Japan Shiki-Shima sleeper train: a glamourous experience of a lifetime

I’m a bit of a train geek it has to be said (no, I don’t go trainspotting at the end of railway platforms and write down train numbers in a little black book), but when it comes to something spectacular like the Japanese bullet train; any train by Belmond like the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, Eastern & Oriental Express (SE Asia), Andean Explorer or Hiram Bingham (both Peru); or Rovos Rail (South Africa), I’m sold 100%. As soon as I found out about the Japanese Cruise Train Suite Shiki-Shima I was literally champing at the bit to secure a booking. However, this was not so easy – it took multiple trip applications over the years until we ‘won the lottery’ and were able to secure the top suite on the train. Applying for only one suite on each trip obviously made the odds of ‘winning’ much lower.

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Train Suite Shiki-Shima

The Shiki-Shima (meaning the island of four seasons) is an ultra-luxe residential train, but the experience is much more than just getting from A to B (or, in our case, A back to A). It’s an enrichment journey to experience the depth of Japan, to experience something for the first time, to take in the beauty of the scenery and an ever-changing landscape, and to meet new people. All with the amazing hospitality of extreme luxe food, drinks, service and accommodation, making this a truly unforgettable experience. It’s so much more than just a train ride.

I’ve mentioned in my Q&A for Mr Hudson that I love everything about Japan, and it’s one of my absolute favourite countries. The level of detail that was gone into with the appointed travel consultants of JR East (the largest of the seven train companies operating within Japan that run the Shiki-Shima) was exceptional – everything from arranging a limousine transfer before and after the train, the activities we wanted to enjoy while on-board and off, where we would stay on our middle night ‘off the train’ to dietary requirements, drinks preferences etc.

Train Suite Shiki-Shima | Photo: The Private Traveller

Photo: Chris Yang

The Boarding Experience

From being met at our hotel in Tokyo where we stayed a few nights before the train trip (The Palace Hotel, right in the heart of the Marunouchi district) by limo to be taken the short journey to the Ueno Train station (our departure point for the Shiki-Shima) to the facilitated welcome by the dedicated train staff to whisk us through the station concourse, the experience was exceptional. We were initially escorted to the dedicated Prologue lounge (only for train guests) sited immediately next to the unique Shiki-Shima platform (yes, they did indeed have a new platform built to be used only by this special train). At other stops throughout our journey over the islands of Honshu and Hokkaido, many of the stations would have special Shiki-Shima entrances but nowhere else was there a bespoke platform.

Prologue Ueno Station | Photo: The Private Traveller

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We met all the train crew – literally every member of staff was introduced to the lounge guests, all indicating what they did on the train and where they were from

All departure formalities were completed in the lounge, and even although it was clear from the off that we would be slightly unusual amongst the other guests (more on this later), from start to finish, we were made to feel completely welcome and every conceivable adjustment to accommodate our lack of Japanese language was made for us. It was here we met all the train crew – literally every member of staff was introduced to the lounge guests, all indicating what they did on the train and where they were from. As you would expect, history and tradition are a very big part of Japanese culture, and it was abundantly clear that all staff were immensely proud of being part of this incredible train experience but equally very cognizant of sharing where they were from within Japan. Not only were we given a booklet with all the crew’s details, organised by where they were from, their Japanese name and English name, what their role was but also a map of the Japanese islands indicating exactly where their heritage lay. Our main hosts for the journey, both of whom had a perfect understanding of English, were Marie and Shusuke. Whenever there was an announcement or presentation, whether in the lounge or on the train itself (or one of the off-train experiences), we would usually find out of our hosts discretely approaching us so that they could translate for us just at the perfect time.

Photo: Masaaki Komori

The Train

We were lucky enough to have secured the one and only Shiki-Shima Suite on board – this bi-level suite (which takes up half a carriage to itself) was the ultimate in luxury with its full bathroom complete with walk-in shower, cypress wood soaking tub, electronic wash-hand basin and the most advanced electronic Toto toilet I’ve ever seen. There was a downstairs bedroom area and upstairs a tatami matted lounge area with sunken seating in front of the panoramic picture windows. There were all mod-cons like on-board Wi-fi, electronically adjustable air-con/heating and blinds, and an in-suite iPad for train information and to contact the crew.

Dining Car | Photo: The Private Traveller

Train Suite | Photo: The Private Traveller

Design

The train itself is a unique fusion of ultra-modern/futuristic design with accents of Japanese traditionalism meeting Art-Deco, all together in a wonderful blend along with the fastidious cleanliness and attention to detail that we’ve come to expect from our trips to Japan. Throughout our entire trip, the train was kept to the same exacting standards as we experienced when we were first shown to our suite on that first morning. Every aspect of the train – from the two different lounge cars at each end (there were two engine cars so that the train could go in either direction) to the two restaurant cars (each restored to pristine condition after every meal service); from the various table-settings and china used depending on the meal to the bathroom accessories and suite adornments; everything on the Shiki-Shima had been designed to work together, both from a visual perspective but from a practical point of view too.

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Everything on the Shiki-Shima had been designed to work together, both from a visual perspective but from a practical point of view too

For example, the beautiful clothes hangers in the wardrobe had additional padding to silence any rattling when the train was in motion. Nothing was left to chance here, and the designers had a very clear vision of what they wanted to create and why; there was a purpose to everything, but beauty was also to prevail. From the copperware to the lacquer boxes, the traditional tatami matting to metalware; you can find out all about each on the Train Suite Shiki-Shima website.

Train Suite Shiki-Shima Viewing Car | Photo: The Private Traveller

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There was a whole mixture of cuisines, from traditional Japanese Bento boxes at lunch to French fine-dining one evening for dinner and an utterly incredible Sushi lunch one day

Food

Everything on the train was of the highest quality, and food was no different – for the meals, we ate on the train, as well as there being a full kitchen crew on board full-time, guest chefs (and their teams) would be brought on board from all over the country (from a famous restaurant or hotel) just to provide one specific unique meal. There was a whole mixture of cuisines, from traditional Japanese Bento boxes at lunch to French fine-dining one evening for dinner and an utterly incredible Sushi lunch one day, which was both an absolute visual and taste explosion.

The trip itself was four days and three nights, albeit we only stayed on board for two of those nights and the middle night we spent at Zaborin, a contemporary luxury ryokan – this is a story in itself as it was one of my favourite highlights of the trip. It’s a 15 all-suite/villa resort on the island of Hokkaido; each suite has a private natural hot spring-fed onsen both inside and outside on the balcony surrounded by woodland nature with expansive uninterrupted views.

As well as dining at Zaborin, there was a traditional fish breakfast in a famous Hakodate restaurant (but all suitably adjusted, as was every meal) for me as a vegetarian; as well as a once-in-a-lifetime private dinner in the Aomori Museum of Modern Art after having had a private viewing.

Photo: The Private Traveller

Zaborin Ryokan | Photo: The Private Traveller

Japanese Culture

Throughout the trip, there were many options of different activities, or indeed one morning instead of either an early start visit to an onsen or a private opening of a local Aquarium, we just decided to have a more leisurely start to the day and remain on board. It was a really great experience just being able to walk around the train and feel that we were the only passengers remaining (although the train never feels full as there are only 17 suites in total, so a maximum of 34 passengers).

Hakodate Tram | Photo: The Private Traveller

Enrichment of the mind is a big part of the train ethos too, so there was a whole mixture of things to do at various stops – some of these had to be chosen beforehand (as there were limited numbers for each activity, the train group would generally be split). There was visits to cultural sites like the Toshogu Shrine (a world heritage site) at Nikko and the Sannai Maruyama Remains, a special national historic site in Aomori, seeing a traditional Ainu dance performance in Hakodate, visiting the Aomori Museum of Art where there was a special exhibition by Marc Chagall and also getting a tour of the Tsuiki Doki beaten copperware factory. Even during gaps in the day on the train, there would be musical performances or craft workshops like Kumihimo braiding and making amber pendants. I’m not normally a craft person, but it was one of those trips where we really just wanted to immerse ourselves into everything we could. The two women that had come onto the train to teach these crafts didn’t speak any English, but it was a wonderful afternoon trying to get to grips with techniques through a combination of sign language, gesticulation, pointing to diagrams and all with much humour from both sides.

Sannai-Maruyama | Photo: The Private Traveller

Aomori Dog | Photo: The Private Traveller

Organisation

As I mentioned, all pre-arrival formalities were completed with the least amount of effort but with maximum detail. We were kept completely up-to-date with departure details etc., and it was exceptionally efficient once we arrived at the station with our luggage being whisked away, which we next saw once we were on-board in our suite. We were presented with a gift bag on arrival in the lounge, as well as all train information and (as you would imagine incredibly detailed) itineraries being translated into English. There were also bespoke leather luggage tags. Although most of the off-train tours would be conducted in Japanese, we were given iPod style devices that were pre-loaded with English translations for most of the key sites; if our hosts were not around at a particular point in time, we could rely on these devices for information.

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They were incredibly accurate, and if the ETA at a particular train stop was predicted as 2:11 pm, you can be as sure as anything that that’s exactly when we would arrive

As well as having all the detailed itineraries for the whole trip upfront, on a daily basis, we would also be given personalised briefing sheets (in English and Japanese) with a step-by-step account of that day. They were incredibly accurate, and if the ETA at a particular train stop was predicted as 2:11 pm, you can be as sure as anything that that’s exactly when we would arrive. If wherever we were going off the train was any sort of distance away from the train station, a luxurious coach would be located as close as possible to the train itself, to minimise any inconvenience. Seats would be pre-assigned on the coach with a small map provided outlining the various layouts, and invariably we would be seated in the prime first row.

Photo: The Private Traveller

Throughout our trip, we were given gifts and mementoes, as well as being presented with a card each at the end of the trip with all crew having personally signed this in the most beautiful of handwriting, again both in English and in the incredible Japanese characters. I think it has to be said though that our best gifts have to be amazing memories we have of such wonderful experiences – whether this was exceptional meals in unique locations, really getting to experience and learn about Japanese culture or history, or just to watch the landscape roll by from the panoramic windows of our suite. Over the entire journey, whether it was arriving at a station, departing a station or just at all points throughout, there would be so many people out to see the train pass by. It’s a unique experience, but it certainly comes at a price, and for many being able to actually take one of the journeys on the Shiki-Shima would be beyond comprehension. I can understand why, as I said at the outset, being a bit of a (luxury) train geek myself, there would be such pride in the train; whether you work on it, journey on it as a passenger, or just appreciate the design and engineering feat that has created such a Japanese legend.

Photo: The Private Traveller

What was it like being the only same-sex/Western couple?

To be honest, it was something that we hadn’t really thought about much beforehand – we knew the Train Suite Shiki-Shima was one of the Japanese ‘Cruise’ trains that made a special effort for non-Japanese residents (like having the trip applications open to foreign nationals, having an English-language website and having all train information/English speakers on-board). Being the only non-Japanese passengers clearly made us unique from the off, but despite the ultra-luxurious surroundings and the extravagance of chefs from some of Japan’s most famous restaurants coming on board just to prepare and serve an incredible meal, the train environment was still very relaxed, and this was clearly created by a fantastic crew.

A trip to remember for a lifetime.

Photo: Sora Sagano

Trip Design by Mr Hudson

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