Part 4: West and South in Kyushu

By allrite on November 1, 2017


Posted in: Japan, JRNEWStour, Railways

I wake very early and as quietly as I can prepare to say farewell to the others as I restart my quest to visit Japan compass points of rail. Today I’m going all the way down to Kagoshima in the south of Kyushu, though with a significant detour around to Tabirahiradoguchi and Sasebo, the westernmost stations.

Though Shinjuku never seems to empty there shops are almost all shut and the crowds a little quieter as I haul my bags up towards the station. I’m hungry, but there is nowhere for breakfast open yet.

The Yamanote Line, which does a ring around inner Tokyo, carries me down to Shinagawa from where I will change to the Tokaido Shinkansen. I’m running early and manage to swap to the very first Hikari Shinkansen of the day. It doesn’t really matter as it won’t get me beyond Osaka any faster.

This is my third trip along this line in ten days. I just stare out the window and listen to music and episodes of the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. Mount Fuji is visible again, despite the low morning cloud, then clear skies until we approach Nagoya.

I haven’t been able to get a window seat on the next Shinkansen, the Sakura service down to Hakata, so I need to try and snag one in the non-reserved section of the train. When I arrive at Shin-Osaka, yet another visit to the station, I quickly purchase some snacks then make my way up to the platform to wait for our train.

It’s hot and unpleasantly humid and I’m glad when the train finally arrives.

What I’d really like to catch is a Type 500 Shinkansen, the most futuristic looking of all the versions. Unfortunately, they are now restricted to the slower Kodama services. As we race past Himeji station I spot Eva, a Type 500 adorned with purple and green Neon Genesis Evangelion livery and a special interior. Another regular Type 500 sits at Shin-Yamaguchi station.

I’m feeling a little sad that I don’t have time to stop off along the way. The Sanyo Coast and Chugoku region of Japan hold a lot of memories for me. Back in 2009 we partly reversed today’s journey, travelling from Kagoshima up to Yamaguchi with a four month old Alex. It was freezing cold and late in the evening when we arrived at Shin-Yamaguchi, which made the heat of the diesel railmotor the carried us the final stretch so welcome. Then Alex wouldn’t settle after an exhausting day and I had to bring back convenience store meals for our dinner. You would think those would be bad memories, but somehow the adversity makes them even more precious.

Right now Alex and B are sweating their way through the Heiwa no mori obstacle course in Tokyo, climbing up and down the forty wood and rope challenges and paddling across streams. B has wanted to go there for ages, but this is the first time the weather has been right.

I’ve run out of space on my memory card. I free up a little space but when we pull up at Hakata station I race out to a nearby Yodobashi Camera and purchase another SD card for the camera. Unfortunately, I now have very little time for lunch, which is a pity because I’d love to have some local tonkotsu ramen, with its thick broth. I struggle to find a bento box of something I’d like to eat and end up with a box of rice balls and fried foods.

My next train is the Midori Express. Though its name means green, the outside livery is more silver and red, while the interior is black. The train splits in two, half going to the Huis Ten Bosch Dutch theme park, the other going to Sasebo, the westernmost Japan Railways network station. I am also going to Sasebo today, but by a more roundabout route.

Kyushu has been in the Japanese news a lot over the past week. Battered by a typhoon and monsoonal rains, the island has suffered severe flooding and the loss of several lives. A number of railway lines are damaged, though thankfully none I intend to travel.

As rain spits at the windows I see flooded creeks and drains, a landscape of bright green, brown waters and dull grey skies. Eventually we leave the plains of rice paddies and move up into the hills.

I leave the train at Arita, crossing straight over to the single Matsuura Railway diesel rail car waiting at the platform. The Nishi-Kyushu (or West Kyushu) line is Japan’s westernmost traditional railway and was transferred from JR to the private Matsuura Railway in 1988. So I think it belongs in the compass points collection.

As usual, I head up to the front of the train to stand and look out the window. After hours of being stuck in fast express services this feels like real train travel again. The countryside is pretty, verdant green growth even covering the ballast of the tracks while rice paddies slide past to the side.

After twenty-four minutes we arrive at Imari, where the train terminates. My next train, which follows the remainder of the line, is waiting at an adjacent station, departing in nine minutes.

I have a problem. The JR Pass is not accepted on these lines and I only have 10,000 yen notes left, which the coin machine on board the train will not accept. I go into the train office and they sell me their own daily rail pass, a scratch and ride type.

All aboard the train to Sasebo!

I thought the last stretch was scenic but this two and a half hour ride blows it away. We run through more fields of rice, mountains as a backdrop, over narrow bridges across rivers and inlets. Up through tunnels of dense foliage whipping at the train as we run past. There are views of the coast and islands as sea eagles soar in the air currents. Stations are planted with bright flowers of orange and blue.

Children board and depart along the way, heading home from school. Old folk returning from shopping and appointments. It is fortunate I am enjoying standing, despite my tired legs, as the train is frequently packed.

We pass a thermal power station, extra facilities under construction, and a storage terminal for coal and oil. That may be Australian coal there, but I feel nothing but shame about it. After the 2011 tsunami and the subsequent explosions at the Fukushima nuclear power plant many Japanese nuclear power plants were taken offline. Though banks of solar panels can be seen everywhere and, even on today’s ride, we pass wind turbines, much of the replacement electricity is generated by greenhouse gas producing power plants.

Tabira Hiradoguchi is one of the larger train stations along the route, with multiple passing loops. It is also Japan’s westernmost railway station.

I would like to have gotten off and explored the area, but unfortunately my very tight schedule will not allow it and I stay by the train until the line ahead is cleared by a train arriving in the opposite direction.

Then as the clouds thicken and the light outside darkens we are off again passing through the beautiful rural countryside. Entering the outskirts of Sasebo the line becomes elevated, passing over and past offices, factories and houses. I feel part of the world outside.

The Matsuura Railway meets the JR system again at Sasebo, which is the Japan Railway Network’s most westerly station. There is no time to celebrate the achievement of these goals because my next train is leaving in four minutes!

The EMU (Electric Multiple Unit) is packed with commuters returning home from Sasebo city, though I do manage to get an aisle seat for the hour long ride to Hizen Yamaguchi. Along the way we pass Arita and I am now backtracking from earlier in the day.

At Hizen Yamaguchi I spend fifteen minutes in the dull early evening skies waiting for my next train. On a nearby hill is a large sign made of lights that varies between a frog and Japanese script while I watch. I wonder if it’s permanent advertising or a festive display for Tanabata.

Opposite us the green red and black Midori Express / orange Huis Ten Bosch train pulls up. Heading towards us, I’m delighted to see, is a white Series 885 Kamome Express. With a style evoking a high speed train they are some of the best looking trains out there in my opinion and this will be only my second opportunity to catch one.

The interior is as impressive as the outside, futuristic chrome and blue highlights, thickly padded black leather seats. It’s just a pity that the ride is only twenty-one minutes long, as far as Shin-Tosu station.

Shin-Tosu is a transfer station to the Kyushu Shinkansen, a typically large structure for access to the elevated high speed tracks above us. Due to noise and land availability reasons Shinkansen tracks are generally laid outside of population centres and are accessed via regular shuttle services from the main town train stations. Sometimes whole new suburbs sprout up around them with business hotels and shops. In other cases the stations stand isolated with maybe a kiosk and a tourist office in the cavernous bases while the long platforms stretch far overhead.

For some strange reason I like these lonely stations. It’s the challenge of finding pleasure in a place with limited options.

No time for that here, for my transit window is only fifteen minutes. Then along comes my final ride of the night, a pale blue blue Sakura Shinkansen. If I had stayed on board the Shinkansen from Shin-Osaka earlier in the day I would have passed Shin-Tosu en route to tonight’s final destination of Kagoshima Chuo. Instead, this is the final one of nine trains I have caught today.

As much as I love riding the local lines on little diesels this is the kind of train ride I need right now. A cool airconditioned cabin and a smooth ride, big comfortable reclining seats with plenty of legroom. A snack trolley with sorely needed cold drinks. Big clean bathrooms. No need to stand up and take photos, I have an excuse just to sit back and relax for the next hour and a half as the night landscape of Japan flashes past outside.

Much of the route is through tunnels with brief glimpses between dark hills and longer, slower gaps as we approach colourful cities, streets around the stations filled with pedestrians enjoying the end of the day.

Just before nine-thirty our train pulls up at Kagoshima Chuo, the end of the line. It’s a big station with an attached shopping centre, but everything is shutting down for the night.

I quickly book tickets for tomorrow’s trip at the green office.

From Tokyo to Kagoshima via Tabira Hiradoguchi

I haven’t had a proper dinner yet. I wander past a station corridor of small restaurants, but most look like they have finished serving for the evening.

The JR Kyushu Hotel is attached to the station. Despite the nice lobby and attractively decorated rooms it was about the same price as the Toyoko Inn across the road. There are views down to the local train platforms, but I don’t actually see any services pass.

I’m hungry for dinner. I return to the station, but everything bar the coffee shop seems to be closed. I could get a prepackaged meal from the convenience store downstairs and have a quick bite in my room, but I see a twenty-four hour Joyfull Diner outlet opposite and decide to treat myself to my first proper meal of the day.

Yes, yet another family diner. To assuage my guilt I order karaage chicken (Japanese fried chicken) to go with my salad, soup and drinks, rather than a steak, pasta or hamburger. It is so good to sit down and have a meal. The hot chocolate from the machine is really nice as well.

There are still other patrons in the restaurant and pedestrians on the street when I finish. It looks like there might be a few izakayas (bars) in the vicinity of the station.

I’d like to say I returned to the hotel and had an early night, but there are clothes to wash and a coin laundry to wash them in. As always the dryer takes at least an hour and a half to get the clothes to a state where I can pack them again. Except a number were still damp so I hang them around the room.

At least I am nice and close to the station for tomorrow’s assault on the final compass point: South.

One of the motivations for this and many of my other trips to Japan is the understanding that many of their railway lines must close as the population shrinks and relocates to the major population centres. Kyushu is certainly not immune from this trend but in an attempt to increase patronage on the system JR Kyushu have gone to the effort to create a number of special trains.

As I have discovered, many standard Kyushu trains have been designed to present nicely, either with futuristic designs or wooden highlights in the interior. However, some trains go beyond this and are designed around a whole on board experience with unique features such as children’s play areas and jazz bars. Taking this concept to the ultimate level is the Seven Stars cruise train which spends up to four days on a leisurely ride around the island.

If I had the time I would be criss-crossing Kyushu riding as many of the local lines as I could. I still haven’t visited Miyazaki prefecture, the second last of two I’ve yet to cross (the other being Okinawa).

But I don’t have the time. I’ve been given a day to collect my final compass point of the Japanese railway system and make it back to Osaka to rejoin Alex and B.

I could do it in three trains. A direct service all the way down the Ibusuki Makurazaki Line and back, then a Shinkansen all the way to Osaka. However, I’ve discovered a way to include one special train on my trip. It just means leaving a little earlier and one extra change.

First I need breakfast. The shops around the station are not yet open. I could return to the Joyfull Diner and have nice hot chocolate, but I’d rather go somewhere new.

Kagoshima has a tram service, so I decide to catch a tram and stop when I see somewhere with breakfast potential. Being born in Melbourne I have a lifelong affinity with trams and I love the older narrow ones that rattle down the tracks.

Unfortunately I have picked the direction heading away from the city and I can’t find anything much other than residences and closed shops. Eventually I get off and, in the early morning heat, just catch another tram back to the station.

I walk for a little in the direction of the city centre, as far as the bridge across the Katsuki River without any luck. Much the same thing happened on our only other visit to the city, on a public holiday. Concerned (unnecessarily as it turns out) about the time I walk back and end up having a couple of (sinfully delicious) doughnuts and some juice at the Mister Donuts opposite Kagoshima Chuo.

There is already a big crowd when I make it down to the platform for the Ibusuki no Tamatebako Limited Express. Many of them are Chinese or South East Asian and the big cameras and selfie sticks are out in force.

The train is basically a two car KiHa 47 diesel electric set of the type found all over Japan. However, the interior has been entirely redecorated with teak walls and floors. Some seats face outwards over a bench, others are single sofas with access to a bookshelf. Mine is a simple forward facing seat, but upholstered with nice fabric. The exterior of the train is painted white on one side and black on the other.

As we pull out of the station the cabin crew come through the train selling souvenir gifts, bottles of Ibusuki Onsen Soda (lemonade), black sesame puddings and black and white buns that don’t actually taste that good. I dutifully don a railway hat and hold up a sign to have my photo taken, wishing that the others were with me right then.

Leaving the suburbia of Kagoshima the track rises up into the surrounding hills. We emerge along the coast overlooking the serenely flat waters of Kagoshima Bay, polished glass reflecting the grey skies.

Dominating Kagoshima Bay is the huge and active kilometre high volcano of Sakura-jima, an island until a lava flow in 1914 connected it to the mainland. You can apparently often see clouds of volcanic ash emanating from its caldera. Unfortunately today the peak is obscured by clouds.

The ride to Ibusuki lasts a touch less than an hour. As we get off at the platform we are replaced by another crowd of tourists. Most of the passengers head off on tours of the surrounding, but I have half an hour to wait for my connecting train to Makurazaki.

There is not much to see in the station area. A souvenir shop with adjoining cafe, a main street with a welcome arch but little behind. I spend most of the time soaking my feet in the free ashi-yu in the front. It’s hot and humid, very tropical weather.

The next train is an original KiHa 40 (47) series, two cars painted blue and white. Uncaged ceiling fans lazily circulate on the ceiling, doing their best to provide some relief from the hot air. This feels a long way from the snows of Hokkaido from six months ago as we continue along the coast before heading further inland.

The volcanic and subtropical landscape has fertile soils and a few oddly shaped hills. It is bright green in a way that reminds me uncomfortably of the cane farms of Queensland, a region I never connected with.

Nishi-Oyama is the most southerly station in Japan, if you discount the Naha Monorail in Okinawa, which I do because it’s not a proper train line and not part of the Japanese railway network. We stop for while at the station and many passengers pile out to take photographs by the signs marking its significance.

So there you go, I have completed my mission to visit the compass points of the Japanese rail system.

But it’s not time to go home yet. I cannot rest until I have made it to the end of the line and back, so along with most of the other passengers I pile back into the train as we continue onwards.

The landscape varies between farmlands and tropical forests. Shrubs and grasses slap at the sides of the train, asking why we disturb them from the silent growth. We cross over rivers, the valley sides thick with vine choked jungle. The sea returns, a thin line at the edge of the horizon.

Some tourists get off at stations along the way. The map from the tourist office shows plenty of activities, onsen resorts, nature parks, seafood. If only I had the time!

It is almost one o’clock when we finally arrive at the Makurazaki terminus. No complicated yard here, just a single line with a stop buffer at the end. The hexagon topped wooden station building is a bit more impressive, the line sitting on the side of a hill above the rest of the town.

I’ve got a little less than half an hour here before the train returns and there isn’t another for another three hours. I’m hungry too so I look around for a quick meal, preferably involving the seafood of the region.

I see one restaurant with elderly people seated inside chatting and eating, but it looks too slow. The only other is a Hotto Motto across the road. Doesn’t seem very local. I wait for service, but it is taking too long. Turns out it is a bento box chain with a branch in Sydney, but I can’t see any bentos available for quick sale.

Greatly disappointed, I just buy some packets of crackers and a drink from the 100 Yen store and head back to the train. It’s hard to think straight in this heat and when you are this hungry.

The journey now reverses for a two and a half hour ride back to Kagoshima Chuo. I discover that the train does have a couple of airconditioners, but that they rely on the fans to circulate the cool air and it doesn’t work very well.

I chat to a French student who had stopped at one station only to discover that there was no transport to the site he wanted to see. Then I sit back and watch the rural landscape unfold, sometimes wondering if I am in Japan or in Thailand or Malaysia.

As we near Kagoshima we are joined by crowds of uniformed school students heading home for the day. Or perhaps they are off to do sports activities or tutoring. The life of a Japanese student leaves little time for rest and play.

The same is true of me today. Though the Kagoshima Main Line continues onwards, our comes to another terminus at a stop buffer at Kagoshima Chuo. There I leave the train and climb up the stairs with twenty-four minutes to connect to the Shinkansen. I’ve managed to book an earlier one than expected, but that means no dinner here.

I have a quick look around at the souvenir shop. Some of the puddings look interesting. But purchasing will take too long and I need some snacks from the convenience store. Then I board another pale blue Sakura Shinkansen service, my third, and sit back to enjoy four hours and ten minutes of doing nothing.

From Kagoshima to Ibusuki and Makurazaki and back.

When the trolley comes through I order a bento meal as I am absolutely starving now. The choice is very limited: Scallops, which I don’t eat, or kawashimeshi, with Japanese siu mai pork dumplings. I choose the latter, but it’s not great.

The late afternoons and evenings in Asia always have a very special golden glow about them. There is not much more that I can do other than look out of the window and watch the world race by.

I try to spot to no avail the big black castle at Kumamoto, damaged by the earthquake in 2016. We were fortunate enough to have visited it in 2011, after catching the Yufu Express across Mount Aso from Beppu. That was an amazingly scenic line, but it’s currently closed due to earthquake and flood damage. The Japanese wabi-sabi aesthetic encompasses the impermanence of the objects and life and you can see it in play in their environment.

The understanding drives my frequent trips to Japan. The knowledge that so many of the things I love about it cannot last. Over the past fourteen years I have seen so many changes, some good, some bad.

The Shinkansen is one of those changes, stretching ever further across Japan. Yesterday marked the point where I have caught the entire length of the Shinkansen network, to every endpoint (bar the tiny 1.8 kilometre seasonal stub to Gala-Yuzawa Station). To or from Kanazawa, Niigata, Shinjo and Akita. And just on this trip I had done the entire north-south length from Shin Hakodate Hokuto to Kagoshima Chuo. Twice (except for that short bit between Hakata and Shin-Tosu). The stretch to Hokkaido only opened last year and further developments mean that even this network achievement will be out of date in the near future.

The Shinkansen network relies on tunnels to transfer between the main islands of Japan, except for unserved Shikoku. After Kokura (Kitakyushu) with its big steelworks and where I had hoped to take Alex to the Toto Toilet Museum and the soon to close Space World we pass through the 18 kilometre long Shin-Kanmon Tunnel beneath the Kanmon Straits.

At Hiroshima the Mazda Zoom Zoom Stadium was alight as fans turned out to support their beloved Carps baseball team. We now have two Mazdas waiting for us at home, one built in this city, the other nearby.

Once again I arrive at Shin-Osaka Station for what could be the last time on this trip. From there I quickly transfer to the Midosuji Subway line all the way down to Namba, emerging through the tunnels and crossing over to famous Dotombori Street and Shinsaibashi Suji.

The neon streets were packed with Asian tourists and their cameras, especially near the bridge over the canal and Glico Man, as each took their turn posing in front of their selfie sticks or peering into their phones to submit to Instagram, Facebook or whatever other platform they use. Of all the changes in Japan this is possibly the one I like least. No longer are we the rare tourist that braves the forbidding yen and language barrier and is welcomed with mystery and amusement by locals. It has become a massive tourist destination and I detect tourist weariness on the part of the locals. I used to enjoy the peace and anonymity, of escaping the sounds, voices and actions of Sydney, a city where so many languages are spoken, where one can enjoy so many cultures but can so rarely immerse oneself into any. Which is a good thing in everyday life, but what is a holiday without escaping somewhere different to the everyday?

It is the lament of all who are early visitors to a destination and it is a selfish one. But right now I just want them to move out of my way and stop staring at their bloody mobile phones so that I can get to the hotel and see B and Alex again!

The Cross Hotel is one of our favourites and, as this holiday comes towards a conclusion, worth spending a bit extra on. The decor is modern and very stylish, but what I love most are the bathrooms. They are modern Japanese style with a bathtub and, like a public bath house, a place to sit down and first wash your body.

Before I can take advantage of it I first have some catching up to do. There are cuddles and excited chattering as I greet B and Alex, who have managed to navigate themselves from Shinjuku to Shinsaibashi and enjoy themselves at the same time.

They have long ago had dinner, but I haven’t so I head back out into the crowd in search of a late night snack. The shops are closing but there are still crowds of tourists and touts everywhere. I duck into the back streets, but mainly find bar. I’m too hot and tired to search further, so despite being so close to the (very touristy) “Eat Street” that is Dotombori I end up just buying convenience store snacks. This really hasn’t been a very successful culinary trip.

It has been another very long day. I’ve achieved my objective and travelled the compass points of the Japanese rail network. Now it’s time for a family holiday again.


6 thoughts on "Part 4: West and South in Kyushu"

  1. Bim says:

    Oh, Kyushu! Having spent a formative part of my life there, I have a huge amount of love for the place. I actually used to take a Shinkansen to work, which I still look back on fondly, on a special line from Hakata that was only 200yen or so and a 10 minute trip. Depending on the time of day, you’d have different types of trains.
    The influx of tourists you mention is indeed something you notice in Japan these days. Living in Hong Kong now, I’d love to experience some of the tourist trains that I never did when living in Japan, but I travel to Japan to escape the selfie sticks, big plastic suitcases and shouting of HK, so often hire a car and escape into deepest, quietest inaka.
    Thank you for your report, I was transported back to lush, green Kyushu.

    1. allrite says:

      Thanks for your comments Bim. Wish that I could take a Shinkansen to work! As a commuter a fast comfortable train is appreciated, as a tourist a slow train can be a fun adventure. Years ago I travelled HK – Mainland China – HK – Japan and the politeness and peace of the latter was required after a very trying trip. You are fortunate that they are close enough neighbours to be able to escape to. I should like to see a lot more of Kyushu. Do you have some special places there?

  2. Bim says:

    Yes, very fortunate to be able to escape to Japan every couple of months, as you said the politeness and peace of Japan is very welcome! The flight back to HKG is always a rude shock after the calm of Japan, even if it’s just been a weekend away – the pushing, shoving and shouting is an unpleasant jolt.
    Some parts of Kyushu have experienced a boom in tourism from nearby countries, and I’m personally glad I experienced them before this boom. But there are still a lot of quiet, magical little towns that are like Miyazaki dreamt them up. Last year, I visited the Kunisaki Peninsula, which is steeped in spirituality, where Buddhism and Shinto mix together. On a flight back to HKG I happened to look out of the window and was curious about what was down there, and that planted the idea to visit. There are some stunning, ancient Buddha carvings and beautiful temples, beautiful scenery, and a slow, rural way of life. You don’t have to be really into religion or knowledgeable temples to get a lot out of it – it’s a very special place, you can feel the energy. But memories that stick are also of things and people we just chanced upon – a junior monk who showed us around a monastery, some local kids playing who took a shine to us and asked us a thousand questions, some of the best onsen just in the middle of nowhere, chanced upon when we saw a sign pointing down a little road and we thought why not, let’s check it out.
    It doesn’t sound like much when written down, I’m not doing it justice. I was in a dreamlike state for days after returning (and HK usually strips the Japan buzz within a day). It’s somewhat close to Beppu, which is swarming with tour groups, yet gloriously free from them since a visit there requires a lot more effort. So that means the locals are still happy to encounter foreigners, and don’t have the kind of foreigner fatigue I really noticed in Kansai a couple of months ago.

    1. allrite says:

      The Kunisaki Peninsula sounds beautiful. I know little of much of Kyushu. Perhaps one day we will hire a car to reach some areas inaccessible by train: At least they drive on the *correct* side of the road in Japan! For me I would like to do the do the Henro Michi pilgrimage hike across Shikoku. Takes at least a month or two. I’ve circumnavigated much of the island by train, but would love to see more.

  3. Bim says:

    Since moving to Hong Kong, we’ve stopped using trains in Japan as much, as the quiet and privacy of a little bubble is such a precious experience after living in such a densely populated place. We use our Australian drivers licences and international permits, and it’s always been hassle free. I’ve heard of that pilgrimage and it sounds amazing. Still haven’t made it to Shikoku, was going to go this Christmas but we settled on Shimane-Ken instead… when I heard it was Japan’s least-visited prefecture and saw a grand total of four pages in the lonely planet devoted to the entire prefecture, I knew it was my kind of place 🙂

    1. allrite says:

      Shimane-ken is one of my very favourite prefectures! Been there a few times, most recently on my other epic ride, the Sanin line. There’s a fair amount of privacy on the local services. 🙂

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