For a limited time, the restored steam locomotive SL Hitoyoshi and its retro-style train cars are making runs between Kumamoto and Hitoyoshi Stations. The train makes one trip per day in each direction on select days (see calendar at bottom of this page (Japanese)) until the end of September (and possibly later).
The SL Hitoyoshi (“SL” is an abbreviation for “steam locomotive”) was formerly preserved and on display at Yatake Station on the JR Hisatsu Line in Hitoyoshi City, and after being restored in 1988 it began making passenger trips between Kumamoto and Miyaji Stations on the JR Hohi Main Line as the SL Aso-BOY. During that time, it also ran to and from Hitoyoshi as the SL Hitoyoshi, due to its connections with the city. However, it was damaged on one of its journeys and taken out of service in August 2005. After repairs in Kitakyushu City, operation between Kumamoto and Hitoyoshi was restarted in 2009 using renovated passenger cars. It still makes limited runs during certain times of the year, and on March 17, 2012 it restarted service , with reserved seats only and a relatively limited number of tickets.
I was able to snag a ticket and ride part of the route in March, and it was a unique experience completely different from that of standard Japanese trains. The interior is mostly wooden with carpeted floors, separate tables for each set of bench seats and nostalgic relics on display. The train itself belches unbelievable amounts of black smoke that bellow out to all other platforms in the station as it departs, and when the other passengers inevitably open their windows to enjoy the warm breeze,the smell of burning coal pervades the passenger cars. The rear car has an observatory section with a panoramic view and a living-room-like layout (complete with reading material), and in the middle section a snack and beverage bar is available. The train itself travels surprisingly fast after leaving Kumamoto, and people in the fields and on the roads wave as it passes by. Passengers also receive a commemorative stamp card from the conductor. Riding the SL Hitoyoshi gives passengers the unique opportunity to experience train travels as it was in the old days.
Tickets can be reserved at the “Midori Madoguchi” ticket offices located at central JR rail stations — I highly recommend getting it yours advance. The train makes stops at Kumamoto, Shin-Yatsushiro, Yatsushiro, Sakamoto, Shiroishi, Isshochi, Watari and Hitoyoshi Stations (reverse order when going from Hitoyoshi to Kumamoto). Kumamoto Station can be reached easily from other parts of Kyushu via Shinkansen, conventional train and highway bus.