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Beyond the brochure: Northern Kyushu Rail Pass

Beyond the brochure: Northern Kyushu Rail Pass

Kyushu (九州 Kyūshū), the third largest and southernmost main island of Japan, is a land blessed with unique geography and an incredible density of onsen, and a distinct culture from mainland Japan due to its history of international relations as the “Gateway of Japan” to the rest of the world. With its mouth-watering cuisine, attractive hot spring towns and historical landmarks spread so far apart, however, one of the best ways to traverse the island and see its many wonders without breaking the bank would be with a Kyushu Rail Pass.


(Image credit: JR Kyushu)

There are three different types of regional rail passes available in Kyushu: the All Kyushu Rail Pass, Northern Kyushu Rail Pass, and Southern Kyushu Rail Pass. These consecutive passes come in a variety of lengths and prices, with the longest one being the 7-day All Kyushu Rail Pass at ¥20,000.

In addition to its main shinkansen line and train network, the JR Kyushu group also has a wide variety of distinct and sophisticated sightseeing trains which offer unparalleled views of the sprawling Kyushu landscape, while giving you an unforgettable, tailor-made train experience. For this sample itinerary, I will be using the 5-day Northern Kyushu Rail Pass in order to show you the potential of riding as many as these sightseeing trains as possible without being too difficult to keep up with.


Day 1: Fukuoka → Yufuin

Kyushu is a land of mountains and hot springs. (Image credit: Oita Tourism)

We’ll kick off the first leg of this itinerary from Fukuoka Airport (FUK) (福岡空港 Fukuoka Kūkō), the principal entry point to the entire region of Kyushu. An important thing to note for travellers is that there is NO JR Station nor ticket exchange counter at Fukuoka Airport, so you’ll have to make a beeline for Hakata Station (博多駅 Hakata-eki) in order to receive your Kyushu Rail Pass. The trip only costs ¥260 and takes about 5 minutes, so it shouldn’t be too much of a hassle. Once you’ve exchanged your Kyushu Rail Pass, we’ll be boarding our first sightseeing train of the trip, the Yufuin no Mori (ゆふいんの森). 


(Image credit: photoAC)

Even before our arrival at our much anticipated hot springs destination, the Yufuin no Mori will make you feel like you’re already at a resort. Decorated with a warm wooden interior, this train comes equipped with a bar counter and a lounge where you can purchase themed bento boxes and souvenirs as you enjoy a leisurely and picturesque ride to Yufuin (由布院). The relaxing and beautiful hot spring town of Yufuin itself is small and secluded, but contains its fair share of shops and activities to enjoy. The main street of Yunotsubo Kaido (湯の坪街道) is packed with a variety of trendy cafes, shops and boutiques while the Yufuin Floral Village has a laid back atmosphere inspired by olden English cottage villages.


Day 2: Yufuin → Beppu 

You’d certainly feel very worried if you saw any other town this much up in smoke (Image credit: Oita Tourism)


For day 2, we’ll be continuing our onsen streak by taking a day trip to Beppu City (別府市 Beppu-shi), the one of the largest and most famous onsen resort towns in all of Japan. True to its reputation, there is seemingly no end to the vast amounts of hot spring water being pumped throughout the city, as you can see by the dozens of steam spouts and bath houses which make up Beppu’s iconic look. If you’re already all steamed out by regular onsen bathing from your night before, why not try out a more unique type of bath available here in Beppu, such as sandbathing or mudbathing?

If onsen-hopping isn’t so much your thing, then Beppu also has a special kind of “onsen sightseeing” available in the form of the Beppu Seven Hells. A series of incredibly unique onsen pools which are built in a sort of zoo-like enclosure format, these Hells can all be visited in a single day on foot as a fun side activity. From the Hells which feature waters with highly vivid colours such as the Umi Jigoku (海地獄) and Shiraike Jigoku (白池地獄), to highly energetic pools like the Oniishibozu Jigoku (鬼石坊主地獄) and Tatsumaki Jigoku (竜巻地獄), and even a monster breeding pool that is home to onsen-loving crocodiles, visiting all seven hells of Beppu in a single day promises to be a very memorable experience.


Day 3: Yufuin → Aso → Kumamoto

Vast open hills and towering craters surround Japan’s largest active volcano. (Image credit: Kumamoto Tourism Guide)


The next train that we are going to board might be a difficult one to catch, as only one of them runs each day and only on weekends. If you are unable to plan your schedule around this time window, hop onto the Limited Express Kyushu Odan Tokkyu, a weekday-alternative train that runs on the same route If all the stars align and you manage to catch a reservation on the weekend time slot, then you’re in for a world of fun on the Aso Boy! (あそぼーい) sightseeing train.


A playroom on the move with a view. (Image credit: the.Firebottle / CC BY-SA 2.0 & Rsa / CC BY-SA 3.0)


The Aso Boy! is the perfect train for families with young children (or the young at heart), with a bright and sleek interior featuring several child-friendly features, including a playroom, a picture book library, and even a ball pit filled with wooden balls! The train is also dotted with decals and illustrations of its mascot, the affable black dog Kuro, who has its own onboard cafe where you can buy Kuro merchandise and meals.


As you may have guessed from its name, the Aso Boy! also gives you plenty of opportunities to enjoy views of the Aso caldera, a geological marvel spanning dozens of kilometres with Mount Aso (阿蘇山 Aso-san) in its center. Should you choose to disembark midway at Aso Station before continuing to Kumamoto (熊本市 Kumamoto-shi) in a later train, there are a multitude of nature-related activities to do here including horseback riding and a bus ride and hike to Nakadake Crater (中岳).


Day 4: Kumamoto → Fukuoka

While only a recreation of its original build, Kumamoto Castle remains one of the premier castles to visit in Japan. (Image credit: Kumamoto Tourism Guide)


We can take a break from the heat in Kumamoto City (or not, if you’d like to visit Kurokawa Onsen) and explore everything the area has to offer. Now is as good a time as any to visit Kumamoto Castle (熊本城 Kumamoto-jō), one of the most famous black castles in Japan, as its main keep has just finished reconstruction on 28 June 2021 after collapsing in the wake of the 2016 Kumamoto earthquake. Kumamoto is also home to one of Japan’s most notable mascots, Kumamon, whose likeness can be found in statues, souvenirs and imagery scattered throughout the city. Once you’ve had your fill, you can finally board the Kyushu Shinkansen for a return to Fukuoka.


Day 5: Fukuoka → Huis Ten Bosch

The train that may as well be transporting you to another continent. (Image credit: photoac & David Mckelvey / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)


Can you really call it a Japan holiday without visiting a theme park of some sort? Fortunately, the largest and most iconic theme park of the Kyushu region can be accessed from Hakata Station with its own direct train line: Huis Ten Bosch!


A beautiful theme park born from the historical ties between the Dutch and the Japanese. (Image Credit: ©Nagasaki Prefecture & Donggo Lee)


Confuse your friends with pictures of your trip to "Europe" with selfies at Huis Ten Bosch (ハウステンボス Hausu Ten Bosu), a spacious Dutch-themed park complete with canals, windmills, flower gardens, and grand European architecture. This park does not boast its title as Japan’s largest theme park lightly, claiming to be as large as the city-state of Monaco! With dozens of attractions spread across two main areas of Theme Park Zone and Harbour Zone, enjoy the unique combination of European atmosphere and Japanese hospitality only here at Huis Ten Bosch.


How much do you save?

Information based on Hyperdia


 Total cost: ¥26,940

-Northern Kyushu Rail Pass: ¥11,000

= Savings: ¥15,940!

Thanks to the large area coverage and relatively low cost of all the Kyushu Rail Passes, it is very easy to get great value for your buck regardless of where you choose to visit in Kyushu, as long as you cover at least a few prefectures per trip. 5 days is certainly a short amount of time to properly enjoy all the places laid out in this sample itinerary, so don’t be afraid to up your purchase to the 7-day All Kyushu Area pass instead, as you’ll still be able to save quite a bit of money and have more time while you’re at it! The JR Kyushu Rail Passes are all available for purchase online and at select JR travel counters in Japan.


Header image credit: JR TIMES


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