In the spring of 2012, I took a trip around the island of Kyushu by train. The route was a massive loop hugging the coasts of the island, and the journey lasted almost two weeks. My primary means of transport was local trains with an emphasis on small, local lines (without use of limited express services or Shinkansen), although I was forced to use a bus and a ferry one time each as well as a train pulled by a steam locomotive (which was classified as a limited express train).
Train travel is undoubtedly one of the most relaxing and enjoyable ways to get around, and slow travel on a rustic train while sipping a beer or chu-hi and gazing out at coastal and mountain scenery has become one of my favorite pastimes. Shinkansen and limited express services get you where you need to go in a hurry and offer top-level comfort; highway buses provide a cheaper alternative to local trains; and air travel via low-cost airlines offers an inexpensive and extremely fast way to get between major urban centers. But these focus on efficiency in one form or another — in terms of time and/or money — which is what most standard, non-commuter train lines were originally intended to achieve.
Today, using standard trains to travel long distances is considered (in Japan) to be slow, inefficient and tiring. Nevertheless, there is something truly appealing about the inefficient, old-fashioned feel of traditional train travel. Those of you who rarely leave the urban centers of Japan may not realize just how small and clunky countryside trains can be as they follow single tracks (not pairs) through century-old tunnels and brightly colored agricultural fields one moment and sway precariously along cliffside, coastal tracks the next. And because Japan is an extremely mountainous country, direct routes are often difficult and expensive to build, resulting in indirect paths that take more time when compared with expressways, high-speed rail routes and the like.
Yet all trains are, by design, efficient in many ways. Trains and rails combined actually form some of the largest machine assemblies in the world, and passengers are conveyed quite effectively within these integrated systems. Trains also offer a relatively smooth ride compared with sea, air and road-based travel, and they are able to achieve high travel speeds with Shinkansen and other high-speed rail at the upper end of this spectrum.
More importantly, rural trains in Japan have character. They have soul.
They are also more human than machine. During my 2012 trip, I experienced something along these lines while traveling in a single-car train through an extremely rural part of Saga Prefecture. We were crawling along at about 40 km/h (25 mph) across green paddy fields and through perfectly round tunnels punched through numerous small hills, moving parallel to a one-lane country road. As we neared the next station (with only one or two lone houses in its vicinity), a couple of young students came into view on the adjacent road. One was pedaling her bike furiously while the other yelling from behind while trying to keep up on foot. Both were heading toward the station to catch the only train that would come in the next two hours — their only public transportation lifeline. Obviously, the children were not as fast as the train and thus unable to make it to the station on time, but the driver was a kind old man and knew that no other trains would be coming for a while, so he simply waited an extra minute or two (unthinkable on an urban line) as the girls scrambled to buy their tickets and, bowing in apology, scurried aboard the train. Rural train services feature this type of human touch in an otherwise mechanical and rigid transport system, and it is one of the reasons that riding on such trains is so enjoyable
Viewing different cities as well as rural and suburban landscapes from the train window is another rewarding aspect of slow trains. Kyushu in particular has a wide range of local cultures, climates and traditions, and the variations in scenery that can be seen during a train journey is stunning. Although many people from other parts of the country (especially the mass media) arbitrarily label Kyushu as a homogeneous and static region, in reality it is one of the most diverse and dynamic places in Japan. The island is quite large and has a lot to see and experience — I have only scratched the surface during my three years of constant traveling here. It is a place that begs the tourist to adopt a more leisurely pace, to avoid mere sight-based tourism as when visiting Tokyo or Kyoto.
Then there is the matter of solo travel. Although many people find traveling alone to be daunting and lonesome at times (which it is), traveling by yourself helps you take time off from daily obligations to observe, experience and meditate on the world you live in, which in turn encourages you to ruminate on your own life and changes you as a person. Putting personal, work-related and other issues aside and simply immersing yourself in new worlds, watching the people in them, and even interacting with those people if you feel so compelled can be deeply rewarding, and the sense of independence experienced through solo travel is both exhilarating and liberating. Every trip I have made by myself has changed me in a significant way and sculpted me into the person I am now. Such experiences are priceless.
In 2012, my journey took me through all seven of Kyushu’s prefectures in the following order: Fukuoka (starting in Fukuoka City), Saga, Nagasaki, Kumamoto, Kagoshima, Miyazaki, Oita and then Fukuoka again. More specifically, I went out to Karatsu in Saga Prefecture, popped down to Imari, took the Matsuura Railway west to Hirado and then into Sasebo, went from there to Nagasaki City and then continued out around the Shimabara Peninsula using the Shimabara Railway Line, and crossed to Kumomoto City by ferry after visiting Shimabara City. After that I took a steam locomotive to Yatsushiro, rode the Hisatsu Orange Railway to Sendai in Kagoshima Prefecture (stopping at Minamata along the way), and then continued on to Kagoshima City and did some sightseeing in the area, including visits to the famous Ibusuki hot spring sand baths, the mountain town of Chiran (famous for samurai-district gardens and its museum on World War II “kamikaze” pilots) and Nishi-Oyama Station (the southernmost station in mainland Japan). Next I cut through the mountains via Miyakonojo over to Miyazaki City, took a slight southern detour to Aoshima Beach, continued up along the coast all the way into Oita, visited the old castle town of Usuki and stayed in Kannawa Hot Springs in Beppu, then followed the coastline again up to Kitakyushu to visit the lovely Mojiko port area before catching a train on the Kagoshima Main Line back to Fukuoka. (I have provided a rough outline of the route below.)
Nearly every day was packed with inspiring discoveries and unforeseen happenings. Here are just a few that stick out in my mind today:
(1) Karatsu Castle: The view on a sunny day out over the Nijinomatsubara pine forest, neighboring sandy beach and serene townscape is positively soothing. Additionally, the owner of the nearby ramen shop I visited was originally from my neighborhood in Fukuoka.
(2) Meeting a generous man on the bus that crosses the bridge into Hirado Island: He spent the rest of the day showing me around his deeply historic and beautiful town, including its castle, churches and museums, and even arranged for a ride back to the station when I missed the last bus. We still keep in touch today and have met up in Fukuoka.
(3) Skirting around an infamous volcano on the Shimabara Peninsula on a teeny, rickety train while chatting with a kind old man I met on the platform (there were only two of us). He was nice enough to make sure that I found my hotel when I got off in Shimabara City, seeing as it was my first visit.
(4) Riding the SL Hitoyoshi, a train hauled by a restored steam locomotive.
(5) Traveling the entire length of the Hisatsu Orange Railway, from Kumamoto to Kagoshima Prefecture, while savoring one of the most delicious handmade ekiben I have ever eaten (sold at the small vegetable shop inside the waiting area of the terminal station). This railway also had the best track-side scenery of any line I rode on during my trip, especially on the sections that pass right along the shore of the Yatsushiro Sea with the Amakusa Islands visible in the distance.
(6) The compact yet impressive gardens at various samurai residences in Chiran that have been opened to the public, and the friendly locals who made it so easy to strike up numerous conversations. Also, the delicious green tea, something the area is famous for. And the French couple I met, who were in Japan for their honeymoon.
(7) From the city center of Kagoshima, hearing the nearby volcanic island of island of Sakurajima rumble and watching it spew columns of smoke and ash over the city (as the common saying goes, nobody in Kagoshima owns a white car).
(8) Visiting Aoshima Beach, one of my all-time favorite beaches, in Miyazaki and enjoying a long conversation over beers with a pair of visitors who happened to sit nearby.
(9) Discovering the town of Usuki, one of the most beautiful places in Kyushu that retains the feel of old Japan…and becoming hopelessly lost in its tangle of old-fashioned, narrow streets when trying to return to the station.
(10) Visiting Mojiko for the first time and learning that the industrial city of Kitakyushu has more to it than initially meets the eye.
These are just a few of the journey’s highlights in terms of food, people and scenery. There were also a handful of mishaps, such as my poor choice of capsule hotel in Sasebo (filled with loud-snoring, drunken salarymen) and poor choice of guesthouse in Kagoshima (lots of bugs, peeling paint and no insulation).
To conclude, I will leave you with a suggestion, which you can choose to consider or ignore: Take a week or two and travel in this fashion around Kyushu or any other part of Japan that interests you. You can travel cheaply by planning your lodging places carefully (or by camping or staying in capsule hotels / manga cafes), and using only standard trains, buses and ferries. Look out the window, walk slowly, and spend a majority of your time trying good food and wandering aimlessly rather than following a strict sightseeing itinerary. Go by yourself, no matter how daunting a challenge it may seem. Do things you would normally shy away from — break out of your shell. If you follow this advice, I guarantee that you will have an unforgettable, life-changing experience.