By Atsushi Ebihara
OSAKA, Oct. 17 (Xinhua) -- The major railway operator on Japan ' s southwestern island of Kyushu launched railway sightseeing tours on Tuesday with the newly-constructed sleeper train, the " Seven Stars in Kyushu." The new service is an attempt to carry more tourists from all over the world to the island's countryside, with the aim of stimulating the local economy.
The exclusive sleeper train, named after the number of prefectures on the island, began carrying paying passengers this week from the region's central railway terminal, JR Hakata Station in Fukuoka Prefecture.
Speaking at a departure ceremony at the central station, Koji Karaike, president of the Kyushu Railway Company (JR Kyushu), told passengers they would be offered the finest travel on the new cruise train that will change how people travel in Japan, starting in Kyushu.
According to the railway company, the new train is composed of seven carriages pulled by a locomotive. There are five sleeping cars, one dining car and one lounge car with a bar and piano. In addition, four of the five sleeping cars contain only three "suite " rooms per car, whose interior is gorgeously decorated with the island's traditional Arita porcelain. Each 20.5-meter carriage is colored a deep red to increase the vivid contrast of the train running along scenic routes by volcanic mountains and the island's ocean views.
The company invested about 3 billion yen (about 30.3 million U. S. dollars) in the luxurious train capable of carrying 30 passengers, hired talented crew members speaking several Asian languages including Chinese, and has also set up new cafes, restaurants and shops supplied mainly by local farmers and designed with the same luxurious style of interior, furnishings, dishware and so forth found on the train in order to create a comprehensive Seven Stars brand.
In fact, some of these new businesses are even located on the platform of a station facing a volcano, which is one of the train' s stops. Now, the railway operator's goal is for people in addition to Seven Stars passengers to enjoy the local character of the communities on the route.
A JR Kyushu spokesperson said to Xinhua that passengers on the train will enjoy a four-day tour trip, in combination with optional bus tours to locations such as the two major volcanos of Mt. Aso in the center of the island and Mt. Sakurajima on Kagoshima Bay. All travelers are also invited to spend the second night of the 1,100-kilometer journey at a highly reputed traditional inn with natural hot spring baths.
Those with busy travel itineraries can book a two-day package tour on the train to Mt. Aso, as well as to exotic Nagasaki Prefecture to see the centuries-old historical roots influenced by Christian and Chinese culture. These tours are organized three to four times a month and may not be available due to train maintenance.
She added that the sleeper train has already "fully" reserved, until June next year, for domestic and international visitors from China's Hong Kong.
Meanwhile, "unusual" prices for the tour packages have attracted local media attention. For example, a basic four-day sleeper plan with a suite, including all meals plus one night in a top-class inn, starts from 380,000 yen (about 3,843 U.S. dollars) per person, while the most expensive option, which includes staying in the A-class deluxe-suite room with a floor area of 21 square meters on the observation car, located in the rear of the train, costs more than 1.1 million yen (about 11,100 U.S. dollars).
Speaking to Xinhua about the new train, Kenji Sasaki, a travel analyst, said that what made the unique tour possible is that compared with other parts of the country, each prefecture on Kyushu Island has its own rich historical, cultural and natural spots, and that the railway tracks go along scenic routes.
In addition to these reasons, the latest travel trends are another key factor to understanding the new project. In Kyushu, the railway transport networks were already developed by 1900 under the newly-established Meiji government to carry people as well as agricultural products, timber and coal to strengthen local industries at the time. But the number of railway passengers in the countryside has decreased recently due to depopulation and the development of motorway networks on the mountainous island.
Therefore, the railway operator is pressed to once again utilize the idled gourd facilities and personnel to attract more tourists and revitalize the economy. Similar cases can be seen in other rural parts of Japan.
Sasaki noted that the debut of the cruise train is epoch-making and even timely for Japan, where tourism has emerged as a growth industry, stressing that such train tours may lead to a local economy of scale attracting not only domestic tourists, but also luring more visitors from abroad who can experience local character that is different from the typical image of Japan. "This is a completely new venture for the Japanese railway industry." Sasaki added. "When you consider the quality of services both on the train and off, as well as the variety of tour options, the prices they offer are reasonable." He went on, "At the same time, the tour organizer should offer different trip arrangements, taking into account the needs of both locals and ( international) travelers if they want repeaters in the long term."
The Seven Stars in Kyushu has just left the platform on its maiden journey, carrying its first passengers. Local residents have high hopes it can help revitalize the economy. Japanese industries including other major railway companies will be keeping a close watch on how the venture turns out.