Kyoto-Nara-Osaka luxury train takes passengers on sightseeing trip through historic heartland

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Trains are not always just a quick way of getting from A to B. Recent years have witnessed a proliferation of luxury sightseeing trains in Japan.

From the futuristic champagne-gold carriages of the Shiki-shima, in Tohoku and Hokkaido in northern Japan, to the old-world elegance of the Seven Stars in Kyushu down south, luxury trains transport their passengers through spectacular scenery while pampering them with high-class cuisine and sophisticated amenities.

They abide by the maxim of T.S. Eliot that “the journey, not the arrival matters”.

The latest addition to their ranks, which went into service on April 29, is the Aoniyoshi Sightseeing Limited Express, which connects the western Japan tourist hubs of Nara and Kyoto with its third-biggest city, Osaka.

Its carriages are purple, which “was considered a noble colour even in the Tenpyo Era (AD729-749) and so was chosen to create a sense of luxury”, explains Masaki Sugiyama, publicist for Kintetsu Railway, the company that operates the train.

A gold crest on the front of the train represents a hanakuidori, a mythological bird considered a harbinger of happy times.

Aoniyoshi is a poetical name for Nara, used in the Manyoshu, the oldest collection of Japanese poetry, published in AD759.

It was chosen to “evoke the spectacular beauty of the Heijo Palace in Nara”, says Sugiyama.

The Aoniyoshi consists of four of the 168 “12200” carriages that were made by the Kinki Sharyo company and went into service from the early 1970s with the Kintetsu railway company, serving Nagoya, Ise and Yoshino as well as Osaka, Nara and Kyoto.

Nicknamed the New Snack Car because early versions included a corner with a microwave oven – a rarity at the time – where light refreshments could be served, 12200 carriages were used by various members of royalty.

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Queen Elizabeth II rode in a 12200 in 1975 during the first visit to Japan by a British monarch, and so did the Japanese imperial family when visiting the important shrines at Ise, in Mie prefecture, and Kashihara Jingu, in Nara prefecture.

Having been retired from service in Feb 2021, the four carriages chosen have been given a complete makeover for their new role.

Such a regal ride befits the region the train traverses. For this is the Japanese heartland, the birthplace of the country and its culture as we know it.

Some 1,300 years ago, Nara (or Heijo-kyo, as it was then known) was Japan’s first true city, and the capital of the country for most of the Nara Period (AD710-794). During this time, Japan became a unified state.

Despite having been the capital city for less than a century, Nara’s legacy is astonishing. It boasts eight Unesco World Heritage Sites, collectively known as the Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara.

They include Japan’s oldest wooden structure (Horyu-ji temple) and its earliest Buddhist temple (Gango-ji temple).

Todai-ji temple is the world’s largest wooden structure and home to the world’s largest bronze Buddha, which is 18 metres tall.

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This ancient splendour inspired the Aoniyoshi’s interior design.

“We want passengers to feel as if they are travelling in the ancient capital of Nara from the moment they get on the train,” says Sugiyama.

“The interior is designed to evoke the image of ‘harmony’ as the main theme of the train.

“Tenpyo Era patterns, such as those found in the treasures of Shosoin Repository [the Treasure House of Todai-ji Temple, which dates back to 756], are scattered throughout.”

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Buddhism flourished during the Nara Period, producing not only grand temples but also influencing some of Japan’s finest art, sculptures and monuments, most famously the Great Buddha, the colossal bronze statue at Todai-ji.

Along with the message, “I wish you are always smiling”, this statue adorns jars of Great Buddha pudding, a custard-like dessert available from the Aoniyoshi’s sales counter in car two of the train.

Passengers can also buy products typical of Nara such as pure apple and orange juices, craft beers and a butter cake in a purple box, matching the colour of the train.

In cars one, three and four the seats are arranged in two rows of single seats, each of which can be angled towards the window. Car two has salon seats in groups of four around a table.

They are separated from the aisle by partitions, capped with golden archways, “to create a sense of luxury and privacy”. All surfaces are coated with antibacterial finishing to reduce the risk of Covid-19 infection.

In car four there is a library space stocked with books relevant to the journey that passengers can browse while relaxing on a comfy sofa.

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After a 90-minute ride from Osaka, the purple ensemble pulls into Kyoto, drawing stares from all those on the platform awaiting their workaday trains.

The ride may be over, but the history lesson continues as passengers step out into the streets of Kyoto, imperial capital of Japan for more than 1,000 years from AD794-1868, with 17 Unesco sites, sublime temples and gardens, exquisite tea rooms, geishas and ancient ryokan inns.

ALSO READ: Japan weighs ending pre-arrival Covid test requirement: Nikkei

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.

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