Romance on the rails – riding Japan’s most luxurious bullet train


By Matt Brace

We stood on a platform at Tokyo Station, wide-eyed with excitement.

In our hands we clutched much-coveted tickets for one of Japan’s famous bullet trains, or shinkansen. They were not tickets for economy seats. They were not even ones for business class ‘Green Car’ berths but for the most luxurious and exclusive of all bullet train cabins – Japan Rail East’s Gran Class.

Only a few trains have a Gran Class cabin and those trains run on just a handful of lines from Tokyo: Hokuriku Shinkansen line to Kanazawa on the west coast, Joetsu Shinkansen line to Niigata on the north-west coast, Tohoku Shinkansen line to Aomori at the northern end of Honshu Island and Hokkaido Shinkansen line that uses the undersea Seikan tunnel from Aomori to Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto on Japan’s northern island.

We stood obediently in an area of the platform reserved exclusively for Gran Class passengers, trying not to look smug. Beneath our composure we itched to get on board and among the luxury. This was going to be fun!

Luxury, Japan-style

After much bowing from the smartly uniformed train team we were ushered into a cabin hushed by soft burgundy carpet. It was immaculate with not a speck of dust or dirt anywhere, as if it had just rolled off the production line.

Each oat-white leather seat had its own protective shell, an adjustable snowy pillow and a nest of buttons in the armrest that reclined the seat to a very comfortable 45 degrees. The cabin had just 18 seats and as we slinked out of Tokyo Station ­– smoother than velvet – we noticed the other 16 were empty. We had the cabin to ourselves, at least for a while.

An attendant arrived, greeting us with more bows and welcome bags including an antiseptic towelette, snacks and exclusive Gran Class mineral water. She also gave us a blanket and a pair of slippers each.

We accelerated as we left the CBD, passing through Tokyo’s northern reaches, flashing past Oji, Kawaguchi and Saitama, and soon afterwards catching glimpses of the mountains of the stunning Nikko National Park.

Related article: A Honeymooner’s Guide to Tokyo

Haute cuisine in Gran Class

Not all Gran Class cabins and routes serve food and drinks so you need to choose carefully when booking tickets. Our food had been designed by chef Hiromitsu Nozaki who was born in the Ishikawa district of the Fukushima prefecture, just a sushi roll’s throw from the Tohoku Shinkansen route along which we sprinted.

We were each presented with a tray of colourful delicacies. There was a savory avocado and shrimp tart, teriyaki octopus, Manganji chilli peppers with bonito flakes, pressed edamame and lily bulb, herring simmered in soy sauce, tofu with seafood paste, stewed lotus root… and more.

There was also a western menu on offer but we were in Japan and determined to embrace as much of the culture as we could. Having said that, I did have to wolf down the teriyaki octopus from both my tray and my wife’s before she got back from the loo. It’s one of her rare ‘get that away from me’ food shudders. They were delicious, by the way.

As we sped north into the Miyagi prefecture, we sipped smooth, chilled Junmai Ginjo sake from that very region. We loved how the food and drinks had been carefully curated to reflect the landscapes we travelled through.

Our attendant told us there were different meals served on trains running in different directions, on different lines and in different seasons, and that they try to make the meals as relevant to the regions as possible.

Journey’s end for us was Morioka after less than three hours of high-speed luxury racing through the north Honshu Island countryside.

Can we have some more?

Such is the Japanese passion for punctuality that there are rarely any delays on shinkansen services but we wished we had had one that day so we could have spent more time in our Gran Class bubble. We promised to do this again and go all the way to Hokkaido next time.

We disembarked reluctantly but basking in the glow of one of the most luxurious short train journeys we had ever taken.

Fact file

More information

Buying tickets

Booking bullet trains in Japan can be confusing. Holidays for Couples always recommends getting expert tourism representatives (such as travel agents and preferably Japanese-speakers) to book the tickets for you. However, if you do want to try doing it yourself, first register as a member with JR East (a must for online booking), then start at this website:

It’s worth buying a Tohoku area pass because it offers unlimited travel on numerous lines, including ones in Tokyo and to and from Narita and Haneda airports. Find out more about the pass here including how to pick up your physical pass at a Reserved Seat Ticket vending machine once you arrive in Japan.

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