Mimi Kirk is a contributing writer to CityLab covering education, youth, and aging. Her writing has also appeared in The Washington Post, Foreign Policy, and Smithsonian.
In a country that really loves its trains, the latest wonder is about more than just a fancy trip.
In Japan, trains are more than just a way to get around. The shinkansen, or high-speed rail network, was the world’s first; after more than 50 years, it remains a symbol of the country’s economic success after the devastation of World War II. Today, these bullet trains stretch across the country, bringing rural locales and cities far from Tokyo into a centralized, urban fold.
The nation’s rail network is already the idol of transportation enthusiasts around the world, and the latest addition is sure to attract even more adoration. A new long-distance train, the East Japan Railway Company’s Shiki-Shima, launched this week, and it’s already earning praise as perhaps the most luxurious train in the world. Its 10 cars hold 17 spacious suites, some kitted out with cypress bathtubs and lofts. And that’s not the only thing that makes it feel like a five-star hotel: This train also sports a piano bar, two glass-walled observatory cars, and even a Michelin-accredited restaurant.
It holds up to 34 passengers, who are squired around eastern Japan for two to four days, paying anywhere between $3,000 and $10,000 for a round-trip ticket. Even at those prices, the train is sold out until March 2018. Demand was so high, at 76 times the availability, that the company conducted a lottery to allocate tickets.
For most Japanese, trains are part of daily life. “The majority of people feel a connection to them, especially because they use local trains to commute—to both school and work,” says Anthony Robins, an active member of the Japanese Railway Society who lives near Nagoya in central Japan. The country has train nerds, too, or densha otaku. They collect used tickets, catalog abandoned rail lines, and assiduously sample lunch box sets only available at certain stations. One such fanatic constructed a room in his home to look like the interior of a rail car. Matchmaking events bring train nerds together for romance.
The Shiki-Shima follows Japan’s first luxury cruise train, launched in 2013 by the Kyushu Railway Company. (Japan privatized its National Railway in 1987, and established six passenger lines to serve different regions; Kyushu operates in the southwest.) West Japan Railway Company will launch its own version next month, with routes originating in Kyoto and Osaka.
These trains provide a flip-side experience to the shinkansen and commuter trains, which are all about efficiency: bullet trains can travel up to 200 mph, and employees known as “pushers” famously cram people into commuter trains at rush hour to get as many people in as possible. The luxury lines, in contrast, leisurely meander around the country at 70 mph. In a culture of overwork, in which “salarymen” and other laborers snooze on their commutes to make up for chronic sleep deprivation (a 2015 government study found that almost 40 percent of Japanese sleep less than six hours a night), a couple of days on the Shiki-Shima provides the ultimate indulgence. Instead of being wedged upright between fellow passengers, one can stretch out in—according to the U.K.’s Metro—“gloriously large beds.”
Alas, with the astronomical fee, it’s not likely that the people who need it most will be savoring such an experience. And it might seem puzzling that a luxury offering is doing so well. Japan’s economy has been struggling to grow, poverty is on the rise, and Japan’s youth often aren’t financially stable enough to leave home, buy cars or houses, marry, and have children. The country’s rapidly aging population will also add to its economic insecurity in the coming years.
So where does the demand for Shiki-Shima trips come from? Robins says that apart from the wealthy, the country’s Baby Boomers, who were better positioned to save during the country’s economic heyday, might splurge—especially those who are densha otaku. But most will only be able to take photos, he says.
Despite the unattainability of the Shiki-Shima and similar luxury lines, Robins thinks they won’t spur resentment among the general population. They’re more a symbol of what the country can continue to accomplish, train-wise—even in a depressed economy. “I think they’ll spur pride in Japan’s design and engineering capabilities,” he says.