As we tried to find the right train, we first ended up at the wrong platform. The train at that platform did not look fancy enough to be the train I booked. Our train was in fact hidden behind this ordinary-looking train that was just departing, and as it slowly began to move away, there it was, standing in all its shimmering, gold-accented, royal-blue glory: the Blue Symphony (Japanese: 青の交響曲). My girlfriend actually only found out about the fancy train and our destination only after we arrived at Osaka-Abenobashi Station, from where we were to take the special train, but the surprise effect was even better than expected. An exclamation of excitement escaped my girlfriend as her face radiated with happiness. I gave myself an imaginary tap on the shoulders for this one.
This three-carriage train was going to be our means of travel to Yoshino for the day. All seats on the reserved-only train are wide and comfortable and offer much more legroom than necessary, especially considering the 1h20 duration of a one-way trip from Osaka to Yoshino. Table lamps, chrome-finished details and the embroidered Blue Symphony logo on the seats added to the feeling of luxury.
The train also has a bar offering several snacks with a classy touch. All desserts and drinks are said to be made with local products from along the railway line, an area known for its grapes, strawberries and other crops. There is also a selection of exclusive souvenirs, all Blue Symphony-themed. For those who like to read up on the region, there is a small library rack with a bench in front where passengers can sit and read while on the go. Being spacious and all-reserved, the Blue Symphony offers a relaxing trip with a guaranteed place to sit, which are rarities for Japanese commuter trains.
Despite these things, a round trip for one adult costs only about ¥3,300 (€25). This makes it one of the cheapest luxury trains from Kintetsu Railway, while still giving a feeling of exclusivity to passengers.
One thing we really like about Japan is that you can collect unique stamps at most popular tourists spots and train stations all over Japan, including on board the Symphony Express. It serves as a small, physical memory of a pleasant trip. We found another stamp at Yoshino station.
Yoshino: nature, temples, art and food
People mostly visit Yoshino (Nara prefecture, Japan) in spring, when the cherry blossom (sakura) trees are in bloom or in autumn, when the leaves turn red and brown (momiji). The views of thousands and thousands of trees on the mountains dotted with mountain-worship temples surrounding the quaint town are what draw tourists to the spot.
Once we arrived in Yoshino, we started looking for a restaurant I had in mind to bring my girlfriend to called Yamatoan, where soba noodles are prepared in local spring water. Alas, as we went up the mountain in the scorching August heat, some exhaustion and dehydration signs started to manifest themselves, so we had to cut our hike short and ended up eating at an understated traditional restaurant called Oshokuji Chimoto お食事処ちもと, which is part of a ryōkan named Senbonrou 千本桜. It’s not evident to bump into it online and we can’t express how glad we are to have accidentally found this restaurant.
When we arrived, at noon, Chimoto was being run by one woman and there were two other guests… or so we thought. Those two men appeared to be construction workers who were working on a part of the residence attached to the restaurant itself so as it were, us two were the only real guests. They were enjoying their lunch, seemingly on the courtesy of the restaurant owner.
There is an unwritten rule saying that a restaurant where no guests are present at a normal time to eat is a restaurant where the food is bad. In this case, however, there is absolutely no doubt that the emptiness of the venue was entirely due to the off-season and the heat. The rest of the town was quite deserted as well, but I digress.
Chimoto was actually the first of the restaurants we encountered that was actually open. In true Japanese fashion, the menu was presented through imitation dishes outside the restaurant. We decided on our dishes and before long, we sat inside as the kind owner-lady prepared our lunch and boy, this restaurant did not disappoint.
We both ordered katsu-don, which is a bowl of rice topped with deep-fried pork-cutlet, egg and some vegetables. The other side dishes were zaru soba (soba noodles topped with nori seaweed), tsukemono (Japanese pickles), and some other greens that seemed to come from the sea. The execution of it all was just perfect. It was served really quickly although granted, we were basically the only guests, and it looked like it was properly going to fill my stomach for once.
Personally, I have been less overwhelmed by the Japanese kitchen than many others claim to be for some reason, but if I were some pro restaurant reviewer, this restaurant and the lady whose name we don’t know would have taken away my gold medals (forks?) for being the most delicious and authentic Japanese food I have eaten so far and it was in perfect quantity as well.
After lunch, we further enjoyed the magnificent views that Yoshino had to offer. We encountered a walking stick, looked around shops that had lucky charms for sale, and observed wooden animals. On the way to a big temple which is being renovated, my girlfriend bought a popsicle from a very sweet old lady (we just couldn’t say no to her when she offered it to us).
We walked all the way up the mountain to some stores and temples, but during the tourist season, you can also ride a cable car. There is also a local bus regularly riding up and down the mountain. The landscape that we could see from up there was already amazing now in summer, so we can only imagine what it would be like in autumn or spring.
TL;DR: Yoshino and the Blue Symphony are must-dos if you’re in the Kansai area and looking for something (quite literally) off the beaten track!