On track to success
Japan’s newest and most luxurious train
Sitting beneath a contemporary chandelier, I sip a glass of chilled white Japanese wine as a bowing waitress places before me an artful composition of delicate sea eel with strips of cucumber and a scattering of rainbowbright flowers. I am not at one of Tokyo’s high-end restaurants but rolling through sunlit countryside on board Japan’s newest and most luxurious technological creation, the Train Suite Shiki-shima.
The 10-car sleeper train is an exercise in luxury travel on wheels, from its champagne-gold exterior, opulent suites and Michelin-starred chefs to uniformed butlers and futuristic observation cars. The JR East-operated train — the name means Island of Four Seasons — carries up to 34 passengers on journeys of one, two or three nights from Tokyo across the northern Tohoku region (the worst-hit area in the 2011 earthquake and tsunami) as well as the northernmost island of Hokkaido.
In addition to a luxury interior to rival a top five-star hotel — created by Ken Kiyoyuki Okuyama, a designer famed for his work with Porsche, Ferrari and several of the bullet trains — Shiki-shima showcases cutting-edge rail technology, with an ultra-modern motor that can be used both on diesel engine and electric train lines. Perhaps the only thing Shiki-shima isn’t about is speed as it travels up to a modest 110 km/h, almost three times slower than the nation’s fastest bullet train. Despite the hefty price-tag, there is clearly a market for such luxury and it is already sold out until early next year. Shiki-shima’s instant popularity confirms Japan’s growing trend for slow but luxurious rail travel, an apparent reflection of its rapidly ageing population and the growing value of the deeppocketed “silver market”.
The train joins the ranks of the opulent Seven Stars, which has operated across southern Kyushu since 2013. The new Twilight Express Mizukaze, a 10-car deluxe sleeper train covering western Japan, launches in June.
If the exterior of Train Suite Shiki-shima is undeniably futuristic, the inside, punctuated with geometric patterns of cut-out windows, is an elegant mix of contemporary Japanese design and artisan craftsmanship. The forest-inspired lounge has curved gold-metal “branches” lining its walls, a black piano (guests can make musical requests in advance), a modern glass fireplace (using steam for safety) and herringbone parquet wood flooring. Narrow corridors leading to the 17 sleeper suites display Japan’s artisan heritage, with lacquerware latticework in the form of traditional flowers and doors
The luxury Train Suite Shiki-shima, above; its dining car, above right