RAILWAY TRIP AROUND KYUSHU (ATT.JAPAN ISSUE 57)
On March 12, 2011, with the opening of the northern route, the entire Kyushu Shinkansen (bullet train) railway was completed, thus completing the Shinkansen railway connection from Aomori Prefecture in the northern end of Honshu island to Kagoshima Prefecture in the southern end of Kyushu island. (*There is no direct line connecting from Shin-Aomori, or from Tokyo, to Kagoshima Chuo Station). With completion of the high-speed train system, unique trains for tourists have become more and more popular all over Japan. In particular, this article will take you on a railway trip in Kyushu, where many unique trains designed by Eiji Mitooka (industrial designer) are carrying both tourists and locals.
JR Hakata City opened on March 3, 2011, coinciding with the full-service opening of the Kyushu Shinkansen. Encompassing Hakata Hankyu Department Store and Amu-Plaza Hakata, which consists of 229 specialty shops and the first Tokyu Hands (crafts, DIY goods shop) in Kyushu, JR Hakata City is one of the largest station buildings in Japan, and is becoming a hot spot for people all around Kyushu to visit. Shoppers can find all kinds of Kyushu’s delicacies on the basement floor, while hungry diners relish great food in restaurants on the 9th and 10th floors, many of which made their first opening of shops in Kyushu. On the rooftop, there is a shrine, and you can enjoy a sweeping view of the whole of Fukuoka City.
Hakata Station is located in Fukuoka City. It is rare that the biggest station in a city isn’t named after the city itself. Why this happened is an interesting story. Hakata was one of the biggest mercantile cities in Japan, developing from around the 12th century, whereas Fukuoka was the castle and samurai town of the powerful Kuroda Clan in the Edo period (1603-1867). A big argument about naming of the new city at the time of the merging of these two areas in 1890 resulted in the birth of “Fukuoka City,” not “Hakata City.” A compromise created Hakata Station, allowing the name of “Hakata” to remain. “Hakata” is often used in names of traditional things and events, such as Hakata dolls, Hakata textiles, and Hakata Gion Yamakasa (festival), and there is a Hakata Ward in Fukuoka City.
Fukuoka City is the biggest city in Kyushu with a population of over 1,450,000. You will never get tired of strolling around the city looking for something interesting. In the evening, many yatai (food stalls), which Fukuoka City is famous for, open for business on both sides of the Nakagawa River flowing in the middle of the city. You will find a wide variety of foods, including ramen, oden, yakitori, and Western dishes.
The Nakasu area has a large shopping and entertainment complex, Canal City Hakata, as well as Kushida Shrine where the Hakata Gion Yamakasa festival is held. The downtown area of Fukuoka City, called Tenjin, which is the biggest downtown in Kyushu, is crowded with department stores and specialty shops. Located next to Tenjin on the west is the Daimyo area with boutiques catering to the young crowd for and fancy restaurants.
Hakata to Kumamoto: Kyushu Shinkansen
The Kyushu Shinkansen runs from Hakata Station to Kumamoto Station. If you are a railway enthusiast, you will be really excited to be at Hakata Station.
Various Shinkansen series trains, including the 700 series and 300 series as well as the N700 series of the Tokaido and Sanyo Shinkansen lines and the 500 series of the Sanyo Shinkansen Line, arrive at and leave from Hakata Station. The Sakura and Mizuho services of the Kyusyu Shinkansen Line use the N700 series cars painted in light blue, which creates a very different impression from that of the N700 series cars used in the Tokaido and Sanyo Shinkansen lines. Arranged in two rows of two seats next to each other, reserved seats in regular cars are as comfortable as those in green cars. The 800 series cars are mainly used for the Tsubame services on the Kyusyu Shinkansen Line. The interior design is Japanese, and seats are arranged spaciously in two rows of two seats next to each other in all the regular cars (no green cars).
Tsubame, which starts from Hakata Station, arrives at Shin-Tosu Station first. Tosu Premium OutletsR shopping mall is near the station. The next station is Kurume. Kurume is said to be the home of tonkotsu ramen (ramen with a pork bone-based broth), and has many popular B-class gourmet dishes, including yakitori. Ishibashi Museum of Art, which is famous for its Japanese painting and artifacts collections, is located in Kurume City. After leaving Kurume Station, the train runs through the Chikugo Plain, stopping at Chikugofunagoya Station, Shin-Omuta Station, and Shin-Tamana Station, and then arrives at Kumamoto Station in just 51 minutes.
Kumamoto City, with a population of 730,000, is the main city in the central region of Kyushu. There are many tourist attractions, including the magnificent Kumamoto Castle, which is one of the Three Great Castles of Japan, Suizenji Park, Mount Aso, the largest active volcano in Japan with one of the largest calderas in the world, and many hot springs.
Kumamoto is famous for unique local dishes, and its specialty is horse meat dishes. Other unique dishes are karashi renkon (deep fried lotus root covered with mustard paste), Kumamoto-born taipien, which is Chinese soup with harusame (thin noodles made from mung bean starch and water), and Kumamoto ramen with thick white tonkotsu soup and garlic. Take your time to enjoy the tastes of Kumamoto.
Kumamoto to Hitoyoshi: Limited Express Kumagawa
Limited express Kumagawa leaves Kumamoto Station bound for Hitoyoshi Station. The train body is colored red, symbolizing the Land of Fire, the nickname of Kumamoto (because of the fearsome volcano). There is a special SL service called SL Hitoyoshi running only on special weekends and holidays. SL Hitoyoshi is the 8620 SL series, Japan’s first mass-produced SL series, which was adored by people and called by the affectionate nickname “Hachi-Roku” (eight-six). Many SL fans gather here to enjoy a nostalgic ride on SL Hitoyoshi.
After leaving Kumamoto Station, limited express Kumagawa runs on the Kagoshima Line to Yatsushiro Station. Yatsushiro City is the second biggest city in Kumamoto Prefecture, and is famous for “Ayuya Sandai,” a nationally popular ekiben (railway bento box lunch). After Yatsushiro Station, the train goes on the Hisatsu Line to Hitoyoshi Station, overlooking the Kuma River, one of the three most rapid rivers of Japan. The river flows slowly near Yatsushiro where it is wide, and then runs rapidly near Hitoyoshi where as the width decreases. There are people enjoying boat rides and rafting on the river, as well as wild birds resting on the rocks in the river and you might see deer walking in the fields and hills beyond.
Hitoyoshi, which is located almost exactly halfway on the Hisatsu Line, is famous for hot springs and shochu (Japanese distilled beverage typically made from barley, sweet potatoes, or rice). At the station, ekiben sellers walk around with ekiben boxes stacked on trays hanging from their necks in front of them. “Ayusushi” and “Kurimeshi” are the famous ekiben of Hitoyoshi.
An automaton clock in the shape of a castle welcomes visitors in front of the station. There are hot springs dotted along the Kuma River. Kuma shochu, which is made from high quality rice grown on the fertile land and with the clear water of the Kuma River, is the result of more than 400 years of traditional knowledge and techniques. Some shochu distillers are willing to show you around their distilleries.
Hitoyoshi to Yoshimatsu Station: Isaburo/Shinpei
Isaburo/Shinpei runs between Hitoyoshi Station and Yoshimatsu Station on the Hisatsu Line, which opened in 1909. This unique name derives from the Telecommunications Minister and the head of the Railway Bureau at that time, Isaburo Yamagata and Shinpei Goto, respectively. Serving as a sightseeing train as well as carrying the locals, this train with a special retro interior provides sightseeing announcements and slows down around famous spots along the route.
Soon after leaving Hitoyoshi, the train runs on a switchback and loop course at Okoba Station. At Yatake Station, which is located at the highest point among the stations on the Hisatsu Line, there is a SL Museum where passengers can see a JNR Class D51 SL during the stop at the station.
After going through the biggest tunnel on the Hisatsu Line, Yatake Daiichi Tunnel (2,096 m), you will come upon one of the “Three Best Sceneries from a Train Window in Japan.” It will give you a sweeping view of the Ebino Basin and Mount Kirishima, and perhaps Sakurajima volcano if the weather is fine. The second switchback at Masaki Station will please you if you are a railway enthusiast. Kofuku no Kane (Bell of Happiness) on the platform of Masaki Station is said to bring those who ring the bell good fortune.
Isaburo Train soon arrives at the terminal station, Yoshimatsu. When Isaburo runs back to Hitoyoshi Station, it is called Shinpei. Isaburo and Shinpei run leisurely through the beautiful natural surroundings of Southern Kyushu.
Yoshimatsu to Kagoshima-Chuo: Limited Express Hayato no Kaze
The Nippo Line goes from Yoshimatsu Station to Kagoshima-Chuo Station via Hayato Station, the terminal station of the Hisatsu Line. You can get on limited express Hayato no Kaze at Yoshimatsu Station. The train painted black all-over embodies the strong Satsuma spirit. Soon after leaving Yoshimatsu Station, the train arrives at Osumi-Yokogawa Station. Osumi-Yokogawa Station and the next Kareigawa Station have two of the oldest wooden station buildings in Kyushu, both of which turned 100 years old in 2003. After passing Hayato Station, the train runs on the Nippo Line to Kagoshima-Chuo Station. You can enjoy a great view of Sakurajima volcano fuming beyond Kinko Bay (also called Kagoshima Bay). Kagoshima-Chuo Station at the end of the line is also the terminal station of the Kyushu Shinkansen.
Born in Satsuma (Kagoshima) in 1828, Saigo Takamori largely contributed to establishing the new Meiji government by taking part in the overthrow of the Tokugawa shogunate and other events in the modernization of Japan. His bronze statue is on Shiroyama hill in Kagoshima City. The observation deck on Shiroyama gives panoramic views of Sakurajima, Kinko Bay, and Kagoshima City.
Sengan-en is a beautiful park with connections to the Shimazu Family, the lords of Satsuma domain. Nearby Sengan-en, which formerly was a villa of the Shimazu Family, there are a historical museum, Shoko Shuseikan, which exhibits the history of the Shimazu Family and Kagoshima, and Iso-Kogeikan traditional glassworks shop. The biggest downtown area in Kagoshima is Tenmonkan.
There is no end of things to see and do and try for visitors to Kagoshima. In addition to the nationwide famous kurobuta black pork dishes, Kagoshima Ramen, and satsuma-age (deep fried fishcake), Kagoshima has many seafood dishes with seafood from the ocean surrounding it. Among a wide variety of Kagoshima shochu, imo-shochu (sweet potato shochu) is especially famous as a good companion of Kagoshima gourmet food. Shirokuma (literally meaning “polar bear”) is Kagoshima’s original summer dessert, which serves lots of fruit on shaved ice covered with condensed milk.
Kagoshima-Chuo to Ibusuki: Limited Express Ibusuki no Tamatebako
A limited express Ibusuki no Tamatebako running from Kagoshima-Chuo Station to Ibusuki Station via the Ibusuki Makurazaki Line was just introduced on March 13, 2011, and attracts lots of attention with its unusualness. The train is colored white on the ocean side and black on the mountain side, and gives off white smoke from the doors upon opening and closing. Providing fine views of Kinko Bay and Sakurajima, the train takes passengers to Ibusuki, which is famous for sand-steamed hot springs on the beach. There is also a footbath in front of Ibusuki Station.
Ibusuki Hakusuikan is a Japanese-style hotel surrounded by beautiful pine trees. Satsuma Denshokan Museum, located on the premises, introduces the history and culture of Satsuma mainly through beautiful art collections. A little further down from Ibusuki is Mount Kaimon-dake, which is often referred to as “Satsuma Fuji.” At the southernmost tip of the Satsuma Peninsula, which is called Nagasakibana, there is Nagasakibana Parking Garden, a zoo/botanical garden which recreates a beautiful and exotic “tropical paradise.”
Ibusuki to Hakata: Kagoshima Line/Hisatsu Orange Railway/Kyushu Shinkansen
After leaving Ibusuki and returning to Kagoshima-Chuo Station, the Kagoshima Line takes you to Sendai Station. The Hisatsu Orange Railway operates between Sendai Station in Kagoshima Prefecture and Yatsushiro Station in Kumamoto Prefecture. The train stops at many stations on the way to Yatsushiro, giving you lots of time to enjoy the view of the Yatsushiro Sea. One of the areas along the line is Izumi, which is famous as a winter home of cranes. From Yatsushiro Station, the Kagoshima Line will take you to Kumamoto Station. Then, it takes only 33 minutes from Kumamoto Station to Hakata Station by N700 train Sakura. The opening of the entire Kyushu Shinkansen has brought Kumamoto and Kagoshima closer to other areas of Kyushu. You can save money by using special passes/tickets, such as JR Kyushu Rail Pass (not valid for the Hisatsu Orange Railway). Enjoy railway travelling in Kyushu!