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Converted Sleeper Train Cars: A Unique Retreat Facing Business Hurdles

Repurposed "Blue Train" sleeping cars offer tranquil accommodation near a ropeway station connecting to Unpenji Temple along the famous Shikoku Pilgrimage.



The Blue Train accommodation facility in Kannonji City, Kagawa Prefecture, and its owner Masaki Kishii. (©Sankei by Motohiro Wada)

In Kannonji City, Kagawa Prefecture, a year has passed since the unveiling of an extraordinary lodging facility. This facility was created by repurposing retired cars of a sleeper train. The cars were used for a train service fondly called the "Blue Train" operated by the former Japanese National Railways.

The establishment quickly garnered attention for using Duette sleeping cars, of which only three were manufactured. Each car has rooms accommodating two people.

Despite these appealing features, the growth in patronage has been modest. The COVID-19 pandemic may have also contributed to this. Owner Masaki Kishii is exploring strategies to attract more guests. "While I may have been a bit too optimistic in my expectations, I will strive to preserve the opportunity to stay in these cherished train cars," he says.

The corridor of the Duette car, with rooms each accommodating two people. ( ©Sankei by Motohiro Wada)

Driven by Childhood Dreams

In April 2023, Kishii opened the lodging facility at the second parking lot of the Unpenji Ropeway base station in Kannonji City. The ropeway leads to Unpenji Temple in Miyoshi City, Tokushima Prefecture, the 66th stop of the Shikoku Pilgrimage.

Guests can stay in the Duette car of the Naha train, which operated between Kyoto and Kumamoto until 2008, or the B-class sleeping car of the Seto train, discontinued in 1998. The latter has a silver stripe along the side of its bodywork.

Kishii previously ran an udon restaurant in Zentsuji City before relocating his business to pursue his dream of converting Blue Train cars into lodging for pilgrims.

His passion for trains ignited during fifth grade. By junior high, he was enamored with taking photos of trains. Convincing his mother to join him on nighttime trips to Okayama Station via the Uko Ferry, he snapped many photos of sleeper trains using his father's camera. Reflecting on those experiences, he recalls, "The distinct headmarks [nameplates on the trains] left a lasting impression."

When he became an office worker, he took sleeper trains to travel to Tokyo for business. Then, after working as a Western orchid cultivator, he became a self-taught udon noodle restaurant owner.


Eight years ago, as the idea of relocating the shop surfaced, he had an epiphany: "Why not operate a lodging facility for pilgrims using the Blue Train cars I loved so much as a child?"

Inside an upper berth private room in the "Blue Train" Duette car (©Sankei by Motohiro Wada)

Inconvenience and Lack of Publicity

Kishii scoured the nation for Blue Train cars. Kishii discovered two in Akune City, Kagoshima Prefecture, previously used as lodging facilities but were out of operation. It took approximately five years to get them ready. In April 2021, they were transported from Kagoshima to Kannonji City by land and sea.

Transportation expenses surpassed initial estimates, prompting Kishii to launch two crowdfunding campaigns. He collected just under ¥14 million JPY ($89,000 USD) in total. Explaining his choice of location, he remarked, "Considering its intended use as a lodging facility for pilgrims, I selected a site near the pilgrimage route with space for the train cars."

A group of volunteers assisted him in preparing the cars, which included repainting the bodywork and restoring the electrical systems. The lodging facility finally opened in April 2023. "I anticipated an influx of visitors from all corners of the country due to its novelty," he said. However, both the accommodation facility and the udon restaurant fell far short of their break-even points.

The facility is situated approximately 6.5 kilometers (around 4 miles) in a straight line from the nearest JR Toyohama Station. No other public transportation options, including community buses, are available. This makes it very difficult to access.

Additionally, plans to transfer and unveil the cars were hampered by the COVID-19 pandemic, leading to a lack of publicity. Moreover, initial capital investments ballooned substantially due to soaring raw material costs.

The accommodation is located near the ropeway station leading to Unpenji Temple. (©Sankei by Motohiro Wada)

A Hidden Gem

Currently, Kishii is pursuing solutions to overcome the challenges at hand. His main focus is boosting publicity by inviting local families and holding events for visitors to get a first-hand experience of the cars. He is also working to persuade local authorities and bus operators to organize small sightseeing buses from the train station to the base station of the Unpenji Ropeway.

Additionally, Kishii is exploring the feasibility of relocating the facility and researching available grants.  Drawing on the community's advice, he is considering incorporating his business and seeking supporters, small shareholders, and sponsors. Adjusting prices during peak seasons and revising tour fees are other avenues he is exploring.

Kishii questions whether planning events is wise when the future of his business is uncertain. Nonetheless, he emphasizes, "I carry the hopes of those who supported me through crowdfunding, and I am determined to ensure the survival of this cherished Blue Train accommodation."

There are only five Blue Train accommodations in Japan: one in Hokkaido, two in Tohoku, and another in Kyushu. 

Taichi Takeoka, a self-employed man from Osaka City who stayed at Kishii's lodging facility, shares his experience: "When I woke up in the morning, the scenery from the window was magnificent. I am inspired by Mr Kishii’s efforts to preserve it, and I am rooting for him.”


Similarly, a couple from Tokyo, staying at the facility for the second time, remarks, "We stumbled upon this place online last summer and decided to stay. Our childhood dream of riding the Blue Train has finally come true."


(Read the article in Japanese.)

Author: Motohiro Wada, The Sankei Shimbun