It's the most glorious way to see Tōhoku
It’s a train ride that begins like any other. We pass through the Fukushima, Japan, train station without fanfare, dragging our suitcases up and down escalators to reach the right platform. We board the blue and mint green JR Toreiyu Tsubasa #1 for Ooishida, finding our seats in the 14th car. And then everything changes.
The bullet train is already better than most trains in the US thanks to its aesthetics. Light wood supports tatami mat seats. Automatic doors open to let you pass through matte black hallways and down big, bright passenger cars. Fifty percent of people on this train are here to get from A to B. The other half are here because of the unique amenity on board: a train car with a foot bath spa.
Before you get to the train’s spa car, there are other perks to enjoy. Like the sake bar. As the train pulls out of the Fukushima station, we teeter down the hallways to the bright and airy cart where local sake, wine, tea, coffee, and juice are sold alongside savory and sweet snacks. If you’re smart, you ordered the bento box ahead of time. We find our seats and watch the bucolic scenery roll past our windows.
The train’s a great way to see Tōhoku, the Northeast region of Japan’s largest island, Honshu. But the Fukushima Prefecture isn’t known for this foot spa train—yet. Unfortunately it’s still best known for the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster that befell the area after the Tōhoku earthquake in 2011, despite the region’s other strong suits that take center stage today. Tōhoku is a nature-rich area with incredible skiing, glorious hot spring hotels, and Kitakata, the capital city of ramen (it has a population of about ~48,000 with more than 200 places to eat ramen). There’s work being done to remind travelers that Fukushima is a destination worth traveling to; at Tokyo Station, you can ride escalators past advertisements to be happy and visit Tōhoku.
Being December, the fields are barren but beautiful. Dry brown rice farms provide a stark contrast to the glowing snowy mountains beyond provincial towns. There are cemeteries, persimmon trees dripping with red-orange fruit, and open greenhouses growing Sato Nishiki cherry trees—one of Japan’s most popular that can fetch up to $10 for a single piece if you’re buying it in a regal gift box.
Our bento boxes come. Two wooden rectangles arrive stacked on each other, along a personal-sized bottle of sake and a bag of sweets. The local flavors of Tōhoku are on display in the bento box. As the area is famous for its beef, there’s spicy local beef on rice served with a cooked egg on top (the egg, BTW, has a 3D image of our train printed on it). There’s a deep fried beef and potato cutlet. There are neatly arranged pickled vegetables, some cut into flower shapes, and a grilled tamago cube, chicken from nearby Yamagata, and some marinated fish.
By 11 a.m., I haven’t touched my bento but I’m almost finished with my sake and it’s time to head to the ashiyu, or foot bath. We wobble down past families taking photos and travelers on their smartphones to the bath car. The foot baths are cherry red, churning with hot filtered water in which you soak your barking dogs. We’re handed plastic bags to store our shoes inside, and wait on couches until our turn to swap seats with the current soakers. They look calm and content.
I roll up my jeans and carefully swing my legs over into the water. It’s hot, but not too hot, and soothing. The sunshine pours through the window, and I feel like a baby being rocked in a crib as the train shifts over the tracks. Each customer who books the spa experience is allotted 15 minutes a piece. “Come Wind Come Rain" by Vashti Bunyan plays overhead on a loop, broken up from time to time by announcements describing the towns outside.
When time’s up, it’s quite the maneuver to heave out of the foot bath gracefully. You have to balance as the train throws you off your balance, and pay attention to how much water you’re sloshing all over the place. We put our socks and shoes back on and return to our seats, where a cup of vanilla bean and pear custard is waiting on the table. I finish my bento box and pudding, and leave the train feeling full, relaxed, and buzzed. Japan is a gift, and this train is just another reminder of that fact.