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We Board Japan's 'Setsugekka' Resort Train And Have An Incredible Journey Through The Heartland

We Board Japan's 'Setsugekka' Resort Train And Have An Incredible Journey Through The Heartland

Date published: 20 February 2020
Last updated: 30 September 2020

On the sightseeing train Echigo Tokimeki Resort Setsugekka, you are treated to memorable gourmet dishes that are the pride of Niigata as it weaves its way through a luxurious natural setting providing spectacular views of the Japan Sea and majestic Mt. Myoko.

It is an incredible three-hour tour spent marveling on the dramatically changing landscape viewed through the large carriage windows. I was able to fully enjoy the scenery and cuisine all at once without missing anything on this amazing Japanese sightseeing train!

Table of Contents
  1. All Aboard the Echigo Tokimeki Resort Setsugekka!
  2. “All made in Niigata” quality space!
  3. Japan's sightseeing train trip begins!
  4. Viewpoints of the majestic mountain range appear one after another!
  5. Special Echigo Meshi - French cuisine made with seasonal Niigata ingredients!
  6. Enjoying the great panorama of the Japan Sea over dessert as we head to Itoigawa Station, our final stop
  7. Receiving souvenirs and wrapping up the 3-hour journey

All Aboard the Echigo Tokimeki Resort Setsugekka!

In recent years, sightseeing trains noted for their elegant interiors and exteriors that enable you to fully enjoy the charms of a region while savoring gourmet dishes have gained much attention. The Echigo Tokimeki Resort Setsugekka, which I shall refer to as Setsugekka, is one of these.

You can enjoy the gourmet dishes of Niigata on this sightseeing train as it makes its way through western Niigata Prefecture going from Joetsu Myoko Station to Itoigawa Station, wending its way through the Myoko Highlands, while enjoying magnificent views of the Japan Sea and the grandiose Myoko Mountains through the largest carriage windows in Japan.

▲ Mt. Myoko and Setsugekka are symbols of Myoko City (photo provided by Echigo Tokimeki Railway)

Two trains are operated only on Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays, one in the morning and the other in the afternoon. The morning train departs from Joetsu Myoko Station and goes to Itoigawa Station (French cuisine), while the afternoon train runs in reverse leaving Itoigawa Station and returning to Joetsu Myoko Station (Japanese cuisine). On a Shinkansen train this journey would take about 15 minutes, but the Setsugekka travels at a more leisurely pace stretching the journey out to about three hours.

It costs a uniform 17,500 yen (meal and tax included). By the way, on the day you take it, with this fare you can also ride regular trains and fast trains on the Echigo Tokimeki Railway as much as you like at no extra cost.

In this article we will tell you about the French cuisine and luxurious experience we enjoyed on the morning train that departed from Joetsu Myoko Station.

“All made in Niigata” quality space!

It is necessary to make reservations and pay in advance to ride the Setsugekka. Reservations can be made by phone and after payment has been confirmed you will be sent a “boarding pass”.

▲ This is the boarding pass that is sent in the mail.

To get to Joetsu Myoko Station, which is the starting point, it takes approximately 1 hour and 50 minutes by the Hokuriku Shinkansen from Tokyo, and approximately 2 hours by express train from Niigata Station. Get off at JR Joetsu Myoko Station, and walk through the station towards the ticket gate to the Echigo Tokimeki Railway Station.

▲ Be careful to note that the Echigo Tokimeki Railway Joetsu Myoko Station is different than the JR Joetsu Myoko Station.

Show your boarding pass to the attendant and then proceed to the train platform. The Setsugekka arrived while I was waiting on the platform.

▲ The Setsugekka carriages are a brilliant vermilion color. This dark color often used for shrine torii gates is familiar to all Japanese and perfectly blends with the scenery of all four seasons.

The concept of the Setsugekka is “all made in Niigata”. The carriage interior and the cuisine were all made with carefully selected materials produced in Niigata Prefecture.

Mr. Yasuyuki Kawanishi, architect, designer and facilitator, oversaw the design of the carriages. He has received many national and international awards, including one for Setsugekka, and is also a holder of the world's most prestigious award given for excellence in the field of railway design.

▲ An impressive feature is the large carriage windows (photo provided by Echigo Tokimeki Railway)

Tsubame-Sanjo metal was used for the gold-color sections visible on the front of the carriage. The carriage bodies were manufactured by Niigata Transys, which has a plant in Niigata. The large windows, which extend almost to the ceiling, are designed to provide an unprecedented exciting train journey. These are the largest carriage windows found among most sightseeing trains.

And above all, the luster of the carriage is strikingly beautiful! And that is to be expected. The Setsugekka was a newly built train when it was put into service in 2016. The three hours spent on this new train will indeed be luxurious ones.

▲ The symbols on the train carriage represent the beautiful scenery of the Joetsu region that can be seen throughout the four seasons (photo provided by Echigo Tokimeki Railway)

I rode in the first car of the two-car train and enjoyed the magnificent view outside the 2.3-meter high windows. The lounge-style seating arrangement in this carriage with seats facing the Sea of Japan on one side and the Myoko Mountains on the other, allow passengers to fully enjoy the ever-changing views of the sea and mountains.

▲ Dazzling sunlight pours in from the big carriage windows. All windows are made with UV-cut glass which reduces the transmittance of UV rays to less than 0.01%

The interior of Car No. 1 is inspired by the golden landscape of the countryside and the overall impression is bright. The material used is Echigo cedar noted for its vivid grain.

Much attention has also been given to detail. The clasps of the curtains are in the form of mountains and waves, which are views from the Setsugekka. This is an impressive sightseeing train. Careful attention has been given to places normally not noticed by most people.

▲ Car No. 2 has a more somber and sedate atmosphere (photo provided by Echigo Tokimeki Railway)

Car No. 2 uses natural beech wood from Niigata Prefecture, and has a chic, mature restaurant-car design. The seats are angled 3 degrees to the window so as to make it easier to enjoy the view of the scenery while having a meal. The seats are comfortably relaxing and larger than the Gran Class seats on the Shinkansen.

▲ The high-deck observation at the front of Car No. 2 has been used by some couples for making marriage proposals and I can see why! (Photo provided by Echigo Tokimeki Railway)

The high-deck observation at the front of Car No. 2 also affords an excellent view over the driver's area, too. There is an additional charge of 15,000 yen (for a group of 2 ~ 4 people, including tax) to use this area, but to have this luxurious space exclusively for yourselves during the three-hour journey makes for an even more delightful memory.

▲ There is also a bathroom paneled in Echigo cedar in front of the entrance to the carriage. The multi-purpose toilet is spacious enough to enable a parent to enter with a child.
▲ Tsubame-Sanjo bronze-plated cherry motifs.

The walls in the Sakura Lounge cafe and bar in Car No. 2 are made with natural Japanese bird cherry wood while natural cherry wood is used for the counter. Furthermore, the cherry-colored copper-plated cherry patterns on the side of the bar counter were made by craftsman of Tsubame-Sanjo, a town noted for its metal cutlery. I was impressed by their cherry-colored hue.

▲ Tiles used for the floor were made by Yasuda Kawara. Consideration was given to the fact that this is snow country that receives much snow and freezing temperatures, so the carriages are noted for being sturdy and highly durable.

The Setsugekka in keeping with the concept of "all made in Niigata" was made with materials manufactured in Niigata, but in the beginning there was concern that it would be difficult to use real wood in the carriages because of a number of problems such as the regular swaying movement of the train cars, the sharp differences between damp and dry weather as well as temperature extremes.

Nevertheless, through repeated trial and error to create the pleasant feel and sensation achieved through the use of locally produced wood, the superior space in the Setsugekka was born.

Japan's sightseeing train trip begins!

A booklet and menu were waiting on a luncheon mat when I sat down.

Shortly thereafter the train began to move. The elegant three-hour journey had begun.

The Setsugekka stops at Nihongi Station, Myoko Highlands Station, and Noetsu Station before it reaches its final destination, Itoigawa Station. At each station it is possible to buy local special products and souvenirs.

An announcement was made as we headed towards Nihongi Station, the first stop. The announcement was about views from the Setsugekka that lay ahead. It explained about what could be seen and background information about each.

Initially the track was level but it gradually began to rise and the Setsugekka made its way forward and eventually headed up a steep incline. I decided to go up to the high-deck observation in Car No. 1.

▲ The broad windows of the high-deck observation provided an excellent view of the course that lay ahead. The scenery gradually changed from level to mountainous.

All passengers are free to use the observation deck in Car No. 1. It is best to go to the observation deck before arriving at Nihongi Station. That is because from there you can get a better view of the switchbacks the train makes as it goes forward.

▲ This interesting structure is a wooden shed that was constructed in 1923 and is the only one in the country. It is a little past Nihongi Station and designed to protect trains from the heavy snowfalls.

As the Setsugekka climbs up the steep inclines, it first passes by the station and then switches back to arrive at the Nihongi Station platform. There are two drivers and one conductor who watches the rear and informs the drivers of the progress, one of which backs the train into the station. I found it rather exciting to watch from such a close distance as the driver skillfully backed up the train.

We had arrived at Nihongi Station. One of the pleasures of this journey on the Setsugekka is being able to meet locals at the different stations.

▲ Members of the local Joetsu City Nakago-ku Hospitality Group welcomed us on the platform with an array of fresh vegetables and local specialties.
▲ The conductor accompanied us and gave us a mini-tour. He told us about the history of the Nihongi Station building and a little known fact about the creation of an underpass among other things.

Viewpoints of the majestic mountain range appear one after another!

Once again we boarded the train and set off towards Myoko Highlands Station. From here there was a progression of magnificent view points. Shortly after the train began moving we were served a welcome drink.

▲ The wine tasted especially good as we enjoyed it while admiring the passing scenery

This is a wine made at the Fermier winery in Niigata City especially for the Setsugekka. It is a sparkling wine with a subtle elegant and fruity flavor. It has a clean and refreshing bouquet. If you prefer to have something other than alcohol you have a choice of cider and apple juice, too.

▲ Mt. Myoko in the Myoko Mountain Range is visible in the distance. When approaching viewpoints the train slows down to allow for a more leisurely view.

The first viewpoint, the Mt. Myoko mountain range, comes into view while enjoying the welcome drink. Mt. Myoko has an elevation of 2,454 meters and is called the Joetsu Fuji. On its right is Mt. Hiuchi and to its left is Mt. Kurohime, then Mt. Iizuna. Looking at this magnificent scenery it is easy to lose track of time.

▲ The next scenic point is the Seki River that bends in a U-shape.

Due to the sharp drop in elevation the current is fast and after many long years of it repeatedly flooding its banks its course now is curved in a U-shape. An announcement explains that It resembles an inverted Omega character. Changes in topography remind me of the powerful forces of nature.

About twenty minutes after leaving Nihongi Station we arrive at Myoko Highlands Station. The train stops here for about 15 minutes so there is enough time to exit the station with the conductor guide and visit the Kaneta gift shop in front of the station to enjoy some shopping.

▲ Myoko Highlands sit astride the border of Niigata and Nagano prefectures so both Sasa dango [rice cakes wrapped with bamboo leaves] and Oyaki [a flour dumpling stuffed with vegetables seasoned with miso and soy sauce] are sold here.

Special Echigo Meshi - French cuisine made with seasonal Niigata ingredients!

It takes about 40 minutes to go to the next station, Noetsu, after leaving Myoko Highlands Station. This is when the long-anticipated lunch is served. On the morning train it is a French course!

▲ The French cuisine is served in a three-tiered box lunch. Drinks can also be ordered separately, such as Niigata-made Le Lectier juice (500 yen, tax included) and Iwanohara Miyukibana label wine, red or white (360 ml, 2,000 yen each, tax included).

This is an original French menu created by Mr. Iizuka Ryuta, owner chef of the Restaurant Ryuzu in Roppongi, Tokyo which has received two Michelin Guide Tokyo stars four years in a row [2015 ~ 2018]. The owner is originally from Tokamachi City, Niigata Prefecture and is familiar with the seasonal products of Niigata; using that knowledge he created this original menu himself.

The dishes are prepared by Mr. Ishizuka Tsuyoshi, head chef of the long-established Hotel Century Ikaya located in front of Naoetsu Station.

Seeing the colorful arrangement of delicacies whetted my appetite. Without further ado I began.

The first box contained appetizers.

▲ From the upper left going in a clockwise direction: Echigo Joetsu Shorthorned Cold Beef Consomme Jelly; Shrimp Flan, Herb Flavored Snow Crab; Basil Flavored Whelk and Octopus Confit; and Sea Bream

Cold Beef is roast beef served cold. The Echigo Joetsu Shorthorned Beef is a rare brand raised at the Sasagamine Ranch in Myoko City where at 1,300 meters elevation the temperature drops sharply between day and night and though the portion was small, it had a firm flavor.

▲ Enjoying a delicious meal while admiring such a magnificent view as this is indescribably wonderful!

The second box contained the main course of Niigata vegetables prepared in a French style.

▲ Clockwise from the upper left: Smoked Range Chicken with Potato; Colorful Vegetable Rolls; Eggplant Omlet; and Scallops and Yaoiro Shiitake Mushroom Tempura

The asparagus, potatoes, and daikon radish are also produced in Niigata Prefecture, including the thick and juicy Yaoiro Shiitake, a specialty of Minami Uonuma City, and the Etsu no Maru Eggplant, called the king of eggplants.

All of the vegetables were crisp and slightly sweet. If you are wondering whether all this would suffice as a main dish, you need not worry because it was most satisfying.

▲ While enjoying the food I could see the Kasugayama Castle ruins of Uesugi Kenshin. I’m not sure whether you can see them in this photo, but they were visible in the far distance.

Finally there is the third box containing sandwiches and baguette.

▲ Tsumari Pork Kanzuri Sandwiches and Summer Vegetables Dip with Baguette

The sandwiches were made with Tsumari Pork, a specialty of Tokamachi City that uses a special spicy sauce called Kanzuri, that has long been made in Myoko City. The piquant kanzuri sauce is a perfect match for the sweet and mellow Tsumari Pork, each helping to draw out the flavor of the other.

The accompanying dip is a summer vegetable ratatouille. Slowly simmered, the dip has a smooth gentle flavor.

Also included in the dishes is a corn soup. The sweetness has been condensed giving it a rich flavor.

The food before you is the type that can only be found in exclusive French restaurants while outside the window scenes of nature's abundant beauty pass by. I had to pinch myself to make sure I was not dreaming. That is how fantastic this experience was.

By the time the meal is finished the train begins to pull into the third station, Noetsu.

▲ A station box lunch vendor from Yamazaki-ya, established in 1901, welcomes passengers. Its famous Tara Meshi [cod lunch] took the top prize in the JR East Japan Station Box Lunch Flavor Group 2012 and also appeared on Ekiben Daishogun.
▲ The conductor gave us a mini-tour here, too. The Noetsu Station was the first railway station to begin operating in Niigata when it opened in 1886. As the railhead, the post indicating “Place 0” still remains today.

Enjoying the great panorama of the Japan Sea over dessert as we head to Itoigawa Station, our final stop

The train arrives at Itoigawa Station, the end of the line, about 40 minutes after departing Noetsu Station. It’s time to return to my seat and enjoy dessert. This dessert is also the creation of Mr. Iizuka.

▲ Three types of dessert are served. From the left they are a rich ganache chocolate, a sweet caramel creme chantilly, and a refreshing peach compote. Dessert comes with Setsugekka Original Blend Yukimuro Coffee

The coffee beans for Yukimuro Coffee are aged in a yukimuro which is a natural storehouse made from snow. With only the slightest hint of bitterness, the flavor is sweet and mild.

For the drink you can also select either Yukimuro Coffee Premium Ice Coffee (limited to summer) or Setsugekka Original Snow Lotus Black Tea, a blend made of lotus leaves grown in the Takada Park of Joetsu City.

▲Shortly after leaving Noetsu Station the scenery changes from mountains to the sea.

Between Noetsu Station and Itoigawa Station the train runs along the coast affording spectacular views of the Sea of Japan. A unique feature of this leg of the trip is that the train passes through several tunnels as it descends from the mountains down to the coast.

The Setsugekka journey draws to a close. At this point I decided to visit the Sakura Lounge cafe bar that also serves as a gift shop in Car No. 2.

You can enjoy wines made locally, draft beer, and soft drinks in the Sakura Lounge.

Of the 20 local sake brands of 20 local breweries in Joetsu, Myoko, and Itoigawa available, four different ones are selected each week and offered.

▲ A set of four local sakes is perfect for a taste comparison (1,000 yen per bottle, including tax)

Soft drinks include those only made in Niigata such as Niigata Le Lectier Juice made with Le Lectier Western pears that is not often distributed outside of Niigata Prefecture (500 yen including tax); Tsunan Highlands Carrot Juice and Tsunan Highlands Apple Juice (400 yen each, including tax).

▲ A selection of gifts only available here!

A number of original goods are also sold in the Sakura Lounge.

These include the ring notebook made with Echigo cedar (800 yen), an original paper balloon set (500 yen), and Setsugekka post cards (1,000 yen for a set of 5); all prices include tax.

You can also purchase the Yukimuro Coffee and Snow Lotus Black Tea which were served with dessert. These are good gifts to take back home to enable you to relive the memories of your trip.

▲ Tsutsuishi Station is located inside a tunnel (photo provided by Echigo Tokimeki Railway)

Along the way the train passes by the famous Tsutsuishi Station that is located inside a tunnel. The morning train passes through, but the afternoon train stops to allow passengers to tour it. This station is unique and draws railroad fans from across the country.

Receiving souvenirs and wrapping up the 3-hour journey

Once we pass the Tsutsuishi Station the train will shortly arrive at its destination. Before leaving the train though, gifts are distributed. The gifts vary according to whether it is the morning or afternoon train.

▲ On this day they were Hyoryomai rice, koshihikari rice raised in Kuwatori, Joetsu City (left), and castella cake made by FÖR ÄGG Cafe & Sweets, and egg shop in Itoigawa (right) *the gifts on the afternoon train are Yukimuro Coffee and castella

After about three hours the trip finally comes to an end when it arrives at Itoigawa Station.
Superb views of Niigata sights such as the Japan Sea, Myoko, and rural scenery; mini tours by the conductor along the way; and meals using plenty of seasonal ingredients from Niigata. This journey that offered so many things ended in the blink of an eye!

I tend to think of trains merely as a means of transportation, so I never imagined one could be so luxurious as this. Just before we pulled in to the terminus I wistfully wished that the trip would not be over. The spectacular views of nature and sumptuous meals provided a brief respite from the fatigue of daily life.

I’m told that passengers ride this train to celebrate wedding anniversaries, birthdays, and even for making marriage proposals. This is the perfect trip for creating special memories. Why not treat yourself to a little luxury sometime and take the Echigo Tokimeki Resort Setsugekka?

▲ Setsugekka passing through a snowy landscape (photo provided by Echigo Tokimeki Railway)
Echigo Tokimeki Resort Setsugekka
Days of operation
Saturdays, Sundays, holidays (excluding the end and beginning of the year)
Route
Joetsu Myoko Station ~ Itoigawa Station (switchback at Myoko Highlands Station)
Departure and Arrival Times
Morning train departs Joetsu Myoko Station at 10.19 a.m. and arrives at Itoigawa Station at 1:10 p.m.; Afternoon train departs Itoigawa Stationi at 1:57 p.m. and arrives at Joetsu Myoko Station at 4:47 p.m.
Fare
Morning and Afternoon trains 17,500 yen (including tax) per person per train
Reservations
Call the following number between 10:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. on weekdays
* For more information please check the website.
025-543-8988 (Echigo Tokimeki Resort Setsugekka Reservations Center)
*This information is from the time of this article's publication.
*Prices and options mentioned are subject to change.
*Unless stated otherwise, all prices include tax.

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