I love trains, and most of my favourite films and stories involve trains in some way: Harry Potter makes his first alliances on the Hogwart’s Ex- press; in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”, the two lovers find each other again on a Long Island Rail Road train despite having the memories of their past relationship erased. And whenever I re-watch Bong Joon-ho’s 2013 post-apocalyptic locomotive thriller film “Snowpiercer”, I unabashedly enjoy the part when the intrepid main characters make their way towards the front end of the train, where its first-class inhabitants live in total luxury in contrast to the squalid conditions of the protagonists’. It speaks to one of my travel fantasies: sleeping in a moving ‘home’, being able to just surrender myself to where the tracks lead me, and taking in the changing scenery while eating, sans motion-sickness.
The lounge car’s tree-like cut-out decor evokes forest tranquility.
It seems my fantasy will very soon be reality, as Japan launches its real-life Snowpiercer, sans tail section and insect-powered protein blocks. The champagne-hued Train Suite Shiki-shima, which embarked on its maiden voyage last month, is the second of three luxury sleeper trains introduced by Japan Railways Group (JR Group). The first was launched in 2013, operating within Japan’s southwestern-most main island and pioneered the “cruise on rails” concept in Japan, while the third, servicing western Japan, will launch later this year.
The lush interior of the dining car.
Named after Japan’s ancient title, Shiki-shima, which means “islands that are spread out”, the latest ten-carriage cruise train offers several itinerary options including a four-day eastern Japan trip that spans from Ueno in the south up to Hokkaido in the north to take in the changing landscape, foliage and climates of the seasons, or a two-day getaway exploring the pastoral foothills, vineyards and terraces of the districts neighbouring Ueno, as well as limited edition and extremely exclusive trip events, like a New Year’s trip that includes watching the countdown fireworks in Yokosuka, witnessing the first sunrise of the year from Chiba Prefecture, and participating in New Year rituals at Ibaraki’s famed Kashima Shrine.
Observatory cabins cap both ends of the train.
Designed by industrial designer Ken Kiyoyuki Okuyama, whose creative cred includes General Motors, Porsche and Maserati, and the only non-Italian who’ve been tapped to design for Ferrari, Train Suite Shiki-shima is his most luxurious locomotive project by far, having designed several commuter and bullet trains for JR East in the past years. “Trains have two major aspects; a public transport as critical part of the urban infrastructure, and as means of personal travelling experience,” he says.
A fireplace graces the middle of the Deluxe Suite.
Explaining his design inspiration for the ten-carriage sleeper train, Okuyama adds: “We normally research the surrounding environment to find needs of the former public aspect, but to find out the personal wants for the latter aspect, you need to use your creativity and imagination, because people don’t know what they haven’t seen yet. To design Train Suite Shiki-shima was definitely the latter experience. We looked into aircraft, ships, luxury hotels and resorts in the world, but Train Suite Shiki-shima had to go beyond that. Many times, the answer is in you, and drawing many, many sketches slowly opens the door [to a] deeper side of your creativity. That’s exactly what happened this time.”
The suites’ interior features traditional Japanese materials.
Five of the carriages house suite rooms equipped with pull-out sofa beds and private showers, two for the lounge and dining rooms, and the luxury train is capped at both ends with glass-walled observatory cars for viewing the passing scenery. The middle carriage is reserved for two luxury suites: the Deluxe Suite Room, a single-storied cabin with more legroom and a glass-walled fireplace, and the maisonette-style Shiki-Shima Suite Room, which has a tatami mat sitting room on the second floor. Both boast traditional Japanese cypress wood bathtubs in the bathrooms.
A traditional Japanese cypress wood bathtub.
However, Okuyama’s challenges did not end at the hardware. “Train Suite Shiki-shima must give passengers experiences beyond their expectations. The degree of the commitment from JR East is great,” he says. “Trains have been a method of carrying people and goods to fulfil certain purposes. This time, the train itself is the purpose of the trip. We had to change the mentality of the R&D and service team to achieve that.”
Cuisine prepared under the supervision of Michelin-starred chef Katsuhiro Nakamura.
Japanese and French dishes prepared by chef Hitoshi Iwasaki.
For the ultimate savoir faire, all on-board meals are prepared by head chef Hitoshi Iwasaki, who formerly led the kitchen of gourmet Japanese-French eatery TENQOO at the Hotel Metropolitan Tokyo Marunouchi and was trained in multiple Michelin-starred restaurants across Europe, and supervised by Katsuhiro Nakamura, the first Japanese chef to receive a Michelin star. The staff uniforms are produced by Uniqlo design director and former creative director of Issey Miyake, Naoki Takizawa, who has also been serving as the costume designer to the Empress of Japan for the last 10 years.
Rolling greens en route, viewed from the train.
Trips on Train Suite Shiki-shima have to be booked at least a year in advance, via an online application form. Due to its exclusivity and popularity (the train’s maximum capacity is capped at 34 guests), passengers are selected through a lottery system. Prices start at ¥500,000 (approx. S$6,300) for a three-day itinerary in the basic suite, and can go up to an eye-watering ¥1,050,000 yen (approx. S$13,200) for the luxury suites, but includes a limousine pick-up service to the private lounge at Ueno station prior to boarding, a personal onboard butler, and all dining and hotel stays outside of the train during sight-seeing and rest stops.
Visit Train Suite Shiki-shima here.
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