The first thing that pops into most people’s minds when they hear “trains” and “Japan” are the clean and speedy shinkansen bullet trains. Shinkansen can whisk you away to almost anywhere in Japan at a fraction of the hassle involved with flying. While the shinkansen are great, Japan has another set of equally impressive yet not nearly as well-known set of trains.
These are the “kanko ressha” (観光列車, “sightseeing/tour trains”).What sets these sightseeing trains apart from shinkansen is that they are almost complete opposites. Shinkansen are built for speed; while sightseeing trains revel in taking the scenic route through Japan’s picturesque countryside. Shinkansen (especially around Tokyo/Osaka) tend to be no-frills affairs, a step above airline comfort but simple and efficient; whereas sightseeing trains feature meticulous attention paid to even the tiniest of details.
On Kyushu－Japan’s southwestern-most big island－these sightseeing trains are officially called D&S (Design & Story) trains. JR Kyushu has put extraordinary effort in making their D&S trains both plentiful and miles ahead in luxury and concept. The aim of this post is to offer:
- A quick intro to each of Kyushu’s sightseeing rail lines
- Some helpful tips on reserving/riding
- Links to more detailed info and multi-leg D&S travel itineraries
Table of Contents
- Seven Stars in Kyushu
- Yufuin no Mori
- Aso Boy!
- Ibusuki no Tamatebako
- Umisachi Yamasachi
- Hayato no Kaze
- Kawasemi Yamasemi
- Isaburo / Shinpei
- SL Hitoyoshi
- 36+3 (Sanju-Roku Plus San)
- Aru Ressha (Sweet Train)
- 885 Series Kamome
- 883 Series Sonic
- 787 Series Tsubame Relay / Ariake
- Trans-Kyushu Limited Express
An Introduction to the World of Sightseeing Trains
As stated before, these sightseeing trains emphasize comfort and style over speed. JR Kyushu’s D&S trains go a step further and imbue each train with a cohesive design and deep-seated sense of story. This helps tie the trains together with the local areas they traverse. Much of the credit in accomplishing this goes to industrial designer Eiji Mitooka.
Mr. Mitooka has worked with JR Kyushu to create trains that are more than a means of getting from one point to another.Each train is themed to instill the essence of the local areas the train runs through. Trains that wind through mountain areas have large viewing windows. Trains that pass through areas famous for their pottery feature custom-made porcelain fixtures. Trains that take seaside routes offer local seafood on their menus. Sightseeing trains exist all over Japan (even those designed by Mr. Mitooka), but Kyushu has the best and largest selection.
With a little clever scheduling, you can actually string together multiple different train rides on a single route. And the best part is that most of these sightseeing trains are completely covered by a JR Pass. A couple of trains cost extra (one costs a lot extra), but the fact that you can ride so many trains using your handy JR Pass is a great―yet wildly underutilized―perk for foreigners visiting Japan. So without any more introduction, let’s take a closer look at each of Kyushu’s sightseeing trains.
Seven Stars in Kyushu
Let’s start out with the jewel in Kyushu’s crown: the Seven Stars in Kyushu ultra-luxury train. The Seven Stars entered into service in 2013 and has been booked solid ever since. It is Kyushu’s only overnight train, with passengers getting their own luxurious cabin on this 7-car train that supposedly cost around US$30 million to build. There are two routes, a two-day and a four-day, that take passengers around Kyushu and include excursions at stops along the way. Prices start at around US$2600 per person for the two-day and US$5,400 for the four-day route.
Yufuin no Mori
The Yufuin no Mori train is Kyushu’s most popular sightseeing train. It runs between Fukuoka and Oita via Yufuin, a small hot spring resort town hidden away in the Kuju Mountains. The large windows offer great views of the steep peaks surrounding Yufuin.
The Aso Boy! is the flagship sightseeing train of the Aso region of Kumamoto Prefecture. Aso gets its name from Mt. Aso, a group of active volcanic peaks surrounded by one of the world’s largest calderas. Aso Boy! is kid-friendly and is a great way to see the Aso region.
The A-Train connects Kumamoto City with Misumi Port, where you can hop on the Amakusa Sea Cruise to explore the Amakusa archipelago. The train is themed around the Duke Ellington song “Take the A-Train” and features stunning views of the Unzen volcano across the Ariake Sea as it winds along the coast.
Ibusuki no Tamatebako
This short train runs between Kagoshima and the city of Ibusuki, a small resort town famous for its hot sand baths.
This train runs on a segment of track far in the southeast of Kyushu, between Miyazaki City and Nichinan. Highlights include huge windows to enjoy the Miyazaki coastline and a slow pass along the Devil’s Washboard.
Hayato no Kaze
Although currently not in service due to damage from flooding in 2020 (as of July 2021), the Hayato no Kaze normally runs from Kagoshima City to the town of Yoshimatsu to the north.
This Kawasemi Yamasemi is a two-car train, with one car themed for the kawasemi (kingfisher) and the other for the yamasemi (crested kingfisher). The interior is beautifully decorated with locally sourced wood and ornately patterned fabrics. The train originally ran between Kumamoto City and Hitoyoshi, but due to flooding in the Hitoyoshi region in 2020, the train is currently running linked with the Isaburo / Shinpei between Hakata (Fukuoka) and Moji Port.
Isaburo / Shinpei
The Isaburo / Shinpei is designed in a style reminiscent of industrial-era England: high-backed seats, dark-stained wood, and brass fixtures. Originally running between Kumamoto City and Yoshimatsu via Hitoyoshi, severe flooding in 2020 in Hitoyoshi that damaged railways in the region, the train has been relocated to Fukuoka and runs linked together with the Kawasemi Yamasemi.
The SL Hitoyoshi is Kyushu’s only steam locomotive. It originally connected Kumamoto City to Hitoyoshi, but due to the 2020 floods in Hitoyoshi, the train currently runs between Kumamoto and Tosu.
36 Plus 3
The 36 Plus 3 (Sanju Roku Plus San) is a new addition to the Kyushu fleet. This fancy train runs in a weekly circuit around Kyushu and, while it costs a little extra for JR Rail Pass-holders, it is definitely worth it.
Aru Ressha (Sweet Train)
The Aru Ressha is a luxury dining train with a focus on enjoying sweets and tasty treats as you ride the rails of Kyushu. This train is not available for JR Pass-holders, but if you’re looking to splurge on a day-trip train ride, this is your ticket.
885 Series Kamome
While not an “official” sightseeing train, the Kamome is a limited express train that links Fukuoka with Nagasaki. A new branch of the shinkansen is planned to open between these two cities in the next few years, at which time the Kamome may be repurposed, similar to the Tsubame relay that ran before the Kumamoto-Fukuoka leg of the Kyushu Shinkansen opened.
883 Series Sonic
The Sonic, while also not a sightseeing train, is a limited express that connects Fukuoka with Oita. For travelers by train to Miyazaki, travelers have the choice of the eastern route starting with the Sonic, while western route uses the shinkansen down to Kagoshima, then regular trains over to Miyazaki.
787 Relay Tsubame / Ariake
The Relay Tsubame used to run between Kumamoto and Fukuoka before the Kyushu Shinkansen was completed. Once the shinkansen was fully connected, these 787 trains were repurposed for use on other limited express routes. You’ll sometimes see them filling in for Kamome duties. The exterior and interior have a kind of 80s/Robocop kinda vibe. In contrast with most trains of limited express class and higher, the 787s seem to lack onboard wifi.
Trans-Kyushu Limited Express
The Trans-Kyushu Limited Express connects Kumamoto City with Oita City on a three-hour ride through central Kyushu. The train passes through a rare switchback as it makes its way into Aso and heads toward Oita.