Sleeper train carries women looking for romance, healthy skin

January 22, 2013

By AYAKO NAKADA/ Staff Writer

A once-obscure sleeper train for businessmen with a hotel-like feel now is making its nightly runs loaded with female tourists in its overnight compartments, who are seeking a final destination of love and healthy skin.

The train, the Sunrise Izumo and Sunrise Seto, is the only sleeper train departing from the capital’s landmark Tokyo Station, and connects Tokyo and Izumo, Shimane Prefecture.

During their journeys to Izumo Shrine, where a "god of love" is said to be enshrined, and the Tamatsukuri Onsen hot spring, known for its skin-enrichment qualities, passengers, mainly in their 20s and 30s, enjoy a "party" in each compartment.

In Japan, women are called “joshi” and they enjoy holding small parties called “joshi kai” in which they chatter away about love and other topics of interest.

According to West Japan Railway Co. (JR West), the sleeper train operator, many tourists stay at Tamatsukuri Onsen following visits to Matsue and Izumo, and return to Tokyo by plane or high-speed bullet trains.

On the evening of Dec. 7, groups of two to six women clutching large bags began to appear on the Tokaido Line platform, which connects Tokyo and western cities. They were passengers on the Sunrise Izumo and Sunrise Seto, which leaves Tokyo Station at 10 p.m.

One of the passengers was Yukari Yamazaki, a 35-year-old female anesthesiologist working for a hospital in Tokyo’s Suginami Ward.

“A good point of the train is that its departure time is 10 p.m., so we can catch it even after working all day,” said Yamazaki, who came with her colleague, Hiroko Imano, 37, a nurse.

Yamazaki and Imano were able to get tickets by signing up for a travel agency’s package tour, after tickets at JR ticket counters for the train were sold out almost as soon as they were released a month before their departure.

Because food and alcoholic drinks are not sold aboard the train, many tourists have dinner before getting on the train and buy wine and sweets in the Tokyo Station’s commercial complex, Gransta Dining, or shops near the station.

The Tokyo Station’s Marunouchi building completed a renovation that saw it restored to its original exterior in autumn last year and is currently gaining popularity with a succession of new shops opening in the station.

Yamazaki and Imano bought bread for breakfast at a bakery in the Shin-Marunouchi Building near the station, hopped aboard the train and departed for Izumo.

“Few young women have experiences of riding sleeper trains,” said the travel magazine Rurubu’s chief editor, Tomoko Tamura. “Sleeper trains bring a nostalgia for traveling, so young women long to get aboard the trains at least once."

According to Tamura, the cost of trips to Izumo by sleeper train can be higher than traveling to Hokkaido and Okinawa, Japan's most popular tourist destinations. But young women are willing to pay for more pleasant times together, such as taking the sleeper train, Tamura said.

The Sunrise Izumo and Sunrise Seto have been operated by JR West since 1998. The Sunrise Izumo is bound for Izumo-shi Station and the latter, which separates from the Sunrise Izumo at Okayama Station, travels to Takamatsu, Kagawa Prefecture.

After departing Tokyo Station at 10 p.m., the Sunrise Izumo arrives in Izumo around 10 a.m. the next day.

The sleeper train was originally targeted at business customers who shuttle between the Tokyo metropolitan area and western Japan, and was developed jointly with a housing manufacturer to offer an atmosphere like that of hotels.

All sleeper berths have keyless doors with code locks and the one-way fares--22,160 yen ($250) for a standard single-person sleeper compartment--are almost the same as those of the former night-express train “Izumo,” which was retired in 2006.

This line has faced fierce competition from airlines, and JR West tried to attract business customers, saying, “If you get on the Sunrise Izumo and Seto after the last plane of the day has left, you will still arrive in time to do your business the next day.”

The fares are less expensive than airfares, which cost more than 30,000 yen each way in December, but the average occupancy ratio of the train was formerly only about 60 percent.

However, the Shimane prefectural government started in around 2005 a tourism promotion targeted at young women in the Tokyo metropolitan area, emphasizing the “matchmaking efficacy” of Izumo. The promotion attracted many young women and the number of female passengers rose.

The train itself gave female passengers a feeling of comfort and luxury, with its wooden interior and locked compartments.

The average occupancy rate on Friday rose to 99 percent in 2012 from 86 percent of 2003, JR West said.

Akane Suzuki, a 30-year-old receptionist working for an office in Ichikawa, Chiba Prefecture, boarded the Sunrise Izumo and Seto with Aya Matsui, a 29-year-old food company worker, also on Dec. 7.

They each made reservations for individual standard sleeper compartments, which accommodate one person. The two women bought canned cocktails, skewered chicken and boxed meals of beef tongue at a shop in the station, and kicked off an impromptu “girls’ party” in Suzuki’s compartment.

To start, Suzuki and Matsui made a toast on the bed, which is about large enough for an average-sized woman to stretch her feet out comfortably. The two women were classmates in elementary school, and now get together for dinner or lunch once or twice a month.

Both of them work hard each day, and planned the trip to seek healing and relaxation. Matsui was just coming off a disappointment in her love life.

Visiting Izumo Shrine may not necessarily result in an instant change of fortunes in her love life, but Matsui said she wanted to take the sleeper train there “just for a change.”

“I want to have an extraordinary experience,” Suzuki explained. The two friends had much to talk about, and their party lasted until 2 a.m.

The next morning, the train arrived at Izumo-shi Station one hour later than scheduled. The Sunrise Izumo has a shower room available for a fee, but they chose not to use it to fully enjoy the area's hot springs.

After taking a bath in the “Ranpu no yu” hot springs, which are located in front of the station, they took a taxi to Izumo Shrine and in the evening stayed overnight in the Tamatsukuri Onsen area.

The cost for the three days and two nights trip, which included return tickets and room charges, was around 58,000 yen.

By AYAKO NAKADA/ Staff Writer
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Akane Suzuki, left, and Aya Matsui enjoy a small party in Suzuki's sleeper compartment on Dec. 7. (Mari Endo)

Akane Suzuki, left, and Aya Matsui enjoy a small party in Suzuki's sleeper compartment on Dec. 7. (Mari Endo)

  • Akane Suzuki, left, and Aya Matsui enjoy a small party in Suzuki's sleeper compartment on Dec. 7. (Mari Endo)
  • Sunrise Izumo and Sunrise Seto, a sleeper train that runs between Tokyo and Izumo, Shimane Prefecture, sits ready for boarding at Tokyo Station in December 2012. (Mari Endo)
  • Aya Matsui, left, and Akane Suzuki pray to meet a romantic partner at Izumo Shrine on Dec. 8. (Mari Endo)

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