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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

Japan's first luxury sleeper train is symbolic of everything the country stands for

The Seven Stars in Kyushu has a sleek design, impeccable service and a fierce pride in the recently modernised nation's rich past

The Seven Stars in Kyushu luxury train has only 14 suites. Photo by Terunobu Utsunomiya
The Seven Stars in Kyushu luxury train has only 14 suites. Photo by Terunobu Utsunomiya

My first inkling that the Seven Stars in Kyushu was going to be something truly special was an email, three weeks before I was due to travel, which asked me to nominate my favourite music. This was, they said, for the benefit of the train’s musicians.

My instant reaction was: ‘don’t do it’. After all, I was dealing with a nation well known for its Karaoke tendencies, so there was a good chance that, if I nominated something, I’d have to sing it, too. But then my second thought was that a luxury train with a very specific dress code (also sent in advance) was unlikely to deteriorate into a singalong; so I emailed a frivolous suggestion and didn’t think any more of it.

Fast forward three weeks, and I find myself in the Seven Stars lounge car listening to a gifted violin-and-piano duo tackling everything from Mozart to Guns n’ Roses, and my ears have started to burn; my Nellie the Elephant would undoubtedly now be in their repertoire, but I certainly wouldn’t be requesting it in public. Shame on me; I should have realised that the Japanese would have a meticulous eye for detail, especially in a high-profile and lavish, new project like this.

The Seven Stars in Kyushu is the world’s latest luxury cruise train. As such, it represents a striking new departure for the Japanese railways, which have hitherto been a byword for anything sleek and fast. For this is the first time the Japanese have invested huge amounts of money – over £20 million – into a single train with the deliberate aim of going slow.

Unlike the rapier-like Bullet, whose porthole-like windows and fuselage-like interior pay little heed to mountains or gorges or forests in its haste to get from one end of country to the other, the Seven Stars is an articulated, liveried reptile that prowls up and down the hills and around the bays of the island of Kyushu, truffling for local delicacies and snuffling out hot springs, stopping for breakfast in old stations, and providing a chance for the likes of me to get an insight into what is still one of the world’s most impenetrable nations.

And it’s not just the on-board musicians who are incredibly well prepared; the train, whose seven carriages accommodate just 30 people in 14 suites, is a showcase of the best of traditional Japanese craftsmanship. Carriage floors are of walnut, walls are rosewood and maple, window coverings are shoji paper screens, sliding glass doors are etched with flowers and birds and kumiko-style latticework. My en-suite bathroom has a hand-painted sink and a shower lined with sweet-smelling Japanese cypress. It is all beautifully done.

The same goes for the on-board meals, which are served in the lounge car and adjacent restaurant car, and delivered to our tables by smiling staff in beautifully presented mouthfuls of locally sourced beef, woodsmoked fish, pungent sea urchin, and various hard-to-identify vegetables and fruits in artistic arrangements of colours it seems a shame to disturb, let alone consume. Moreover, as I discover on our last morning, there’s even a specially built restaurant at one of the stations just for us ... but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Our journey actually starts in Kyushu’s main city, Fukuoka, and within minutes of leaving we’ve all gravitated towards the lounge car, attracted by the conviviality, the music – and the giant, rearview, floor-to-ceiling window. During our four-day loop around the best of the island this window is to become like a flickering cinema screen on which the landscapes of Kyushu act out their various parts.

It is here we first glimpse the volcanoes and the rolling hills covered in forests of cypress and bamboo. Here we watch the unrolling of the island’s shimmering green skirt of rice fields and carefully tended tea plantations. Here we view the unravelling shoreline adorned with beaches and bays and filled with fishing boats and seaweed farms, its evening skies heavy with dragonflies. Some of these scenes remind me of a tropical Scotland – and I begin to understand why and how the Japanese ended up being so ingenious, when they have so little flat land to play with.

Kyushu is actually Japan’s third largest island, the most southwesterly in the nation’s chain and the closest to the Asian continent, which makes it the warmest and most tropically lush. Economically, its profile is fairly typical, with microchip and car spares industries. Topographically, it is far more exciting, being a lozenge of forest and mountain with more than its fair share of volcanoes and spas.

So, within a few hours of setting off on our itinerary, we’ve already got into hot water – or more specifically, our feet have, into a free mineral water footspa on the station platform at Yufuin, a town famous for hot springs in a valley filled with plumes of rising steam.

The journey here has been up through hill country, ambushing rivers, clattering across iron bridges, scything through rice terracing spiced with hurricane lilies – crimson wildflowers that look like splashes of blood against the yellowing harvest. At the station, we are met by the Seven Stars liveried bus, which is to shadow us throughout our journey, ready to pounce wherever we stop to whizz us off to nearby attractions. This time it takes us to a teahouse set in ornamental gardens, with a shopping street nearby famous for its cakes, where we try plum pudding – actually a sort of sorbet with a plum at the centre, and Belle Epoque cheesecake, advertised in English as having a “brand new puffy taste”.

Fast forward a day, and the landscape is completely different. The train has transported us to the south coast city of Kagoshima, where Mount Sakurajima looms, puffing out clouds of ash from a nearby island, separated from the city by a 15-minute ferry journey. I can’t believe how calm the locals are, given how active the volcano is, but they’ve got used to living in its shadow.

This is samurai territory and we visit a Satsuma clan centre and learn how the chiefs gave local oranges to the British in peace negotiations, which is how we came to refer to that particular kind of oranges as “satsumas”. There’s a lot to learn about the clan system, and it comes as a surprise that Japan only ended its self-imposed isolation from the rest of the world as recently as 1867, with the last days of the Edo period. The nation had a lot of catching up to do, and it has done it in double-quick time.

Mind you, it hasn’t quite abandoned the old way of doing things. That evening we take a break from the train to stay the night in Ryokan Gajoen, a luxurious traditional travellers’ inn located in a hot springs resort about an hour inland from Kagoshima. The ryokan turns out to be a rustic collection of low-beamed cottages, cobbled pathways and rootling chickens, with dinner prepared over charcoal using ingredients from the garden. My room has sweet-smelling tatami-matting floors and I assume I’m sleeping in the bed on the balcony over the river until I return from dinner to find that the bed fairies have been at work, magicking a linen-covered futon out onto the sleeping room floor. I don’t ignore the balcony, however, because this is where I have my own personal steaming onsen, ready for me to leap into at any point of the day or night; the proper savouring of hot pools is not one that should be curtailed by the timetable of a train.

Twenty-four hours later we’re on the last leg of the journey, and even though the Seven Stars has moved at leisurely pace, time has flown. On our final morning, everybody opts for the early morning ascent of Mount Aso, leaving the sanctuary of the train to climb (with the Seven Stars bus) through a wind-whacked landscape to the crater at the centre of one of the world’s largest calderas – 128 kilometres in circumference – with a magnificent view of the tessellation of rice paddies, way, way down below.

An hour later, back at Aso station, ravenously hungry thanks to all that mountain air, we are shown into the special restaurant, which has been built here just for the benefit of Seven Stars passengers, and we have to agree that the train company’s attention to detail has been second to none.

Later, rattling back towards Fukuoka and our final stop, we debate which has been the real star of the show: the train, or Kyushu, and conclude that honours are just about even. The verdict of the locals, however, is clear; sitting in the lounge car, watching the retreating island through the big picture window, we are kept busy waving at train fans, who are waving at us. They are very proud of their Seven Stars.