In the summer of 2015, I set off on the longest continuous land journey I’d ever undertaken in my life, travelling west across nearly a thousand kilometres of track from Tōkyō to Shimane Prefecture. Rather than contend with a long daytime train ride and the inevitable transfers, I decided to sleep away the journey – literally – by booking a room on a very mobile hotel.
Welcome aboard the Sunrise Izumo.
Country : Japan
Railway company : JR Central / JR West (joint long-distance operation)
Service name/designation : Sunrise Izumo (サンライズ出雲)
Service type : Limited Express, Overnight Sleeper
Rolling stock : 285 series EMU
Room type : Single Deluxe
Date of journey : Sunday, 05 July 2015 – Monday, 06 July 2015
Origin : Tōkyō Station (dep. 22:00)
Destination : Izumoshi Station (arr. 09:58 +1)
Journey time : 11 hours 58 minutes
Ticket price : Base fare 11,990 yen, covered by my Japan Rail Pass. Additional cost 16,970 yen (3,240 limited express surcharge + 13,730 accommodation fee), paid upon booking.
If you’re using a JR Pass, the only type of berth that’s fully covered (i.e., with both the base fare and the express surcharge included) is the so-called nobi nobi seat: a stretch of carpeted floor with no mattress and with only minimal privacy. For a private compartment, the Pass will cover just the base fare of 11,990 yen. (It doesn’t matter if you’ve got an Ordinary or a Green Pass; either one covers only the base fare for berth classes higher than the nobi nobi.) The express surcharge of 3,240 will have to be paid upfront at the time of booking, along with the much higher accommodation fee which varies depending on the room. To reserve the best compartment available on the train, the so-called Single Deluxe, I had to present my Pass (for the base fare) and pay an extra 16,970 yen (for the express and accommodation charges).
Let’s have a look at the route. Bear in mind that Google Maps may generate different results depending on the day/time entered, so the track shown below may not necessarily reflect the actual path taken by the train. It should, however, give a good general idea of the direction and distance involved.
Compared with the method I’ve chosen, there are faster and less expensive ways of traversing the roughly 630 kilometres (as the crow flies) or 950 kilometres (as the train flies, er, rolls) between Tōkyō and the city of Izumo, in faraway Shimane Prefecture. This is especially true if one happens to be travelling with a Japan Rail Pass. Allowing time for transfers, the one-way journey on daytime trains could take less than 8 hours, and – if one avoids the few JR trains that Pass-holders can’t use – the total cost of roughly 20,000 yen would be fully covered … in effect, making the whole trip completely free. (Not counting one’s initial investment in the Pass, of course.)
But for a railway enthusiast, the chance to board Japan’s last remaining regularly-scheduled, non-cruise overnight train was far too attractive to pass up. This, of course, in spite of the fact that the journey time balloons to nearly twelve hours, and in spite of the rather substantial extra cost involved.
Availability, or lack thereof, is another potential spanner in the works. The Sunrise Izumo and its sister service the Sunrise Seto are known for booking out well in advance, with the least expensive nobi nobi seats being particularly quick sellers. For my part, I arrived in Japan on 27 June – more than a week before the planned journey – and tried to reserve a place as soon as I exchanged my JR Pass voucher at Kansai Airport. No luck. (I did have a backup plan for getting to Izumo sketched out, and this is something that anyone attempting to travel on the Sunrise sleeper trains should make sure they’ve got prepared.)
Later that day, on the off chance that a berth had opened up, I tried again at the main JR ticket office in Kyōto Station. Jackpot! There was a Single Deluxe available, the most expensive berth on the train … not that the cost mattered because I was hoping to get that room from the start. The clerk behind the counter said with a smile that someone had probably cancelled their booking. (Whoever you are, thanks for changing your mind.)
Fast forward to 05 July. I was in Tōkyō, and by then very excited to embark upon the longest continuous land journey I’d ever undertaken in my life. So excited, in fact, that nearly four hours before the scheduled departure time, I visited the railway station and scouted the precise spot from which I was to board the train that night.
Later that evening, I returned to the same platform to await the Sunrise Izumo. The video I shot of the train as it pulled into Tōkyō Station didn’t turn out very well, so until I recover enough usable footage from that clip, let’s make do with this exterior photograph I snapped the next morning.
I mentioned earlier that the Sunrise Izumo has a sister service, the Sunrise Seto. On every run, each of them uses a 285 series EMU 7-car train set, with two sets coupled together into a single 14-car train at Tōkyō Station. The combined services travel together as far as Okayama, where the trains separate and proceed to their respective final stops. The Seto heads southeast towards Takamatsu (on the island of Shikoku), whilst the Izumo stays on Honshū and marches northwest towards its namesake destination.
Right then, all aboard.
The corridor in Car 11. Small flights of steps lead up to the Single Deluxe rooms and down to the twin rooms on the lower level.
The doors are locked with electronic keypads. You can set your own combination following the instructions posted above the device.
Now for some shots of the room interior (you can click on each image to view a larger version). This is the Single Deluxe compartment, the best room available on the Sunrise Izumo and the Sunrise Seto. There are only six of this type on each service, all located on the upper level of a full-height double-deck carriage, which gives passengers a pretty awesome view out of the large observation windows.
Single Deluxe rooms are fitted with a bed, a desk and chair, and a sink. The rooms were once equipped with (really tiny) TV screens, but those are long gone. All we’ve got left is a radio built into the instrument panel next to the bed.
Pretty basic all around, sure – but compared with the other room types on the train, this is as good as it gets.
In terms of sleep quality … well, the fact that I only managed about three or four hours of shut-eye probably speaks volumes about that, but I should of course stress that this depends mainly upon personal sensitivities. The tiny pillow wasn’t enough for my needs (I usually have at least two full-sized pillows under my head at night), and there was enough noise and movement from the train to make drifting off into dreamland a bit of a struggle.
I also received an amenity kit for the overnight trip, as well as a complimentary card for the onboard shower (more on that later).
Compared with the ultra-luxurious cruise trains that are now being introduced by various JR companies (such as the legendary Seven Stars in Kyūshū), the Sunrise Izumo is a bare-bones hostel on wheels. None of the berths on board has an ensuite bath, although one of the perks of sleeping in a Single Deluxe is access to an exclusive shower room. It’s still shared, yes, but only between the 6 Single Deluxe passengers (and only one person can use it at a time so privacy isn’t an issue). All other passengers must compete for the limited number of cards sold for the train’s other shower room, located near the common area.
Now then, let’s have a look at the Single Deluxe shower room.
The shower booth is separated from the dry entry area by a folding door. The complimentary access card – for one-time use only – gave me a time-bound quantity of hot water flow. Just 6 minutes I believe, although it was more than enough for a proper rinsing since the countdown isn’t continuous: the timer pauses whenever you stop the water and resumes when you turn the water back on.
I was quite glad for the chance to properly freshen up before arrival, but trying to take a shower inside a moving train can be a bit of a challenge. Thank goodness for the built-in handholds.
The train has a small, eight-seat common lounge area where passengers can take their meals. No food is sold on board (though I recall seeing at least one beverage vending machine), so I made sure to purchase my breakfast for the following morning even before I boarded the train.
With its large observation windows, the lounge was a great place to enjoy the scenery over breakfast. Most of the urbanised landscape we passed through in the first hours after leaving Tōkyō seemed pretty dull, but it was late at night during that part of the journey anyway. Further on, after the sun had risen, the train (by this time separated from its sister the Seto) began chugging westwards alone through the highlands of central Honshū, past thickly wooded mountains and running rivers. The view was also quite good from inside the comfort of my own room, where I turned the chair to face the window and leaned back to enjoy the sight of lush summer foliage and verdant rice fields.
After breakfast, I got up and explored the rest of the train. I glanced briefly into the nobi nobi carriage – note the capsule hotel-style bunk beds (or rather, bunk carpet floors with no cushions) stacked in two levels.
Following our arrival at Izumoshi Station – nearly twelve hours after departing from Tōkyō – I stepped off the train and found that the staff had set up a cutout of Shimanekko, the official yuru-kyara (mascot) of Shimane Prefecture, next to the front of the train. In addition to supplying a cute photo-op, the mascot left no doubt as to what part of the country we were in now.
Yes, yes, gentle readers – I did in fact get my picture taken next to the cat. No, I will not post that here. (^_^)
And with that, my first sleeper train experience was at an end. I might not have gotten a very good night’s sleep, but at least I’ve learned how to make the next ride better – bring an extra travel pillow, for one. I’m really eager to try the Sunrise Seto on a future visit, though it probably won’t happen for a while as my next trip to Shikoku will be during this year’s busy autumn season (when I expect it will be even harder to secure a room on the train).
Now then, let’s turn our attention to the place where we’ve just arrived – the very ancient province of Izumo and its renowned shrine…
…which of course will be the subject of a different post.
Until then, cheerio.