Japan's high-speed trains are gearing up with high-speed luxe in an renewed attempt to fight domestic airlines on the most profitable routes.
This weekend saw the opening of the newest line in Japan's bullet train network, linking Tokyo for the first time by high-speed rail to the northern island of Hokkaido, which is home to some of the country’s best ski resorts.
To woo snow-bound travellers away from the likes of ANA and JAL, Japan Rail's JR Hokkaido arm will offer a first-class equivalent carriage on the futuristic, needle-nosed Hayabusa E5 Shinkansen train which will make the 825km trek from Tokyo to Hokkaido's southern port city of Hakodate in just over four hours.
With its plush leather Recaro recliners and upscale interior design, GranClass is a clear cut above the usual Green Class premium carriages.
There are only six rows of 1-2 seating in GranClass, making it look and feel more like the railway's version of a private jet.
JR Hokkaido is also keen to promote that its GranClass seats are 2cm wider than ANA's domestic business class equivalents, and with 3cm more legroom. (And, naturally, every seat has its own AC and USB power ports.)
Like their high-flying counterparts, GranClass passengers enjoy access to an airport station lounge....
... and can tuck into 'gourmet' bento boxes, sake, beer and wine as the bullet train rides the rails at speeds up to 260km/h.
Also on hand are amenities including a blanket, slippers and eye masks, plus a dedicated GranClass cabin attendant.
Initial fares on the Tokyo-Hakodate bullet train ran at A$450 one-way, some $50 less than the equivalent business class fare, although the flight itself is an hour shorter.
"Considering the time it takes on the train, we don’t think that airline passengers will be lured away anytime soon" suggests ANA President Osamu Shinobe.
The Hokkaido line will be extended to Sapporo, Hokkaido’s capital and Japan’s fifth largest city, by 2030, further bolstering competition between Japan's trains and planes.
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