The 36+3 Sightseeing Train
The 36+3 D&S train is JR Kyushu’s newest sightseeing train. Launched in 2020, the 36+3 (pronounced “sanju-roku plus san”) is all about Kyushu. The train makes a circuit around Kyushu each week over five different routes, each route highlighting a specific region of Kyushu.
The name “36+3,” while rather unwieldy, refers to Kyushu being the 36th biggest island in the world. Adding 3 to that gets 39 (pronounced “san kyu” in Japanese), which sounds like “thank you” and is meant to express thanks to all the passengers, Kyushu residents, and other involved parties in supporting JR Kyushu through the years. Kind of a convoluted meaning for an odd name, but I promise you the 36+3 experience is easier to enjoy than it’s name.
The experience is a wonderful example of Japanese attention to detail, from all the tiny design accents on the train to the scheduling and activity planning. The train carriage is the latest masterpiece by Eiji Mitooka. After completing the ultra-luxury Seven Stars train, Mr. Mitooka incorporated many of the same design flourishes in creating the 36+3. The 36+3 is a renovated 787 model train, the same used for the Tsubame and Ariake limited expresses, making it smoother and quieter than the retro, simpler trains used for many of the other D&Ss.
Can I use my JR Pass?
Yes, but there is an additional fee, the amount of which depends on which route you take. The cheapest route runs from Beppu to Oita and costs ¥3,610/person extra, and the most expensive is the Thursday route that runs the north-south length of Kyushu from Fukuoka to Kagoshima. This leg costs ¥12,790 extra.
Meal packages are also available for each leg of the trip, but having a JR Pass doesn’t seem to get you a discount here. The cheapest meal package costs ¥12,000 (Kagoshima to Miyazaki with a bento from Kagoshima) and the most expensive is the ¥35,000 (Hakata/Kumamoto to Kagoshima) sushi course only available for passengers in private rooms.
The 36+3 currently (as of August 2021) takes a week to circle Kyushu with one leg per day (two on the Nagasaki route) and no trains on Tuesday and Wednesday. It is not a sleeper train, so multiple-day trips will require staying at a hotel and reserving tickets for multiple days. The fact that the stations change depending on the day of the week means you should make reservations in advance and plan your trip around the 36+3.
For the Hakata to Kagoshima route, you have the option of getting off or on at Kumamoto. The scenery between Hakata and Kumamoto is nothing special but the southern half of the route after Kumamoto is beautiful, so if you have the option, make sure you stay on for the Kumamoto-Kagoshima section of the trip.
The Trip: Kumamoto to Kagoshima-Chuo
The following are my impressions on my ride on a Thursday from Kumamoto Station to Kagoshima-Chuo Station. Each leg of the trip varies considerably in content and scenery, and after my trip here, I can honestly say that I would very much like to take this train again on one of the other routes.
The exterior of the 36+3 is sleek and jet-black with a deep shine that exudes luxury. Stepping onboard, you’ll notice that almost every surface is stained wood, polished metal, or comfy seat cushion. Each seat is considered Green class, which is the upgraded seating found on seats with reserved seating, meaning seats are spacious and very comfortable. The train consists of six cars with a layout as follows:
Car 1: Private rooms for 3-4 people (4 rooms) with tatami flooring (using tatami from nearby Yatsushiro). Don’t forget to take off your shoes when the floor switches from wood to tatami.
Car 2: Private rooms for 3-6 people (3 rooms) and wheelchair-capable seating with wood flooring
Car 3: Private rooms for 1-2 people (6 rooms) and buffet car featuring food and a wide variety of local drinks and snacks for sale
Car 4: Lounge with window counters and tables. Planned activities and workshops are held here.
Car 5: Seating in rows in a 2 seats/aisle/1 seat configuration with wood flooring. The single seat side is the side that faces the ocean during the ride, so if you are a single rider, try to get a D seat for a single seat with a good view.
Car 6: Seating in rows in a 1 seat/aisle/2 seats configuration with tatami flooring. The configuration is opposite that of car 5, so if you are traveling as a party of two, get C and D seats in this car to have a better view of the ocean.
My seat was in Car 5 Row 9 Seat D, meaning I had a great view out the west side of the train as it wound along the long coast of Kyushu. The only complaint I could think of with my ride was that the windows were rather small. Each window has a horizontal sliding window shade that looks beautiful when closed, but you can only slide half of the shade under or over the other half, meaning you can only see outside half of the window. Windows in the lounge and private room cars were a bit larger, but it would be nice if the screens could be removed or altered to better enjoy the scenery.
My seat was extremely spacious and comfortable and outfitted with an electrical outlet, large fold-out table, cup holder, and a beautiful leather organizer on the seat in front of me for holding smaller items like drinks, snacks, and cameras. Like most Japanese trains, the leg room was great, with enough extra space so that you can recline your seat without bothering the person behind you.
The interior design was a level above anything else I’d ever experienced on a train. Stylistically, the interior is similar to the Yamasemi Kawasemi, with lightly stained wood, bright brass and copper furnishings, and meticulous patterning on the floors and ceilings. The window shades I mentioned before are made in Fukuoka and decorated with Okawa Kumiko, a delicate wood latticework that is well-renowned and quite pricey.
My ride started in Kumamoto and ended at Kagoshima-Chuo and took a little under 4.5 hours. Instead of taking the normal JR rail that runs a more direct route to Kagoshima, half of the trip is spent on the private Hisatsu Orange railway that takes the much more scenic route skirting the eastern coast of Kyushu.
The train seemed booked at or near capacity, but it was in no way crowded. Seating is spacious and shared areas large enough to accommodate everyone in comfort.
I hadn’t booked a meal, so I decided to make a meal out of the snacks and drinks available for sale. Most D&S trains only offer light fare, but the 36+3 has meal-sized options like curry and udon, snacks like cookies and cheese, plus a wide selection of alcohol to showcase Kyushu’s great brewing and distilling culture.
I opted for a seasonal sake taster, featuring three summer sakes paired with three small snacks. My set included a ginjo called Cicala from Fukuoka, a tokubetsu junmai from Takakiya in Oita, and an Amabuki junmai daiginjo from Saga paired with some nori, a dried kibinago fish, and some salted chocolate. The sakes were very tasty representations of summer-style sakes and different enough to be interesting to compare.
Each route has a scenic station or two along the way that the 36+3 stops at to allow passengers to get off and stretch their legs. Each station has a welcoming party of locals that greet passengers, tell them about their town, and offer local foods and crafts for sale. My stop was Ushinohama Station in Kagoshima, a quaint little spot on the shore with a picturesque torii gate perched atop a large rock in the sea (that I failed to take a decent picture of).
Each route also features special activities and workshops that are specific to each day of the week. My route offered a tea tasting of teas from around Kyushu. Reservations are required beforehand, however, and I unfortunately missed out.
There was also a short presentation by the staff explaining some of the history and culture of the areas we passed through on our journey. The content changes depending on which route you are on.
Something I noticed that really illustrated the thought behind the experience on this train was how these activities were timed. The 36+3 runs along a regular stretch of track, which means you’ll have long intervals of tunnels, uninteresting residential areas, etc. The activities on the 36+3 are scheduled for these intervals so that A) you have something to do during the sections of less impressive scenery and B) you can join an activity knowing you won’t miss anything worth seeing outside. The train also slows down at especially scenic areas so you have an opportunity to take pictures and enjoy the view.
The ride is full of tiny little flourishes like this that ensure your trip is a stress-free and enjoyable one.
The staff were also a level above what I’d found on other D&S trains, with everyone being exceedingly friendly, helpful, and accommodating. There also seemed to be more staff on hand than is usual, so if you had an questions or needed something, someone was always nearby to help you out.
So, is it worth it? Resoundingly, yes. If you’re spending a couple thousand bucks just to visit Japan, what’s another couple hundred just to ride on one of the prettiest trains you’ll ever see? Having ridden only the Kumamoto-Kagoshima leg, I definitely want to ride all of the other routes around Kyushu and see how they differ. Splurging for one of the reserved meals is definitely appealing and probably worth it, but the train is plenty enjoyable by itself as well.
Like many of the other D&S sightseeing trains, the 36+3 is a great way to see the Japanese countryside. The love for Kyushu is palpable with all of the Kyushu-centric activities, Kyushu food & drink, and made-in-Kyushu decorations. In and around Fukuoka can be pretty unimpressive scenery-wise, but the 36+3 could be a great gateway to escape big city Fukuoka and explore some of Kyushu’s deeper countryside.
One caveat: almost everything is written and presented in Japanese, so an understanding of Japanese will make your trip considerably more enjoyable. The staff on the 36+3 are some of JR Kyushu’s most capable, so most or all of them likely speak English and you can probably get by with minimal Japanese ability, but your enjoyment will be that much greater if you can read the sake menus and understand the workshops.
Another caveat: it’s a long trip, so don’t front-load your alcohol intake. Space it out nicely along the trip so you don’t fall asleep early on and miss some good stuff. I realized this early and am glad I didn’t doze off for any of the ride.
- Attention paid to the tiniest details to create an entire fulfilling experience rather than a simple train ride
- The serenely beautiful scenery along the Hisatsu Orange section of the ride
- Locals at nearly every station waving at the train as it passes by
- Very wide selection of drinks, snacks, and merchandise at pretty reasonable prices
- Seasonal sake tasting menu
- Super comfy seats
- Extremely helpful and friendly staff
Pairs Nicely With
- The 36+3 departs/arrives at Kyushu’s main train stations, so try and schedule a train to one of them the day prior to or following your 36+3 reservation.
Electrical outlets: Yes
Food: Yes, but extra reservations required for full meals
Included in JR Rail Pass: Available at discounted price
Reservations required: Yes