Cassiopeia - Japan's luxury on rails
Written by Toby Osborne
Beneath starry night skies, Japan Rail’s brightest star, the ‘Cassiopeia’, runs between the capital Tokyo and the city of Sapporo, on the northernmost island of Hokkaido.
A luxurious overnight train sweeps across the moonlit countryside of Japan. With the same name as the distinctive constellation of five bright stars in the heavens – itself named after a queen of Greek mythology who would boast about her own unparalleled beauty – the moniker ‘Cassiopeia’
is appropriately romantic, cosmic, and tranquil-sounding.
Not since the days of the Orient Express has a train attracted travellers looking for the gentle rock of the rails to accompany a good night’s sleep, whilst getting from
A to B. A sedate version of the famed Japanese ‘Shinkansen’, what the Cassiopeia might lack in speed (around 160kph slower than its ‘Bullet Train’ cousins), it makes
up for in sheer style.
With plush seating and stylish interiors, the Cassiopeia night train is seductively soothing for those seeking to relax during the 16-hour one-way trip that links the southern Japanese isle of Honshu to the northern island, Hokkaido.
Departing the night before from Ueno, in Tokyo, the northbound ride calls at several stops before it reaches the tip of Honshu, where
it dips beneath the sea into the 54km-long Seikan Tunnel, to emerge on the southwest tip of Hokkaido bright and early the next morning. A few hours later it delivers its passengers in the prefecture’s capital of Sapporo, just in time for breakfast. The return trip leaves the next day. Yet, for many, the real journey is the ride itself. Consisting of 12 passenger cars,
the train also has a lounge car
and a deluxe suite at the tip or tail – depending on the direction of your journey, north or south.
The accommodation is immaculately furnished in a modern style, reminiscent of a luxury cruise ship; the private rooms are reasonably spacious (at least equal to the minimalist hotel rooms in Japan), with large windows to watch the moon and stars pass by, and well-appointed with beds, sofa,
and a TV, as well as en suite
shower and toilet facilities.
Of course, if you’re peckish during the night, the decadent onboard dining car (reservation only) offers French cuisine and traditional Japanese fare at its best. In-between cars (and meal times), the vending machines – which Japanese travellers would find reassuringly familiar – offer convenience foods and snacks. And the in-room service, as you would expect, is impeccable.
The cost for accommodation is what you might expect from a luxury hotel on wheels, with rooms starting
at a flat rate of 27,000 yen (approx US$300), regardless of where you board or leave the train. You can
ride the Cassiopeia on a basic fare, without staying in one of its rooms – but where’s the fun in that?
The 54km-long Seikan Tunnel, connecting Honshu and Hokkaido, is the longest undersea tunnel in the world.
Sapporo: Cold Beer and Snow
Many native Japanese like to escape to cooler Hokkaido in the warmer summer months, to avoid the sweltering heat in the south. Yet, most outsiders will be familiar with Sapporo as host city of the 1972 Winter Olympics, the first to be held in Asia.
Sapporo also has a claim to fame for its main tourist traps: ‘Yuki Matsuri’ (the annual Sapporo Snow Festival, each February, with incredible ice and snow sculptures); and the Sapporo brewery, makers of the ‘Sapporo’ brand of beer... naturally.
Shinkansen: Bullet Speed!
Each year, a total of 130 million passengers travel on Japan’s Shinkansen ‘Bullet Trains’. Much faster than the sleepy Cassiopeia, which runs at a modest 110kph, the original Shinkansen trains had a top speed of 200kph. However, this was soon increased to 220kph and eventually 270kph when the Nozomi model was introduced in 1992.
The fastest recorded speed for a Shinkansen was reached by the MLX01 in 2003 – a breathtaking 581kph!