Japan tourist trains give passengers taste of local attractions

TOKYO - Tasty local produce, uniquely designed trains and a leisurely ride through the scenic countryside — this is how some train operators are trying to attract passengers and get local economies back on track.

The growing popularity of these train trips has even started a new word to describe the positive economic impact the business brings: “tetsunomics,” a play on the words Abenomics and “tetsudo” (railway).

Since 2014, East Japan Railway Co. (JR East) has operated the Koshino Shu Kura train on the Iiyama and Joetsu lines in Niigata Prefecture. A major attraction of this three-car train is that passengers can sample several kinds of local sake.

I got on board at Tokamachi Station and bought a “tasting set” featuring sake produced by five local breweries. In a small space set aside for a jazz band, I could also enjoy live music.

Tatsuya Hinoue, a 27-year-old company employee from Koshigaya, Saitama Prefecture, also took the trip, and was in high spirits. “Live music, delicious sake and beautiful scenery out the window - this is fantastic,” he said.

At a sake-tasting event held on the train, Katsuyoshi Yamaguchi, president of Uonuma Sake Brewing Co. in Tokamachi, was busily pouring a range of his company’s finest sake varieties, including junmai daiginjo products, for passengers.

“I hope even women who usually don’t drink sake will realize its appeal,” said the 63-year-old president.

These events are working: The number of visitors going on brewery tours has increased and there has been a positive impact on the local economy.

The train stopped for about 20 minutes at Omigawa Station in Kashiwazaki in the prefecture. It is said that no station in Japan is closer to the sea. I sipped some sake as a sea breeze drifted across the platform and waves lapped the shore nearby.

- - -

I took the Oykot (pronounced Oikotto) tourist train from Nagano Station to Tokamachi Station. JR East started running the two-car train on the Iiyama Line in April 2015. The name comes from Tokyo spelled backwards in English, and aims to symbolize “a hometown for the spirit of Japanese people,” which is diametrically opposite to big cities.

The train’s interior resembles an old Japanese house, and the window shades are designed to look like shoji sliding paper doors. Through the window, the view of the Chikumagawa river stretching into the distance had a distinctive charm. Onboard announcements were prerecorded by actor Fujio Tokita, known for his voice acting in the long-running anime “Manga Nippon Mukashibanashi,” and attendants wore traditional monpe baggy trousers.

As I reached out to pick up some pickled nozawana leaf served to the passengers, it was as if I had been transported back to my grandmother’s house in the countryside.

- - -

Meanwhile, Seibu Railway Co. operates a four-car tourist train between Ikebukuro or Shinjuku in Tokyo and Chichibu in Saitama Prefecture. The train is called “Tabisuru Resutoran: Goju-ni-seki no Shifuku (Traveling restaurant: 52 seats of happiness).” Passengers are served full-course meals prepared under the supervision of well-known chefs of Japanese, Western and Chinese cuisine and made from ingredients grown in the prefecture.

The cars were designed by architect Kengo Kuma, who designed the new National Stadium. The exterior features paintings of pink flowers of moss phlox and autumn leaves in the Chichibu mountain range, while the interior is made from timber and Japanese washi paper produced in the prefecture.

The restaurant train takes about three hours to travel a distance that a limited express train would cover in about one hour and 20 minutes. As passengers savor dishes brought out one at a time from the open kitchen, the scenery outside gradually changes from a landscape dominated by buildings to mountains and valleys. Reservations for the lunch course are fully booked until the end of September. The operator will reportedly consider allowing the train to be exclusively reserved for wedding receptions and other functions.

Fuji Kyuko Co.’s Fujisan View Express travels between Kawaguchiko and Otsuki stations in Yamanashi Prefecture. The magnificent views of Mt. Fuji through the windows of this three-car train are the biggest drawing card for passengers — Fuji Kyuko promotes the train to foreign tourists as “the closest train line to Mt. Fuji.”

The cars were designed by industrial designer Eiji Mitooka, who was involved in producing the deluxe sleeping car train Seven Stars in Kyushu operated by Kyushu Railway Co., the train that sparked the recent boom in tourist excursion trains.

With a cup of coffee in my hand as I gazed out the window I felt for a second or two as if I had been whisked to a hotel lounge.

The term tetsunomics is increasingly being used on TV information programs to describe the economic impact these trains bring to areas along the train lines. All these cleverly thought-out trains are packed with attractive features, and they kept me smiling during the railway journeys I made.