Long distance train travel has been one of the best ways to see Japan, as you get to explore the country’s varied landscape – from countryside to coastal areas, as well as the mountains, rivers, and rice fields in between with the extensive rail network. It is a journey that would become extra special if the train you are taking is one of the rare overnight trains which travels to amazing destination with much to see and explore.
The Sunrise Seto サンライズ瀬戸 and the Sunrise Izumo サンライズ出雲 are two overnight trains travelling from Tokyo to Takamatsu in Kagawa Prefecture and Izumo in Shimane Prefecture respectively. Driven by the idea of passengers can wake up to the beautiful sunrise as well as the scenic views of the Seto Inland Sea or the ancient city of Izumo the next morning, the Sunrise Seto and Izumo are very popular and in fact the last sleeper trains that are still operating in Japan.
First, let’s take a look at the routes of Sunrise Seto and Izumo. Departing at 10 pm daily, these two trains actually travel together in a single unit from Tokyo Station up until Okayama Station, where they split and then proceed to their respective destinations. The entire journey from Tokyo takes about 9 hours and 30 minutes for the Sunrise Seto which heads towards Takamatsu on the island of Shikoku, and 12 hours for the Sunrise Izumo which goes to Izumo on the Sea of Japan side. On the return trip, these trains depart separately from Takamatsu and Izumo and are coupled together again at Okayama Station before making way to Tokyo Station which is the final stop of the services.
Inside the cars
Unlike ordinary trains, there is no standard seating inside the cars of Sunrise Seto and Izumo. Instead, the sleeper trains offer several types of accommodation to passengers just like a hotel.
Image: Ann Lee on flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0
The most basic sleeping arrangement is called the “nobi nobi zaseki” ノビノビ座席 or “stretch-out seats” which are literally flat, carpeted floors with partitions so that passengers can stretch out and sleep on the futon. The areas offer limited privacy as there is no dividers separating you from the adjacent bunks. Nevertheless, it is very popular because it is included in the price of a ticket and you don’t have to pay extra accommodation charge for it. The seat is also fully covered by the Japan Rail Pass.
Image: x768 on flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0
Passengers who look for more comfort and privacy can choose to stay in the private cabins with additional upgrade charges. There are different types of individual sleeping compartments available, namely Solo, Single, Single Deluxe, Single Twin and Sunrise Twin. These cabins also come with pyjamas, pillows, blankets, and clock radios.
Besides common facilities such as toilets and vending machines, the trains are also equipped with shower rooms which require a shower card to use. The shower cards are sold on board but only 20 cards are available because of limited water supply. A shower card allows you to shower for 6 minutes and is priced at 320 yen each (with the exception of Single Deluxe passengers who get to use the dedicated shower room in their carriage for free).
There are also mini lounges where passengers can sit back and take their meals while enjoying the scenery outside the large windows. Please note that no food is sold on board so be sure to pack your own food and drinks for the trip – an ekiben for breakfast would be a good idea, don’t you think?
Why are these trains so popular?
Aside from a few seasonal luxury cruise trains that do limited runs, Sunrise Seto and Izumo are the only regularly operating sleeper trains in Japan. Long distance night trains used to be very common in Japan in the 1960s but became increasingly rare following the introduction of the Shinkansen bullet trains, overnight buses and budget domestic flights, even the famous Hokutosei and Cassiopeia which served routes between Tokyo and Hokkaido also ceased operations in 2015/2016. Given the affection the Japanese have for their trains, it is not hard to understand why these last surviving night trains are popular.
Besides, Shimane (https://japanwalkersea.com/shimane-place-history-begins-mythology-part-1/) Kagawa (https://japanwalkersea.com/10-reasons-visit-kagawa-besides-sanuki-udon/)prefectures are really good, despite remote, destinations which become all the more attractive when you can combine them with Japan’s overnight train experience.
In Izumo, you certainly want to visit Izumo Taisha, Japan’s most important shrine after the Ise Grand Shrine; have a taste of the local specialty, Izumo Soba; head to Matsue and enjoy a boat ride along the castle’s still functioning moat, and savour the many dishes featuring the delicacies of Lake Shinji. You can even catch a ferry to Oki Islands, an archipelago in the Sea of Japan that has been designated a UNESCO Global Geopark due to its geological heritage.
In Takamatsu, you must try the regional specialty Sanuki Udon which is touted the best udon noodles in Japan; take a stroll around the Ritsurin Koen, an Edo-period garden rated maximum 3 stars by the Michelin Green Guide Japan; visit the flat-topped mountain of Yashima with panoramic views on the peak and interesting open air museum at the base, not forgetting also the interesting islands such as the arty Naoshima or Shodoshima which is known for its soy sauce, olive groves, and nature.
Taking the Sunrise Seto and Izumo trains
Image: the.Firebottle on flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0
It should be noted that some people may find the noise and movement from the trains a hindrance to their sleep and some actions such as taking shower in the cubicle. Having said that, knowing what to expect would help you get ready for the trip, such as bringing an extra pillow, blanket, ear plugs, or eyeshade for example, to make your time on board more comfortable and enjoyable. After all, it is a unique experience not to mention you can save on a hotel bill and long daytime travel for real sightseeing!
Image: Cheng-en Cheng on flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0
Advance reservations are mandatory to take the Sunrise Seto and Izumo trains, which can be made at the ticket office called Midori no Madoguchi みどりの窓口 found in many JR train stations. As the tickets sell out very quickly, those who are interested in reserving the seats are recommended to do so as soon as they arrive in Japan. There is no online booking available for these trains. It would be wise also to have a backup plan such as an alternative date in case you could not get a berth on a specified day.
The Sunrise Seto and Sunrise Izumo are Japan’s only remaining sleeper trains that may disappear anytime in the near future. If you like train travel and love to experience various kinds of train services in Japan, why not give them a try while there is still a chance?
More info: http://www.jr-odekake.net/train/sunriseseto_izumo/ (in Japanese)