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A Ride on Japan's Most Opulent Train


Ensconced aboard a luxury train in Kyushu, DUNCAN FORGAN discovers the forces of nature—and modern engineering—that make the volcanic, charismatic Japanese island shine so bright. Photographed by AARON JOEL SANTOS.

Published on Dec 9, 2016

 

It is an average and orderly Saturday morning at Hakata Station in Fukuoka. Clutching their expertly packaged bento boxes, travelers form civilized lines at designated queuing spots as trains arrive and depart with millisecond-perfect precision. Amid this tableau of politesse, however, something out of the ordinary is about to happen.

Seven Stars
Aboard the Seven Stars luxury train.

As a guest on the Seven Stars in Kyushu—Japan's first (and so far only) luxury sleeper train—I had spent the 15 minutes since boarding exploring the plush interiors of one of the world's most expensive iron horses. So preoccupied had I been with the wall hangings, paper-panel windows and handcrafted furniture in my state-of-the art cabin, I hadn't noticed that our imminent departure had attracted a whooping mass of onlookers to the previously moribund platform.

As we rolled out of the station to a wall of sound created by flag-waving fans, the adulation displayed at every stop gave me a taste of the uplifting and seemingly random nature of Japanese fanaticism. I felt like a rock star. But all that love had turned out not for a passenger but for the train itself, a ¥3-billion baby born out of a desire to promote Kyushu.

The southernmost of Japan's main islands, Kyushu is one of the country's most holistically appealing areas. Active volcanoes, such as mighty Mount Aso, pour down to rocky, lush coastlines, while steaming onsen punctuate the landscape over almost every mossy hillock. Attractive cities such as Fukuoka and Nagasaki provide a cosmopolitan urban edge.

Mount Aso
Misty mountains near Mount Aso.

Despite these wonders, Kyushu traditionally has lagged behind other areas in Japan on the tourism front. What was required—decreed Koji Karaike, president of JR Kyushu Railway Company—was a dramatic statement, a sightseeing train that would surpass its high-end peers like the Eastern & Oriental Express and Australia's Great Southern Rail.

With thoroughness as doggedly Japanese as droves arriving like clockwork to wave at total strangers on a train, the company threw everything at the project, which takes its name from Kyushu's seven prefectures. The result toots its own horn in impressive fashion: There's handcrafted woodwork and delicate artwork throughout. There are musicians, magicians and onboard staff who spent up to a year in prelaunch training. Ceramic sinks were inspired by Satsuma porcelain; blinds are made from bamboo, while shoji (Japanese paper screens) add delicateness everywhere. According to Simon Metcalfe—an amiable Kiwi working for JR Kyushu—the train's desiner Mitooka, drove his team around the bend with details such as irregular-sized windows to make each carriage unique.

Musicians in the dinig car
Musicians in the dining car.

After so much love (and money) was poured into the train—and I haven't even told you about the multicourse meals, private-label booze and knee-weakening views—it is easy to get a little smitten.

 

As we alight at Nagasaki Station on the first afternoon aboard, I am introduced to Tashiro Kunihiro. Over the course of the journey, I will get to know him even better. A Seven Stars superfan, he follows the train on every one of its journeys, driving around Kyushu to ensure he is waiting on the platform wherever the train arrives.

"I have a girlfriend, honest," he laughs at the first stop—a fact I begin to question by our fifth encounter. "I am just proud to be from Kyushu and the sight of the Seven Stars makes me enormously happy."

Although liberally bedecked in Seven Stars paraphernalia, Tashiro has never been on the train. At a cost of at least US$1,500 per person per night, the Seven Stars experience is out of reach for all but the wealthiest of travelers. "I hope that one day I will be able to at least see inside the train," he says. As I bid farewell for now (we'll see him again in a few hours), he calls after me with a hint of despair in his voice: "I'm very jealous of you."

Seven Stars
A stylish train agent.

He's not the only one. So extraordinary has demand been for the 14 rooms on the train that JR Kyushu operates an application process for places, conducting a lottery to choose the lucky travelers. In its most recent draw, Metcalfe says, the company received as many as 40 applications for each room from Japanese residents and three more for each room from hopeful overseas guests.

My previous rail-trip experience was a 55-hour slog across the Indian subcontinent. This time I'm sporting a blazer—required evening wear for gentlemen according to the train's dress code—and the shower in my suite is kitted out with paneling of aromatic hinoki cypress wood and a basket of specially branded toiletries. Quite the upgrade.

My first objective is to reach the observation car and claim a well-deserved sundowner. I lurch along the narrow corridor—mastery of walking on a moving train is not easy—passing the doors of other sleeper berths as well as the more spacious deluxe suites, through the dining car, before finally making it to the Blue Moon bar and its full-sized viewing window. It's the ideal place to watch the passing scenery, with a glass or two of special Seven Stars shochu from Kagoshima Prefecture in hand.

Sunrise in Nagasaki.
Sunrise in Nagasaki

Penciled in for a late dinner seating, I have plenty of time to stumble back to my cabin to freshen up and make myself presentable. While the corridor can be tricky, the wider dimensions of the room are less disorienting. It is not exactly expansive—this is a train after all—but there's plenty of space to spruce up and recline in one of the two comfortable lounge chairs provided. Even with the addition of a jacket and some new brogues, I feel like a scruff compared to my fellow travelers. The tuxedos and ball gowns on show hold with the train's glamorous persona.

The food is worth getting dressed up for. I am amazed by the creations prepared by executive chef Tamio Kunisaki and his team from their tiny galley. Throughout a five-course French dinner and two equally proportioned Japanese lunches, dishes utilize the best of Kyushu produce and include treats such as organic chicken from Saga Prefecture grilled with salt, roast Nagasaki beef tenderloin and red sea bream cured with seasoned kelp.

Seven Stars
A pork-and-mushroom dish aboard the train.

The companionship is equally convivial. This is a sociable train and I meet a broad cross section of travelers. As Teemu, a Finnish veteran of other great rail routes such as the Trans-Siberian Express in Russia and The Ghan in Australia, tells me: "Travel today is all about rushing from point to point, airport to airport. Something like this allows you to take things slower and ease into the journey."

It is a mantra I grow to appreciate in the days ahead. Although the relatively bijou nature of the Seven Stars' two scheduled routes—a four-day trip and a two-day outing—mean it is some way shy of the world's most epic rail adventures, the journeys traverse some of the island's most seductive landscapes. Traveling from Fukuoka, we veer west along a gorgeous coastal route to the historically compelling port of Nagasaki. The trip also takes in Mount Aso, and the northeastern pastoral countryside up to the hot-spring resort of Yufuin.

Yufuin
Visiting a small shrine in the woods in Yufuin.

The land- and seascapes in Kyushu are incredibly generous and I find myself swooning like a fanboy at various points over the course of the trip. For me, the most affecting moment comes early on the second day as the train departs from Aso Station. Pretty rice fields and woodlands hued with autumnal shades dominate the foreground while the mighty volcano huffs out pillows of smoke in the distance. It's a cinematic scene in keeping with the widescreen appeal of the Seven Stars experience.

The train stops for three excursions (and Tashiro-san is there at each one). There's a visit to a famous porcelain kiln at Arita, which makes the exquisite ceramics on show aboard the Seven Stars. There's also an early morning drive to a viewing point on Mount Aso, and a stop in the pretty but tourist-heavy town of Yufuin. We decide to detour from the main streets of the onsen resort, thronged as they are with visitors filling up on the town's famed sweet-cream roll cake. The reward is a bracing stroll of side alleys plying a course along bubbling streams and through emerald paddies with vistas opening out to the twin peaks of Mount Yufu. If there's anything we'd change it would be to have more free time.

A view from Seven Stars
A view from the Seven Stars.

In fact, the excursions, none of which offer deep cultural immersion, feel designed for elderly travelers. But it matters little compared to the appealing rhythm of the ride, which is really why we are here: I spend my days in my cabin either catching up on some reading or dozing off, as if lulled into slumber by the sleepy villages the train passes through as Kyushu's prefectures merge into one another.

As the curtain comes down on our voyage, I end up at the main bar, where the resident piano and violin duo is mugging away on everything from Cole Porter standards to a baroque version of "Blitzkrieg Bop" by The Ramones. The atmosphere in the car is rambunctious but tinged with melancholy. The next day, we will have gone our separate ways. For now, the music is playing and the Japanese single malts are flowing. It is time to pump up the volume on this rock star train.

 

   THE DETAILS

 

 

Kyushu

GETTING THERE
Applications opens for rooms on the Seven Stars in Kyushu departures between March - September 2017. Cathay Pacific, Singapore Airlines and Thai Airways fly to Fukuoka Airport directly from their hubs. From the airport, ride six minutes on a Kuko Line train to Hakata Station (subway.city.fukuoka.lg.jp/eng; ¥260).

JOURNEYS
4 Days, 3 Nights round-trip journey travels from Fukuoka to Oita, Miyazaki, Kagoshima and Kumamoto, and includes a night at a ryokan in Kirishima hot-spring resort town, from ¥1,060,000 for two people sharing a suite, and from ¥1,600,000 for two people sharing a Deluxe suite.

2 Days, 1 Night round-trip northern Kyushu journey travels from Fukuoka to Saga, Nagasaki, Kumamoto and Oita, and includes visits to Arita’s porcelain kiln, the picturesque Mount Aso and Yufuin. From ¥500,000 for two people sharing a suite, and from ¥720,000 for two people sharing a Deluxe suite.

 

 

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A train conductor on the Seven Stars.
  • A view from the Seven Stars.
  • Traditional Japanese robes at Dazaifu Shrine.
  • Origami cranes, a symbol of peace, decorate an altar near the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum.
  • At the abandoned Hashima island, off the coast of Nagasaki.
  • Passengers strike a pose near Nagasaki.
  • A young fan of luxury trains.
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