JR RailPass Journey across the hills of Kyushu

Here’s an example how to milk the maximum value of a JR RailPass if you are visiting Japan. We were looking for a train that took us through scenic landscapes. After some research we discovered that it is possible to do a day trip from Kumamoto to Kagoshima in Kyushu on old railway lines. The same route can be done on a 45 minute bullet train through deep mountain tunnels these days. Our overland trip that went through remote towns and scenic river gullies on older JR Railway lines was very comfortable.

Hilly scenery along the railway journey from Kumamoto to Kagoshima.

Kumamoto was the starting point of this day trip and it was a hive of activity, as a new terminus was opened on the day we departed. We got to meet Japan’s most famous mascot, Kumamon (くまモン) . This mascot first gained fame after the bullet train line opened in 2010, and he provided further awareness and support to the city after a major earthquake in 2016. It’s estimated that Kumamon has generated US$1.2 billion in economic benefits for his region over a two year period, so he’s quite famous as far as Japanese mascots go. He was on hand, in person, to open the new facility with a large celebratory dance (at 9am in the morning!). The little schoolkids were stoked.

Kumamon officiates with school children dancing with enthusiasm, at the opening ceremony of JR Kumamoto main railway terminal. Expanded and re-opened after the 2016 Kumamoto earthquake.

From Kumamoto JR station, our journey began on the “Isaburo Shinpei” train, which runs south from Kumomoto to Yoshimatsu via Hitoyoshi. Its a diesel train which was once a 1970s KIHA 47 series commuter train. It looks like an old workhorse train from the 1950s. It has undergone extensive renovation and reconfiguration. It oozes with nostalgia. The comfort and interior design are way beyond any commuter train now with calming wooden panels, polished floors, seats that have tables and large clean windows.

Interior of the JR Rail Kyushu train. Very comfortable.

Soon after leaving the city of Kumamoto, it’s not long before the railway line runs along a narrow gorge along the rocky Kuma River for many miles. Its picture postcard territory as far as train journeys go. You soon head into heavily forested mountains with the railway line twisting through tunnels and working its way along narrow viaducts.

Railway lines and roadway hug the Kuma River from Yatsushiro to Hitoyoshi, Kyushu.

There are frequent stops at old railway stations that were most likely built in the Meiji period at the turn of the 20th century. Okoba is particularly impressive as its adjacent to beautiful forests in a mountain range. These stations have old timber structures with high roofs – atmospheric waiting rooms and great views over peaceful rural landscapes.

An example of the old wooden buildings at most stations along the railway line in this part of Kyushu.

The Isaburo Shinpei train stops for several minutes on most stations, as the locals set up little shops where you can buy a tasty lunch or souvenirs. But it was also good to see that it is still a normal commuter train that connects these communities to the bigger cities in Japan.

Locals sell delicious snacks and Japanese bento boxes for lunch.

The line had two switchbacks – prior to this journey, I’d never been on a regular national railway line that still has switchbacks. Due to the steep inclines, the train needs to stop and switch back in the opposite direction in order to get over the mountains. It’s amazing to see how quickly the staff on JR Rail can do this – driver and conductor running from one end of the train to the other.

Switchbacks on the JR line from Kumamoto to Kagoshima.

The Isoburo Shinpei train terminates at Yoshimatsu, where we had to do a quick run across the platform to the “Limited Express – Hayato no Kaze” train. This very dark black diesel train was quite similar to its red coloured cousin from Kumamoto. We had hardly any time to rest before heading south down the mountains to the coastal city of Kagoshima. It would have been great to explore Hitoyoshi, but Japanese trains are very punctual – we wanted to experience Hayato no Kaze. You could also opt to take a local train down to Kagoshima, as there is a regular timetable on this line to serve the local towns.

Timber roof at Yatake railwa station in Kyushu.

Many sections of this line had extensive views south towards the sea as we headed down and down some more – with extensive views of Sakurajima volcano as we got closer to Kagoshima. The final section of the railway line runs along the seafront, with the volcano spewing modest levels of ash across the landscape. The train arrives at Kagoshima JR Station, which has an array of hotels, restaurants and shops which are typical of major Shinkansen railway stations. This is the southern most city that is served by bullet train in Japan – it was bright and sunny in late-winter, even though the volcano was spewing out ominous dark clouds when we looked out our hotel window.

View of Mount Sakurajima as the train follows the southern coast of Kyushu into the city of Kagoshima. This is an active volcano on the edge of the city.

I highly recommend this journey as you get to see some reasonably remote towns in Kyushu on very comfortable trains. It would have been a bit better to leave Kumamoto earlier and spend more time in some of the mountain communities. As with all trains in Japan, the lunchtime food options were amazing. Most stations had locally sourced food in bento boxes which were fresh, healthy and delicious. The quality of convenience food for long journeys in Japan always amazed me – if only other countries could learn from this!

Key Resources.

JR Rail bookings: These trains are very popular, so bookings are essential. Tickets are free for foreigners who have a JR RailPass, but you need to reserve your tickets at any JR ticket office. I suggest using Hyperdia.com to search for the latest schedules on JR Railways from Kumamoto to Hitoyoshi and then to Kagoshima. Print off the schedule and book the tickets at any JR office in Japan. We did this as soon as we activated our JR RailPass in Kobe. Here’s a copy of the trains we used:

JR Kyushu links to the Isaburo/Shinpei and Hayato no Kaze Trains. Also refer to other pages on this site for other trains in Kyushu. It’s possible to get a JR Railpass that just covers Kyushu – this is much cheaper than the one that covers the whole of Japan.

The Limited Express Hayato no Kaze looks like it was just built, despite being over 50 years old.

A BBC news story about Kumamon, who is used to a wide variety of products in addition to the city of Kumamoto – the bear who earns millions.

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