A luxury hotels on wheels: on board Japan’s spectacular Shiki-shima train

A luxury hotels on wheels: on board Japan’s spectacular Shiki-shima train

For Train Suite Shiki-shima passengers, the five-star experiences starts at Tokyo station. On arrival they walk a red carpet along Platform 13.5 to the train doors, where they are greeted by bowing staff. A striking, futuristic vehicle in champagne and gold and with geometric cut-out windows, the train is laden with opulent and inspired touches. There’s round-the-clock butler service, bespoke furnishings, piano recitals and exquisite cuisine prepared under the guidance of Japan’s first Michelin-star chef, Katsuhiro Nakamura. Artisan touches are everywhere, from intricate, hand-cut glassware to energy-saving contemporary chandeliers and the metal “branches” in the forest-inspired lounge.

Rewind to 1964, when Japan unveiled its first bullet train, a game-changing innovation that kept breaking its own speed records. Today the country is no less cutting edge when it comes to rail technology, though the approach has moved to leisurely paced luxury. Train Suite Shiki-shima, which launched in May and is booked until mid-2018, is a case in point. Unlike its high-speed Shinkansen cousins, the 10-car sleeper train – operated by JR East – puts pleasure over pace. It travels from Tokyo and through the regions of Kanto, Tohoku and northernmost Hokkaido at speeds of up to 68mph (110kph) – a third of the speed of the fastest bullet train, which operates at 200mph (320kph).

The entrance to the train

The Shiki-shima joins the ranks of Seven Stars, the opulent sleeper that traverses the southern Kyushu region, which launched in 2013; the deluxe Twilight Express Mizukaze, which debuted in western Japan in June; and the wood-lined Royal Express, which commenced service in July. But back to the country’s most hyped luxury hotel on wheels. Shiki-shima has 17 suites featuring contrasting panels of warm cedar and red lacquerware, futons that are set up after dark, and modern washi-style lanterns. The dining car offers a menu inspired by the seasons (the train’s name means Island of the Four Seasons) and the regions through which the train travels. Two bright, white observatory cars at either end of the train provide front-row seats for soaking up the views of forest, field and sea.

One of the two observation cars CREDIT: GETTY IMAGES

The man behind this brave new world of train travel is Ken Kiyoyuki Okuyama, known for his work with Porsche, Ferrari and several bullet trains. His aim with Shiki-shima is to tap into the contradictions that lie at the heart of Japan’s identity: fusing the old and new, the traditional and futuristic. He tells The Telegraph: “To connect the past with the future, I have tried to imbue Japanese culture with new expressions, incorporating contradictory elements – static and dynamic, tradition and innovation.” And how would he sum up Shiki-shima? “It’s the future tradition of Japan.”

Five of Train Suite Shiki-shima’s most impressive features

Sunlit suites with cypress-wood baths
It’s tempting to add two more words to Okuyama’s summary: soothing and spacious, particularly when talking about the two split-level suites in Car 7. Here, the standout features are the light-filled bathrooms, where passengers can enjoy a soak in deep, square, traditional-style baths made of aromatic hinoki cypress wood from the Kiso area of Nagano. The baths, which would not look out of place in a high-end ryokan, sit beneath a window with a delicate sliding screen. The best suites also feature tatami mat areas with sunken seating, fresh flowers, glass fireplaces and bespoke Swarovski binoculars for gazing out of those panoramic windows.

A deep soaking tub is the standout feature in this suite’s bathroom CREDIT: GETTY IMAGES

Observation cars with shades of the forest
A different atmosphere prevails at each end of the train, where futuristic scarlet-red corridors (one with a glass door to showcase the high-tech engine room) lead to the observation cars. A white framework with abstract cut-out windows arcs above contemporary Italian white-leather sofas and chairs. The textured carpet in an array of greens – inspired by moss and designed by the architect Kengo Kuma – adds a natural dimension to the airy space.

Pathways to perfection
The narrow corridors leading to the suites evoke a classic Japanese aesthetic. The white latticework panels, with floral motifs, employ the Japanese kumiko woodwork technique (fire-safety standards prompted the designer to use laser-cut aluminium rather than wood). An upwards glance reveals a ceiling lined with handmade strips of metal, bringing to mind the Suzu-ki tin traditionally used to make tea caddies. The suite doors are covered in woven brown metal strips.

Elegance on a plate
The food in the restaurant car is as subtle and exquisite as the décor – a calligraphic brush of black garlic sauce beneath a piece of roasted Iwate beef, or flower-strewn sea eel and cucumber. Each windowside table — half-moon shaped on one side of the carriage, square on the other — is an exercise in contemporary craftsmanship. There are square black lacquerware placemats, made by artisans in Aizu in Fukishima Prefecture; custom-designed knives and forks created by craftsmen and women at Yamazaki Kinzoku Kogyo, whose cutlery graces the tables of Nobel Prize award-ceremony banquets; and the delicately cut Edo kiriko-style sake glasses handcrafted by specialists at Kobayashi Glass in Tokyo.

The train’s dining carriage CREDIT: GETTY IMAGES

Low speed, high-tech
The train may not move quickly, but Shiki-shima’s technology remains cutting-edge. It has an advanced electric diesel control system, which means its motor can, unusually, be used on either diesel or electric lines. It is also the only passenger-carrying non-bullet train in the country that has the technology to travel through the undersea tunnel linking Japan’s main Honshu island with northern Hokkaido. Trainspotters will be delighted with the transparency of the interior design: glass walls showcase the engine, conductor and train driver, along with his control panel.

Train Suite Shiki-shima offers one-, two- and three-night trips for between £2,150 (Y320,500) and £6,300 (Y950,000) per person, full board.