On track to suc­cess

Ja­pan’s new­est and most lux­u­ri­ous train

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - DESTINATION ASIA - DANIELLE DEMETRIOU

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

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