by Danielle Demetriou, The Telegraph, Apirl 28, 2017
Sitting beneath a contemporary chandelier, I sipped a glass of chilled white Japanese wine as a bowing waitress placed a dish before me – an artful composition of delicate sea eel with strips of cucumber and a scattering of rainbow-bright flowers. No, I was not sitting in one of Tokyo’s countless high-end restaurants . Instead, I was rolling through sunlit countryside while sitting on board Japan’s newest and most luxurious technological creation: Train Suite Shiki-shima.
The new 10-car sleeper train, which embarks on its inaugural voyage on Monday, is an exercise in luxury travel on wheels: from its champagne-gold exterior, opulent suites, Michelin-starred chefs and uniformed butlers to its futuristic observation cars, lacquerware latticework and, in one suite, an aromatic cypress wood bath. The JR East-operated train – whose name means “Island of Four Seasons” – will carry up to 34 passengers a time from Tokyo across the northern Tohoku region (the worst-hit area in the 2011 earthquake and tsunami) as well as the northernmost island Hokkaido, for trips of between one and three nights’ duration.
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 bullet trains – Shiki-shima also 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: it travels up to a modest 110 kph – nearly three times slower than the 320 kph top speed of the nation’s fastest bullet train. Despite the hefty price-tag for travelling on the train (from £2,242/ Y320,500 per person), there is clearly a market for such a luxury: it is already sold out until March 2018. Shiki-shima’s 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 deep-pocketed “silver market”. The new train joins the ranks of the opulent Seven Stars train which has operated across southern Kyushu since 2013. Meanwhile, the new Twilight Express Mizukaze, a 10-car deluxe sleeper train covering western Japan, launches in June.
As a Tokyo resident, I was fortunate to be the first non-Japanese journalist invited to travel on board the train before its launch and my experience began at a sleek contemporary lounge called Prologue Shiki-shima – where pre-trip green tea and traditional higashi sweets are served – in an unusually quiet corner of Tokyo’s salaryman-filled Ueno station. After passing through a grandiose gate at the entrance of Platform 13.5 (with one member of staff exclaiming: “It’s just like Harry Potter!”), I walked along a red carpet before being greeted by bowing staff in tailored taupe suites as I stepped into the Lounge car.
If the exterior of the train is undeniably futuristic, the inside, punctuated by 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 the interior 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 showcase Japan’s artisan heritage, with lacquerware latticework in the form of traditional flowers and doors covered with interwoven strips of leather-like brown metal.
My temporary home was suite 903, an elegant space filled with a patchwork of contrasting wood panelling, grey fabric chairs (which turn into luxury beds after dark), paper washi-style lanterns and a power-shower bathroom. The two top suites – found in Car 7 – have window-side Japanese-style baths made of hinoki cypress wood, cotton kimono-style gowns, split-level living spaces with tatami mat flooring, fresh flower arrangements and a pair of custom-made Swarovski binoculars.
Food is another highlight. The elegant restaurant car – complete with half-moon shaped tables, artisan lacquerware and customdesigned cutlery – is home to a French-inspired menu using seasonal ingredients from along the train route as devised by Katsuhiro Nakamura, the first Japanese chef to receive a Michelin star.
My personal favourite spot? The two observatory cars at either end of the train: these are approached by first walking through a dramatically scarlet-red corridor (with a glass door showcasing the engine). This gives way to a sun-flooded raised seating area with curved walls, futuristic cut-out windows, white leather seating and a grass-like green carpet (designed by architect Kengo Kuma), plus a view of the white-gloved driver and conductor through a clear partition. It’s the icing on the cake on a train that’s as luxurious as it is relaxingly slow-moving. As I sat soaking up views of the passing landscape, I was joined by Tasuku Hiramatsu, a deputy manager at JR East, who explained: “The designer wanted to create something totally new for trains that does not exist anywhere else in the world. That was the basis for this concept. The exterior is futuristic, the interior is Japan.
Train Suite Shiki-shima offers one-, two- and three- night trips across northern Japan, costing from £2,242 (Y320,500) to £6,658 (Y952,000) per person, full board. The train is booked until March next year. Reservations for April 2018 will open in mid-May. For bookings and further information, visit jreast.co.jp/shiki-shima/en/