Tohoku Emotion: Japan's scenic fine-dining restaurant train
Maggie Hiufu Wong, CNN - On board Japan's Tohoku Emotion train, most passengers care more about what's on the menu than about the train's destination.
First launched in October 2013, Tohoku Emotion is a traveling restaurant that runs along the Sanriku Coast in the northern Tohoku region of Japan.
It's one of East Japan Railway Company's (JR East) "Joyful Trains," a series of themed cars aimed at travel promotion of the country's less-visited prefectures.
Cruising between the towns of Hachinohe in Aomori Prefecture and Kuji in Iwate Prefecture, Tohoku Emotion offers a seasonal menu designed by celebrity chefs of Japan. The Tohoku region's produce is the real star, though -- think sea urchin, beef, mountain grapes and shiitake mushrooms, to name a few.
A new chef takes over the train every six months and the menu is updated twice during his or her half-a-year tenure.
Shinsuke Ishii, chef-owner of Sincere in Tokyo and former chef of the popular no-reservations French restaurant Bacar, is in charge of the current menu, now on offer until March 2019.
Tables at Ishii's Harajuku restaurant often fill up weeks in advance.
Passengers enjoy a four-course lunch while traveling from Hachinohe to Kuji, sightsee for about 1.5 hours in Kuji and then dive into a dessert buffet designed by Takashi Kumagai of Hotel Metropolitan Morioka on the ride back from Kuji to Hachinohe.
At each of the scenic spots along the route, the train slows down, giving passengers a chance to enjoy the views and take photos while enjoying their meals.
In addition to being a tourist attraction for international travelers, the creator of the Tohoku Emotion tells CNN Travel he wants it to be an appealing getaway for locals.
"We wanted the locals to enjoy the taste that normally locals are not able to at a reasonable price and for them to come experience it more than once," says Hikaru Patrick Okada, chief creative officer of the Transit General Office.
"The menu is mainly "Western innovative" -- a modern type of cuisine that's quite uncommon for Tohoku locals because their food culture centers around their regional local dishes. The idea of being able to enjoy such food while traveling creates great memories and fun."
An afternoon of luxury
The Tohoku Emotion actually has design links to Japan's uber-luxury sleeper train Shiki-shima (tickets range from $2,000 to $10,000),
Ken Okuyama Design, the former designer of the likes of Porsche, designed the Shiki-shima as well as the exterior of Tohoku Emotion.
Its façade resembles a restaurant with a white masonry wall and hanging porch lights by the doors.
Its interior highlights crafts of the region, including wall fabrics weaved using Fukushima's old Sashiko-ori textile technique, Aomori's Kogin embroidery, lights made of Iwate's amber and utensils made of Miyagi's Ogatsu inkstone.
The three-car train, which has seven private compartments in car 1 and an open kitchen in car 2, can seat 48 diners.
Passengers can reserve their Tohoku Emotion tickets through a local tour agency or at JR ticket offices or JR travel service centers, called View Plaza. Online bookings are not available.
A return trip costs JPY11,900 or $106 per adult.
The train runs from Friday to Monday. Check out the full schedule here.