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Discovering Northern Kyushu's rail charms: Mojiko Station and YUFUIN NO MORI

Discovering Northern Kyushu's rail charms: Mojiko Station and YUFUIN NO MORI

Kyushu (九州) is one of Japan's most popular tourist hotspots—famous for ramen, hot springs, beautiful views, and more! While the destinations might often be spread far apart, the variety of limited express (特急 Tokkyū) trains and the shinkansen (新幹線) line makes travelling between these destinations a quick and comfortable one. So I picked up the 3-Day JR Kyushu Rail Pass (Northern Kyushu) for ¥10,000 and rode on three different Limited Express trains, and the Kyushu Shinkansen (九州新幹線), which makes Kumamoto City (熊本市 Kumamoto-shi) just a 32-minute ride away from Fukuoka City (福岡市 Fukuoka-shi). 

 

During this trip, I had two unexpected surprises; one was the beauty of Mojiko Station (門司港駅 Mojikō-eki), a beautifully preserved retro train station, and the other was when I rode JR Kyushu’s luxurious sightseeing train, YUFUIN NO MORI (ゆふいんの森). Not only was the YUFUIN NO MORI an extremely comfortable way to get between Fukuoka City and Yufuin (湯布院), it also cut what would be a 3.5-hour journey into 2 hours. 

 

A step into the past at Mojiko Retro

When I first got off the train at Mojiko Station, I thought I was in a different country... (Image credit: Jeremy Jee)

 

Having expected just another regular station, I was pretty surprised when I alighted at Mojiko Station in Fukuoka to find a really rustic-looking station with wooden doors and metal bars overhead. For a moment, I thought I was in London or New York. The current waiting room uses what used to be the VIP-class waiting room back in the early 1900s, and many of these existing rooms have been repurposed for things such as ticket offices, or even a Starbucks. Walking through the station allows you to suspend your disbelief for a moment, feeling as if you were taken back in time to the early 1900s. 

 

Even the station’s ticketing area—with the overhanging lights and lacquered wood doors—felt very representative of the Meiji Era (明治時代 Meiji-jidai) when Japan was receiving heavy foreign influence. (Image credit: Jeremy Jee) 

 

Prior to 1942, the main way that people could get from Honshu (本州) to Kyushu was via Shimonoseki City (下関市 Shimonoseki-shi), the southernmost city of Honshu, where commuters would transfer onto a ferry that would carry them across the Kanmon Strait (関門海峡 Kanmon-kaikyō) to Moji Port (門司港 Moji-kō), where they would then board the train at Moji Station (門司駅 Moji-eki), then the starting station of the Kyushu Railway. The ferry would also carry on entire freight carriages from the train at Shimonoseki, transport them over to Mojiko, and then reconnect those freight carriages to the trains. 

 

With the opening of the Kanmon Tunnel in 1942, through service between Honshu and Kyushu began, and the need to pass through Moji Station steadily declined. This was also when the station was renamed to Mojiko Station. The station building today greatly resembles what it looked like in 1914, having recently undergone restoration works between 2012 and 2019. In 1988, it was the first station building to be designated as an Important Cultural Property by the Japanese government, and in 2007 it ranked first on a poll by Nikkei on stations that people would go out of their way to visit (足を延ばして訪れて見たい駅 Ashi o nobashite otozurete mitai eki). 

 

Mojiko Station (門司港駅)
Address: 1-5-31 Nishikaigan, Moji-ku, Kitakyushu, Fukuoka 801-0841
Tel: +81 93-321-8843

 

(Image credit: Jeremy Jee) 

 

Beyond the station, you can still experience much of the area’s port heritage with preserved warehouses, a drawbridge, and a wide variety of shops. The design of the area feels very reminiscent of Western ports like Venice, with brick floors lined along the promenade and red-brick warehouses with white plaster in the background.

 

Shimonoseki.jpg (1.26 MB)

(Image credit: Jeremy Jee) 

 

From Mojiko, you can also hop onto a 5-minute ferry for ¥400 that would bring you over to Shimonoseki. History buffs can look out for the former British Consulate building, as well as the hotel where the historically significant Treaty of Shimonoseki was signed between Japan and China. The top floor of the former British Consulate building has been converted into a cafe, where you can enjoy English afternoon tea. 

 

Former British Consulate in Shimonoseki (旧下関英国領事館)
Address: 4-11 Karatocho, Shimonoseki, Yamaguchi 750-0005
Nearest station: Shimonoseki Station (下関駅)
Access: 7-minute bus ride bound for Chofu from the station
Opening hours: 9am–5pm (Closed on Tuesdays)
Tel: +81 83-235-1906

 

Sino-Japanese Peace Memorial Hall (日清講和紀念館)
Address: 4-3 Amidaijicho, Shimonoseki, Yamaguchi 750-0003
Nearest station: Shimonoseki Station (下関駅)
Access: 9-minute bus ride from the station
Opening hours: 9am–5pm
Tel: +81 83-241-1080

 

(Image credit: Jeremy Jee) 

 

For the food lovers, Karato Market (唐戸市場) is famous for its Ikiiki Bakangai (生きいき馬関街) event every Friday to Sunday, where the seafood wholesale shops sell sushi (寿司), seafood bowls (海鮮丼 kaisen don), and the local specialty, fugu (ふぐ pufferfish). Otherwise, on weekdays, you can also check out a variety of restaurants on the 2nd floor including the popular Kaiten Karato Ichiba Sushi (海転からと市場寿司). I highly recommend the salmon nigiri (サーモン握りsāmon nigiri), which is extremely fatty and filled with umami (旨み).

 

Karato Market (唐戸市場)
Address: 5-50 Karatocho, Shimonoseki, Yamaguchi 750-0005
Nearest station: Shimonoseki Station (下関駅)
Access: 7-minute bus ride from the station
Opening hours: 5am–3pm (Monday to Saturday), 8am–3pm (Sunday)
Tel: +81 83-231-0001

 

Kaiten Karato Ichiba Sushi (海転からと市場寿司)
Address: 5-50 Karatocho, Shimonoseki, Yamaguchi 750-0005
Nearest station: Shimonoseki Station (下関駅)
Access: 7-minute bus ride from the station
Opening hours: 11am–2:30pm
Tel: +81 83-233-2611

 

Riding the lap of luxury on YUFUIN NO MORI

(Image credit: Jeremy Jee)

 

Another highlight of the trip was my first experience on one of JR Kyushu’s sightseeing trains which are also known as “D&S Trains” (Design & Story Trains). I had booked the YUFUIN NO MORI thinking it was just another limited express train to get to my destination, but I was pleasantly surprised. As soon as this beautiful train rolled into the station, all the other excited passengers were seen rushing to get a picture with it. The train even had an attendant who was helping passengers take photos with the train. 

 

(Image credit: Jeremy Jee)

 

As you step onto the train, you could tell that this was no ordinary limited express train. The entrance had a double-decker curved staircase, sort of like those at a fancy hotel, and even the connector between carriages was an elevated platform. The interior itself gave me the impression that I was on a first-class train.

 

(Image credit: Jeremy Jee)

 

Note that the YUFUIN NO MORI consists only of reserved seats (指定席 shitei-seki), and the “first-class” experience begins from the moment you take your seats. Train attendants push down drink and snack carts, similar to the service you would get on a shinkansen, and they even offer a limited edition wagashi (和菓子 traditional Japanese sweets) that is made from local ingredients and served only onboard the YUFUIN NO MORI. 

 

At some point during the ride, the train slowed down as the attendant walked down the length of the car to direct the passengers’ attention to the left side of the train to observe the Jion Falls (慈恩の滝 Jion no Taki). Towards the end, the attendant carried a small photo board that passengers could take a photo with as a memento. The level of service on the train truly went far beyond that of a usual limited express, or even a shinkansen

 

(Image credit: Jeremy Jee)

 

So if you’re heading to Yufuin from Fukuoka, I highly recommend grabbing a seat on the YUFUIN NO MORI, which is one of two limited express services running between the two cities, the other being the Yufu Limited Express service. Riding on the YUFUIN NO MORI is in of itself a great experience to have on the trip, and not just a mode of transport.

 

Looking forward to the Nishi-Kyushu Shinkansen

Not sure if I was more surprised or amused that the “mascots” for the Nishi-Kyushu Shinkansen are Yowamushi Pedal characters (弱虫ペダル Yowaushi Pedaru). (Image credit: Jeremy Jee)

 

Unfortunately, I was about a month too early to try out Japan’s latest shinkansen, the Nishi-Kyushu Shinkansen (西九州新幹線) which will begin its service on 23 September 2022, and instead I had to take the regular Limited Express Kamome to Nagasaki City (長崎市 Nagasaki-shi). Everywhere I went in Nagasaki, I could see tons of posters and collateral publicised in anticipation of the new service that cuts travel time between Fukuoka and Nagasaki from the current 2-hour journey to 1 hour and 20 minutes. 

 

For now, the route runs on a relay system where riders take a limited express from Hakata Station (博多駅 Hakata-eki) to Takeo Onsen Station (武雄温泉駅 Takeo Onsen-eki), before crossing the platform to ride the shinkansen for the rest of the journey to Nagasaki Station (長崎駅 Nagasaki-eki). Nevertheless, Nagasaki is a really nice city with great rustic vibes. Hopefully with the new shinkansen service, more people will get to experience this side of Kyushu. 

 

Discovering the unexpected on rail journeys

This has got to be one of the prettiest train driver cabins that I’ve ever seen. (Image credit: Jeremy Jee)

 

One of the great things about travelling by train is the unexpected discoveries you make along the way. The rustic charms of Mojiko Station was an unexpected turn for me that I really loved, while chancing upon the YUFUIN NO MORI was also another pleasant surprise, because not only was the train absolutely gorgeous, but the service was also amazing. The bar for Kyushu has just been set super high, and I’m excited to look out and try other D&S trains with even more new discoveries to come!

 

Header image credit: Jeremy Jee

 

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