Leisurely rediscovering Japan’s once regular overnight trains

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Passengers look at the view in a dimly lit car of an overnight train operated by Izukyu Co. that headed out from Ito, Shizuoka Prefecture.

Overnight trains used to frequently chug their way along lines nationwide. These days, they are rarely seen, but the charm of these trains rattling along in the darkness is starting to get back on track. So what is it like to ride one today?

Over a weekend in early November in the city of Ito, Shizuoka Prefecture, there were about 70 passengers on a platform at Ito Station. It was late at night and they were waiting to board the Star Night Express 21, an Izukyu Co. sightseeing train with panorama seating that faces the windows so passengers can take in the view.

When all were aboard the dimly lit train, it departed as scheduled at 10:29 p.m., heading south along the coast of Higashi-Izu, the eastern side of the Izu Peninsula, for the first run of this overnight train tour.

Courtesy of Nippon Travel Agency Co.
Overnight train tours using these retro trains of Chichibu Railway Co. have been organized since 2018.

The about nine-hour trip went back and forth over the 45.7-kilometer stretch of rail between Ito Station and Izukyu-Shimoda Station, the line’s southernmost terminal, in the city of Shimoda.

Planned events included stargazing, with passengers getting off the train at a station near the sea, as well as watching the sunrise.

Unfortunately, a light rain fell during the journey.

Still, company employees Tomoki Inoue, 23, and Ayana Otsuka, 22, both from Odawara, Kanagawa Prefecture, were excited about their first overnight train voyage, saying they had various new experiences such as the feeling of getting off on a platform in the deep of the night.

Courtesy of Willer, Inc.
Shell-type seats are available on some long-distance buses operated by Willer Express.

Enchanting experiences

Overnight trains used to be popular throughout Japan, such as the Asakaze, Fuji and Akebono, which were made up of sleeping cars. These were nicknamed blue trains for their body color.

The improvement of Shinkansen bullet train services and the increase in domestic flight routes, however, led to overnight trains being discontinued. With the final journey of the Hokutosei in 2015, blue train services are all gone.

The only regular overnight service remaining leaves from and arrives in Tokyo coupled together as a single train; decoupled, there are two destinations: Takamatsu and Izumo, Shimane Prefecture.

Formerly, most overnight train passengers opted not to use up time traveling during the day and save on money for accommodations. Today, overnight services cater to travelers who want to take a special journey or just appreciate being on such trains.

Train operators are hoping special overnight train packages can raise revenue.

“I wanted passengers to have an extraordinary sensation only possible from an overnight train,” said Akio Yamanaka of Nippon Travel Agency Co., which sponsored the Izukyu overnight train tour.

The travel company has since 2018 been organizing overnight train tours with Chichibu Railway Co. in Saitama Prefecture, which uses old-style train cars.

“The charm of an overnight train is that it’s not just a means of transport,” Yamanaka said with enthusiasm. “You can experience it.”

Gakunan Electric Train in Shizuoka Prefecture and Kanto Railway Co. in Ibaraki Prefecture also started overnight train tours this year.

“I hope young people will have overnight train experiences and become our future customers,” said Akira Torizuka, the president of Echigo Tokimeki Railway Co., a joint public-private venture in Niigata Prefecture that has been operating overnight trains since 2019.

Operations of super-luxury overnight train services targeted at the wealthy also continue on an irregular basis, with some packages priced at over ¥1 million per person for a two-night stay on the train.

“Small and midsize private train operators own old passenger trains that railfans find irresistible,” said train journalist Kageri Kurihara, who has traveled on one overnight train after next.

“These operators also have little trouble adjusting timetables for their services, so they have all the conditions necessary to operate overnight train services on their own,” he added.

Kurihara thinks, however, it will be difficult for train operators to attract customers over the long term if nostalgia is their only selling point.

“Railways have the lasting allure of iron rails leading passengers to a new destination,” he said. “Train operators should make the most of good ideas to gain new fans.”

Long-distance bus firms upgrade passenger comfort

Following the decline of overnight trains, buses became the leading option for long-distance overnight travel. While their reasonable fares are an obvious selling point, the prevailing opinion has been that buses are not very comfortable for a long journey. Bus operators are trying to dispel that notion.

A case in point is My Flora, a long-distance bus operated by Kaifu Kanko Co. in Tokushima Prefecture, which shuttles between Tokyo and Tokushima. The bus has 12 seats in a space that can usually seat 50, giving each passenger ample space.

Passengers must also take off their shoes on the bus. Each seat is separated from others by panels, forming a compartment in which a small TV screen is installed. The bus is sometimes dubbed a moving five-star hotel.

“As we can’t shorten the distance or the journey time,” an official of the company said, “we’d like to provide a space with a relaxing atmosphere so that our passengers can feel as if they are leisurely resting at home.”

Tokyo-based bus operator Willer Express has also pursued the development of comfortable seats, having introduced about 20 different types of seats so far.

On overnight buses for services between the Tokyo metropolitan area and destinations in the Kansai region, for example, the company installed shell-type seats called Reborn. The seat can be reclined to a nearly flat position.

The company said it has received feedback from passengers such as, “It feels like a first-class airplane seat.”