Dinner aboard the Seven Stars calls for semi-formal attire. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy
Click here to see previous post: Seven Stars’ introduction, staff and culinary delights
A main raison d’etre of the new Cruise Train Seven Stars is to showcase the natural and artistic beauty of Kyushu. The train’s off-train excursions do not disappoint. (The Society of International Railway Tours’ “Seven Stars Over Japan” luxury rail tour includes the new luxury train as a post-tour option.)
The island of Kyushu is known for its volcanic hot springs (or onsen), and guests on our four-day trip next year will spend their second night off the train at a fabulous resort with their own private onsen. (So there’s no need for sheepish tourists to worry about bathing au naturel with strangers, albeit of the same sex.)
Clouds drift below Mt. Aso, an occasionally active volcano, whose elevation is almost a mile high. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy
Our group enjoyed onsens on two successive nights near Yufuin, which is on the four-day itinerary. I made the most of my onsen experience, enjoying the steaming waters three times.
Once I learned the proper etiquette, I found the experience delightfully soothing. (And don’t worry; we’ll have complete instructions for guests on our luxury Japan by Rail tour, which runs Nov. 5-19, 2016.)
The Seven Stars logos, works of art in themselves, were carefully hand-crafted. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy
I also visited Mt. Aso, an opportunity our guests will have on their final Seven Stars day. Arising at 6 a.m., I boarded the special Seven Stars motor coach for the multi-switchback ride to the top of this ancient, occasionally active volcano.
It was well worth my early rising. The skies were clear, with low clouds filling the spaces between the mountain range’s five peaks. To complete the experience, Kyushu’s famous “red cattle” were grazing in a nearby field, mooing contentedly.
Once back at the Aso railway station, I found a bounteous feast of fresh, locally sourced vegetables, fruits, eggs and meat awaiting us at the trackside, specially built “Kasei” (Mars) restaurant.
Our guide walks in the tranquil garden of Kakiemon Kiln. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy
We also visited Kyushu’s famed Kakiemon Kiln in Arita, whose exquisite ceramics the Dutch East India Company began shipping to Europe in the late 17th century. The ceramics works is still family owned.
The fifteenth-generation boss proudly showed us his business, with his little son, the sixteenth generation heir, skipping along with us. Afterwards, Kakiemon XV, as he’s known, invited us to his tea house, set among the subtle green hues of his carefully manicured garden.
Seven-sided Seven Stars basin, produced by Kakiemon Kiln. JR Kyushu Photo
Proudly, he told us of his late father, Kakiemon XIV, whose final creation before his death were the intricate, seven-sided wash basins which grace each of the standard Seven Stars
Meanwhile, back on the Seven Stars, I took careful inventory of my compartment. In keeping with the train’s striving for perfection, even the windows are special.
My compartment’s two windows each had five separate sections: an outer layer of glass, followed by a second layer of thin, wooden slats; then two sliding traditional Japanese windows with paper panes; then, two heavier sliding wooden windows. The final layer was a light gauzy curtain of gathered material.
Standard suites include a writing desk, with pull-out section for additional room (not shown here) IRT Photo by Owen Hardy
My room contained a minibar stocked with wonderful Japanese juices, green tea, “Swan Cider Tomosu” in its tiny bottle, Asahi “Dry” and Santory “The Premium Malts” Pilsner Beer, and other bottles whose names were written only in Japanese, but whose contents were delicious. (Drinks from the minibar are on the house, by the way.)
My compartment also contained two plugs, one in the bathroom and one in the bedroom, plus a 3-socket multi-plug unit, so you can plug in your iPhone, iPad and iMac all at once (as I did).
Standard suite bathroom, above. All bathrooms have showers with cypress wood paneling and typical Japanese toilets with multiple controls. The train also has one handicapped accessible suite and bathroom. Photo courtesy of JR Kyushu
Also, attention, U.S. and Canadian travelers: Japan’s electrical outlets are identical (almost) to ours, so leave your adapters at home. And WiFi is available throughout the train and works quite well (except in tunnels and other such places).
Also provided in my compartment: toothbrush, razors, cotton balls and two different types of Japanese toiletries. When I couldn’t decide which set I wanted, my cabin attendant happily gave me both.
All the compartments, including the deluxe suites, contain twin beds separated by a night stand. My bed was quite comfortable and easily accommodated my six-foot frame.
One final aspect of the Seven Stars experience also deserves mention, and maybe sums up this over-the-top-train: the music provided each evening in the bar car by a violin/piano duo.
When you book a Seven Stars trip, you’ll receive a confirmation accompanied by a request from the musicians: “please tell us one piece of music you’d especially like to hear.”
In a fit of enthusiasm, I fired off a return email: “The third movement from César Franck’s Violin Sonata.”
“What?” my friend Sam, a retired music professor, exclaimed. “That’s pretty difficult music.”
Violinist and pianist hold forth in the Blue Moon bar/lounge car. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy
Several weeks later, aboard the Seven Stars, I met the musicians and mentioned, a bit hesitantly, that I was the one who’d requested the Franck.
Without skipping a beat, the pianist began the introduction, and the violinist – without music – began the virtuosic opening. He was on solid ground, and I sat listening, entranced, for the next several minutes.
They ended the piece with a drawn-out pianissimo.
“Bravo!” we yelled, nursing our drinks, as the Kyushu twilight lingered outside the bar car’s picture window. (See video below.)
Bravo, indeed, I thought: to the staff, designers, planners, artisans, chefs, JR Kyushu and even to the citizens of this small but beautiful island, who are so proud of “their” train.
The Seven Stars is a true work of art.
The Society of International Railway Travelers®’ “Seven Stars Over Japan” luxury tour, for which we’ve chartered an entire Seven Stars 4-day, 3 night itinerary, runs Nov. 5-19, 2016. For more information or to book, email us at email@example.com. Call (502) 897-1725 or (800) 478-4881.