Japan's old trains make new tracks
THE old-school railway trains are being given a new lease of life in Japan, in a bid to draw both locals and tourists alike.
Fresh dining options have been introduced on some stretches in the past month, making a train ride along those stations anything but boring.
There is a disused train that has been transformed into a hotel - for travellers who prefer a quirky accommodation option.
Here is a round-up of the latest initiatives that were announced this year.
GOURMET FOOD TRAIN
Kyoto Tango Railway's gourmet sightseeing train, Kuro-Matsu, has begun a new service, in which chefs cook local food in front of the passengers.
The service, which started in April, offers freshly made dishes that are available both on the trains and also on the station platforms along the line.
Kuro-Matsu runs through the northern part of Kyoto Prefecture.
There are four-course meals that can be served either to or from Toyooka, Hyogo Prefecture, the train's terminal.
The "Betsubara" course, for instance, comes with four relatively light dishes and a gift - which you can select from an array of small Tango chirimen (silk crepe) goods.
At the platform of Kumihama Station in Kyotango, Kyoto Prefecture, Takeshi Fukuda, senior managing director of the Shotenkyo tourism association, was busy serving ryoshi-jiru (fishermen's soup).
As the steam rose from the soup, Fukuda chatted with passengers who asked him about his secrets for making tasty soups.
At Amino Station, Ryusuke Obata, head chef of Torimatsu, a restaurant in Kyotango, cut some local bara-zushi (colourfully decorated pressed sushi) into pieces.
"This sushi originally is a homemade cuisine served on celebratory occasions or at festivals. In that sense, this local food is a 'treasure' that you can't find in other places," he said.
Restaurant Kanemasu no Shichirinyaki in the city of Miyazu in the prefecture serves chargrilled seafood on the platform of Miyazu Station.
Passengers eat semi-dried fish, called ikkokuboshi. Such fish include young squid, sawara Spanish mackerel and aji horse mackerel.
Said Mr Obata: "Ordinary local dishes are new to those from other places and a delight to them. The new train service has given us the opportunity to increase our appeal as a tourist attraction," he said.
East Japan Railway's defunct sleeper express, Akebono, has been renovated into a hotel.
It opened recently at the Kosaka Railroad Rail Park in Kosaka, Akita Prefecture.
Akebono, an overnight express train, ran between Ueno and Aomori stations until March 2014.
The newly opened train hotel is popular not only with nostalgic elderly people - who used to take the train to work - but also among young people, who may now be interested in the sleeper due to its rarity.
The hotel train is located at an amusement centre built on the defunct Kosaka mine railway.
In the evening, four carriages, including Akebono, are led by a diesel engine that pulls into the platform at a wooden station in the park. There, it welcomes guests aboard.
Guests can choose between the "single deluxe" room that can accommodate up to two people, and a room designed for solo travellers.
On board, travellers can get the full train experience.
For example, members of the Kosaka railway preservation society wear conductors' uniforms and entertain guests by making station and train announcements.
Guests can also listen to the sound of the train engine, and blankets and pillows provided are the same ones used during Akebono's operating days.
Since the train hotel opened on April 22, it has been popular, with up to 80 per cent of single deluxe rooms booked almost every day during the Golden Week - a cluster of national holidays that occur around end-April.
A company employee and his wife, both 34, from Adachi Ward, Tokyo, stayed at Akebono on April 29. "The distinctive feel of a night train is indescribable," he said.
ABOARD THE TRAIN RESTAURANT
A new tourist train composed entirely of restaurant cars has been launched by Seibu Railway Co.
The Seibu Travelling Restaurant has the tagline "52 seats of happiness".
The new train travels between stations such as Ikebukuro and Seibu-Chichibu for about 100 days a year, mainly on Saturdays and holidays.
It has four cars seating a total of 52 people.
Both the interior and exterior of the train was designed by Kengo Kuma, the architect in charge of the new National Stadium.
The outer facade of its light blue cars feature characteristics of each season in the Chichibu area, such as shibazakura flowers and the coloured leaves of the Chichibu mountains.
Washi paper and wood from the prefecture are used to construct the interior of the train cars. Motifs of limestone caves and mountain streams are incorporated in the design as well.
Chichibu meisen, a traditional local silk cloth, is used as a partition between the carriages.
Passengers can enjoy meals made from locally produced ingredients. The menus were created with the help of famous chefs, and are cooked in an open kitchen on board.
A ticket with a meal costs 10,000 yen (S$124) for brunch and 15,000 yen for dinner.
Reservations are required, however, as all seats for both courses are currently booked through the end of June, according to a company official.
THE YOMIURI SHIMBUN/ASIA NEWS NETWORK