Train enthusiasts are in store for a special treat during Golden Week this year as several sleeper "blue trains" will be roused for the holiday period.
However, those planning to ride the "hotels on wheels" better hurry because reservations are filling up fast.
One charter sleeper train will travel from Osaka to Ueno Station in Tokyo on April 27. That run is the brainchild of Minoru Mukaiya, 55, a member of the 1980s jazz fusion band Casiopea.
East Japan Railway Co. and West Japan Railway Co. also plan to revive the Nihonkai train for a limited time over Golden Week. Regular runs of the Nihonkai train ended in March.
Nippon Travel Agency Co. is putting together the April 27 chartered blue train that will leave Osaka Station and use the rails of the Hokuriku, Joetsu and other lines to reach Ueno. Mukaiya, a long-time train enthusiast, came up with the idea and convinced Nippon Travel Agency officials to put together a run.
"Railways do not exist only to move from one place to another," Mukaiya says. "I hope passengers will experience the feelings of excitement and expectation that the blue train creates."
Before Casiopea disbanded in 2006, Mukaiya often used blue trains to move from one concert destination to another. He often took the Ginga train that linked Tokyo and Osaka until it stopped running in 2008.
"The true thrill of travel on blue trains is the swaying of the train that can be felt when one lies down as well as the sound in the distance of a railroad crossing," Mukaiya says.
The sleeper trains were called blue trains because of the color of the car exteriors. After beginning operation in 1958, the blue trains linked the major metropolises of Tokyo and Osaka with smaller regional cities throughout the 1960s and 1970s.
However, the number of passengers on blue trains gradually declined with the spread of the Shinkansen network and airline routes.
In March, the Nihonkai train that linked Osaka with Aomori ended operations, leaving only two sleeper blue trains in operation--Akebono (from Ueno to Aomori) and Hokutosei (from Ueno to Sapporo in Hokkaido).
Over the Golden Week holidays, JR East and JR West will operate eight runs of the Nihonkai train on a limited-time basis. As of April 19, about 90 percent of the reserved seats had been taken.
However, Toshihiko Miyake, 71, a railway historian, said that the newfound popularity will not translate into a revival of those sleeper trains on a permanent basis.
"The popularity of blue trains has declined because expressway buses are cheaper and bullet trains are faster," Miyake says. "While there will be popularity for special events of limited-time runs, companies will not be able to make such sleeper trains profitable."
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