At the beginning of July 2021, it was brought to my attention that JR Kyushu was running a fantastic new promotion. Instead of limiting JR Kyushu Rail Passes to foreign visitors to Japan on tourist visas, these coveted passes were now available to foreign residents in Japan until March 2022.
As a foreign resident keen on reliving the heady days of my study abroad-ing youth, I jumped at the chance to pick up a pass. I also figured it was a great opportunity to ride all of Kyushu’s famous sightseeing trains. These special trains are well-known and well-loved among locals but near unknown to foreign travelers. With JR Passes, all tourists want to ride are the speedy shinkansen, but these sightseeing trains can take visitors deeper into the Japanese countryside where shinkansen can’t go while also offering great sights and local refreshments.
So I tasked a trusty train-geek friend with organizing a schedule that would let me ride all North Kyushu sightseeing trains on a single 3-day JR Kyushu pass (which cost just ¥9500!). She slaved over train schedules and seating arrangements to come up with a masterfully orchestrated series of transfers and connections, totaling 16 train rides over 3 consecutive days.
A Word About Sightseeing Trains
Sightseeing trains, known as “kanko ressha” (観光列車), are in service all over Japan. They are a step or two above local trains in terms of comfort, usually having reclining seats and large windows. JR Kyushu boasts some of Japan’s finest sightseeing trains in higher numbers than other regions, making Kyushu something of a mecca for train nerds.
JR Kyushu calls its sightseeing trains D&S (Design and Story) trains, and this is reflected in how each train is designed around a theme that explores the story of the region it services.
Take the Yufuin no Mori train for example. It runs from Fukuoka through dense woodlands and narrow valleys to the hot spring resort town of Yufuin. To better enjoy the views, the train has large windows and special panorama seating in the front car. The refreshment car also features local specialties like ice cream made with kabosu, a citrus that Oita is a major producer of.
These trains introduce the local culture and landscape better than the express trains that speed down the rails and only stop at large cities.
Many of Kyushu’s trains are designed by one man: Eiji Mitooka. Mr. Mitooka has a very distinct style of design that focuses on using local wood to instill in his trains a sense of comfort and local flair. His designs meld Japanese sensibilities with western style to make He is very prolific, with his design office handling the design of dozens of trains just in Kyushu, plus a number of stations, both big and small.
What I’m essentially getting at is that Kyushu is a great place to visit, made even more appealing by the convenience and luxury of its sightseeing trains.
Day 1 – Let the Trip Begin!
I started my trip on a Friday, aiming to get most of my D&S train riding done on the weekend, as most D&S trains only run on weekends except during summer vacation and golden week. Yufuin no Mori is one of the few that runs on weekdays year-round, so my goal was to ride the Yufuin no Mori and keep my weekend open for the other trains.
Trans-Kyushu Limited Express: Kumamoto City to Oita City
I set off in a rainy season downpour from Kumamoto Station on the 9:09 Trans-Kyushu Limited Express to Oita. It rained almost the entire 3-hour ride, so the views of the Aso volcano I was looking forward to never materialized. The train itself was comfortable, on par with shinkansen on Honshu, but lacking electrical outlets and wifi.
Rain heavily restricted visibility meaning there wasn’t anything of note to see but, on the other hand, I got a lot of work done. I arrived in the newly renovated Oita Station at 12:17 on the dot.
I had an hour and change to kill here, so I explored the rooftop space, got poured on, then headed inside for a Cinnabon and some more work. The rooftop, called the City Okujo Plaza, was designed by (you guessed it) Eiji Mitooka, and features a railway shrine, mini-train track, large steel pagoda, and plenty of seating. Weary salarymen were braving the downpour to eat their lunch here in peace.
Yufu Limited Express: Oita City to Bungomori
Next, I caught a normal limited express train to the small town of Bungomori in Oita Prefecture. This was at the behest of my friend, who wanted me to visit the historic railway roundhouse and Eiji Mitooka mini-museum there. The train ride to Bungomori passed through Yufuin, the quaint hot spring resort town nestled under towering Mt. Yufu. An hour and a half later, I was in Bungomori.
I was budgeted a very generous 2.5 hours to spend in Bungomori, so I took some pictures of the old roundhouse and checked out the museum. The museum, while small, was jam-packed with everything Eiji Mitooka, including copies of the actual blueprints used to build some of his trains.
After perusing the books and speaking with the friendly museum-keeper, I popped over to Yatoka Coffee located opposite the museum for a mid-afternoon snack of taco rice. Bungomori ended up being a pleasant surprise with a cool vintage vibe that I would definitely like to visit again in the future.
Yufuin no Mori: Bungomori to Hakata (Fukuoka)
The train I had been waiting all day to ride arrived at 17:34, and I was off through the mountains and dense forests of Oita towards the big city of Fukuoka. The Yufuin no Mori darts in and out of short tunnels as it crisscrosses roiling mountain rivers and passes through tiny villages and is a great way to see the Kyushu countryside. Yufuin is also a great destination and contrasts nicely with the hustle and bustle of Fukuoka, making the Yufuin no Mori both a convenient mode of transportation and an enjoyable experience by itself.
After a 2-hour ride, I arrived in Fukuoka at 19:22 and took a shinkansen back to Kumamoto to finish day 1.
Day 2: Too Many Trains?
Day 2 packed seven train into a single day and proved to be the most tiring day on my journey. While I was finding wifi on most of the trains, electricity was an issue, so in order to keep my laptop powered, I had to lug around a 2kg rechargeable battery in my backpack. This, together with my computer, camera bag, and various chargers, etc., made for a heavy load, which in turn made me a sweaty guy.
Anyway, Day 2 started at 8:37 at Kumamoto Station on a…
Tsubame Shinkansen: Kumamoto Station to Hakata Station
The Tsubame is the slowest on the Kyushu Shinkansen line that runs between Kagoshima and Hakata. The 800-series trains are my favorite shinkansen and are designed by none other than Eiji Mitooka. The seats and armrests are crafted out of maple wood and are wide and exceedingly comfortable.
Also, no pictures of shinkansen on this blog. They get enough attention already 😛
Isaburo / Shinpei / Kawasemi Yamasemi: Hakata Station to Mojiko Station
After arriving in Hakata, my next trip was on a pair of trains that had been displaced from their original routes: the Isaburo / Shinpei, which ran from Kumamoto to Yoshimatsu, Kagoshima; and the Kawasemi Yamasemi, which ran from Kumamoto to Hitoyoshi. Devastating rains and flooding in 2020 washed away critical sections of railway near Hitoyoshi, leaving railway services out of commission until repairs are completed.
The two trains ran separately before but now run linked together, with passengers allowed to move freely between both trains (seating is reserved, however).
This is to the disadvantage of Isaburo / Shinpei, as the train formerly ran along a beautiful stretch of railway, and while the train itself looks nice, it is pretty simple and lacking in comfort. The Kawasemi Yamasemi, on the other hand, is a beautifully designed set of cars, with ornately detailed patterns and luxurious woodwork. With a choice between the two, if they’re running on the same track, you’re going to want to take the Kawasemi Yamasemi.
The train ride itself was pretty uneventful, passing through residential and industrial areas throughout Fukuoka before arriving at Mojiko Station.
It was my first time to Mojiko Station, and I was really impressed. The station is a western-style building built in 1914 and renovated in 2018. It looks like something straight out of an old-timey black-and-white photograph, and you can imagine people with top hats and canes mingling with people dressed in kimono hurrying to catch the next steam locomotive out of the station.
The station is also right next to the straight that separates Honshu from Kyushu, so it is only a very short walk to the Mojiko riverside. There you’ll find small cafes and tasty eateries of all sorts. Behind the station is the Kyushu Railway History Museum, which explores the history of railroads in Kyushu and has a number of historic trains on display.
Mojiko Station -> Kokura Station -> Hakata Station -> Tosu Station
The JR Kyushu pass doesn’t cover shinkansen north of Fukuoka, so I had to use local and limited express trains to get back to Hakata. I took a local to Kokura Station, then took the Sonic from Kokura to Hakata. The Sonic was actually one of the white Kamome 885 trains, featuring decorative calligraphy on the walls.
Once in Hakata, I had three minutes to find my next train to take me to Tosu. I took the Midori, which splits up midway along, with half of the cars going to Huis Ten Bosch and the other half going to Sasebo. Once in Tosu, I was ready for one of the highlights of my trip:
SL Hitoyoshi: Tosu to Kumamoto
The SL Hitoyoshi is one of the most well-known sightseeing trains in Kyushu and the only regularly running steam locomotive. Prior to the 2020 flooding, the SL ran between Kumamoto and Hitoyoshi, but it is now temporarily relocated to Tosu-Kumamoto.
The train itself is like a moving museum, all made of vintage iron and steel and bellowing smoke from its chimney. If you have the time, take a look up front at the engine to look at all the levers and gauges the engineer uses to drive the train. Behind the engine is the coal tender where the coal used to power the train is kept.
Our train was assisted by a diesel engine, which might be because the train runs through residential areas and too much smoke would bother the locals.
The scenery around Tosu was very flat and uninteresting, but as we entered into Kumamoto, the more mountainous terrain and wooded areas made for a more interesting ride.
While the SL as it is currently is beautifully restored and a fun family ride, its original route through the mountainous Hitoyoshi region would offer much better scenery, so I’m very much looking forward to when it returns to normal operation.
Returning back to Kumamoto marked the end of the second day of my excursion.
Day 3: More Trains
Day 3 started out early, with a 7:05 Sakura shinkansen out of Kumamoto to Shin-Tosu. Heavy rains down in Kagoshima delayed shinkansen headed north by about 10 minutes, making my 14-minute planned layover in Shin-Tosu into something of a nailbiter, but it all worked out in the end.
Kamome: Shin-Tosu to Nagasaki
The Kamome limited express is currently the fastest way to get from Fukuoka to Nagasaki via train. After much consternation, a new Nagasaki shinkansen line is scheduled to open in fall of 2022, cutting the current time of around 2 hours to about an hour and a half.
The Kamome is a pleasantly comfortable ride, on par with shinkansen. Sections of the track run along the coastline of the Ariake Sea, and on clear days, you can see the opposite coast in Kumamoto Prefecture and the volcanic Mt. Unzen on southern Nagasaki. My Kamome was actually a repurposed 787 Tsubame Relay train.
Keeping with the strictly business nature of my trip, I only had 21 minutes in Nagasaki before hopping right back on a Kamome to Hakata.
Kamome: Nagasaki to Hakata
See above, but read it backwards.
Sonic: Hakata to Oita
Next up was the cobalt blue Sonic limited express from Fukuoka to Oita. I wasn’t expecting much from this trip as it isn’t a sightseeing train per se, but some of the views along the way were spectacular enough to make this one of my favorite trips.
After escaping the Fukuoka metro area, the train runs along the eastern Kyushu coast for beautiful views of the Seto Inland Sea. The train enters a series of tunnels and winding valleys as it cuts across the Kunisaki Peninsula before emerging on the coast of the sweeping Beppu Bay.
Bounding the coastal resort city of Beppu to the west is Mt. Tsurumi. The city lies sprawled out over the mountainside as it gently slopes into the bay. The railway traces the coastline as it passes through Beppu and into the neighboring city of Oita and the end of this leg of my journey.
Aso Boy: Oita to Kumamoto
Today’s final ride was the Aso Boy, a family favorite that was out of commission after the Kumamoto Earthquakes of 2016 but returned to service in 2020. The Aso Boy runs the same route as the Trans-Kyushu Limited Express that I took on Day 1, but the weather was much better this time.
Despite being relatively unknown outside of Japan, I think Mt. Aso has some of the best views in the country and is a great place to spend a night or two without having to worry about it being overrun with tourists.
Right before you exit the Aso caldera, keep an eye out on your left for the bridge that collapsed in the earthquakes. A section of the collapsed bridge, along with some damaged buildings and guardrails, are reminders of the power and destruction of the earthquakes of 2016.
After leaving Aso, the surroundings gradually become more and more inhabited until we arrive at our destination of Kumamoto Station.
That concludes the first half of my Kyushu train challenge.
Did I have fun? Sure!
Would I do it again? No!
Do I recommend something similar to normal travelers? Absolutely not!
Do I recommend taking a sightseeing train if you visit Kyushu? Absolutely 100%!
I did find out, however, that there are a couple really nice train rides that can be done in succession and recommend them if you’re looking to explore Kyushu. The Sonic-Aso Boy/Trans-Kyushu route is especially nice, as you get to experience both the sea and the mountains. You can even split the ride up by spending a night in Beppu or Oita, an area with great hot springs.
My trip around Southern Kyushu is scheduled for the end of this month and I’m looking forward to it! In contrast to most of the trains in Northern Kyushu being centered in the big city environs of Fukuoka, the Southern Kyushu trains boast amazingly scenic landscapes that I can’t wait to see. Also, the 36+3 train is the newest addition to JR Kyushu’s lineup and looks to be the most luxurious train I’ll get to experience on the trip. See you then!