Since the launch of its first bullet train in October 1964, Japan has been widely regarded as a frontrunner in high-quality rail travel. Over half a century later, the Shinkansen remains an icon of both high-speed and luxury.

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And it has continued to evolve in that time. While the original train from Tokyo to Osaka took approximately four hours, today the same journey takes only two hours and 25 minutes.

Velocity, however, has taken a back seat, for the impending launch of a new exclusive service. Unveiled last year, East Japan Railway’s new Shiki-Shima suite will allow passengers a more leisurely journey through some of Japan’s most beautiful landscapes between Tokyo and northern Japan.

In fact, JR East first signalled its intention to build a new luxury train back in June 2013, issuing a provisional launch date for early 2016. The following year, the company revised its plans with a new exterior design and service entry date of early 2017.

Ahead of its launch, planned for 1 May, we take a look at some of the train’s notable features, and talk to its designer, Ken Kiyoyuki Okuyama.

Japan’s first-class train

Shiki-Shima (which translates as Island of Four Seasons) will consist of ten cars, built by JR East subsidiary J-TREC and Kawasaki Heavy Industries. At the time of writing, the service is currently in its final testing phase. Total construction is forecast to cost in the region of JPY5bn ($44m).

"Its entire length comes to 68ft 3in, with a width of 9ft 6in and height of 13ft 4in.."

The train’s sleek, champagne-gold exterior is consists of a stainless-steel and aluminium mix. Its entire length comes to 68ft 3in, with a width of 9ft 6in and height of 13ft 4in.

Complementing electric traction equipment, Shiki-Shima – formerly known as the JR East E001 series – has diesel engines installed in each end car, which will allow it to operate widely over JR East’s 1,067mm gauge network.

Intended for short trips of one to three nights, the sleeper train has a maximum capacity of just 34 passengers. Journeys start from Tokyo’s Ueno Station, with itineraries including northern Honshu and Hokkaido. Prices start at JPY320,000 ($2,810) per person, making it one of the most expensive rail tours in Japan.

Luxury sleeper cabins

Five of the train’s cars have standard suites, each with fold-out sofa beds, as well as shower and toilet facilities. For those looking for extra comfort, deluxe compartments and one Shiki-Shima suite can be found in another car.

The latter is a maisonette, with a bedroom on the lower floor, living room on the upper floor, and a bathroom – which includes a bath made of ‘hinoki’ (Japanese cypress) – in between. Other top-end features include carpeted floors and walls decorated with ‘washi’, a Japanese paper and lacquer latticework.

Designed to be lavish, this suite costs in the region of JPY950,000 ($8,400), which is costly, even when compared to the deluxe and standard suites, at around JPY900,000 ($8,000) and JPY770,000 ($6,800) respectively. According to JR East, the 17 rooms are intended to appeal to affluent, middle-aged couples.

The observatory car

Shiki-Shima has two-glassed observatory cars, located at its front and rear. The wall-to-ceiling windows allow passengers panoramic views of some of northern Japan’s most dramatic landscapes, while travelling at a leisurely maximum speed of 110km/h.

Offering different tours for different seasons, in the upcoming spring and winter Shiki-Shima will offer excursions to Hokkaido, Aizu-Wakamatsu and Aomo. JR East has also planned itineraries – lasting either four days and three nights, or two days and one night – for Yamanashi, Nagano and Aizu in northern Honshu. They will be available in May and June 2018.

On these journeys, passengers will have the chance to hop off the train and roam through Tochigi Prefecture’s Nikko Toshogu Shrine and visit local onsen hot springs and fish markets.

Fine dining and relaxation onboard

While the lounge wall pattern is modelled on a ‘quiet forest’ motif – inspired by Eastern Japan’s style – the dining car is gold-tinted, and offers cuisine from celebrated Japanese chef Katsuhiro Nakamura. Nakamura, who holds a Michelin star, is director and honorary grand chef at Nippon Hotel, Tokyo. He was previously grand chef at Hotel Metropolitan Edmont.

Guests can expect a fusion of traditional Japanese dishes combined with French cooking methods.

A master in train design

The Shiki-Shima’s styling is the brainchild of Ken Kiyoyuki Okuyama, CEO of Ken Okuyama Design. Okuyama is perhaps best known for his collaboration with some of the world’s leading car manufacturers, such as Porsche and Ferrari.

However, Okuyama is a far from a neophyte when it comes to train design, having previously collaborated with JR East on several Shinkansen projects. These include the JR East E6 introduced in March 2013, and the E7 series which came out the following year.

Okuyama has also been tasked with designing new trains for the Kobe Municipal Subway Seishin-Yamate Line. The service is scheduled to commence in 2018. 

Discussing the Shiki-Shima last year, Okuyama said: “I am confident this will provide a luxurious travel that goes to the ultimate for a cruise on land.”