Contrary to cliche, you can eat well on a British train. I’ve had locally sourced hog’s pudding on the Penzance express, and some fabulous breakfasts.
But you’d look in vain on our rail network for anything like this. Six starters look up at me from their pretty bamboo box. There is beef wrapped round some shrubbery, which is delicious. There are unrecognisable vegetables and – cripes – a plate of fugu, the infamous raw pufferfish. I tuck in… tasteless.
Next a bowl of chawanmushi – a gloopy savoury custard containing, ominously, ‘assorted ingredients’.
Colour burst: A train journey showcases the best of Japan’s scenery, from fields of flowers to active volcanoes
For a naïve gaijin (foreigner) like me, arrival in Japan is a series of mild culture shocks, of which the food is the most immediate, hovering on that knife-edge between ecstasy and horror.
But I can recognise that for railway food this is something else, full-on kaiseki (Japanese haute cuisine) experience staring out of a panorama window at bamboo forests and volcanoes in what might be the most opulent train in the world.
The Seven Stars In Kyushu is a seven-coach, 16-suite hyper-luxury train, which trundles at 40mph around the southernmost of Japan’s main islands.
It is Japan’s answer to the Orient Express. Its ‘cruises’, which take in the major tourist sites of Kyushu over two or four days, can come in at a cool million yen per suite (£6,200). And demand outstrips supply.
There are places for foreigners but you have to put your name down in early January if you want a berth next summer. So should you? If you can afford it, yes. The £20 million train is lovely – its designer, Eiji Mitooka, has swathed every square inch in maple, rosewood, walnut and cypress.
On track: The Seven Stars train is like the Japanese version of the Orient Express
The carriages are bespoke things of
beauty and the locomotive is a burgundy art-deco diesel, a cross between
an old sports car and a toy. As for Japan itself, there is a lot lost
in translation – an ignoble tradition of Westerners writing the same
weary cliches about Japan: scrutability (lack of), tube-train-crammers
and high-tech toilets.
Exotic land: Many tourists are overwhelmed by the cultural differences in Japan, from dress and behaviour to the unusual food
It is obligatory to conclude that this is a nation of Martians who have very nice trains and Hello Kitty.
In fact the similarities between them and us – island races, proud history, fond of beer, iffy relations with the mainland – are probably greater than the differences. What I can say for sure is that this is an astonishingly beautiful country.
Outside Tokyo, most of the archipelago comprises endless, dense forests of pine and bamboo, lofty peaks, rumbling volcanoes (Japan has 108 active ones) and thousands of miles of mesmerising coastline.
Kyushu, in the deep south, is a mountainous island about half the size of Ireland, with a lush, near-tropical climate. I found an almost unsettling calm.
After the train tour I got a boat
across Fukuoka Bay and walked seven miles along the sandy, pine- covered
isthmus that connects the mainland to Shikanoshima. I saw one other
human being in three hours and the beach from which I swam I had to
abounds. The train has a theme tune and a pianist-violinist combo to
play it. The smiling staff are terribly sweet. Everyone is terribly
But there are
rules. You approach Japanese etiquette with some terror, but I reckon
it’s all a bit of a game. Smile politely, don’t shout and – here’s the
big one – don’t ever blow your nose in public. Dress more formally than
you’d perhaps be used to.
Waterside city: Kagoshima sits opposite Mount Sakurajima, the most active volcano in Japan
In many ways Japan is a bit like
Fifties Britain, with far more money. The train has a dress code –
complete with a set of hilarious pictures all passengers are sent before
I spent a
night off-train (as paying guests will do) at the Wasurenosato Gajyoen
ryokan, a traditional Japanese country inn and one of the best in the
country. The dinner, a 13-course affair, was unforgettable.
New flavours: Japanese haute cuisine is served up on the train
At first there was no obvious place to sleep in my palatial room, but during dinner the bedfairies came with a cosy futon. My bathroom had a volcanic spring, in which you could bathe, and a tree growing out of the ceiling.
Nagasaki, a stop on the train cruise, is – again – a rather serene place, a bowl of steep hills and glittering sea, hushed, higgledy-piggledy streets and lots of Catholic churches.
You shudder to realise that almost no building dates to before August 9, 1945, when the city was destroyed by the ‘Fat Man’ plutonium bomb.
But the scenic highlight of the trip for me was Kagoshima, the most southerly city in Japan. Sitting at the head of a deep sea inlet, it faces a large volcanic island called Mount Sakurajima, possibly the most active volcano in the world. When I was there it went off twice, blowing huge clouds of steam and ash into the blue skies.
This is a lovely spot, and I could have done with more time here.
Japan is still a global hyperpower. It has the fastest trains, the cleverest robots, the most reliable cars, some of the most influential film-makers and, yes, one of the most interesting cuisines in the world.
So it is very strange that more of us do not visit. The countryside is astounding and, outside the cities, Japan is as calm as the Hebrides. You won’t get to know it in a few days; that takes decades. But you will see some astonishing sights. And eat some quite remarkable train food.