Enjoying the World of Japanese Railways

Japan’s railways are reputed to be the world’s safest and most punctual. Travel by rail is an essential component to any trip in Japan. But going by rail isn’t simply safe and convenient; many of the trains and stations in the rail network have unique features too. Take a trip by rail and enjoy the pleasures of train travel to the full!

Cassiopeia luxury sleeper

The popular Cassiopeia sleeper, which has earned the nickname of “a hotel on rails,” covers the 1,214 km distance between Tokyo’s JR Ueno Station and Sapporo in Hokkaido in 17 hours. All accommodations are in two-person private compartments equipped with washroom and toilet; some compartments also have showers. The Cassiopeia Suite, the only one on the train, features a wide three-paned window for panoramic views. This suite is highly popular, so early reservation is advised.

Passengers boarding the train are greeted by an attendant bringing a welcome drink. As the train pulls out of the station, passengers can enjoy sunset views from their compartments until dinner time. The rear of the train contains a lounge with sofas for relaxing.

The two-story dining car offers a great vantage point for viewing the passing scene. For dinner, passengers have a choice of kaiseki traditional Japanese-style cuisine or French cuisine; the deluxe fare is a great accompaniment to the countryside rolling by. After the dinner hour, the dining car becomes a pub where passengers can linger over drinks and enjoy the night sights of northern Tohoku.

By the next morning, the train has reached the wide-open spaces of Hokkaido. A vast landscape of farmlands and fields unfolds past the windows, and the scenery becomes more urban and modern as the train glides into Sapporo, the end of the journey.

Rolling along a scenic route—Resort Shirakami

For pure enjoyment of the passing scenery, the Resort Shirakami train, traveling between Akita and Aomori on the JR Gono Line, is highly recommended. This very popular line runs through the Shirakami Range, a World Heritage nature site. The train is equipped with reclining seats and an observation lounge; some compartments have seats that pull out to create a large flat space. This train features extra-large windows at all seats, ensuring that everyone can fully enjoy the scenery.

Once the train leaves Akita Station, the ocean comes into view; the train slows down as it goes past notable scenic spots, to allow passengers a leisurely look. Further along the line is Juniko Station, the closest station for the ponds and marshes that dot the World Heritage site of the Shirakami Range. The Juniko region, with ponds of transparent waters dotting the beech woods, is a prime area for trekking. One of the must-see sights here is Ao-ike (Blue Pond), whose waters have a mysterious hue reminiscent of blue ink.

If you alight at the next station, WeSPa Tsubakiyama Station, there’s a complimentary bus waiting to take you to Furofushi Onsen, the open-air hot spring baths right at the water’s edge, just five minutes away. Once past Fukaura Station, the train reaches the most scenic part of the Gono Line, the Yukiaizaki Coast.

On this train, the scenery isn’t the only thing to enjoy. There are daily live performances of Tsugaru shamisen, a traditional three-stringed instrument native to this region. And on weekends and public holidays, passengers can enjoy hearing storytellers relating folk tales in the local dialect.

From Ajigasawa Station onward, the line veers away from the coastline and moves inland. The scenery now is of majestic Mount Iwaki and of endless apple orchards, this region being prime apple-growing country, onward to Hirosaki. In spring, Hirosaki is a favorite destination for cherry blossom viewing. Hirosaki Park, with 2,600 cherry trees, is the most popular spot for this diversion, and the flowers are usually at their best from mid to late April.

Something unique—the Ltd. Exp. Asahiyama Zoo Train

The Asahiyama Zoo, in Asahikawa, Hokkaido, is Japan’s most popular zoo: one way of getting there is aboard the JR Hokkaido’s Ltd. Exp. Asahiyama Zoo Train. This train runs between Sapporo and Asahikawa, taking about one and half hours for the journey; there’s a once a day round trip, operated on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays. The animal motifs inside and out of the train are sure to put everyone in a zoo-going mood.

The illustrations on the sides of the railcars, featuring polar bears, wolves, lions, chimpanzees and penguins, are the work of a former Asahiyama Zoo animal keeper turned artist named Hiroshi Abe. In each car, there’s an animal-shaped seat where passengers can snap commemorative photos, and a seat-free play space for children.
The zoo theme is complemented by the “The Other Day, I Met a Bear(The Bear Song)” nursery tune that plays over the train’s loudspeakers.

This is a train that’s recommended for parents traveling with children. Other child-friendly amenities include a private area for nursing mothers. Several economy ticket plans, such as the Asahiyama Zoo Ticket, which combines the train fare with the zoo admission fee, are available.

Visit the stationmaster of Kishi Station (Wakayama Prefecture)

There are supposedly over 9,000 railway stations in Japan, and one of them is very distinctive. At Kishi Station, the terminus of the Wakayama Electric Railway running between Wakayama and Kishi, live stationmaster Tama, a calico cat owned by the proprietor of the shop inside the station. Tama, wearing a stationmaster’s cap, is often photographed in cute poses.

She even made an appearance in the 2009 French film La voie du chat and was recently featured in a commercial for Korean Air. Many people from both Japan and abroad flock to see Tama the stationmaster, and the railway even runs Tama Trains with illustrations of cats on the sides and cat-shaped seats. In August 2010, a cypress-bark shingled addition in the shape of a cat’s face was built onto the station, in a nod to Tama’s enduring popularity.

A station of beauty—Kanazawa Station (Ishikawa Prefecture)

Kanazawa is often called “the Kyoto of the Hokuriku region.” JR Kanazawa Station, the gateway to the city, can surely be counted as one of the world’s most beautiful stations. Heading out the ticket gates toward the East Exit, arriving visitors come to the Motenashi (Welcome) Dome, a beautiful curved structure made from 3,000 panes of glass. In front of the Dome stands the Tsuzumi-mon, a gate modeled after the tzuzumi drum used in Kaga Hosho, a traditional No play of Kanazawa. The exquisite beauty of these structures perfectly expresses the two facets of Kanazawa as a modernizing city that is deeply respectful of tradition at the same time. Kanazawa is renowned for its famous Kenrokuen Garden, but the beauty of its station also deserves leisurely appreciation.

Eki-ben: the box lunches that also make rail travel a treat

Eki-ben is an essential component of any travel by rail in Japan. Sold at stations and aboard trains, these box lunches often feature local ingredients or traditional cuisine. There are countless varieties of eki-ben, and some intriguing variations—there’s a box lunch whose contents can be heated by pulling a string that triggers a heat-producing reaction; lunches that are packed in real pottery containers; and even some lunches that come with locally produced sake or wine.

The Sakura Bento (1,150 yen) on sale at Hakata Station and other locations was developed to commemorate the March extension of the Kyushu Shinkansen to its final destination. The food comes in a container made to look like a Sakura Shinkansen railcar. It contains Kokura (Fukuoka Prefecture) specialty kashiwa-meshi (rice cooked with chicken), a meat patty, fried shrimp and other treats. There’s also the Hakata-hatsu Fufu Bento (Originated in Hakata: Box Lunch for a Couple, 10,500 yen), available by reservation only. This super-deluxe lunch for two comes in a double-decker box, the top box featuring a choice of raw fugu (blowfish) prepared sashimi- and tataki-style or miso-grilled Hakata beef. The bottom box contains saba (mackerel) sushi, mentaiko spicy cod roe and other seasonal Kyushu delicacies.

Tokyo Station, the heart of Japan’s railway network, also offers plenty of box lunch varieties. The most popular one is the Shinise no Aji Tokyo Bento (1,600 yen), an assortment of specialties from famous Tokyo food purveyors that includes king salmon pickled in sake lees (Uokyu, Ningyocho), beef with bamboo shoots (Imahan, Asakusa), and thick sweet chunks of omelet (Sushitama Aoki, Tsukiji). Other favorites are the Gyuniku Bento (1,000 yen), based on sukiyaki, and for the health-conscious, the Kofuku Bento (1,300 yen), made using certified organically grown rice.

So, the greatest treat of rail travel may be enjoying a delicious box lunch packed with regional specialties while gazing at the passing scenery.