If you’ve ever traveled to Japan, you’ve likely marveled at its extraordinary and ever-present train system. Whether taking super-convenient rides around the Tokyo subway or traversing the country going 200 mph on the Shinkansen bullet train, the Asian nation’s locomotives are ubiquitous and spectacular.
But Japan’s trains are so much more than just getting from place to place. There is a bevy of specialized trains that run throughout the country featuring everything from a Pokémon train and a Hello Kitty-designed locomotive to a literal Thomas the Tank Engine train. Some of the best specialty trains, though, combine sightseeing with the country’s unrivaled food culture.
The first dining trains in Japan were introduced in 1899 by the privately owned Sanyo Railway. “This was the first dining car service in Japan,” Ayumi Utagawa, the deputy director of tourism for East Japan Railway Company (JR East), told TripSavvy. “With the increase in train speed over the past decades and the development of onboard sales and ekiben (station box lunches), as well as the development of ekinaka (in-station food facilities), people began to prefer eating ekiben at their own seats rather than going to a dining car.”
Today, JR East and other train companies throughout the country operate a slew of culinary trains that combine culture, food, history, and tourism. These trains can sometimes be as little as two small cars traveling slowly through the countryside or behemoth bullets zipping along with multiple night stays.
“JR East operates its ‘Joyful Trains’ based on the concept of making the train ride itself as enjoyable as reaching one’s destination,” Utagawa said. “The trains are designed to allow passengers to fully appreciate the culture, experiences, and local hospitality of the region in which they travel and are operated in cooperation with local communities.”
Utagawa continued, “All of the ‘Joyful Train’ culinary trains feature the use of local ingredients, local cuisine, and local beverages including sake, cider, and mikan (mandarin orange) cider. Chefs come from famous restaurants and ryotei (traditional inns) along the line and cook in ‘live’ kitchens where passengers can see them at work. It is fun to watch a sushi chef at work on the train.”
Prepare to hop on board for some of Japan’s most interesting, and tastiest rides around the country.
Journey on the Coast
One of JR East’s ‘Joyful Trains’ is called the Kairi train, where passengers can delve into Niigata and Shonai cuisine as it coasts along the Sea of Japan. Utagawa said that the Niigata and Yamagata prefectures, which feature seafood and mountain produce, have unique cuisines. “Departing from Niigata, passengers can enjoy a Japanese box lunch from a long-established and famous ryotei restaurant in the Niigata Furumachi Hanamachi district,” said Utagawa. “In the itinerary, passengers can enjoy an edible jewel of Shonai Italian cuisine supervised by a top Japanese chef who focuses on native crops and ties with local producers that have been cultivated in the Shonai region for generations and are familiar to the local people.”
Eat Like a King
If you’re looking for a high-end luxury dining and train experience, check out the Seven Stars train on the island of Kyushu. As its name implies, Seven Stars is a beyond exceptional experience. The train offers multiple itineraries that range from one to three-night experiences as it traverses all seven prefectures in Kyushu. But the food is the most over-the-top part of the journey. Cuisine is always seasonal as Kyushu chefs switch between Japanese, French, and Italian styles while dabbling in foods from Hakata, Satohama, Unzen, Shippoku, and other regions of the island. There’s also a full bar (included in the price) and a tea room on board. Applications fill out almost instantly, so plan ahead.
Drink Like a Fish
Another JR East train, the Koshino Shu*Kura is all about the sake. Niigata Prefecture is known for its sake producers and the train offers a five-course sake tasting to get a feel for the whole region. The train’s name pays homage to the journey itself as the JR East site explains: the name “Koshino Shu*Kura” was inspired by the image of Echigo’s sake breweries and rich nature. (Koshino = Echigo, Shu = sake, Kura = brewery, * = rice, snow, flowers.) Guests are also given small bento boxes with snacks to accompany the sake tastings.
Sushi on the Go
The Belle Montagne et Mer (beautiful mountain and sea) is the French-named JR West train that travels along the Toyama Bay and through the mountains of Toyama. What sets this train journey apart is the daily-changing sushi menu that’s based on what is freshly caught in the bay. Opt for the Petite Toyama Bay Sushi Set which includes five pieces of sushi and local Himi tea and combine it with the Tipsy Set that includes different snacks from cities along the line as well as your choice of local sake.
The Sweetest Way to Travel
Fukushima Prefecture is a region of Japan north of Tokyo and bordering the eastern coastline of the country. This area is known for its fruit and the FruiTea train, operated by JR East, leans heavily into the sweet bounty of its produce. The menu varies depending on the season, but pastry chefs offer up original desserts made with the local fruit including grapes, peaches, apples, pears, and more. The sweet sets include dessert, fruit juice from the region, and tea or coffee.
And if you’re still hungry for Japanese train cuisine and scenery, here are a few extra options:
- The Setsugekka train offers views of the Sea of Japan along with gourmet French bento boxes, sake, and wine.
- The Anpanman train is great for kids who love the Anpanman anime. The trains are designed like Anpanman and come with Anpanman-shaped bento boxes.
- The Rail Kitchen Chikugo has a pizza oven on board and gives guests an immersive dining experience.
- The Restaurant Train Tohoku Emotion is known for its open kitchen. Here, guests can watch their meals being prepared while also gawking over the beauty of the Japanese countryside.
- Another fine dining experience in Kyushu is on the Aru Ressha or “Train of Dreams,” with a culinary program overseen by renowned chef Yoshihiro Narisawa, who also helms the two-Michelin-starred Les Créations de Narisawa in Tokyo.