Travel & Wellness

Japan invests in touring trains to save its railway network

The Niigata region in Japan, trailblazer in a new form of tourism, could become an example to follow in Europe. To save its secondary railway network, touring trains were implemented to discover the country’s rich heritage.

Eva Morletto

By Eva Morletto28 décembre 2021

Thanks to former Prime Minister Tanaka Kakuei, the Niigata region has been a pioneer in saving its branch lines. It has transformed them into tourist lines that offer themed trains, ranging from gastronomy to art (DR)

The Niigata region is a pioneer. Several touring trains now enable travelers to discover the breathtaking Japan Sea coast and rural valleys in a region still unknown to foreigners.

It is thanks to the will of the former Prime Minister Tanaka Kakuei native of the region, that Tokyo is now connected to this provincial town. With a shinkansen (a high-speed train) both centers are now connected in only two hours and a half. Kakuei was precursory. The train is sustainable and available to all: it allows small centers to remain connected to the rest of the country and therefore to easily offer travelers to discover its attractiveness and advantages.

However secondary lines have had a significant cost impact on public finance. Especially since the road network has widely replaced railway for public transportation. Then how can this heritage be preserved?

Japan has bet on a precursory idea which could well be imitated by European countries going through the same issues.

Travellers now have the opportunity to discover the breathtaking Japan Sea coast and the rural valleys (DR)

Unprofitable lines, closed railway stations, small towns isolated from railway networks due to lack of means and budget… these are the challenges which are facing many rural regions in France and in Italy, among other countries. Wagons and infrastructures are becoming obsolete, maintenance is costly, staff is scarce, and services are lacking.

Each year, the railway network is shrinking, and big train companies prefer to invest in high-speed networks which interconnect metropolises, rather than create new budget for smaller peripheral lines where passengers are few.

Yet a unique and smart investment opportunity is emerging, from Japan.

To solve budget problems, the JR East, one of the most powerful Japanese railway companies, has decided to invest in an increasingly developed idea in the Japanese archipelago: themed touring trains.

Branch lines are now a popular way for travellers to discover the beauty of Japan (Shutterstock)

Steam trains, museum trains, gastronomic trains…the offer is varied and tempting.

The touring trains offer the possibility of visiting, among other things, the rice fields, traditional villages and warm thermal baths of the Niigata region (DR)

In the Niigata region, between rice fields and rural coasts, between traditional villages and warm thermal baths hidden in the woods, one can travel in time thanks to SL Banestsu Monogatari, a steam train which encompasses an observation deck well setup to offer passengers the opportunity to taste a special bentô lunch box, which recipe has remained unchanged since 1897, when it was commercialized for the first time. While the locomotive dates back to the 40s, the interior spaces of the train are ultra-design and comfortable, and allow exceptional views on mountain landscapes.

For those passionate about art, the Genbi Shinkansen is the ideal train; it travels from Niigata to Echigo-Yuzawa and each car offers a contemporary art exhibition. Therefore, travelers don’t only admire landscapes: in this museum-train, nothing is left to chance, the greatest names in Japanese contemporary art find their space and leather interiors and engraved mirrors attract demanding tourists. Several journeys are scheduled on the weekends.

Sometimes, exterior infrastructures also contribute to make travelling even more magical.  If you step into the Yumezora, suggestive images and films are projected on the sealing of the train when going through tunnels.

Often, films present the region’s assets: it is the case for projections about fireworks, an ancient tradition which has become an attraction for towns of the prefecture.

Surrounding Niigata, one can notice the constant presence of rice fields. Sake is part of the most renowned local produces. If you step on the ShuÚKura train, you will be able to taste the best regional vintages and you will find yourself in a charming nomad and traditional brasserie, immerged in a musical ambiance which will make the coastal line by the Japan Sea towards Kashiwazaki even more unique, with its flows of cobalt colors.

To book one of these touring trains, it is often necessary to make reservations months in advance (DR)

Extreme luxury travels on rails

But the Niigata prefecture is not the only one to have bet over the past years on touring trains: in 2017, Japan inaugurated the super luxurious Shiki-Shima convoy, a true palace on rails, created by the designer Ken Kiyoyuki Okuyama, already known by the automotive house Ferrary for drawing its “Enzo” model.

The Shiki-Shima connects the capital, Tokyo to the Hokkaido Island in four days, and its magical snowy landscapes. The ticket costs about 8,500 euros. At this price, one can benefit from gastronomic cuisine, two exceptional salons with their immense panoramic bays, an ambiance which reminds of a majestic temple dedicated to meditation, breath taking three-floor suites defying the laws of engineering.  

A childhood dream and a vision for tomorrow

Investing in themed trains would allow a significant fund injunction probably guaranteeing the survival of several lines which are considered unprofitable (DR)

For those who have kept their childhood spirit, the island of Kyushu is the place to go, to ride the Aso Boy. This train, which has a regularly changing itinerary, could lead you to the spectacular thermal town of Beppu, constantly bathed in steam vapors due to the many warm water sources in the region, the famous onsen. It will also lead you to Aso, at the foot of the volcano with the same name, or even in the rural region of Kumamoto, with its woods and valleys populated with artisanal villages.

The fun Aso Boy was especially thought for children: the seats, the ball pits, the manga images which lighten the walls, or even the vast library thought for the youngest.

In France, when SNCF started managing the national railway, the project was considering the closure of about 20.000 km of rail. This drastic plan continued till the end of the 70s. And since that decade, the network has then suppressed secondary lines, especially in the most secluded areas.

To invest in themed trains would allow a significant fund injunction probably guaranteeing the survival of several lines which are considered unprofitable.

The success of the touring trains has been considerable. It has also helped to restore the economic health of the secondary rail network (DR)

In Japan, to reserve one of these touring trains takes months in advance. The success was significant and enabled to relaunch the economic health of the secondary railway network, as well as value the assets (monuments, cultural and artisanal activities) of villages and locations crossed by the lines in order to boost tourism and popularity for these destinations up until then unknown by the public: a bet which Europe should also take.

Since then, the Puy du Fou group recently announced the creation in France of a new railway company: the Compagnie de France.

The Vendée themed adventure parc operator will offer as of 2023, a great tour for exclusive experiences: visiting champagne cellars, tastings, cruises on the lake of Annecy among others. The tour will last six days and will cost about 5000 euros. The project financing was made possible thanks to the banking pool initiative constituted by Crédit agricole, Crédit mutuel, Banques populaires, and Bpifrance.

For the railway industry, a new dawn is coming… which we hope will not only be reserved to the Land of the Rising Sun.


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    For more information: French journalist Claude Leblanc has written a book especially dedicated to train travel in Japan: "Le Japon vu du train" published by Ilyfunet. These same editions publish the free press magazine Zoom Japon, where you can find many original articles dedicated to travel in the Land of the Rising Sun.

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