Local gourmet trains, aboard which passengers can enjoy local foods and alcoholic drinks while beautiful scenery moves past the windows, have been appearing across the nation.
Local railway companies suffering from a decline in passengers due to falling populations aim to attract passengers from outside by promoting the charms of their respective regions through their food.
The Mahoroba train, operated by the Akita Nairiku Jukan Tetsudo, left Kakunodate Station in Semboku, Akita Prefecfture, carrying 29 passengers at around noon on May 23. The single-car train is an "ozashiki" train equipped with tatami flooring. Passengers enjoyed a two-hour journey to Aniai Station in Kita-Akita in the same prefecture. The train ran slowly, taking twice the time an express train takes running the same section of track.
The selling point of the train was the local food, which passengers enjoyed along with the slowly changing scenery through the train windows.
On the train, there were menu items accompanied by the names of women from farming households along the railway line, such as "Pickles from Yoshiko-san" or "Fujimi-san's maze-gohan" (cooked rice with added ingredients). Those who cooked these dishes waited for the train at stations on the route and carried the dishes onto the train.
Passengers enjoyed the rice using fuki, which was in season, and pickles with relish, while taking in beautiful views of valleys, rice paddies laden with snow meltwater and other scenery.
"I felt the food was great as I could see the faces of mothers in farming families," said a 45-year-old woman from Daisen in the same prefecture. "And the wisteria flowers we could see through the train window are so beautiful."
The Mahoroba train started operations last year. While it offered bento lunch boxes with onigiri rice balls last year, the food was enriched this year thanks to co-operation from farmers. The fare, including food, costs ¥5,800 for one adult.
As the train gained more popularity, the number of applications for the service in May and June exceeded the figure last year, so the railway company decided to offer the train service on Sept. 5 as well.
While the company carried about 1 million passengers a year in the 1990s, the number declined to 340,000 in fiscal 2013 due to population decline in areas along the railway line.
"We will have no choice but to discontinue the railway if this continues, so we hope to attract passengers from outside," said Shinichi Saito, an official at the railway company. "We hope many people will notice the charms of the railway and the areas along the line by taking the tourist train and become our fans."
There also is an expectation that the areas along the railway line will be revitalised if the number of passengers increases.
Noto Railway Co. in Ishikawa Prefecture started operating a local gourmet train by taking advantage of the extension of the Hokuriku Shinkansen. The company has been operating the Noto Satoyama Satoumi-go train between Nanao Station in Nanao and Anamizu Station in Anamizu, both in the same prefecture, since April.
For train services that operate mainly on weekends, the company offers a "sweets plan," featuring sweets using local ingredients made by Hironobu Tsujiguchi, a patissier hailing from Nanao. Food and train fare under the plan cost ¥3,000 for one adult.
The JR Iiyama Line has been operating the Hashiru Noka Restaurant (Running farmers' restaurant) train between Nagano Station in Nagano and Mori-Miyanohara Station in the village of Sakae in Nagano Prefecture about once a month since April, making use of its Oikotto tourist train.
On the train, local dishes such as sasazushi, or sushi wrapped in bamboo grass, are offered. The prices for the train service, including fare and food, start from ¥8,000 for an adult.
Such trains increased in number after the success of the Orange Restaurant Express, which Hisatsu Orange Railway Co. began operating in March 2013. The train runs three or four times a day between Yatsushiro, Kumamoto Prefecture, and Satsuma-Sendai, Kagoshima Prefecture, mainly on the weekend. On the train, passengers can enjoy food and alcoholic drinks while gazing at the sea in the Kyushu region. That service attracted about 14,000 people who used the train in fiscal 2013, when the number of passengers overall increased for the first time in six years.
"Local gourmet trains hold the charm that passengers can easily enjoy local food cultures, and therefore can pull in customers at large," said Takashi Noda, a travel writer who is familiar with railways.
"The challenge for them is how to increase repeat customers," Noda added. "They will need to create ways such as providing a sense of the season by using seasonal ingredients and offering opportunities to have exchanges with local people."
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