Late autumn in Fukuoka, the most populous city in Japan’s southwestern island of Kyushu, was a delicious dream of mild daytime temperatures — perfect for stylish layering without the bulk — and ginkgo trees that turned a particular shade of yellow so bright they were almost neon.
We arrived in town after a three-and-a-half-hour flight from Manila and found the evening’s 9°C chill was just about right for the short walk from our Hakata Station hotel to a nearby restaurant, where we scarfed down a dinner of shabu-shabu, tempura, sashimi and Kirin beer. In a week it will be officially winter, our guide told us, but not to worry, it’s never as bitingly cold as it gets in the northern end of the country.
I wasn’t worried, mostly because I packed way too many thermal shirts and leggings, but also because we were there to ride trains, a dream trip for any fan of rail travel. In the runup to the Tokyo Olympics in July, most of Japan is angling to attract the 600,000 international visitors expected to flock to the capital for the Games.
Northern Kyushu makes a strong case for itself, from tonkotsu ramen in its birthplace of Fukuoka, onsen in the hot-spring resort town of Beppu, to dolphin-watching off the island of Amakusa. We were going to make our way to these and other highlights aboard sightseeing trains.
Trains are a point of pride for the Japanese — they do, after all, have one of the world’s most efficient and far-reaching train networks. In the late 1800s, well into the aftermath of sakoku — or over 200 years of national isolation from the rest of the world — a consortium of British and other European engineers, hired by the government, constructed the first railway system from Yokohama to Tokyo. In 1964, just days away from hosting the Tokyo Olympics, the first in an Asian country, Japan launched a high-speed train service known as the Shinkansen, running the 552km distance between Shin-Osaka and Tokyo stations. The 12-car train — which could speed up to 217kmh, though its average was a relatively sedate 129kmh — bowled the world over with the sophistication of its technology and thrust the country well ahead of everyone else, leaving superpowers such as the US and railway pioneer Great Britain in the dust.
High-speed train technology has come a long way since (the Shinkansen now travels at a top speed of 320kmh, and newer maglev trains are even faster), and other countries have caught up with systems of their own, but many of Japan’s old trains have been refurbished and kitted out for a unique look and feel. They travel slower, the better to enjoy the contours of the landscape and the quietly spectacular views that, in autumn, are hills of orange, red, yellow and green forests that look like they’ve been fluffed up and combed over.
One Pass To Rule Them All
If you’ve traveled around Japan on a Japan Rail Pass, you’d be familiar with the light-as-the-wind feeling of mobility it grants the holder. Once, to get into a gyoza shop in Kyoto that had suddenly become globally popular thanks to social media, I waited in line for an hour with what looked like a UN contingent. The American couple behind me told me they were in Kyoto for the night (yes, just for the gyoza) and were moving on to Nara after dinner, then to Osaka the next day, then back to Tokyo if they don’t decide to hop off at Yokohama, who knows. They had their JR Passes, an app that listed Shinkansen times and about a week more to go in Japan, and that was all they needed. “I feel like we’ve won the lottery in train tickets,” the woman said as her husband nodded vigorously, eyes flashing, in passionate but worldless agreement. “We can literally go anywhere and everywhere…” As she proceeded to detail their freewheeling adventure from north to south of Honshu, I could feel my gyoza cravings slowly transform into longing for something else entirely: an all-access JR Pass.
Under the auspices of rail company JR Kyushu and various local tourism offices, we got a three-day version of this golden ticket issued to help us tour the area. On our designated platform at Fukuoka’s Hakata Station, the island’s busiest rail hub, we watched our train pull up the track the way celebrities glide past paparazzi on the red carpet. The Yufuin no Mori, a limited-express double-decker that runs between Hakata and Beppu, in the Oita prefecture, is a beautiful, green-colored train with slatted wood floors, brass railings, rather luxe seat upholstery, and, more importantly, a bar car. There was a mad but typically polite rush to take selfies before passengers boarded their assigned carriages — Japanese trains run on a tight schedule down to the second.
I would’ve been happy to sit there all day, looking out the window as we chugged through mountain tunnels and past countryside dotted with minka, or traditional houses, and rows of flame-colored Japanese maple trees, but after less than an hour on the train, we hopped off at the city of Hita for a quick walkabout. You could tell from its station — fully decked out in fragrant, blonde cedarwood — that the city specializes in woodwork. But our little adventure yielded other surprises as most small and quaint Japanese cities often do: a much-decorated sake distillery, a narrow souvenir shop lane of treats in the most covetable packaging, a scenic riverside where the clean, fresh breeze carried the scent of pine.
It’s All About The Journey
At some point it became hard for me to distinguish what I was more excited about — northern Kyushu’s dizzying list of natural and man-made attractions, or the tourist trains that would take us across segments of the journey. After a ride on the Aso Boy train, for instance, from the onsen town of Beppu, we took a coach ride to the Aso caldera, a staggering and magnificent geographical feature formed by volcanic eruptions 90,000 to 300,000 years ago, in the prefecture of Kumamoto. Considered one of the largest calderas in the world, the spherical basin stretches 25km from north to south and 18km east to west, and contains entire cities and farmlands.
Still, as we gazed at the vastness of a volcano crater from the viewing spot of Daikanbo Peak, my mind lingered on the Aso Boy train, designed with distinct carriages, including one especially for children. The white-and-cream Kuro carriage, inspired by the train’s dog mascot Kuro, included a fun snack bar, plush seats and a playroom with a wooden-ball pool.
The passenger profile, needless to say, was quite different: Apart from tourists en route to Mount Aso, our morning ride saw young parents dressed in matching Breton striped sweaters with little ones in tow. Toddlers spent the entire journey waist-deep in the ball pool as parents sitting on couches and sipping coffee kept a watchful gaze, once in a while looking out the window at the view.
Days later, we spent the morning around the waters of Amakusa, aboard a sightseeing boat looking for dolphins. It was a beautiful fall morning — the cloudless sky was a deep blue, the glassy sea glistened and the frothy wake of our boat was mesmerizing. On a day like that, when being at sea was its own reward, it was hard to feel even a tinge of disappointment when we didn’t spot any of the beautiful marine mammals.
And especially since our little sea excursion was followed by a 45-minute ride aboard the A-Train, where I found myself instantly smitten. The A-Train’s look and feel harks back to the golden age of train travel, when every imaginable luxury was loaded onto a carriage, and posh travelers could indulge in their whims while on their way somewhere. It was vintage chic all the way — from the dark wood panels, the brass railings and colored beveled glass windows, to the piped-in jazz standards. There was a classic cocktail bar in one of the cars, and bar seats that faced the window.
I ordered a highball, and made myself comfortable on one of the lounge seats next to a glass-encased display shelf that I hadn’t noticed before. Whiskey and soda at noon, in a cinematic train carriage — it all started to feel a little decadent, until I remembered we were bound for Nagasaki, where the deep Catholic tradition has a particular connection to the Philippines — it’s where our first saint, San Lorenzo Ruiz, was martyred. It was where we were to spend a day understanding these cultural and religious connections, just before taking a speeding Shinkansen out of Kyushu bound for Tokyo. I made a mental list of things I needed to do, and then caught myself: in that moment, I had a highball in hand, and jazz filled the train.