New trains and new ways to travel in Japan

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Train travel in Japan is one of the wonders of our modern world, whether it’s cruising the countryside on the Shinkansen at speeds of up to 320 kilometers per hour (200 mph), relaxing on a comfortable regional express (known as Limited Express trains in Japan) or Enjoy a peek into Japanese culture on a “joyful train” day trip.

With Japan locked down for an extended period of 2020-2022 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, visitors who missed out on the country’s trains have several new options.

So if you haven’t been to Japan in a few years or are planning your first visit, here are some great new – and refurbished – trains to put on your list.

The long-trodden high-speed line that connects Nagasaki to the rest of the Shinkansen (bullet train) network is now running to its temporary terminus at Takeo-Onsen. A total of five stations are now complete in Japan’s westernmost mountainous coastal region, previously served by slow conventional trains.

They have now been replaced by Kamome (Japanese for “seagull”) services aboard the all-new N700S trains that feature sleek white paint and stunning interiors designed by Mitooka Eiji, Kyushu Railway Company’s design partner. It’s a must-see for any train lover, not least because of how you get there.

Local politics mean that the rest of the line has yet to be built. Meanwhile, passengers cross the platform onto one of the Kamome Relay or other Limited Express trains to connect with the rest of Japan, usually at Shin-Tosu Shinkansen Station or Hakata Station in Fukuoka.

In Nagasaki, the newly redeveloped train station features a great new dining and shopping area, with delicious local fare to savor – try the traditional castella cake adapted from recipes brought over by Portuguese sailors visiting Japan.

The interior of Kyushu Railway Company's new tourist train, dubbed Two Stars 4047.

Joyful Japan Trains – daily sightseeing trains that focus on local culture and specialties – are a treat for travelers. To celebrate the opening of the Nishi Kyushu Shinkansen, JR Kyushu has also started a new cheerful train called Two Stars 4047.

Its course begins at Takeo-Onsen and traces the old Nagasaki Main Line superseded by Kamome services on the Nishi-Kyushu Shinkansen, climbing coves, inlets and rocky coves.

The name comes from the charming old train cars from which the Joyful train was converted – the KiHa 40 and KiHa 47 combination.

Don’t miss the fresh fruit and snacks for sale on the platform at Kohoku, or the sake bar in the waiting room at Hizen-Hama Station – you can also make purchases to take the train with you. A special bento lunch box set is also available.

Kyushu is also home to some of Japan’s coolest fun train routes, including the wonderfully programmed 36+3 Weekend Train and the jazz-focused A-Train.

Many joyful Kyushu train schedules have been disrupted by storms that have ravaged the country tracks in recent years. Keep an eye out for their return on the JR Kyushu website, and book in advance.

In the mountainous region west of Osaka, JR West’s new bright pink Sakubai Sakura train makes its way north from Okayama to the hot springs area near Tsuyama.

The train itself is an atmospheric old KiHa 40 railcar that has spent over 40 years serving the area, and the interior is painted green and antique wood – no floral overload when you’re inside the train.

The train, which runs on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays, offers special lunchboxes and treat combos to enjoy as you meander through the countryside.

“Limited Express Spacia X”, a series of new N100 trains from the Tobu Special Railway, is coming off the rails in July this year. It will offer six separate types of seating options – the Cockpit Suite at the front of the train, Private Cabins, the Cafe Cockpit Lounge area, Semi-Private Box Seating, wider Premium Seating and Standard Seating.

These new trains operate between Tokyo’s Asakusa Station and the cities of Nikko and Kinugawa Onsen in Tochigi Prefecture, and look set to make escaping Tokyo for a country holiday north of the capital a must.

The High Rail is astronomy themed, with a mini planetarium on board.

JR East’s newest convivial train, introduced at the end of last year, takes place in the mountains of Nagano and Yamanashi prefectures, just over an hour northwest of Tokyo on the Hokuriku Shinkansen Line.

Climb the Japanese Alps on the rustic Koumi Line, the country’s highest railway, High Rail is astronomy-themed, with a mini planetarium aboard. On its evening trip between Kobuchizawa and Komuro stations, there’s a 50-minute stargazing experience at Nobiyama – the highest station in Japan and home to the Nobiyama Telescope Observatory.

JR East offers many other great excursions on the Joyful Train. The steam train trips from Takasaki (SL Gunma – SL short for steam locomotive) and between Niigata and Aizu-Wakamatsu (SL Banetsu Monogatari) are particularly interesting. The latter has unfortunately been suspended since August 2022 after the tracks were washed away following a storm, but work is said to be underway to restore the line.

Bird watchers and nature lovers will know the Kushiro Shitsugen Wetland, home to the endangered red-crowned crane, one of Japan’s symbols. Found in far northeastern Japan on the island of Hokkaido, the Fuyu-no-Shitsugen Train zips through this national park in vintage style in the winter months.

With a 2022 renovation of two carriages, the train now offers new Tancho Scenic Cars. On one side, there are seats facing the wetlands, with raised box seats on the other, allowing a view of the heads of these passengers from the other side of the train.

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