By Neil Halligan
Seven Stars, which brings you on a journey around Japan’s most southerly island, Kyushu, offers a holiday and dining experience that is right up with there with the very best in luxury experiences
A journey through Japan's southern island of Kyushu on board a luxury cruise train is not your typical holiday, admittedly, but when it comes with a pleasant dining experience – like that on board Seven Stars - it’s one worth considering.
Kyushu has seven prefectures – hence the name Seven Stars – and the luxury train, one of many in the country, has been an outstanding success for its operators JR Kyushu (Kyushu Railway Company).
Future journeys on board the train – which are either two days and one night, or four days and three nights – are booked out months in advance.
Kyushu enjoys a significant amount of inbound tourism in the region from Korea and Taiwan and China. Seventy-five percent of all cruise ships that come to Japan stop in Kyushu and JR Kyushu has reinvented itself as a premier tourist company.
While the name does not refer to the guest rating, the whole experience from start to finish was every bit the advertised five star, and that starts from the moment you arrive at Seven Stars’ welcoming ‘Kinsei Lounge’ at Hakata train station.
Designed by Eiji Mitooka, the same designer who created the interior of the Seven Stars train, the lounge’s Nara pine floor and wood panelling, and the art on the wall, gives you a sense of what awaits on board the train.
The short menu features a mixture of cold and hot beverages, including green tea and sweets, all locally sourced in the Kyushu region – again a taste of what’s to come on board. After the official welcome from Seven Stars staff, we're guided down the escalator to the platform where the maroon-coloured train, embossed with gold trim and writing, is attracting plenty of attention from curious locals and tourists alike.
Drawn by a locomotive engine, the train has seven carriages capable of accommodating a total of 30 people in the 14 suites. The last carriages are the dining car ‘Jupiter’ and the lounge car ‘Blue Moon’, is also the observation car that features a floor to ceiling window for passengers.
The train itself is said to be to the brainchild of JR Kyushu chairman Koji Karaike, who had dreamed of making the idea of a ‘Cruise Train’ reality as much as two decades ago.
He finally enlisted Mitooka to create the fusion of Japanese and Western design for its interior and the result is a stunning décor that beautifully combines wood with fabric.
There is also an incredible attention to detail, even down to the small pieces of art that adorn the walls. Local artisans were sourced to create the intricate masterpieces.
We’re given a tour of the spacious train and its facilities. As you’d expect on any train, the hallways are tight, but the cabins are spacious – much more roomier than the famed Orient Express or the Ghan, a more knowledgeable passenger noted.
Each of the regular suites comes with two single beds and a writing desk. The toilet has a cypress panelled shower stall and an Arita porcelain washbasin (made by the late Sakaida Kakiemon XIV).
We’re on the shorter journey of two days, one night and after acclimatising in the room’s surroundings, the ‘Blue Moon’ car with its large viewing window, is where most congregate.
While the décor and the views have the ‘wow’ factor, it’s the food that’s the real star on this luxury train, and that’s quickly apparent when lunch is served.
In keeping with Seven Stars’ theme of sourcing locally, the food is very much ‘seven stars’, with ingredients supplied from each prefecture in Kyushu each menu, all of which is prepared on board by a team of highly qualified chefs.
For those requiring halal food, chefs use seafood and vegetarian meals as an alternative.
Entitled ‘Seven Stars Gozen’, the seven-course lunch meal starts with a selection of appetisers served in a bento-style box, including smoked trout from Miyazaki, Yobuko squid from Saga, Japanese tiger prawn from Kumamoto, stewed donko shiitake mushrooms from Oita and a miso dish from Fukuoka.
The steamed dish – a white flesh fish with kuzu – came served in a wide, black hand-made bowl. Every bit as delicious as it looked.
Third was hashiyasmume, which the menu said translated as palate-cleansing. It consisted of Goto udon noodles served with nuts, onion and ginger on the side, as well as a small jug of soy sauce.
The main meat dish came with Mitsusedori chicken grilled with salt, again with about nine different sauce and seasoning accompaniments that added so much to an excellent dish.
Further courses included Kenjou rice from Kusa, a miso soup served with vegetable and Japanese pickles. The dessert, if you have room, was a seasonal fruit with soft tofu.
The two-day journey travels through the four prefectures of Fukuoka, Saga, Nagasaki, and Kumamoto and the first stop after lunch is at Arita, a quaint town that boasts a six-kilometre-long main street.
The town’s speciality is producing Arita porcelain, one of the traditional handicrafts of Japan, and the tour guide brings us on a journey back in time to tell the detailed history behind the various pieces. There’s also a trip to the kilns to see the process behind making the porcelain pieces.
After the two-hour stop, the train takes its most scenic journey around the lake Omura Bay. The setting sun provides the perfect backdrop, ahead of another sumptuous meal.
Dinner is a more formal setting, with a very Japanese feel to it.
Again, it’s another incredible culinary journey through Kyushu, with eight courses on the menu (including coffee).The gazami crab amuse gueule starter was presented with the crab in a Japanese spoon (the one bite – amuse guele) and came with a misu-like soup.
That was followed by Turbo cornutus risotto, a gateau squid, prawn and green asparagus, a spiny lobster and tilefish dish, a grilled beef tenderloin with three kinds of sauce, and the speciality of the night, Sara Udon, a beautiful meat, green vegetable and udon dish served in a soup.
Rounding off the menu was an ice cream, sherbet, blancmange and jelly fruit dessert.
By the time dinner was over, we had arrived at Nagasaki, where there was time to step off the train and stretch the legs.
Back inside, a night of musical and magical entertainment awaited, the highlight of which was the exceptional musician who played some local and European tunes on her erhu (a stringed instrument, similar to a violin), including the Irish tune The Moorlough Shore.
As we went to bed, the train was still moving towards its next destination, but any worries about getting to sleep were quickly soothed by the gentle rocking of the train along the tracks.
Next morning was breakfast at Hita, before the onward journey to Yufuin in the Oita prefecture for a bit of sightseeing and a walk, before lunch in a traditional Japanese restaurant. The train returned to its original starting point of Hakata, where the friendly staff again greeted us once more.
Country Holidays is the designated representative and the only contracted agent of Kyushu Seven Stars in the Middle East. There are two methods to book a journey with Kyushu Seven Stars: Individual cabin or train charter booking. Usually, you will need to book at least six months in advance to secure the cabin or train, or to join a guaranteed departure organised by Country Holidays. The next charter is 23 -28 Mar 2017 during the cherry blossom. For more information, visit countryholidays.ae