Riding the rails on SL Hitoyoshi in Kumamoto

Riding the rails on SL Hitoyoshi in Kumamoto

by David Krigbaum

Japan loves trains and steam locomotives. They can be found pulling sightseeing tours around the country, providing a unique way to enjoy some of the nation’s most beautiful and diverse scenery. Hokkaido has its iconic black C11 steam engine plowing through white snow in winter and Yamaguchi has its gorgeous D51 and C57 engines that roll through endless fields but in Kyushu we have SL (Steam Locomotive) Hitoyoshi.

Watching it in action is like a scene from America’s past, a gleaming black steam engine streaming clouds of smoke as it barrels down the line, following the course of a fast flowing emerald river that snakes through the bottom of a deep green valley cutting through Appalachian hills, except this is Kumamoto not Kentucky.

The only downside to riding the train is not being able to take pictures as it passes though the landscape.

The locomotive engine itself is a Class 8620, Japan’s first domestically mass-produced engine designed for passenger service. This one was built in 1922 and is currently the oldest operating train engine running regularly on a main line in Japan. After half a century of service its final years of regular operations were spent in the Hitoyoshi area before retirement in 1975. The engine was refurbished and brought back online for sightseeing in 1988.

I’d wanted to ride this classic as long as I’d known steam was a viable travel option in this country, so I went to the local JR station to make my reservations. Despite the train’s uniqueness the ticket was well-priced at about 2500 yen for the one-way two-hour ride and I was able to get seats just two days before my intended trip.

The trip was memorable from the moment the engine backed into Kumamoto Station to begin our journey. An active steam engine has a palpable vitality to it that modern trains don’t have; they constantly blow off steam and smoke, sometimes heavy, sometimes light but there’s always action from pent up energy just waiting to be released. There’s also a bit of energy on the platform as the steam engine was treated like an old rock star, getting swarmed by groupies of all ages with cameras as soon as it arrived.

Besides passing through beautiful country scenery the train ride also stops at two century-old wooden railway station passengers can spend a few minutes looking around, buying souvenirs and taking pictures of the train in different settings. A smoking old train at one of these old stations just fits more than Kumamoto Station. Then the conductor rings her large hand bell signaling everyone to get back aboard.

The conductors are cheerful, helpful and operating at 120% I don’t know how they do it and walk in heels on a very bouncy train all day. Almost all of them speak some English and one was kind enough to give me an English map and short version of a tour guide-like presentation that had been given in Japanese in the observation car.

When not sightseeing in the observation car or at a station I was trying out locally produced food and drink from Kumamoto beer and shochu to non-alcoholic banpeiyu cider and chestnut strips. I’d not had banpeiyu before; it’s a citrus unique to Japan that grows in Kumamoto. The cider was a real stand out as it had a light and slightly sweet flavor I really enjoyed.

Though the journey ends at Hitoyoshi Station and two hours later the train returns to Kumamoto there’s enough time to down a chestnut bento from the traditional station bento seller, check out the national treasure of Aoi Aso Shrine and come back to watch the engine get rotated on a turntable in preparation for its return leg. A practical necessity, but the turntable was also a show with an audience so it was given an extra spin for us to get all our photos, videos and selfies.

This train makes one round trip run a day on weekends and holidays during the spring and summer. If you want to spend time in Hitoyoshi, which has a few days worth of traditional Japanese houses, ruins and onsens to experience, you may have to take a regular train back to Kumamoto during the week.

I rode the train round trip, and between the two the morning run definitely felt more energetic than the afternoon return trip.

Getting tickets for SL Hitoyoshi can be accomplished at any JR West station and they cannot be purchased online.

From Sasebo I took the limited express to Shin-Tosu and then a shinkansen to Kumamoto. While worlds apart technologically, the bullet train and steam engines were in regular operations at the same time for a decade. The first shinkansen came online in 1964 and the Class 8620 engine we rode didn’t retire until 1975.

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