Luxury Train Sets Sail in Japan

On Japan's high-end train, fares can climb higher than $10,000. AFP/Getty Images

If you want to ride on Japan's Shiki-Shima Express, you are most likely out of luck. A trip on this brand new ultra-luxury train — its full name is Train Suite Shiki-Shima — is not cheap. Fares start at $2,200 and go north of $10,000. These prices are for two- to four-day journeys around eastern Japan.

Those who can afford a ticket will still have to wait because the train is completely sold out until the middle of 2018. Tickets are only available by application.

Why the high demand?

A Shiki-Shima crew members stands in the dining car.
Shiki-Shima’s restaurant menu was crafted by a Michelin star-winning chef using seasonal ingredients. AFP/Getty Images

The Shiki-Shima is owned by East Japan Railway (almost always referred to as "JR East"). The train has 10 cars and a total of 17 luxury suites. There are 15 standard rooms and two deluxe suites.

The train's relatively low capacity is part of the reason for the long wait list. For those who appreciate luxury, however, the over-the-top amenities could make the waiting worthwhile. Shiki-Shima's suites have their own lofts, and they are equipped with authentic cypresswood bathtubs and private dining rooms. The public sections of the train include a dining car (pictured), a futuristic lounge car with a piano bar and two domed observation cars that are meant to showcase the scenic landscapes along the tracks.

Michelin stars and sports cars

Shiki-Shima crew member in a suite's private dining area.
Suites on the train have private dining areas. AFP/Getty Images

The Shiki-Shima's head chef, Katsuhiro Nakamura, is well known in the culinary world. His main claim to fame: He was the first chef in Japan to be awarded a coveted Michelin star. Nakamura has designed a menu that requires his cooks to source fresh ingredients from stops along the way and use them to create regionally themed meals for passengers.

The train itself was designed by Ken Okuyama, whose name may be familiar to sports car aficionados. He has designed vehicles for premium carmakers like Porsche, Ferrari and Maserati. The sleek body, unaligned triangular windows and hybrid futuristic/traditional Japanese motif are quite unique and certainly sports car-like.

For those who are lucky enough to have tickets, the exclusive Shiki-Shima experience starts even before boarding. The train has its own dedicated platform at Tokyo's busy Ueno Station.

Part of a larger trend

A Shiki-Shima crew members gestures in the train's lounge car.
The Shiki-Shima train has a lounge car with a piano bar. AFP/Getty Images

This is not the first luxury train in history. It is not even the first one in Japan. The Shiki-Shima project went ahead because of the popularity of the Seven Star Express, a luxury sleeper train launched by another regional Japanese railway, JR Kyushu, in 2013. JR East just beat its rival JR West into this increasingly competitive niche. JR West's Twilight Express Mizukaze started service in June, a month after Shiki-Shima hit the rails for the first time.

It's a bit of a rails race in the country. Japan's rail system is privatized, and most major train companies are publicly held. This means that there is an incentive to maximize profits by offering premium services and to take advantage of profitable trends before they have run their course.

A world-class rail system

The view terrace car of the Shiki-Shimi Express
The view terrace car Shiki-Shima Express 'will you bring you a sense of liberation' as nature speeds by. AFP/Getty Images

Japan's railways can definitely be defined as modern, but they are most known for their efficiency, punctuality and wide reach. You can go almost anywhere in Japan by rail, and you will almost always get there on time. Luxury was not really part of Japanese railways' image until Shiki-Shima and its peers started making headlines.

Japan's urban trains (especially in Tokyo) are not known for their comfort. In fact, they are known for quite the opposite. During rush hour, passengers are literally pushed into the cars by railway staff members whose job is to get the trains as full as possible without disrupting the schedule. Intercity trains are never quite that crowded, but they mainly offer "economy class" experiences.

In this context, the popularity of Shiki-Shima and its luxury peers makes sense. Passengers get to enjoy a non-utilitarian (and uncrowded) train experience on what is arguably the world's best railway system.

You can ride the rails for much less

A JR East train on the tracks
Regular JR East trains run on the same routes as luxury trains. foooomio/flickr

On the other hand, the price of these "land cruise experiences" is prohibitively expensive for most. Luckily, not all train trips fall into the Shiki-Shima's price range. Regular intercity rail trips in Japan usually cost between $100-$300, and multi-trip rail passes can make city-to-city journeys even cheaper. All of the stops that passengers on the Shiki-Shima get to see can also be reached on regular JR East trains.

In short, while these luxury trains do offer a completely different travel experience, they do not necessarily offer an exclusive tour of Japan by rail. With a rail pass that costs one-tenth of the cheapest available luxury train fare, anyone can visit the same places and see the same scenery ... albeit not from futuristic, glass-encased observation cars.