In the last twenty years, night trains have faded from Japan’s landscape. These iron and steel giants that once traversed Japan’s landscape have all but faded into memory, except for two trains that still make the journey.
The main islands of Japan were still covered by a series of night trains.
A Dying Breed
Due to aging trains and growing competition from inexpensive competition from buses and low-cost airlines taking customers to the same destinations the number of night trains has declined decade after decade until the Sunrise Seto/Izumo is Japan’s only operational, night train duo.
Night Trains saw a significant drop in passengers and revenue. Total customers on overnight trains moving from Tokyo in 2005 was estimated to be one-fifth of what it was in 1987. Japan Rail planned to remove the bulk of nighttime services due to aging equipment and staffing issues.
Over forty sleeper trains were eliminated from service from the late 70s to the early 2000s.
before the bullet train (Shinkansen) nighttime trains were popular across Japan. These “blue sleeper trains” were used by the country’s affluent as well as tourists to travel in luxury. Night trains, on the other hand, have become a rarity, a throwback to a bygone era, and better-priced trains.
Blue Trains got its moniker from the color of its railway cars. They were sleeper coaches that connected key locations in Japan spanning long distances. Other routes were served for a while by a series of newer limited-express nighttime trains that weren’t blue.
As the Shinkansen expanded and regional airports opened over the last half-century night trains were gradually phased out, with five Blue Train trips being canceled in 2008 and 2009, six more between 2010 and 2015, and ending operation in 2016.
Japan now has just two-night express trains with sleeping cabins, the Sunrise Izumo and Sunrise Seto.
Traditional seating is not available on the Sunrise Seto/Izumo. It has individual cabins and carpeted compartments are known as nobi nobi areas. These areas are basically a place to lie down with a partial divider between areas. This type of seating or sleeping area offers little in the way of privacy.
Ticket Prices for the Sunrise Express
Of the two sleeper trains in operation now the prices are not fully covered by the JR Pass and an additional fee is imposed. The fee charge above your JR Pass will be dependant on what type of cabin you choose on the Sunrise Express. The extra charges will range from $86 to $155 USD.
The Sunrise Seto/Izumo requires bookings in advance. It’s worth remembering that nobi nobi seats, in particular, usually sell out, and that bookings from locations outside Japan are difficult to access online.
Tickets can be purchased at a JR Midori no Madoguchi in Japan or online through the JR West Seat Reservation online up to one month before boarding. Holders of the Japan Rail Pass can book a Nobinobi space for free or pay the added cost for express and berth costs for a cabin.
Midori no Madoguchi (green window) ticket booths at JR stations with MARS terminals offer tickets for all JR Group trains, as well as some highway buses, route buses, and ferries. Passengers can reserve bus and rail tickets up to one month in advance of their trip.
One Train Becomes Two
Sunrise Seto/Izumo are two trains that travel joined together between Tokyo and Okayama before decoupling at Okayama. The Sunrise Seto continues on to Takamatsu, Matsue, and Izumo, while the Sunrise Izumo travels to Matsue, Izumo, and Takamatsu.
Himeji is a stopover on the way from Tokyo to Okayama. Osaka is only served by trains headed to Tokyo.
Stops Along The Way
The Sunrise Izumo operates daily from Tokyo and Izumoshi in Shimane Region, traveling 592.5 miles in about 12 hours. Between Tokyo and Okayama, the route is conjoined with the Sunrise Seto train to Takamatsu.
The coupled fourteen-car train travels from Tokyo and makes stops at Yokohama, Atami, Numazu, Fuji, Shizuoka, Hamamatsu, Himeji , and Okayama.
The seven-car Sunrise Izumo train stops in Kurashiki, Bitch-Takahashi, Niimi, Yonago, Yasugi, Matsue, and Shinji between Okayama and Izumoshi before reaching Izumoshi.
The return train leaves Izumoshi and meets the Sunrise Seto from Takamatsu at Okayama Station, where they will depart together after they have been reconnected and arrive back at Tokyo Station the following morning.
Accommodation and Amenities
There are six different types of accommodations available aboard the Sunrise Express:
- Single Deluxe
- Sunrise Twin (2 Persons)
- Single Twin (1-2 Persons)
- Nobi nobi (less privacy)
Seto Train cars 3 and 10 each have a shower. Passengers in the A Single Deluxe cabins receive a free shower card to use the train’s facilities, but other passengers must pay $3 USD for a shower pass if they wish to use the showers.
In cars 3 and 10, there are also viewing lounges. In cars 3, 5, 10, and 12, there are beverage vending machines.
Izumo Train cars also have the same layout and procedures for showers and have the same car order numbers (3,10) for viewing lounges. Vending machines are also mirrored in the same cars (3,5,10 and 12)
Showers on both trains are small but efficiently laid out. Once you reach the train car with the shower onboard you will take your shower card and insert it into the machine (labeled in English and Japanese). Your card will eject back out and a timer will show six minutes.
There is a start-stop button on the water to allow you to lather up and rinse as needed. After completing your shower don’t forget to press the shower room clean button upon exiting for the next passenger.
Inside the small shower room, you will find a wall-mounted hairdryer and mirror to dry your hair.
Points to Remember
- Sunrise express leaves daily from Tokyo Station at 10pm
- Total travel time is 12 hours
- Total distance traveled is 592.5 miles
- No food service but vending machines available
- Free open seating (nobi nobi) with JR Pass (reservation still required)
- Shower is available (6 minute max)
- 14 car train splits at Okayama
- Pajamas, slipper, pillows, provided in private cabins
- Shower cards should be purchased when boarding $3 USD
- Deluxe cabines recieve a free shower card
- Louge or viewing car open to all passengers
- Bento lunchs, snacks, drinks available at the stations
- No WiFi Service on board
If your a fan of trains and specifically Japanese trains this will be a once-in-a-lifetime train ride across the sleeping countryside of Japan to find yourself on the far western side of Japan opposite Tokyo. It’s a great chance to experience what once was common in Japan.
I advise taking this trip since most of these sleeper trains have faded into only memories.