Make the most of Kyushu in Japan by taking the bullet train. Photo / Roméo A; Unsplash
Japan’s new Nishi Kyushu Shinkansen makes it easier to explore not only northern Kyushu but the landscapes surrounding the cities of Fukuoka and Nagasaki. Tamara Hinson hops on board.
It’s fitting that the best way to travel between Kyushu’s most spectacular (and very different) cities, Fukuoka and Nagasaki, now involves two rail journeys honouring Kyushu in very different ways. The Nishi Kyushu Shinkansen rail line now connects Nagasaki with Takeo-onsen, and speeds passengers between the two on Kamome, a slick bullet train inspired by a seagull’s silhouette, while the 36+3 scenic train, which operates five different routes around Kyushu, honours Kyushu’s ancient crafts.
Both cities deserve exploration for different reasons. Fukuoka’s Hakata train station towers over Taihaku-dori, an avenue constructed in 1969 to commemorate the 80th anniversary of Fukuoka’s incorporation as a city. The designation was perhaps overdue – this is, after all, the location of Japan’s oldest Zen temple. The Shofukuji temple, constructed in 1195, is on a quiet, tree-lined back street surrounded by smaller temples with rock gardens where monks have etched lines into the sand.
The views from Fukuoka Tower, Japan’s tallest coastal observation tower, are stunning although I’d also recommend exploring the Momochihama neighbourhood in which it’s located. It’s home to Seinan Gakuin University, founded in 1916 by an American missionary, and I learn more at the ivy-clad, red-brick Seinan Gakuin University Museum, constructed by missionary William Vories in 1921. Other discoveries honour former Momochihama resident Machiko Hasegawa, Japan’s first professional manga artist. Momochihama is dotted with sculptures of characters from her manga masterpiece Sazae-san.
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Perhaps, in time, there will be statues of Eiji Mitooka, who designed Kyushu’s most spectacular trains, including the Seven Stars in Kyushu, which has bathrooms lined with fragrant cypress wood. One of Eiji’s newest creations is the 36+3 scenic train, which operates scenic routes around Kyushu, Japan’s southern-most main island. Highlights of the train, which I board in Fukuoka, include vast expanses of polished lacquer, seats divided by wooden latticed panels (made the traditional way, without nails) and a shop selling local produce. There are onboard craft workshops, and tatami flooring in first class. Ornately upholstered curtains divide carriages, and windows have traditional wooden shutters, should I wish to shut out the view.
Which I don’t, obviously. North Kyushu is cooler than the south, and the landscape is a lush patchwork of paddy fields. One of the stops on my journey is Hizen Hamashuku, a hamlet-like neighbourhood of Kashima city. We’re greeted by locals offering samples of soju, and on a guided walk along twisting lanes lined with squat buildings topped with ornately tiled roofs, there’s a flurry of excitement when we pass Fukuchiyo Shuzo. This small distillery’s sake bagged first place at the prestigious International Wine Champion awards, and it’s one of several centuries-old Hizen Hamashuku distilleries. A top tip for sake sleuths? Look out for dried cedar balls – owners hang these outside to indicate the presence of a distillery.
We press on, past clay walled, Edo-era storehouses. Hizen Hamashuku is a protected Preservation District, and visitors can now stay in a former distillery that closed and remained empty until JR Rail turned it into a boutique hotel. Before we clamber back on board the train, I toast Hizen Hamashuku at the station, where a local at a stand topped with sake bottles invites me to identify different varieties using printed descriptions of their flavour profiles. I fail abysmally, but get a turn on a tombola-like machine as compensation, and leave with a commemorative pen.
My final stretch on the 36+3 train takes me to Takeo-Onsen, the town now connected to Nagasaki via the Nishi Kyushu Shinkansen’s Kamome train, which was also designed by Eiji Mitooka and will hopefully eventually extend to Fukuoka. This slick white speed machine streaks its way to Nagasaki and I arrive in the early evening, but there’s an orderly calm to Nagasaki’s rush hour, even more so when a commuter pauses by a free-for-all piano in the station and starts tinkling the ivories.
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A city that rose from ashes after the horror of the atomic bomb, Nagasaki still provides insights into its past through its architecture. I do a double take when I spot the Hotel Monterey, built in the 1500s in the style of a monastery. It’s near the fabulously gothic Oura Church, Japan’s oldest church, the Belle Vue, which became Nagasaki’s first Western-style hotel in 1863, and Glover Garden, named after Scotsman Thomas Glover, who helped transform Nagasaki into a trading hub, investing in mines and helping found the brewery now known as Kirin.
There are plenty of temples, too. The stone bridge that crosses Nagasaki’s Nakashima River and dates back to the 1600s was built by a monk who became a resident priest at the nearby Kofukuji Temple, one of several on Tera Machi or Temple Street. Others include the Koei-zan Choshoji temple, surrounded by immaculately-pruned palms, and the Kotaji Temple, with its impossibly ornate roof.
Exploring the city is easy, thanks to a network of trams that rattle along Nagasaki’s tree-lined streets, although I can’t help but think they look rather plain compared to the new Eiji Mitooka-designed 36+3 scenic train and Nishi Kyushu Shinkansen’s Kamome train. But who knows? Given Kyushu’s connections with Japan’s coolest trains, surely it’s only a matter of time until Eiji Mitooka turns his attention to trams.
For more things to see and do in Japan, visit japan.travel/en