Riding The Seven Stars “Cruise Train” – A Unique and Luxurious Way to Experience Japan
Interest in Japan as a leisure destination has never been greater. The rise in visits by those seeking to take home memories of a time in-country has been astounding over the last few years. While many visitors are content to enjoy the plethora of sensations which abound in around the major centers of Tokyo (東京), Nagoya (名古屋), and Osaka (大阪), others are drawn to the allure of “next-level” experiences. And indeed, the travel “experience”, seeking fulfillment not just from the acquisition of material things, but having a chance to be part of intangible, but no less rewarding moments, is pushing travel in Japan to new heights of sophistication and luxury.
Perhaps one of the best ways to enjoy “experience” travel in Japan is via train. Trains are a ubiquitous part of Japanese life. Responding to the travel boom of recent years, train operators across the country have introduced new services and concepts to cater to a wide variety of interests. Among the most innovative have been the various JR (Japan Railways) regional companies. The number and variety of ways to experience train travel has indeed blossomed exponentially since the dawn of the new millennium. Leading the way, however, has been JR Kyushu (JR九州). Ahead of all of its sister companies, JR Kyushu launched the “Cruise Train Seven Stars in Kyushu” (クルーズトレインななつ星 in 九州). A “cruise” train as the name suggests, is meant to be a fully personalized, one-of-a-kind travel experience, akin to cruise ship on wheels. This unique expression of the Japanese travel experience has been a huge hit since its maiden “voyage” in 2012.
And so it was, very unexpectedly, and with a feeling of spectacular good fortune, that I found myself recently in receipt of an “invitation” to board and enjoy this most luxurious expression of hospitality/omotenashi (おもてなし)…
In fact, your journey begins by contacting JR Kyushu to begin the process of booking a reservation. Being the first, and perhaps most committed, of all the JR companies to this concept of luxury travel, the prospective passenger should keep in mind that, there is, in fact, an “application” process associated with attempting to make a reservation, and travel is strictly by reservation only.
The train’s website is very comprehensive, and can provide you with all the information you need to consider about planning your trip. One of the interesting elements of the site itself is that it provides not only essential information, but tries to impart to prospective travelers some sense of why this train was created in the first place, the “philosophy” behind the “Seven Stars”:
- To represent the 7 ken (県) or prefectures of Kyushu.
- To represent the 7 essential elements of travel in Kyushu; nature, food, hot springs, places of spiritual enrichment (so-called “power spots”), warmth of humanity, and the train itself.
- To represent that the train itself is composed of 7 cars.
The website will tell you all you need to know about prospective itineraries (or “courses”), details about the accommodations, information about seasonal meals and featured chefs and destinations, information about the train itself (the design of the cars), the application and how to submit it, guidance for passengers (yes, there is a dress code), a train store, and FAQ. The site is available in Japanese and English.
While doing a bit of research about the train in advance of applying for a reservation, I came to realize just how exclusive each “cruise” is and how difficult it might be for my application to be successful. I read stories of people who had been applying and re-applying for years before their application was accepted. As I came to understand, superficially at first, but later on more fully, this trip is a kind of a landmark moment, a “milestone” for travelers. Frankly, a standard by which all subsequent travel experiences will be measured.
The application itself was straightforward enough, but it should be noted that I was submitting my application a full six months in advance of my desired travel date, and even then, there was no guarantee of success. Each step in the process of gaining access to a cruise is, I feel, purposefully designed to enhance the feeling of exclusivity, and to raise the traveler’s expectations about the trip itself.
So, after some weeks of waiting for the day of selection, imagine my absolute surprise to learn that my application had been expected and that I was being offered a place on an upcoming trip. The process by which the offer was accepted, payments made, etc., was exceptionally smooth. Each passenger is assigned a concierge to facility arrangements prior-to, during, and immediately after the trip.
Once you have accepted your invitation, you are asked to complete a questionnaire which asks about any particular needs or requirements you may have. The questionnaire also asks you for information such as what you expect to experience from the trip, and lots of details such as what your work is, hobbies and interests, even favorite songs. One can also choose from a variety of off-train excursions which are planned during the trip to introduce passengers to highlights of various regions of Kyushu.
A few weeks prior to departure, the concierge sent me an itinerary which had been tailored precisely to the specifications I had commented about in the questionnaire.
And the anticipation continued to build…
Soon, the day of the trip had arrived, and the adventure began. Having arrived at my hotel in Fukuoka (福岡) the night before, I was met first thing in the morning by my dedicated concierge who escorted me to a special entrance to Hakata Station/Hakata Eki (博多駅).
This entrance which is used exclusively for the Seven Stars train opens to a waiting room with tables and chairs where guests are seated and offered drinks and light refreshments while waiting to board the train. All the while, a live piano performance serenaded me to set the elegant mood for the trip. The conductor began making the rounds to each table to introduce himself and to get acquainted with each of us. Although it had dawned upon me earlier, it was at this moment when I realized in particular how few passengers there would be and how many crew there were to attend to the trip! In fact, the entire passenger count for the trip is a maximum of 30. As such, the approximate ratio between guests and staff is approximately 2 to 1.
Shortly after the arrival of the final registered guest, the room was brought to order by the conductor of the train who again introduced himself and then, in turn, each of the crew members gave a self-introduction. The crew of the Seven Stars are specially selected and undergo rigorous training in all manner of hospitality related tasks before they are permitted to work a trip. Not only are the staff expected to be knowledgeable about all things relating to the train, but training in table setting, mixology, how to make-up guest rooms, and up to and including language training to make guests comfortable in the proper Japanese. Other languages are also spoken by the staff and each crew is selected for each trip taking into account the nationalities of all the passengers and their language abilities (also one of the items on the application questionnaire).
The background of the crew was diverse, with a balance of both men and women. Most were career JR personnel, but some had come to this point by way of different occupations, for example, serving as cabin attendants for one of Japan’s major airlines. Their common passion was service. Their shared goal, to ensure the safety and maximum comfort of each guest!
After a toast from the senior-most passenger, a woman in her 80’s who had been applying for a seat on this train for 5 years no less, at the conductors invitation each of us was escorted to the platform and then on to the awaiting train. It was already beginning to be too much to take everything in, but really, it was only the beginning. The train itself was wine-red in color accented by gold trip. No detail was missed. Each space occupied by something symbolic of either the train, our specific journey, or Kyushu.
As I was led to my room, each step passing some ornate fixture, I had to remind myself that, in fact, this was really happening. Then, the steward opened to door to my room. What an incredible “home away from home”! For me at least, and judging by the reaction of the other passengers, I think we all felt that if someone had asked us about our vision of the perfect setting for luxury train travel this is exactly what we would have described.
The train’s designer, both exterior and interior, is the renowned industrial designer Mr. Mitooka Eiji (水戸岡 鋭治). In designing the Seven Stars he sought to achieve the appropriate balance between form and function and to incorporate both Eastern and Western design features into a composite whole. The template for this master work was a proverbial “blank canvas”, which is to say that every feature of the train was designed for the train. It is an entirely customized work of “industrial art”. The imprint of the designer is everywhere to be seen. No detail is too small. No opportunity for elegance missed. If the train had never left the station it would be worthy of an exhibition on its own.
But of course the time for departure from Fukuoka did come (on time, as one would expect from a train in Japan), and soon the train was heading out of the city and into the heart of Kyushu. As was the case at every stop, a number of onlookers greeted the train as it pulled from the station. Such a warm sendoff!!
Having settled into my room, I went to the back of the train towards the dining and café/lounge cars. In no time at all, it seemed the train was traversing the Kyushu countryside and our first meal of the trip was on the way.
Meals are included in the fare (except alcohol). As with the purchase of any incidental items during the trip, no exchange of money is made while the trip is in progress. At the conclusion of the trip, approximately 1 hour prior to return to Hakata Station, the steward arrived to my room to settle my bill. In this way, Seven Stars is a kind of all-inclusive resort on wheels. And it certainly adds to the ambiance and feeling of personalized luxury for guests (and staff) to conduct financial closure with an eye towards maximum privacy and discretion. Despite my best efforts, perhaps my single greatest “indiscretion” on the trip was to reach for my wallet mid-trip and inquire about the gift items on display in the lounge car. While I was certainly encouraged to select the item I wanted, as I went to begin the action of actually paying, I received the most polite admonishment I think possible in being reminded that all charges were to be settled at the conclusion of the trip.
Lunch was nothing short of a spectacular culinary experience. For each cruise the menu is selected according to season and availability of local products. As you’d expect each course featured products from Kyushu prepared by chefs from local restaurants who were brought onboard with their provisions, preparing each meal while on the train to ensure maximum freshness and quality, and who then would exit the train at the next stop or siding to make way for the preparers of the next meal.
My cruise included 4 full course meals, not inclusive of the continuously available snacks and light dishes available on-demand throughout the journey. The care with which the meals were prepared and presented shined through with every dish!! Photos certainly don’t do justice to each seating, but a brief selection of some of the highlights will surely serve as a mouthwatering “appetizer” to approximate the entire culinary experience.
The trip I chose was the 2 day, 1 night course, including stops in Nagasaki (長崎), Arita, Yufuin (湯布院), and Bungo Mori (豊後森). And, the train travels at a leisurely pace. The point, after all, is to enjoy the scenery of Kyushu, the companionship of fellow guests, incredible food, and the excursions on offer.
Between lunch and dinner on Day 1 the train stopped in Arita (有田), famous for Aritayaki (有田焼) ceramics. I had selected this option as I certainly wanted to learn more about this famous earthenware. Aritayaki was first produced by artisans from the Korean peninsula brought to Kyushu by Hideyoshi Toyotomi (豊臣秀吉). It was only near Arita that the appropriate raw materials could be located to allow for the production of the distinctive pure white color and perfect smoothness. In fact, some of the quarries used can still be visited today.
The excursion included visiting one of the few wood fired kilns still existing in Japan along with a visit to a museum housing some of the rarest pieces and ended with a chance to purchase some (more contemporary) souvenirs.
Walking the streets of Arita City itself, one will notice immediately that walls which surround homes and other buildings are made partially by shards of what can only be assumed to have been unacceptable finished pieces. Shards are also visible in certain areas embedded in the roads. As the guide for the excursion pointed out, the riverbed which runs through town is filled with shards and, apparently, from time to time, even complete or nearly complete pieces are uncovered. My group was warned not to hunt for shards to take as apparently even incomplete of broken pieces may be considered historically significant objects. As such, look and admire were the operable words. Touching was reserved for serious buyers!
Beyond the onboard amenities, the elegant cabins, the exquisite meal service, was the experience of Kyushu itself.
Returning to the train, all passengers were given information as to their seats for dinner and as no sooner as everyone had returned to the train again, once again the train was underway, headed for Nagasaki. Dinner was served on-route, but not before time to relax, refresh from the excursion, and then take in sight of sunset as the train passed by the Omura Bay /Omurawan (大村湾). The sun slowly sinking below the horizon accompanied by the rhythm of the trains wheels as the rolled ever forward towards the next destination was a moment of sublime serenity…
Dinner that evening was a formal affair, recalling the grace and glamour of a classical movie. All passengers were encouraged to dress as elegantly as they wished and certainly for many of my traveling companions, they saw this as an opportunity to sparkle in the subdued and tastefully lit dining car. A sumptuous multi-course meal followed accompanied by attending staff who overlooked no detail of courtesy. Although dinner was more than 2 hours it seemed to pass by in minutes. Soon, imminent arrival to Nagasaki was announced.
Disembarkation at Nagasaki Station/Nagasaki Eki (長崎駅) was followed by a Chinese theatrical performance/Henmen show (変面ショー) which was a modest nod to the influence of Chinese culture in Nagasaki and also to Nagasaki’s roots as a vital port which, during the Edo Period/Edo Jidai (江戸時代), was one of the few places in all of Japan where Japanese could legally interact with non-Japanese.
After dinner and the night’s entertainment, one could have been forgiven for calling it a night, but, with the excitement of the day’s travels coursing through me, surely it was no time for sleep. And, of course, Seven Stars indulged me once more. Along with most of the other guests, I joined a late-night reception in the lounge car. A particular highlight was the serenade of piano music. Songs that I had mentioned in my questionnaire were played along with the requests of other passengers. Embracing the jovial mood as much as the passengers was the crew themselves. The ease with which they performed their duties while at the same time happily interacting with guests was a particularly heartwarming experience. They genuinely seems to enjoy being part of the experience as much as I and all the passengers did. At the center of the hospitality was the conductor himself, but, his team seemed to fully embrace the moment. It was during the precious few hours that I learned about the backstories of several of the crew, and finally, embracing the moment, I agreed to be a “test subject” while one of the crew, my designated attendant, in fact, attempted to mix her first ever “Seven Stars” signature cocktail.
Well, I can report that it was a noble first effort.
As I departed for my room well past midnight, I realized that, indeed, I was the last passenger to leave the car.
Rising early on Day 2 brought another beautiful day on the rails after a surprisingly pleasant night of sleep rolling through Miyazaki and Kumamoto.
Breakfast was served in just the right amount so that, while re-energized, I wasn’t left too full either.
Shortly after breakfast, we arrived for the second excursion of the day, a visit to a historic railroad site in the quiet town of Bungomori/Bungomori (豊後森). I suppose it was fitting that the Day 2 excursion was to a railroad related venue. In earlier days, this location had been a major inland depot for trains operating across Kyushu. Now, it is a pretty quiet spot, and probably the region is known more today for its beef than any particular kind of logistical role in played in the development of modern Kyushu. Coming from a country (The United States) whose history was so greatly influenced by railways, it’s hard not to feel a unique connection to a now lost age. The history of industrialization and the history of railways in Japan is no less intertwined. The Day 2 excursion, while less ornamental than the previous day’s stop in Arita, is was no less thought provoking.
In what seemed no time at all, it was time to hop back on-board our “Cruise” train, and, following a brief stop in Yufuin, the final meal of the trip was served. While on this trip, I certainly didn’t have enough time to explore Yufuin thoroughly, the brief glimpse that the stopover afforded me certainly suggests that it is a place to which I must return.
Time was passing quickly and soon the train was progressing on the final leg of the journey, from Yufuin back to Hakata Station. By this point in the trip, the barriers of formality that first greeted me upon arrival between crew and passengers had largely dissolved. Indeed, we were all one travelling family now. It was just that the “family car” just happened to perhaps the most luxurious train in world!!
So it was only fitting that approximately an hour prior to arrival in Fukuoka, all passengers, accompanied by crew, gathered in the lounge car for “home movies”. Specifically, a presentation of photos taken during the trip was presented along with a video which detailed the trip. It was a fitting, even emotional end to the trip. Unbelievably in a little less than 48 hours The Seven Stars had taken had taken a course through all the prefectures of the island, tempted her passengers with delicious cuisine, shown us romantic, picturesque, and poignant sites along the way, and as only travel can, provided a small group of people who had absolutely nothing in common two days earlier, with the common bond of a wonderful travel experience, memories of which will last a lifetime.
Upon arrival at Hakata, I was led off the train with the same courtesy and care that was displayed upon arrival, but now with just a hint of familiarity, which made me feel that perhaps this trip, and perhaps all the trips on Seven Stars, leave not just passengers, but crew as well, with and enduring emotional imprint that only comes from being together for a one-of-a-kind moment. Surely for the crew who served me so spectacularly during my stay, this cannot be simply “work”. I think it would be impossible to be motivated enough to be a part of this kind of experience while thinking in this way. Consummate professionals to a man (and woman), you were as much a part of the Seven Stars experience as anything else on the trip. Job (very) well done!!
It is not an overstatement to say that demand for this travel experience is explosive. As such, you should be prepared to apply more than once (the passengers for each cruise are determined by lottery). As of the date of this article, the train is accepting reservations for the fall of 2019 and winter 2019-2020.
One final note, prices will vary depending on the type of course (4 day/3 night or 2 day/1 night) and type of accommodation. Like any travel, an investment of time, effort, and money, is required. And, it must be noted, travel of this nature requires a financial commitment, so while the application is at no cost, one should be aware that the fee for passage is not insignificant. I feel very strongly, however, that despite the planning required and cost incurred, it is worth it in every possible sense. Undoubtedly this has been one of the great travel experiences of my life.
The “Seven Stars” isn’t just a train, it’s perhaps better described as a mobile work of art and, in a way, an intangible cultural treasure, representing the very best integration of classical and contemporary esthetics. Take a ride and enjoy once-in-a-lifetime experiences of the sights, sounds, foods, history, and people of Kyushu.