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Japan to unveil luxurious sleeper trains
Publication Date : 17-12-2013
A new luxurious and leisurely sleeper train service operating in the southern Japanese island of Kyushu looks set to become the latest travel icon in Japan, a country known for its high-speed trains.
Operated by railway company JR Kyushu, the eight-car "Seven Stars in Kyushu" service offers its passengers not only the opportunity of viewing the scenic countryside, a luxury they do not have on bullet trains, but also well-appointed suites and menus drawn up by restaurants boasting two Michelin stars.
This slow train service has a top speed of 100kmh in the daytime and 50kmh during sleeping hours to reduce vibrations. It has come as Japan, which for the past 50 years focused on developing a safe high-speed rail system for transporting people from place to place in the shortest possible time, is planning new services of even higher speeds.
The first Shinkansen bullet trains connected Tokyo with Osaka and now cover large parts of the country from north to south, running at speeds of up to 320kmh.
Next in the pipeline is an ultra-rapid maglev train service linking Tokyo's Shinagawa Station and Nagoya. Expected to debut in 2027, it can make the 286km trip in 40 minutes, down from the 134 minutes now by Shinkansen using a different and longer 360km route.
Passengers on the maglev train, travelling at over 500kmh and running mostly through mountains and under concrete sound barriers, cannot expect to see much of the countryside flashing by.
As for the overnight sleeper trains of old, once popular among businessmen and train buffs, they have become all but extinct against stiff competition from high-speed trains and airliners.
But passengers have given top marks to the new luxurious service which is targeted primarily at the over-50s, who have both the money and time to spare.
The service kicked off in mid-October from Hakata Station in Fukuoka city, carrying a grand total of 28 passengers on board occupying 14 suites.
The privilege of taking a three-night, four-day tour around Kyushu on board the Seven Stars costs between 380,000 yen (US$3,687) and 550,000 yen (US$5,336) per person.
There is an alternative one-night, two-day tour that costs about half the price and which takes a different route.
Housewife Yukiko Hirogori, 69, who was travelling with her husband, told the Yomiuri Shimbun daily: "All the passengers and staff were very friendly. I wish I didn't have to get off at the end."
There is a special observation car and also a lounge with a bar counter. Walnut is extensively used for wall panelling.
In the dining car, where passengers are expected to dress up, menus are put together by restaurants boasting two Michelin stars or by some of Japan's most respected "ryokan" (traditional inns). Sushi is freshly prepared by chefs right in front of the guests.
In keeping with the aim of highlighting Kyushu's traditional arts and crafts, the crockery used on board is made in the island's Saga prefecture, which is famous even overseas for its porcelain ware.
For entertainment in the evening, there are live performances by a pianist and a violinist.
Passengers who wish to attempt a little quickstep or foxtrot will find the staff members more than willing partners.
As is the case for similar deluxe train tours in Europe and elsewhere, passengers are taken on tours of local attractions at selected stops.
There were some teething problems. Some passengers complained that there was too much food or that tour schedules at each stop were too tight.
But do not think of rushing out to get a ticket for next week, or even next month. The Seven Stars services are fully booked until June.
However, JR Kyushu plans to actively promote the luxury tours in and outside Japan in the hope that, in two to three years' time, half of the passengers will come from abroad. Demand is expected to be high due to the huge increase in foreign tourists to Kyushu in recent years.
Avid traveller Takuro Ito, 35, wants to get on the Seven Stars tour.
"The attraction of rail travel is that one can enjoy the changing scenery, there are no air pressure changes and there is peace of mind. I also want to see how the plush decor makes the ride more pleasant," the research scientist said.
Despite its recent start, the Seven Stars service is so successful that it has spurred other operators to give the idea some thought.
JR East, which operates train services in the Tokyo area and northern Japan, and JR West, which covers Osaka and the areas west of it, plan to launch similar tours in a few years' time with themes varying according to the seasons.
Still, Japan is a latecomer in luxury rail travel.
Besides Europe, luxury trains are these days also to be found in India and South Korea.
The Eastern & Oriental Express, another well-known luxury service, links Singapore and Bangkok.