Decommissioned sleeper train to reopen as Hokkaido guesthouse

The Yomiuri Shimbun
A Hokutosei train car sits at a site in Hokuto, Hokkaido

HOKUTO, Hokkaido — Luxury sleeper train, the Hokutosei, is set to welcome customers again — this time as a guesthouse. The popular train was decommissioned in 2015, but will get a new lease on life when it opens late April in Hokuto, Hokkaido.

The train’s two passenger cars retain many original fittings, including bunk beds, showers and washrooms, helping conjure an nostalgic atmosphere.

The Hokutosei began service in 1988, coinciding with the opening of the Seikan Tunnel, which facilitated a direct link between Sapporo Station and Tokyo’s Ueno Station. The French cuisine dinner was a popular feature and the Hokutosei was considered among the finest luxury sleepers. The train was retired before the launch of the Hokkaido Shinkansen line in 2016.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
The Hokutosei sleeper express in operation in January 2015

The Hokutosei was the last long-distance sleeper train — nicknamed “blue trains” in Japan — to be withdrawn from service, bringing to an end Japan’s over 50-year romance with high-end overnight rail travel.

Following decommission, the cars were transferred from Hokkaido Railway Co. to a local civic group, which launched a preservation campaign. The group opened the train to the public at a site close to Moheji Station — previously a station skipped by the Hokutosei.

“I’d like to spend the night on Hokutosei again,” reads a message in the visitors’ book inside one of the cars. Members of the civic group subsequently hit upon the idea of turning the train into guesthouse in hopes of “making this dream come true.”

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Michitoshi Sawada is seen inside the Hokutosei, which is set open as a guesthouse in April.

The group repainted the cars, repaired the ventilation system and newly installed water and gas supplies. Group representative Michitoshi Sawada, 42, says the venture has received an informal green-light from a public health center and plans are set to move ahead.

Each room is equipped with two bunk beds, but only two people are currently allowed in each room as an infection-prevention measure against COVID-19. The cars boast seven rooms in total and the rate is ¥10,000 per room (tax not included) per overnight stay. The guesthouse will open from the Golden Week holidays starting late April to around November, though it is not yet possible to make reservations.

Sawada has been a fan of the Hokutosei since he was a youngster, and recalls how he would wait for it to pass at a crossing after his school club activities and see passengers enjoying dinner in the dining car. These occasions inspired in him a wish to ride the train when he grew up, he says.

“The Hokusei bears a similar name to my hometown [Hokuto], and I hope the guesthouse will enjoy the same level of popularity as the train once did,” Sawada said.