While we relish all the bells and whistles of those front and upstairs cabins at 30,000 feet, or cruising along in a Bentley, there’s nothing we like better than travelling by train. Even the most pedestrian trip can be turned into a glorious moving picnic if you’re in the right company, and on the right train. We even choose to find Amtrak’s First class charming (bless them). Then there’s the scenery – the Paris-bound Orient Express that leaves Venice in the afternoon and hits Austria at twilight, just as you are dressing for dinner, takes you through a magical fairyland of mountaintops and woodlands.
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Until now, Japan’s main claim to fame when it comes to railways has been the Shinkansen – impressive, sleek and superfast, and something we’d love to see when we are in Europe and the US (why is there still no high speed link between San Francisco and Los Angeles?). But it’s hardly the last word in luxury.
In autumn 2013 the Kyushu Railway Company launched the Seven Stars cruise train in Kyushu, designed by Eiji Mitooka of Don Design Associates, with a particularly tasty polished claret exterior that the company describes as “ancient lacquer”. The train – which offers overnight and three night packages around the Kyushu region – is a strikingly Japanese take on luxury rail travel: the interiors, made up of seven carriages, and designed to take 28 guests, are finished in bright fine wood, rather than the Lalique crystal of the Orient Express. There are two deluxe suites or three regular suites in each car.
Unlike the Orient Express (where the morning toilette has to be performed in a tiny sink), there are shower rooms, finished in aromatic cypress wood, with beautiful floral ceramic washbowls made by Arita pottery master Sakaida Kakiemon XIV shortly before his death. There is also a lounge car, with its own bar and of course the customary piano, as well as panoramic windows and swivel chairs. Along with the predictable jazz, afternoon tea and cocktails, there is also talk of magic shows, which we’ll reserve judgement on for now.
Kyushu is fast developing as a hot island destination for overseas travellers to Japan – KLM began flying direct to Fukuoka in April 2013, and the area is a treasure trove of Samurai culture, volcanoes, hot springs and ryokans. The Seven Stars train tours around Yufuin, Miyazaki, Kirishima, Kagoshima and Aso. Already the service has proved a huge hit – services are currently booked out six months in advance. We hope that it is the first of several luxury trains in Japan – we’d love to get around in high style as well as at high speed. C