Tetsudō otaku (train geeks) will love a ride on one of a number of colourful themed trains that have been launched in Tōhoku. These sleek ‘joyful’ trains offer travellers a novel and stylish way of flitting about the countryside. Best of all, they can be boarded with a standard JR Pass or JR East Pass (subject to seat availability) for no extra cost. If you don’t have one of those, then just pay the usual fare between the two destinations. Either way, you can book your seat at any JR office. Visit www.jreast.co.jp/e/joyful/index.html for a full listing of novelty trains, including times and routes. Following are our personal favourites:
Resort Shirakami If you plan to travel from Akita to Aomori, consider making the ocean-facing, three-hour journey on the wondrous Resort Shirakami (¥3350). The beech-wood interior is light and spacious, allowing maximum viewing of the Sea of Japan. Trains leave Akita at 8.20am, 10.40am and 2.17pm. From Aomori, choose between 8.10am and 1.51pm.
Toreiyu Tsubasa Cut through the stunning Yamagata mountains with your feet in a hot-spring bath (advanced reservation needed), or seated on a tatami floor sipping local sake. Trains (¥4940) depart Fukushima at 10.02am and return from Shinjo at 3pm.
FruiTea Fukushima This specialist fruit-themed train-cafe on wheels, travels six times a day from Kōriyama to Aizu-Wakamatsu (¥1140). Sip citrus teas, eat fruit-laden sponge cake or just crunch an apple and enjoy the colourful ride. Trains leave Kōriyama at 9.41am and 12.44pm for the 90-minute journey. Alternatively, you can catch a train from Aizu-Wakamatsu at 11.08am and 3.06pm.
SL Ginga A very special SL Ginga series steam locomotive has recommenced service along the route from Hanamaki to Kamaishi (¥1680) via Tōno, inspired by the novel Night on the Galactic Railroad. The design is reminiscent of the Meiji era with soft leather lounges, period photographs and decorative brass awnings. Trains depart Hanamaki at 10.37am (4½ hours) or leave the other way from Kamaishi at 10.55am.
Genbi Shinkansen Art and/or train lovers should check out the Genbi Shinkansen 'art train', which operates between Niigata and Echigo-Yuzawa (¥5380) six times daily. It’s a short and fast ride featuring a contemporary art gallery, a children’s art area and a stylish stand-up cafe-bar. Trains depart Echigo-Yuzawa at 8.24am, 12.44pm and 3.20pm, or from Niigata at 11.26am, 2.02pm and 6.18pm.
Pokemon Train From the cartoon exterior to the extensive on-board playground facilities, this one is squarely for the kids. It runs once daily from Ichinoseki to Kesennuma (¥2960) and back again. Leaves Ichinoseki at 11.05am and Kesennuma at 3.08pm.
Tōhoku Emotion There's train travel and then there's train travel: this stunning new service running daily between Hachinohe and Kuji (¥4430) definitely falls into the latter category. Gourmet cuisine is served in intimate dining areas and the decor and service are worthy of far higher fares. The service was initiated as a way to attract travellers back to the tsunami-affected region and your patronage is graciously welcomed. Leaves from Hachinohe at 11.05am or Kuji at 2.20pm.