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Tracks Of Time


Resplendent in shimmering gold and swirling patterns, the Aru Ressha train looks like it’s crossed over from another realm. It fuses Eastern, Western, antique and futuristic design, evoking the old-world grandeur of a classic vehicle like the Orient Express and the sci-fi fantasy of a Studio Ghibli steampunk movie.

The Aru Ressha is part of JR Kyushu’s high-end tourist train series, along with the popular Seven Stars of Kyushu sleeper train. Currently, it travels between Hakata and Yufuin stations—a three-hour trip that costs ¥32,000 to ¥44,000 per adult (one way), including a five-course meal and drinks. It operates on Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and Monday. The train departs Hakata station at 10:58 a.m. and arrives at Yufuin station by 2:07 p.m. The return trip departs Yufuin station at 3 p.m. and arrives at Hakata station by 6:03 p.m. JR Kyushu advises that the train schedule is subject to change without notice.

It was a dream that took over 100 years to come to fruition. In 1906, the private Kyushu Railway Company bought two carriages from the J.G. Brill Company of the United States. At the time, these were Japan’s most luxurious passenger train carriages. In 1908, Japan’s railways were nationalized—and the grand plans for the Aru Ressha were shelved.

Engineer and rail fan Nobutaro Hara (1919-2014) made his first train model when he was 13 years old. After seeing the unused Aru Ressha stowed in a garage, he spent several years painstakingly crafting a small-scale model based on blueprints and his sketches.

In 1987, Japan’s railways were privatized, and companies began developing dazzling trains with novel shapes, colors and materials. JR Kyushu spent ¥600 million on modifications for the Aru Ressha's two carriages (the equivalent cost of manufacturing one shinkansen, or bullet train, car.)

Superstar industrial designer Eiji Mitooka (who also designed the Seven Stars) used Hara’s model for inspiration. The project was supervised by Kento Hara, deputy director of the Hara Model Railway Museum in Yokohama. The Aru Ressha finally debuted in 2015.

The Aru Ressha is often affectionately dubbed the “Seven Stars’ little sibling.” Both vehicles boast lavish décor showcasing crafts like Kumiko, a unique woodwork that uses no nails. This type of intricate lattice was never used on trains before. The wood is fitted with aluminum alloy and passed repeated tests for strength and non-combustibility.

Along with conquering such logistical challenges, Mitooka exquisitely transfers the elegance of deluxe hotels and restaurants into confined car spaces. Compared to fixed-address venues, trains also have an added cinematic allure. Aru Ressha riders can gaze at the passing and changing scenery: towns, mountains, rivers and a waterfall.

The adventure of exploring local sites also brings guests close to farmers and craftspeople who supply food and tableware for their meals. The Aru Ressha's internationally-renowned chef, Yoshihiro Narisawa, of Tokyo's two Michelin-star restaurant Narisawa, personally visits producers throughout Kyushu to create the seasonal menus.

Top-quality products include Amaou strawberries, considered the "Rolls-Royce" of strawberries, from Fukuoka Prefecture's Ikegami Farm; ume (plum) wine from Oita Prefecture's Oyama Ume Sake Brewery and striking glassware from Nagasaki Prefecture's Rurian Glass Studios.

People wave fondly at the Aru Ressha as it passes—a source of local pride. The journey feels new and nostalgic: the high-tech thrill of hurtling forward melds with a sense of traveling back to a slower time.

Today, Hara’s original model is displayed at the Hara Model Train Museum. Almost a century after the concept captured his imagination, the realized Aru Ressha commemorates Hara’s contribution to train culture and his enduring boyhood passion.

Maybe that’s why we’re so romanced by rail travel. It reminds us of the joy of childhood play.

Note: Because the tickets are sold as a travel package, tickets are sold at JR Kyushu travel agency counters at JR stations and the JR Kyushu travel desk. They are not sold at midori madoguchi (station ticketing offices).

Price: ¥32,000 (adult) / ¥27,000 (child, 11-12 years old). Includes one-way JR ticket in the operating area, course meal and drinks.

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