiness” is no exception with professional servers working in a staff-to-guest ratio that most restaurants can only dream of. Attentive, smiling and ready with explanations of every item on the menu, they only add to the refined atmosphere of the journey.
The menus change every three months and brunch is priced at ¥10,000 per person, while dinner is ¥15,000 per person. The prices include the train fare, as well as a one-day pass on the Seibu Line. The train only runs on weekends and holidays and reservations for the next quarter open up early in the third month of the preceding quarter, selling out extremely quickly, making planning well in advance necessary. The brunch trains run from Ikebukuro and Seibu-Shinjuku stations, departing at about 10:45 a.m. and arriving at Seibu-Chichibu Station just before 2:00 p.m. Dinner trains depart Seibu-Chichibu Station at about 5:40 p.m. and arrive in Ikebukuro a few minutes past 8:00 p.m. Reservations can be made on the train’s website (https://www.seiburailway.jp/railways/seibu52-shifuku//) and English guidance is available on the page. Brunch is ¥10,000 per person, while dinner is ¥20,000 and both include a one-day free pass on the line.
For those who long for the days of dining trains or anyone simply looking for a unique culinary treat, Seibu’s “52 Seats of Happiness” offers an unforgettable experience. This sentimental journey is highly recommended. Sit back, relax and enjoy the fine service, the delicious cuisine and the beautiful scenery of Saitama Prefecture.
Running along Chiba Prefecture’s Boso Peninsula, Isumi Railway’s Restaurant Kiha 28, or Moomin train, guests can enjoy seafood cuisine prepared by the chef of the Kujukuri Villa Sotobou. Made using fresh local seafood such as Ise shrimp, abalone and turban shell, Italian, sashimi and other courses are available. Depending on which train is chosen, diners may have a choice of both lunch and cafe menus, as well as Western and Japanese sweets. Please check the website for details of the plans. Prices vary, with the Ise shrimp and sushi plan is priced at ¥30,000 for two, and other courses are available. Please see website for details (http://www.isumirail.co.jp/restaurant). Reservations can be made through JTB by 3 p.m. three days in advance (http://www.jtb.co.jp/).
Rokumon Shinano Railway
Rokumon is a sightseeing train introduced by Shinano Railway, that runs from Karuizawa to Nagano. Its dining cars offer riders a chance to experience the richness of locally grown food from around the Shinshu mountains. Seasonal ingredients that offer the perfect “in the moment” taste include plateau vegetables harvested in the morning and juicy seasonal fruit. Diners can enjoy Western-style courses in Rokumon No.1 and Japanese Kaiseki courses in Rokumon No.2. For reservations, contact the Rokumon Reservation Center at 0268-29-0069. For details, please visit http://www.shinanorailway.co.jp/rokumon_en/about.
Niigata’s Koshino Shu*Kura train was introduced under the concept of introducing local Japanese sake of Niigata. Running from Joetsumyoko to Tokamachi/ Echigoyuzawa/Niigata, the elegant and chic train is finished in bluish black and white tones. The cars have box seats, observation pair seats, relaxing pair seats where diners can enjoy the original seasonal menu including gomoku chirashi sushi, shrimp pate with pickled wasabi and local Japanese sake as a welcome drink. Tickets are available at JR East Travel Service Centers at Tokyo, Shinjuku and other stations, as well as at View Plaza Travel Service Centers. For more information, please visit http://www.jreast.co.jp/e/joyful/shukura.html?src=gnavi.
The Tohoku Emotion runs on the Hachinohe line along the Sanriku coast between Aomori and Iwate boasts a show kitchen. While enjoying views of the beautiful coastal vistas diners can enjoy delicious creations made using local ingredients such as sea urchin, abalone, squid, wild grapes and Shiitake mushrooms. The menu changes four times a year and caters for lunch on the outbound route and dessert and afternoon on the inbound leg. The train car is decorated just like a restaurant with a cozy atmosphere that offers a relaxing trip against a beautiful ocean vista. Tickets are available at JR East Travel Service Centers at Tokyo, Shinjuku and other stations, as well as at View Plaza Travel Service Centers. For more details, please visit http://www.jreast.co.jp/e/joyful/tohoku.html.
Akechi railway, a local train running for about 25 km from Akechi Station in Aichi to Ena Station in Gifu. Diners can enjoy rural scenery from the train windows while enjoying their meal. The dishes use local ingredients and the menu changes with the season. There are several dining cars such as the Kanten Car offering a healthy course using Kanten (agar), a car featuring mushrooms and a Japanese yams car. A bento full of local ingredients from the roadside station “Oba-chan ichi (Grandma’s market) Yamaoka” is very popular as well. The train runs from April to September, Tuesday through Sunday and on holiday Mondays. Round trip tickets are available for ¥5,000 and the train can accommodate 30 people. Reservations should be made at least a week in advance by calling 0573-54-4101 (9am-5pm). For more information, please visit http://www.aketetsu.co.jp.
Nagara, a sightseeing train running between Mino Ota Station and Hokuno Station in Gifu boasts both observation cars and dining cars with a stately air in bright red livery. Designed by Eiji Mitooka, the designer who created the luxury sleeper train “Nanatsuboshi” in Kyushu, the train offers both lunch plans and sweets plans. The train has different menus for both outbound and inbound routes, carefully prepared by the chef from “City Hotel Minokamo” on the outbound route from Mino Ota, and by the chef from a Italian restaurant “Resorante Suzumenoiori” on the inbound route from Gujo Hachian. The sweets plan is only available from Gujo Hachiman and offers guests a dessert plate featuring nine kinds of items. The lunch train leaves Mino Ota station at 10:45 and arrives at Gujo Hachiman at 12:16 and is available for ¥12000 for adults and ¥10650 for children. Reservations can be made from the first day of the second month before travel and are available until 14 days before by calling 0575-46-8021. More information can be found at http://www.nagatetsu.co.jp.
Toreiyu Tsubasa, a luxury Shinkansen running from Fukushima Station in Fukushima Prefecture to Shinjyo Station in Yamagata Prefecture. You can enjoy good food, as well as a footbath on the train. The interior features reserved tatami mat seating, a bar counter stocked with locally brewed Yamagata sake, wine and juice and footbaths for relaxing while enjoying the scenery. You can enjoy the original lunch boxes made from local ingredients such as Yamagata beef cutlets and an eggplant and mustard sandwich, safflower paella with grilled vegetables and rice with grilled Yonezawa carp. Tickets are available at JR East Travel Service Centers at Tokyo, Shinjuku and other stations, as well as at View Plaza Travel Service Centers. For more details, please visit http://www.jreast.co.jp/e/joyful/toreiyu.html.
Izu Craile is a resort train running on the Ito Line that debuted on July 16. 2016. Diners can enjoy the food and drinks using ingredients from Izu while enjoying the beautiful natural scenery of Izu. The exterior of the train was designed to incorporate a softer and more feminine looks based on the modern Japanese image. The train is very convenient and easy to access from Tokyo. Tickets are available at JR East Travel Service Centers at Tokyo, Shinjuku and other stations, as well as at View Plaza Travel Service Centers.
By James Souilliere
From WINING & DINING in TOKYO #51