Despite the innumerable wonders Tokyo has to offer, many foreign tourists from around the world hunger for a deeper experience than what Japan's capital has to offer. Yet, the idea of venturing beyond urban areas may conjure fear of tackling the feat of driving, deciphering Japanese road signs, and—for many foreign tourists—"driving on the wrong side of the road". Luckily, Japan's less populated areas are also home to some of the most interesting, gorgeous, and luxurious trains the world has to offer; they're just waiting to whisk you off to your chosen destinations.
The Kansai region offers ideal starting points for a dreamlike locomotive journey. Trains like the Hiei, Kirara, Shimakaze and the stunningly luxurious Twilight Express Mizukaze, ferry passengers onto a wide array of bespoke experiences, tailored from the simplest taste to the most ardent hunger for opulence. Collectively, the first half of the quartet immerse you in the rural beauty of Greater Kyoto before a journey to Ise Jingu: the legendary genesis of Japan's spiritual life.
Hiei & Kirara trains
Drafted in an aesthetic somewhere between the Meiji era and a futuristic manga, the Hiei sports an elliptical window at each end—apparently in tribute to the shape of its route and in homage to the mysteries of nature. It runs on two lines of the Eizan Railway: the Eizan Main Line and Kurama Line. Both lines depart from Demachiyanagi Station in Kyoto, and both terminate at sacred mountains topped with temples. From Shugakuin Station, transfer to the Kirara, bound for Mount Kurama. At the top of Mount Kurama, you will find Kurama-dera, a fabulously "old-school" Buddhist temple providing stellar views of the surrounding valley. It's also home to a power spot, called a Kongosho, this six-pointed star is said to represent the six ways in which we sense and interact with the world: through sight, smell, hearing, taste, touch, and our hearts. Standing in the triangular center of the power spot and facing the main hall of the temple, one is said to be filled with a surge of energy; placing you in tune with your own innate power.
After a wonderful dinner in any one of Kyoto's fantastic restaurants and a restful stay in the hotel of your choice, ride the stellar Shimakaze train directly to Ise City: home of the world-famous Ise Shrine. Possessing fantastically large windows in the front and rear car—which wouldn't seem out of place on the Millennium Falcon—Shimakaze provides you with enjoyably extravagant views no matter where your seat is located. Passengers preferring a bit more privacy may reserve elegant salon-seat rooms, Japanese-style private rooms, or spacious Western-style private rooms; the latter being fitted with a spacious L-shaped fuchsia sofa. Feeling peckish? Pop down to the café car and partake in a light meal, dessert, and/or beverage, without missing any of the splendid scenery zipping by your eyes.
Dedicated to the sun goddess Amaterasu, Ise Jingu shrine must be experienced firsthand to be understood; partially because of the immense energy of the site, and partially because—true to the Shinto faith—photography is prohibited in some of its inner sanctums. Centred around two main shrines, Naiku and Geku, Ise Jingu actually consists of a complex of shrines. Apart from the aforementioned two main shrines, Greater Ise actually houses 123 additional shrines; 91 of them connected to Naiku and 32 to Geku. The shrine buildings use no nails and instead are constructed through the ancient art of Japanese joinery. The shrines, constructed from Japanese cypress, are dismantled and built afresh every twenty years, reflecting the Shinto belief in a need for self-purification. Before returning to Kyoto, be sure to pop into the time-slip experience of Okage Yokocho, an ancient shopping street due north of the main entrance to the temple grounds.
Kyoto Railway Museum
Upon your return to Kyoto, you won't want to miss the Kyoto Railway Museum. Home to samples of many of Japan's most famous trains—from yesteryear and the cutting edge—enjoy seeing these magnificent vehicles up close and at your leisure, with no time limit or departure time (apart from the museum's hours of operation). Extensive model train dioramas, conductor simulators, and many other attractions vie for your attention over three floors of the main building, not to mention the full-size roundhouse platform, the promenade, the Twilight Plaza, the former Nijo Station House, and the Steam Locomotive No.2 Service Shed. A kids park awaits the younger set on the museum's second floor; with familiar beloved characters like Thomas the Tank Engine. Should your own engine need refuelling, a restaurant featuring train-themed fare may be found on the far end of the second floor; current specials include the Hello Kitty Curry and the Hello Kitty Parfait, in honor of Hello Kitty Shinkansen.
Twilight Express Mizukaze
However, for those seeking luxury above all, the essential train to board in Kansai is the Twilight Express Mizukaze. From the outset, its logo represents both the "M" of the train's name, as well as the gorgeous "mountainous" landscapes viewable from the exclusive comfort of the train's interior. Speed stylishly through the Sanyo region, from Kyoto to Shimonoseki. Twilight Express Mizukaze's inner decor harkens back to a period in time where wealth intrinsically intertwined with style; this provides you with a moving journey whose every moment lies ensconced in the comfort of a superior hotel. One's dining experience on the Twilight Express Mizukaze consists of haute cuisine conceived by some of the planet's top chefs, and an exclusive Mizukaze lounge awaits you for some pre-boarding pampering in Kyoto and Osaka.
Almost any locomotive vehicle you choose to ride in Kansai, will inevitably put you on the right emotional track. The local railroads strive, and excel at, providing some of the cleanest, most punctual, and most exciting train journeys the world has to offer. Beyond this, their smiling staff are always intent on providing whatever perk you may desire as you ride the rails to your heart's content. Come down to Kansai and craft the railroad journey of your dreams.