4 must-ride Tohoku tourist trains to enjoy winter roll by

4 must-ride Tohoku tourist trains to enjoy winter roll by

by Shoepress
Live Japan

Japan's Tohoku region sees rather high snowfall in winter due to its northeastern location, and if you happen to be visiting the country during this period, the beautiful snowy landscapes during this season is something you absolutely should not miss out on!

Other than regular attractions like skiing and snow-covered hot springs, another great way to enjoy the season's incredible sights and sounds is through a nice and leisurely railway trip on sightseeing trains specially outfitted for that purpose. We're talking about trains with entertainment facilities like the traditional Japanese kotatsu (heated table with blanket), foot spas, live musical performances, and more!

Here are five such scenic railway journeys that will give you an unforgettably magical winter experience.

1. Tsugaru Railway's "Stove Train" (Aomori)

True to its interesting name, the carriages of Tsugaru Railway's "stove trains" are heated with "daruma stoves," a nostalgic relic from Japan's past. These traditional space heaters rely on the burning of coal to perform their function, and these beautiful Tohoku tourist trains only run during the winter season in Aomori Prefecture.

Stove trains were first deployed in 1930, and the ones currently running are fourth-generation ones! Still, the train decor sticks to its traditional roots, with floors and seats all fashioned from wood.

What really gives you that vintage mood, though, is the daruma stove installed in front of the carriage for passengers to warm themselves up with.

Stove train specialty: Stove-grilled dried squid!

Once everyone is comfortably seated, the train sets off on its fantastical winter tour, and the first special amusement you'll find on board is the food trolley that comes to your seat. Our recommendation? Get some dried squid! This is really what being on a scenic railway journey through Tohoku is all about.

Why, you ask? Because you can grill your dried squid directly on a pan on top of the daruma stoves providing heat - something you'll never get to do on a regular train! Little wonder that it's such a great hit with Japanese and non-Japanese tourists alike.

Don't worry if you've never baked dried squids before - an attendant or staff will be on hand to show you the ropes and give you tips on how to see when it's best to remove the squids from the grill for consumption.

Pair your slices of hot and chewy squids with some sake (Japanese alcohol) to bring out the best flavors in both!

Where can I find a stove train?

The stove trains run three round trips a day during a limited period between December 1 to March 31 of the next year (specifically: two round trips on December 1 and weekdays, and three round trips on weekends).

The route plied is from Tsugarugoshogawara Station on the western part of Aomori Prefecture to Tsugarunakasato Station - a distance of about 20.7 kilometers, or 12.8 miles.

There are no assigned seats so you can feel free to sit anywhere you like, and no reservation is required either. That said, seats located directly in front of a daruma stove are limited, so you'll have to queue up early for them if that's your goal for the trip!

Passengers taking the stove train will have to pay an additional 500 yen for a "Stove Train Ticket", on top of the regular ticket price for the route.

For reservations and more information
・Phone: 0173-34-2148 (Tsugaru Railway)

* Languages other than Japanese are not supported.

Measures against Covid-19
Disinfection, sterilization, and cleaning of interiors, facilities, equipment, etc. / Sanitizer installed / Regular disinfection / In-vehicle ventilation measures taken / Plastic partitions installed / Staff wear masks, gargle, wash hands regularly, and monitor body temperature / Passengers who are feeling unwell are requested to refrain from entering / Masks required / temperature check enforced.

2. Sanriku Railway's "Kotatsu Train" (Iwate)

Now, let's head over to Iwate, where Sanriku Railway, a local train service that plies a scenic route along the sea operates the enigmatic "Kotatsu Train" on weekends and holidays between mid-December and March each year.

Never heard of a kotatsu? This term refers to a wooden frame structure shaped like a low table. On the underside is a heater, and the sides are covered with a thick futon or blanket so that people seated around can keep their legs warm as they relax.

The kotatsu is a piece of essential furniture for Japanese winters - most local households have one. Like the reluctance to crawl out of a cozy nest of blankets on a frigid morning, many who have sat in a kotatsu have commented that they wished they never had to leave its warm embrace.

What if we said you could enjoy the kotatsu experience throughout your entire train trip? And that you could even choose to go for the traditional Japanese kotatsu or a spunky new Western take on it? These are just a couple of attractions you'll find in one of Sanriku Railway's meticulously designed kotatsu trains!

Introducing the traditional kotatsu train and Western kotatsu train

The standard kotatsu train is manned by an attendant who's there to help passengers look out for sightseeing spots and get off at the right stations. You'll also be served one of their original bento lunch boxes if you've made a reservation in advance.

Choose from three types of lunch boxes: "Ichigo-ni Bento (with Iso-jiru)" (1,500 yen) with sea urchin and salmon roe from Sanriku; "Iwaizumi Shorthorn Beef Roast Bento" (2,500 yen) with seaweed soup and apple pie made with Miyako's "Daimu" apples; and the local specialty, "Bindon" with seasonal seafood in a milk bottle, that's served over rice (1,500 yen).

As you're relishing your meal in warmth and comfort, don't be surprised to suddenly hear a loud voice crying out, "Namakemono wa inee ka? (Is anyone feeling sluggish?)"

Meet the northern Iwate Prefecture's Lunar New Year mascot, Namomi! His job is to remind people to behave properly and be nice to each other for the new year ahead.

You may be startled by his ogre mask at first, but he's a friendly chap who will oblige you for a selfie, so go ahead and have some fun with this traditional Iwate event if you like!

Now, on to the Western kotatsu train, which features a classic decor with plush seats. The attendants here don a full set of traditional kimono top and pants, and a different meal lineup is served as well!

Pick from The "Special Nigiri Santetsu Sushi" (2,500 yen), Riasu Sandwich Box (with Yamase-kun Salted Milk Pudding) (1,000 yen), the "Rias Sandwich Box" (1,000 yen), or the "Bottled Rice Bowl (1,500 yen)", an exciting meal that packs plenty of seasonal seafood treats into a milk bottle along with a portion of rice.

The attendant on this scenic railway journey will also perform a traditional picture-story show to entertain passengers during the trip, so you can be sure there are a lot of things to see and do on this tourist train as well!

Where can I find a kotatsu train?

The traditional kotatsu trains run on weekends and holidays between mid-December and March every year, plying the route between Sanriku Railway's Kuji Station to Miyako Station on Sanriku Railway's Riasu Line.

As for the Western kotatsu train, it runs on weekends and holidays between December to February every year. The train departs from Miyako Station at 11:05 a.m. and will reach Sakari Station at 1:55 p.m., both on Sanriku Railway's Riasu Line.

Reservations for assigned seats will open two months before the date of departure. Only reservations over the phone are accepted. Other than the regular train fare for the route, you'll have to pay an additional 300 yen for the seat assignment fee.

For reservations and more information
・Hours: 9:00 a.m. – 5:30 p.m.
・TEL: 0193-63-7727 (Sanriku Railways)

Measures against Covid-19
Disinfection, sterilization, and cleaning of interiors, facilities, equipment, etc. / Sanitizer installed / Disinfected after each guest leaves / In-vehicle ventilation measures taken / Plastic partitions installed / Staff wear masks, gargle, wash hands regularly, and monitor body temperature / Adjustments made to the number of passengers and seat spacing / Declining passengers with a temperature of 37.5°C or above / Masks required / temperature check enforced

3. JR East's "Resort Shirakami" (Aomori to Akita*)

The photo is from the green season

Resort Shirakami is a rapid-transit tourist train that travels on the approximately 147-kilometer (91 miles) route between Akita's Higashinoshiro Station to Aomori's Kawabe Station. This is one of the scenic railway journeys to take in the beautiful winter sights of the Japan Sea in a comfortable train seat!

The interior of the train is decked out in gradations inspired by beech tree clusters. Plenty of materials that have been used to make the fixtures and fittings in the train, such as beech, Akita cedar, and Aomori hinoko leaves, can also be found along the route the train is traveling on, enhancing the experience and drawing passengers closer to the landscape they're enjoying from the windows.

The boldly colorful seats were designed to bring out the celebratory mood of Tohoku's summer festivals. It's certainly hard not to feel somewhat excited sitting on them!

(*Ed. Note: As of November 2022, due to heavy rains in August 2022, operation is from Aomori to Ajigasawa.)

A stream of endlessly fun events to take part in

Cultural immersion is one of Resort Shirakami's fortes, and passengers can look forward to seeing acts that include anything from Tsugaru-shamisen live music to traditional puppet shows.

Although acts are only performed in Japanese, everyone can feel free to enjoy the electrifying mood of a live show being performed right in front of them, so don't let the language barrier make you shy away from any event that seems interesting!

Along the way, when the tourist train passes by must-see scenic spots like Mount Iwaki, Shirakami-Sanchi, or Senjōjiki Coast, it will slow down to allow passengers to take in the sights at a leisurely pace. It even makes a long stop at Senjōjiki Station for 15 minutes so that anyone who wishes to get closer to the winter landscape can take a stroll along this beautiful beach if they like.

(*Ed. Note: As of November 2022, the train does not pass by the Senjōjiki Coast.)

Where can I find Resort Shirakami?

Resort Shirakami stops at all 43 stations between Higashi-Noshiro Station and Kawabe Station. Other than the usual train fare for the distance you'll be traveling, you'll also need to pay a seat assignment fee. Register your email address to gain access to the JR East Free Wi-Fi service that keeps you connected even as you're on the move in the train!

For reservations and more information
・Phone: 03-3843-20001 (View Reservation Center)
・Hours: 9:30 a.m. – 6:00 p.m.

*Languages other than Japanese are not supported.

Measures against Covid-19
Indoor disinfection measures taken / Sanitizer installed / Disinfected after each guest leaves / Ventilation measures taken / Coin trays used / Plastic partitions installed / Staff wear masks, gargle, wash hands regularly, and monitor body temperature / Limited capacity / increased space between seats / Entry declined to anyone who is feeling unwell / Masks required / temperature check enforced

4. Echigo TOKImeki Railway's Echigo TOKImeki Resort Setsugekka (Niigata)

Niigata is a prefecture located next to the Japan Sea and adjacent to Fukushima. Resort Setsugekka departs from the Joetsu region of Niigata, and offers fabulous views of the winter landscape from the comfortable confines of its carriages.

There's a lot to admire about this Tohoku sightseeing train's design. For example, seats in the front most carriage are made to look like lounge chairs decked out in the yellow - a color often associated with Echigo cedar and an abundant harvest. The best part? They offer a clear view of Mount Myōkō and the Japan Sea out of the carriage's wide and expansive windows!

Carriage 2 is a restaurant car, and its design is nothing to be sniffed at either. Large tables and comfortable seats entice passengers to come in for some quality relaxation. The carriage also has an observation deck and a sakura lounge.

While the train is on the move, the conductor will make announcements (only in Japanese) over the PA system whenever it passes by scenic spots, so it's a good idea to pay close attention to the announcements and look out of the window to catch these places of interest whenever prompted!

Don't forget about the food!

Food and drinks served on this train certainly live up to Niigata's reputation for being the production place of high-quality ingredients.

Passengers are welcomed with a delicious glass of original sparkling wine specially created for Setsugekka by Fermier, a Niigata winery. A single sip of this premium brew is enough to overwhelm your senses with delectable sweetness, though don't be too disappointed if you're not an alcohol person. Equally tasty juices and ciders are available for picking as your welcome drink as well.

The bento sets that many passengers look forward to contain different items depending on whether you're on board the morning or afternoon train.

For trains departing from Jōetsumyōkō Station in the morning, passengers will be delighted with a French full-course meal formulated by Michelin 2-star chef, Ryuta Iizuka, who hails from Tōkamachi.

The meal makes use of seasonal ingredients from Niigata to ensure that the food is always fresh. Each change of season marks a change in ingredients and appearance as well, which makes the meal even more exciting than usual!

The afternoon trains that depart from Itoigawa Station, on the other hand, features a full course of Japanese dishes created by Tsurukiya, a long-established traditional restaurant.

Enjoy the sweet-tasting meat of local specialty red snow crab in sushi form, treat your taste buds to the savory goodness of grilled seasonal fish, or stick with chawanmushi, a popular and well-known traditional egg custard side dish. It's up to you to decide how to best enjoy the flavors of Japan through this meal course!

The train will also stop for 15 minutes at a few stations like Myokokogen Station and Naoetsu Station in order to allow passengers to head out and interact with the locals and buy some souvenirs if they desire.

Where can I find Echigo TOKImeki Resort Setsugekka?

This train operates on weekends and holidays all-year-round. The morning service departs from Jōetsumyōkō Station towards Itoigawa Station, going the other way around for the afternoon service. Both morning and afternoon trains will pass by Myokokogen Station.

There are four courses to choose from: the "Christmas Course" at 24,800 yen for Christmas hospitality, the "Crab Course" at 27,800 yen for fresh seafood, the "Takada Course" at 27,800 yen for a tour of a castle town in the snow country, and the "Arai Course" at 27,800 yen for an experience in Araijuku, a charming inn town along the old Hokkoku Highway. Reservation is required at least 10 days before departure.

For around three hours, passengers aboard Resort Setsugekka can look forward to good food, good drinks, good views, and a chance to broaden their horizons by interacting with local residents. Many leave fully satisfied with the experience, and you likely will too. Tickets come with a free gift as well, which is certainly gravy on top of all the other perks already present!

For reservations and more information
・Phone: 025-543-8988 (Echigo TOKImeki Setsugekka Reservation Center)
・Reservation Hours: 10:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. (Mondays to Fridays only)

Measures against Covid-19
Disinfection, sterilization, and cleaning of interiors, facilities, equipment, etc. / Sanitizer installed / Disinfected after each guest leaves / In-vehicle ventilation measures taken / Coin trays used / Plastic partitions installed / Staff wear masks, gargle, wash hands regularly, and monitor body temperature / Adjustments made to the number of passengers and seat spacing / Declining passengers who are feeling unwell / Masks required / temperature check enforced

So how about a relaxing and romantic train ride across some of the most scenic sights Japan has to offer during the wintertime for your next trip? You'll get to see what the Tohoku region has to offer from a completely different point of view, and the memories you gain will add much flavor and meaning to your Japan trip!

Text by: Shoepress
English translation: Huimin Pan

* The information in this article is as of January 2021.
Please check the official websites for the latest information.


Via Live Japan

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