Fun-tastic railway trips on JR Kyushu’s D&S Trains: Seaside edition
Have you ridden a sightseeing train (観光列車 kankо̄ ressha) before? When you think of trains in Japan, perhaps the first thing that comes to mind is the high-speed and high-tech shinkansen (新幹線 bullet trains). But the next time you visit Japan, try taking the train on a local line to experience the charms of these local areas. In addition to being a mode of transportation, a train ride is a journey in itself, an experience, and a part of travel itineraries that many of us look forward to.
In Japan’s southern island of Kyushu (九州), JR Kyushu has a series of sightseeing trains known as “D&S Trains” (Design & Story Trains), which were created to bring passengers on an unforgettable journey to experience Kyushu.
Trains introduced in this series. (Image credit: Carissa Loh)
As the name suggests, each D&S Train has its own unique design and story behind it, and aims to brings passengers on a fun-filled ride to enjoy Kyushu’s breathtaking natural scenery. D&S Trains have beautiful and distinctive interior and exterior designs, with special features onboard to create memorable journeys!
In this first part of a two-part series, we’ll introduce three D&S Trains traversing seaside routes, the interesting stories behind them, and some of the amazing scenery and sightseeing spots you can enjoy. Are you ready to for a fun-tastic railway journey? Let’s go~
① A-TRAIN: Enjoy a chic ride and reminisce of the good old days
Route: Kumamoto Station (熊本駅) ↔ Misumi Station (三角駅) on the Amakusa Misumi Line
A-TRAIN. (Image credit: JR Kyushu)
Have you heard of the jazz song “Take the A Train”? The first D&S Train we’ll be introducing is the A-TRAIN (A列車で行こう Ē-ressha de ikо̄), named after this famous jazz tune. Don’t worry if you haven’t heard the song before, by the end of the train ride, the tune will be stuck in your head as it plays in the background of the 40-minute journey! ♪
Be dazzled by the A-TRAIN's black and gold exterior. (Image credit: Carissa Loh)
Plying the Amakusa Misumi Line (あまくさみすみ線) between Kumamoto Station (熊本駅) and Misumi Station (三角駅) in Kumamoto Prefecture, the A-TRAIN boasts an elegant black and gold exterior, which takes inspiration from European culture during the Age of Exploration / Nanban Trade Period in the 16th century. Back then, Amakusa (天草), which can be reached by ferry from the terminal station Misumi, was one of the first places in Japan where Christianity was introduced, when the Europeans arrived at the ports.
A-TRAIN BAR in Car 1. (Image credit: Carissa Loh and JR Kyushu)
The A-TRAIN was built with adult travellers in mind, to let them reminisce of the good old days. The retro-style décor in Car 1 reminds you of a movie set from the past, doesn’t it? In this car, you’ll find the A-TRAIN BAR, where you can buy drinks, grab a snack to eat, or get some souvenirs for your trip.
Enjoy a special highball while gazing at the coastal scenery. (Image credit: JR Kyushu)
The A-TRAIN BAR’s signature drink that you must try is the “A highball” (¥530). The A highball is made with locally-produced dekopon (デコポン a type of citrus fruit) from Kumamoto, and what better way to enjoy the passing scenery than by sipping on a drink and gazing out the wide windows? With the soft light shining through the stained-glass windows and a fantastic view of the sparkling sapphire waters of the Ariake Sea, just sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride!
Sunset at the Okoshiki Coast. (Image credit: JR Kyushu)
Speaking of beautiful scenery, keep an eye out for the Okoshiki Coast (御輿来海岸 Okoshiki-kaigan) near Oda Station. At the Okoshiki Coast, there is a big difference in tides, so beautiful patterns are formed on its sandy shores due to the effect of the wind and the waves.
In the right weather conditions, these tidal flats turn orange during sunset, purple in twilight, silver during the daytime, and gold during a full moon. The best time to see the sunset is during January to April, when the tidal flats are beautifully illuminated.
Wooden interior and stained-glass accents. (Image credit: Carissa Loh and JR Kyushu)
The A-TRAIN has a chic wooden interior, with stained-glass accents inspired by those in Amakusa’s many churches. The seat fabrics are beautifully decorated with classic patterns, and there are a variety of seat types ranging from regular seats, to box seats with a folding table in the middle, to wide sofa seats, and window-facing seats.
Souvenirs for your trip. (Image credit: Carissa Loh and JR Kyushu)
A ride on the A-TRAIN is so relaxing, that it’s over before you know it. But before you depart, how about getting something to commemorate your ride? You can approach the friendly attendants holding photo boards to help you take a commemorative photo, or stamp a commemorative postcard. There are also A-TRAIN-themed merchandise on sale, such as pin badges, cute masking tape, A4 files, towels, and more.
Misumi Station. (Image credit: Carissa Loh)
With such a plush interior, a ride on the A-TRAIN is as much of a tourist attraction as the destination. But wait, the journey isn’t over yet. To match the A-TRAIN, the terminal station, Misumi Station, was renovated and designed in a southern European style, with high ceilings and beautiful wooden decor. There is also a cross on the station building, which fits perfectly with Amakusa, where there are many churches.
From Misumi Station, it’s just a 2-minute walk to Misumi Port, where you can catch a 20-minute ferry ride to Amakusa. The Amakusa Takarajima Line (天草宝島ライン) operates in tandem with the A-TRAIN, so its timings match nicely with the arrival and departure of the A-TRAIN. If you look closely at the boat, you’ll notice that it has motifs that match the design and colours of the A-TRAIN.
Go dolphin-watching at Amakusa. (Image credit: 熊本県観光連盟)
After arriving at Amakusa's Matsushima (Maejima) Port (松島(前島)港), how about going on a dolphin-watching cruise? The 2-hour dolphin-watching cruise operates year-round, and has a 98% encounter rate for seeing dolphins. Intelligent and friendly Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins live in the waters around Amakusa, and you can see them jumping and playing in the water, and sometimes even swimming alongside the boat!
Oe Cathedral and the Amakusa Rosario Museum. (Image credit: 熊本県観光連盟)
Amakusa is made up of over 100 islands, and has various churches, museums, and Christian pilgrimage sites. In 2018, Amakusa’s Sakitsu Village (天草の﨑津集落 Amakusa no Sakitsu shūraku) was registered as part of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites of the Hidden Christian Sites in the Nagasaki Region. These sites provide insights on the period of Japan’s ban on Christianity (1614–1873), as well as on the revitalisation of the Christian communities after the ban was lifted.
Looking at the colourful stained-glass windows and interiors of the churches, you will see where the A-TRAIN got the inspiration for its beautiful windows. Other than the stained-glass windows, did you know that the A-TRAIN also has statues of Mary onboard? See if you can spot them the next time you ride the train, or try searching for them in the Google Map image below!
Take a virtual look inside the A-TRAIN. (Image credit: Google Maps and JR Kyushu)
The A-TRAIN has 2–3 round trips per day of operation, and runs mostly on weekends and public holidays. You can check out this page for more information about the A-TRAIN’s schedule. A one-way ride between Kumamoto Station and Misumi Station takes around 40 minutes and costs ¥2,040, but is free if you are using the All Kyushu Rail Pass, Northern Kyushu Rail Pass, or Southern Kyushu Rail Pass.
② IBUSUKI NO TAMATEBAKO: A treasure box of warmth and excitement
Route: Kagoshima-Chūо̄ Station (鹿児島中央駅) ↔ Ibusuki Station (指宿駅) on the Ibusuki Makurazaki Line
Are you a fan of hot springs? If so, take a ride on our next D&S Train, the IBUSUKI NO TAMATEBAKO (指宿のたまて箱), which plies the Ibusuki Makurazaki Line (指宿枕崎線) between Kagoshima-Chūо̄ Station (鹿児島中央駅) and Ibusuki Station (指宿駅) in Kagoshima Prefecture. This train gets its name from Ibusuki, the terminal station which is famous for its hot springs, and tamatebako, which means “treasure box” and comes from the folk tale of Urashima Taro.
IBUSUKI NO TAMATEBAKO. (Image credit: JR Kyushu)
According to the folk tale, Urashima Taro was a fisherman who was invited to Dragon Palace after rescuing a turtle. When he left the Dragon Palace after 3 days, he was given a tamatebako and was warned to never open it. However, when Urashima Taro returned home, he found that time had passed differently, and it had been several hundred years. His parents had died, and no one recognised him. In his despair, Urashima Taro forgot about the words of caution and opened the tamatebako, which released a white puff of smoke that turned him into an old man, and his once black hair had now turned white.
The unique half-black, half-white exterior of the IBUSUKI NO TAMATEBAKO. (Image credit: JR Kyushu)
The unique and eye-catching exterior of the IBUSUKI NO TAMATEBAKO was designed based on the folk tale—one half of the train is black, and the other half is white, symbolising Urashima Taro’s hair turning from black to white. Keep an eye out for another special feature: just like the folk tale, when the train doors open, a white mist is released and surrounds everyone’s heads!
Tamatebako motifs. (Image credit: JR Kyushu)
Try and spot the many tamatebako designs scattered around the train! You can find them in various styles and designs, at places like the noren (curtains), windows, walls, bookshelves, and more. They are sometimes accompanied with the word “IBUTAMA”, which is a shortened name for “IBUSUKI NO TAMATEBAKO”.
Colourful interior of the IBUSUKI NO TAMATEBAKO. (Image credit: JR Kyushu)
The IBUSUKI NO TAMATEBAKO has a colourful interior, with wooden décor and seats decorated in brightly coloured fabrics and patterns. Many of them face the window for you to enjoy the views, and there is even a cosy corner with sofa seats and bookshelves filled with books for you to read and enjoy.
Grab a snack or souvenirs onboard the IBUSUKI NO TAMATEBAKO. (Image credit: JR Kyushu)
While onboard, you definitely must try the refreshing Ibusuki Onsen Cider (指宿温泉サイダー), which is made with spring water from Ibusuki Onsen, as well as the delicious Ibutama Pudding (いぶたまプリン), which is made of two layers: custard and black sesame.
Other than food, you can also purchase souvenirs for your trip like a towel or mobile strap with designs of the IBUSUKI NO TAMATEBAKO. All passengers will also receive a commemorative postcard, so don’t forget to stamp it with the special stamp that’s only available on the train.
Warm welcome by the local people along the line. (Image credit: JR Kyushu)
Growing up with the people and places along the line it travels on, the IBUSUKI NO TAMATEBAKO is like a treasure box filled with warmth and excitement as it celebrates its 10th anniversary this year. Something to look forward to when riding this train is the kind hospitality and warm welcome by the local people. From city hall staff waving bright yellow flags, to local high school students waving their hands at the train when it passes by them, their warm energy and smiles are sure to make your trip an unforgettable one.
View of Sakurajima from the train window. (Image credit: JR Kyushu)
Running along the coast of Kagoshima Bay—which is also known as Kinko Bay (錦江湾 Kinkо̄-wan)—the IBUSUKI NO TAMATEBAKO offers many opportunities to catch gorgeous views of Sakurajima (桜島) from the large train windows. Sakurajima is an active volcano representative of Kagoshima, and is one of the most active volcanoes in Japan, constantly smoking with a few minor eruptions that often occur.
If you have time, you can visit Sakurajima by a taking a 15-minute ferry ride from Kagoshima Port, which is just a 10-minute walk from JR Kagoshima Station (鹿児島駅).
Ibusuki Sand Baths
Sand bath at Ibusuki. (Image credit: 九州観光推進機構)
The ride from Kagoshima-Chūо̄ Station to Ibusuki Station takes just 50 minutes, and at Ibusuki, one thing you must try is the natural geothermally-heated sand bath (天然砂蒸し温泉 tennen sunamushi onsen), which features sand that is heated by hot spring water underneath the coast.
All you have to do is put on a yukata, lie down in the sand, and staff will cover your body with warm sand until only your head sticks out. In addition to the heat, the sand is like a weighted blanket, wrapping you in a comfortable pressure that makes you feel relaxed.
Time flies while in the sand bath, and when you come out, your body feels so relaxed and rejuvenated. You may not feel it at first, but after just 10 minutes, your body will be covered in sweat. Sand baths are said to have health benefits that are 3–4 times greater than that of regular hot springs, so do try it out when in Ibusuki.
Nishi-О̄yama Station, the southernmost JR station. (Image credit: JR Kyushu)
Ibusuki is located in the southern part of Kagoshima Prefecture, and just a 20-minute ride from Ibusuki Station is Nishi-О̄yama Station (西大山駅), the southernmost JR train station. There’s no station building here, just a platform, a monument marking it as the southernmost station, and a bit of shelter. However, the unblocked view of Mount Kaimondake from the platform is beautiful.
Outside the station, you’ll find a board showing the various locations of the northernmost, easternmost, westernmost, and southernmost JR stations. Did you know? The former two are in Hokkaido, while the latter two are in Kyushu.
There’s also a bright yellow “lucky” post box. Post boxes in Japan are usually red, but this one is painted yellow for the nanohana flowers that the area is famous for. It is believed that happiness will come to those who send mail from it, so don’t forget to drop off a postcard or letter!
Take a virtual look inside the IBUSUKI NO TAMATEBAKO. (Image credit: Google Maps and JR Kyushu)
The IBUSUKI NO TAMATEBAKO has 2–3 round trips per day of operation, and runs almost every day. You can check out this page for more information about the IBUSUKI NO TAMATEBAKO’s schedule. A one-way ride between Kagoshima-Chūо̄ Station and Ibusuki Station takes around 50 minutes and costs ¥2,300, but is free if you are using the All Kyushu Rail Pass or Southern Kyushu Rail Pass.
③ UMISACHI YAMASACHI: Explore Miyazaki’s myths, mountains, and seaside scenery
Route: Miyazaki Station (宮崎駅) ↔ Nangо̄ Station (南郷駅) on the Nichinan Line
With the previous two D&S Trains, we’ve taken a ride through Kumamoto and Kagoshima. To end off, let’s check out Miyazaki Prefecture with the UMISACHI YAMASACHI (海幸山幸), which runs along the Nichinan Line (日南線) between Miyazaki Station (宮崎駅) and Nangо̄ Station (南郷駅).
Like the IBUSUKI NO TAMATEBAKO, this train also got its name from a local legend. UMISACHI YAMASACHI’s name literally means “blessings of the sea and blessing of the mountain”, and true to its name, this train lets you enjoy enchanting views of the sea and the mountains.
The UMISACHI YAMASACHI. (Image credit: JR Kyushu)
UMISACHI YAMASACHI was refurbished from train vehicles that used to run as the Torokko Kagura (トロッコ神楽号) on the former Takachiho Railway, also in Miyazaki Prefecture. Due to great damage sustained during Typhoon Nabi in 2005, the entire line was suspended. JR Kyushu took over the train vehicles under the condition that they would be run in Miyazaki Prefecture, and thus the train was reborn in 2009 as Miyazaki's first D&S Train, UMISACHI YAMASACHI.
Wooden accents on the train’s exterior. (Image credit: JR Kyushu)
One of the first things you’ll notice about the UMISACHI YAMASACHI is the beautifully crafted wooden accents on its exterior. Local obisugi (飫肥杉) cedar wood is used for this, and although many sightseeing trains have wood featured in their interiors, it’s unusual to see wood on the exterior, isn’t it? The UMISACHI YAMASACHI is the only train with such a special feature, and was made with the concept of “a cute wooden train that looks like it's come out of a toy box”.
Beautiful interior of the UMISACHI YAMASACHI. (Image credit: JR Kyushu)
Like the exterior, the train’s interior is also beautifully furnished with local obisugi cedar wood. There are a variety of seat configurations, including a spacious sofa seat. One of the joys of train travel is being able to relax, and you’ll certainly be able to do so with these comfortable seats. Traditional toys from Miyazaki and other items crafted out of obisugi cedar wood are also on display onboard the train, so don’t forget to check them out.
Commemorate your trip or grab a snack. (Image credit: JR Kyushu)
Onboard, you can approach the friendly attendants help you take a commemorative photo with the photo board and train staff hats. All passengers will also receive a commemorative postcard, which you can stamp with the special stamp that’s only available on the train.
If you’re hungry or thirsty, be sure to try out delicious Miyazaki specialties like Cheese Manju (チーズ饅頭), Miyazaki Mango Cider, and Hideji Beer, which are sold on board. You can also get your hands on limited edition UMISACHI YAMASACHI merchandise like towels and mobile phone straps.
Retelling of the Umisachi-hiko and Yamasachi-hiko legend on board. (Image credit: JR Kyushu)
As mentioned earlier, UMISACHI YAMASACHI got its name from a local legend about two brothers, Umisachi-hiko and Yamasachi-hiko. On the outbound trains travelling from Miyazaki to Nango, the friendly train attendants will show picture cards and retell the legend.
According to the legend, the elder brother, Umisachi-hiko, had a special hook to catch food from the sea, while the younger brother, Yamasachi-hiko, had a special bow to hunt food from the mountains. One day, Yamasachi-hiko suggested that they exchange and try out each other's tools, and Umisachi-hiko agreed.
However, while out at sea, Yamasachi-hiko lost his brother’s fishing hook. Umisachi-hiko would not accept a replacement, and asked him to search for it and return it. While searching for the hook, Yamasachi-hiko met the daughter of the Sea King, Toyotama-hime, who he married. With the Sea King's help, Yamasachi-hiko recovered the lost fishing hook, and returned it to his brother. It is said that Yamasachi-hiko and Toyotama-hime’s son is the father of Emperor Jimmu, the first Emperor of Japan.
Aoshima Shrine is said to be auspicious for marriage. (Image credit: JR Kyushu)
Along the train’s route, one recommended place for you to get off to go sightseeing is Aoshima Station (青島駅). From here, it’s just a 5-minute walk to Aoshima Island, where you can check out Aoshima Shrine (青島神社 Aoshima Jinja). This shrine worships Yamasachi-hiko, Toyotama-hime, and Shiozutsu-no-Ookami, and is said to bring luck to married couples. Aoshima Shrine is located in the centre of Aoshima Island, and around the islands’s shores you can see a special phenomenon known as the Devil’s Washboard (鬼の洗濯版 oni no sentakuita).
Devil’s Washboard. (Image credit: JR Kyushu)
Devil’s Washboard is an unusual geological phenomenon formed over a long period of time. Over the years, waves erode the coastal soil, leaving behind the hard stone. Best viewed during low tide, these perfectly straight rows of hard sandstone may look man-made, but they are 100% naturally formed.
Other than at Aoshima, you can also see Devil’s Washboard formations from the comfort of your seat while riding the UMISACHI YAMASACHI, on an 8km stretch along the coast between Aoshima and Kinchaku Island. Running along the coast, the train offers spectacular views of the azure sea, and will even slow down at scenic areas for you to enjoy the view of the Devil’s Washboard!
Obi Castle Town
Obisugi cedar trees and Obi Castle Town. (Image credit: 宮崎県観光協会)
Another place you can check out is near Obi Station (飫肥駅). Just a 20-minute walk from the station is Obi Castle Town (飫肥城下町 Obi-jо̄ shitamachi), which used to flourish in the forestry industry with—you guessed it—obisugi cedar wood. Here you can find well-preserved samurai houses, and walking along the street feels like you have stepped back in time. Although the castle no longer stands, the Ote-mon Gate has been rebuilt, and is a popular spot for viewing cherry blossoms in spring.
On the castle grounds near the Honmaru ruins, nestled in a quiet corner is a grove of 140-year-old obisugi cedar trees on a carpet of deep green moss. Looking up at the tall, straight cedar trees that seem to stretch into the sky, the atmosphere is calm and peaceful. This treasure of a place is often missed out by visitors, so don’t forget about it and check it out during your visit!
Take a virtual look inside the UMISACHI YAMASACHI. (Image credit: Google Maps and JR Kyushu)
The UMISACHI YAMASACHI has 1–2 round trips per day of operation, and runs mostly on weekends. You can check out this page for more information about the UMISACHI YAMASACHI’s schedule. A one-way ride between Miyazaki Station and Nangо̄ Station takes around 90 minutes and costs ¥2,440, but is free if you are using the All Kyushu Rail Pass or Southern Kyushu Rail Pass.
Which of these trains would you be interested to take a trip on? All of them are free to ride with a JR Kyushu Rail Pass, so hop aboard for a fun-tastic ride the next time you are in Kyushu. Don't forget to check out Part 2 of this series, where we introduce three trains plying mountain and highland routes!
JR Kyushu Rail Pass
Travel around Kyushu with the All Kyushu Rail Pass. (Image credit: JR Kyushu)
If you are visiting Kyushu, check out the All Kyushu Rail Pass, an affordable pass offering unlimited rail travel on JR Kyushu lines (including bullet trains) in the valid area. There are three durations of rail passes—3-day, 5-day, 7-day—and the prices range from ¥20,000 to ¥25,000. The pass covers all three trains introduced in this article.
If you are mainly visiting the northern Kyushu area (Fukuoka, Oita, Kumamoto, Nagasaki, Saga), you can opt for the Northern Kyushu Rail Pass, which is available in 3-day (¥12,000) or 5-day (¥15,000) versions. The pass covers A-TRAIN, but not IBUSUKI NO TAMATEBAKO or UMISACHI YAMASACHI.
If you are mainly visiting the southern Kyushu area (Oita, Kumamoto, Miyazaki, Kagoshima), you can opt for the Southern Kyushu Rail Pass, a 3-day pass that costs ¥10,000. The pass covers all three trains introduced in this article. The All Kyushu Rail Pass, Northern Kyushu Rail Pass, and Southern Kyushu Rail pass can be used for automatic ticket gates.
Header image credit: JR Kyushu