The Tohoku Emotion Restaurant Railway is a JR East fine dining restaurant train that runs between Hachinohe Station in Aomori prefecture and Kuji Station in Iwate prefecture. Traversing the Sanriku coastline through some of the areas that were most severely devastated during the March 2011 Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami, this little restaurant train with a big heart, is an unforgettable adventure and a great way for visitors to help rebuild tourism and contribute to these communities who have been through so much.
Tohoku Emotion’s first run was in October 2013, as soon as the railways were able to resume operations after the destruction of the railway tracks in 2011. From Hachinohe Station there is a lunch course set; and from Kuji Station there is a dessert course set, with unlimited beverages. The website (see below) provides a list of allergens (Japanese only so a translation app will be required if necessry). Please note that it is not possible to cater for an individual’s dietary requirements. Menus change four times per year with the seasons. The food is more modern western style than traditional Japanese cuisine. Onboard the menu is also provided in English.
The outside of the Tohoku Emotion train was designed by the famed car designer (Porsche), Ken Okuyama who wanted to make it look like a travelling restaurant. Photo by Estelle Pizer
There are three carriages, each with different seating options: a private compartment for up to four people; a dining car with tables offering a full view to the rugged Sanriku coastline, and seating in the onboard kitchen area where you can watch the food being prepared. Our seats were in the dining car without the full view of the coast. However, the tables are positioned in such a way that anywhere provides a lovely experience. The dessert course was delicious, far exceeding expectations. You can also walk freely through the train to see the beauty of the outdoor surroundings through the large carriage windows on both sides of the train.
The dining car of the Tohoku Emotion Restaurant train.
Bookings sell out quickly; two to three months in advance. Some people do both the lunch and the dessert course departing and returning to Hachinohe Station with a break of 90 minutes at Kuji Station. Others just go one way and take a local train to continue their journey.
Tickets can be purchased online using a credit card via the JR East Joyful Trains website, www.jre-joyful.com/ . Japanese language only.
Timetable: usually weekends with occasional Fridays.
Hachinohe Station to Kuji Station; the lunch course – about two hours.
Hachinohe is the second largest city in Aomori prefecture and can feel like a totally different world after the striving-to-recover, peaceful city of Kuji. From the massage chairs at the station where you can sit and watch the sporadic trains come in, to the small alleys filled with little retro bars that light up the night, it’s a great city that many tourists unfortunately don’t get to explore. If you can, arrange your trip to attend the Sunday morning market at Tatehana Wharf, which operates from sunrise, around 4am, and ends promptly at 7am. It’s the largest morning market in Japan and filled with fishermen and locals alike. One dish unique to Hachinohe is nanbu senbei, a hot pot with wheat crackers that soften in the boiling water resulting in a noodle-like texture.
Getting there: from Tokyo Station the Hayabusa Shinkansen takes 2 hours 44 minutes.
The Tatehana Wharf Morning Market is located on the waterfront. The closest train station is Mutsu-Minato Station on the Hachinohe Line. From there it’s a 10-15 minute walk to the wharf area. A taxi ride from the centre of Hachinohe will take about 11 minutes which is the best option if you want to arrive early to experience the whole market.
The freshest seafood, together with locally grown vegetables, foodstuffs and crafts are sold at the Tatehana Wharf morning market. Photo by Estelle Pizer
Kuji Station to Hachinohe Station; the dessert course – about 90 minutes.
The area of Kuji City was one of the most seriously affected by the Tohoku Earthquake with over 4,400 people losing their lives. It is a coastal fishing town with a long history of ama, the women of the sea, who are renowned for their ability to spend a remarkable amount of time diving to the depths of the ocean to catch sea urchin and abalone without equipment. In Kuji, they are known as the northernmost ama. If you are in the area between July and September, there are demonstration diving sessions at the Kosode Ama Center, a 20-minute taxi ride from the station area.
The very popular Japanese drama Ama Chan (2013) was filmed in Kuji. It tells the story of a young girl returning home, to learn to be an ama like her grandmother. Photo by Estelle Pizer
If you are short on time before beginning the next leg of your journey, the Yamase Dofukan, the Kuji City Roadside Station, is a 10-minute walk from Kuji Train Station. In one area, souvenirs like locally sourced Kuji amber (the oldest amber in the world made into jewellery) can be purchased and in another there’s a little museum with artefacts used in the Autumn float festival. There are also places to eat here and across the road. Seafood is the best choice anywhere along the coast in Japan and the kaisen-don, fresh seafood on top of a bowl of rice, is delicious. Here it is called an ama-don, a nod to the proud ama tradition of this area.
Getting there: from Hachinohe Station the local train takes just under 2 hours.
Kosode Ama Center: 24-110-2 Ube-cho Kuji City, Iwate prefecture
Yamase Dofukan Roadside Station: 2-5-6 Nakamachi, Kuji City
The Tohoku Emotion train runs along the Sanriku coast offering a unique dining experience. Image courtesy of JR East
Japan Railways (JR) East, currently has thirteen concept train trips, known as Joyful Trains, to encourage tourists to visit lesser-known prefectures. These trains are often fitted with regional furnishings and traditional crafts made by local artisans and, like the Tohoku Emotion, many offer seasonal, specialty food that provide a truly memorable experience.
See JR Passes here