Japanese trains have long been known for their speed and efficiency. Now, if the East Japan Railway Company has its way, luxurious may soon be added to the list with the May 1 debut of its Train Suite Shiki-shima. Designed by famed industrial designer Ken Okuyama and inspired by the popularity of the Seven Stars Cruise Train that began service in 2013, the super exclusive Shiki-shima train offers passengers traveling from Tokyo's Ueno station to eastern areas on the main island of Honshu a cruise ship-like experience on rails.
The 10-car train can accommodate no more than 34 passengers per trip, with 15 suites in five regular sleeper cars, and two suites in a deluxe sleeper. All suites come with their own private dining area and two twin beds. Besides a dining car and lounge car, the two domed observation cars at both ends are a highlight of the feature-rich train, with large windows along the walls and roof and sofas that run the length of the car for passengers to relax and take in the mountain or coastal scenery. To that end, the company is offering trips of two to four days that emphasize seasonal landscapes and events, with sightseeing stops by bus along the way.
In using top-of-the-line materials and hiring top designers such as Okuyama, the company seems to have spared little expense, paying great attention to even the smallest details, from uniforms to cutlery. While the Seven Stars Cruise Train has a classic Orient Express look, room interiors of Shiki-shima have a decidedly modern Japanese design, using traditional wood materials, Japanese washi paper and Japanese lacquer. The lounge car features sofas made with traditional bentwood – a technique of bending wood with steam – and hand-crafted carpets from Japan's Oriental Carpet Mills.
The design of the train incorporates artistic elements of eastern Japanese culture, found particularly in the lounge car with its wall panels and windows designed in a forest motif, while suite rooms feature tatami mats and cypress bathtubs that give off a natural fragrance. Unsurprisingly, the dining experience is also top shelf. French-trained Chef Katsuhiro Nakamura, the first Japanese chef to receive a Michelin star, cooks with ingredients collected from stops along the train's route, and diners eat with nickel silver cutlery made by Yamazaki Kinzoku Kogyo, whose creations have been used at Nobel Prize award banquets.
The cost of a trip on Shiki-shima starts at ¥320,000 (US$2,850) per person when sharing a room, and goes up to ¥950,000 (US$8,450) per person sharing the deluxe suite. Demand for the inaugural trip was such that passengers were chosen by lottery, while subsequent trips on Shiki-shima are already booked through March 2018. Luxury train travel seems to be catching on in Japan, with the West Japan Railway Company, based out of Osaka, to begin its Twilight Express Mizukaze cruise train service in June.