Hop Aboard: A Local’s Guide to Exploring Kyushu by Train
Hop Aboard: A Local's Guide to Exploring Kyushu by Train - Ride the Sonic Express for Scenic Coastal Views
The Sonic Express train offers a spectacular way to take in the beautiful coastal scenery of Kyushu. This limited express train runs along the coastline between Fukuoka and Kagoshima, affording panoramic views of rugged cliffs, sandy beaches, turquoise waters and offshore islands.
The journey begins at Hakata Station in Fukuoka. After departing the urban sprawl, the train hugs the coastline, with the first stretch showcasing picturesque inlets dotted with fishing boats. Further along, palm trees sway on sandy beaches that give way to sheer rock faces carved by the sea. Offshore, isolated islands rise dramatically from the waters.
One of the highlights is passing by Aoshima Island, a small island with a Shinto shrine that is connected to the mainland by a short bridge. This island is known for the demon-shaped rock formation called Oni no Sentakuita, or "Devil's Washboard", that bears the indentations of thousands of years of erosion by the waves.
The views only get better as the train travels further south. The coastline becomes more rugged and unspoiled. Jagged cliffs plunge down to rocky shores and secluded coves. Listening to the sound of the waves crashing below while gazing out at this pristine scenery is a magical experience.
For the best views, snag a seat on the left side of the train when heading south to Kagoshima. This vantage point delivers unobstructed panoramas of the stunning coastline. Since the Sonic Express only makes a limited number of stops, you can sit back and soak in the views.
Riding the entire length of the route takes about 3.5 hours. You can also opt to take shorter segments if you want to break up the journey and spend time exploring specific destinations along the way. Popular stops include Nagasaki, with its tragic wartime history, and the hot spring resort area of Ibusuki.
What else is in this post?
- Hop Aboard: A Local's Guide to Exploring Kyushu by Train - Ride the Sonic Express for Scenic Coastal Views
- Hop Aboard: A Local's Guide to Exploring Kyushu by Train - Make Connections at Hakata Station, the Railway Hub of Kyushu
- Hop Aboard: A Local's Guide to Exploring Kyushu by Train - Soak in the Onsens and Volcanic Landscapes of Beppu
- Hop Aboard: A Local's Guide to Exploring Kyushu by Train - See the City Sights of Fukuoka, Kyushu's Largest City
- Hop Aboard: A Local's Guide to Exploring Kyushu by Train - Journey to Kumamoto Castle and its Famed Stone Walls
- Hop Aboard: A Local's Guide to Exploring Kyushu by Train - Explore the Pottery Town of Arita and Nearby Ceramics Museums
- Hop Aboard: A Local's Guide to Exploring Kyushu by Train - Head South to Kagoshima for Sakurajima Volcano Views
Hop Aboard: A Local's Guide to Exploring Kyushu by Train - Make Connections at Hakata Station, the Railway Hub of Kyushu
As the largest and busiest railway station on Kyushu, Hakata Station serves as the gateway to exploring this southern Japanese island by train. All rail lines converge at this transportation hub in the heart of Fukuoka, enabling convenient transfers between routes. With trains departing frequently in all directions, it's easy to hop aboard and make your way to Kyushu's top destinations.
Stepping off the Shinkansen bullet train from other parts of Japan, Hakata Station is likely to be your first stop in Kyushu. The station boasts a well-organized layout across multiple buildings, making transfers between platforms straightforward. Keep an eye out for train departure information displayed prominently on digital signboards. If you need help navigating, English-speaking staff are available at information booths.
From Hakata Station, you can directly access popular sightseeing spots like Nagasaki and Beppu entirely by train. Heading south, the Sonic Express takes you along the coastline with spectacular ocean views. Local and rapid trains ply routes inland through the mountains and rural countryside. With this kind of access, renting a car becomes unnecessary for seeing Kyushu's highlights.
While waiting between train connections, take some time to explore the station and its surroundings. The Hakata Ekimae shopping area offers everything from restaurants to drugstores inside three buildings directly connected to the station's Hakata Exit. Underground passageways also link to large department stores like Canal City Hakata and JR Hakata City.
For a bit of culture, check out the Hakata Traditional Crafts and Folk Art Museum on the 10th floor of the station. Exhibits here showcase the history and techniques behind Hakata's famous handicrafts. Pick up some Hakataori textiles or Hakata ningyo dolls as souvenirs of your time in the city.
Foodies will appreciate the array of restaurants and food stalls inside the station complex. Try out Hakata's signature tonkotsu ramen while you wait for your train. Fukuoka is also famous for its melt-in-your-mouth mentaiko cod roe, found in rice balls and other grab-and-go items.
Hop Aboard: A Local's Guide to Exploring Kyushu by Train - Soak in the Onsens and Volcanic Landscapes of Beppu
With steam rising from the ground and bubbling hot springs dotting the landscape, Beppu offers a front-row seat to experiencing Japan’s volcanic geology. As the second largest hot spring resort in the country after Noboribetsu, Beppu has harnessed the natural gifts of its location into a wonderland of bathing opportunities. Soaking in an onsen here delivers relaxation paired with awe at the forces that shape this region.
Beppu sits in the “Beppu-Shimabara Graben” rift zone, where underground heat continuously brings hot spring water to the surface. Across the city’s eight major geothermal areas, dozens of jigokus (“hells”) showcase bubbling ponds with colors ranging from cobalt blue to cloudy gray. These hot springs steam and bubble under constant temperatures reaching up to 99°C. Witnessing this volcanic activity up close provides an almost otherworldly experience. Don’t miss viewing the blood-red waters of Chinoike Jigoku, the milky blue boiling spring of Umi Jigoku, and the steaming aquamarine pool at Oniyama Jigoku.
While the jigokus are too hot for bathing, Beppu offers over 3,000 onsen sources perfect for soaking up their therapeutic mineral waters. Some standout bathing options include Takegawara Onsen, with traditional wooden baths dating back to the late 1800s, and Beppu Kaihin Onsen Sennin-buro, a seaside hot spring flowing directly into the ocean. At Myoban Onsen, birch leaves added to the onsen water impart healing and beautifying effects. And at the famous Sand Baths on Shoningahama Beach, you can get covered neck-to-toe in naturally heated sand for a relaxing full-body warm compress.
Hop Aboard: A Local's Guide to Exploring Kyushu by Train - See the City Sights of Fukuoka, Kyushu's Largest City
As the largest metropolis on Kyushu, Fukuoka delivers big city energy paired with laidback seaside charm. Though often overlooked by tourists rushing to Tokyo or Osaka, Fukuoka deserves a spot on your itinerary to experience its distinctive local vibe. Digging into the city’s history, culture, cuisine and entertainment reveals why so many expats and travelers rave about Fukuoka as an underrated gem.
Wandering through Fukuoka’s compact yet vibrant downtown, you’ll understand its appeal. The tree-lined Nakasu area borders the Naka River and houses restaurants, bars and the picturesque yatai food stalls that open in the evenings. Across the river, Tenjin district blends massive shopping complexes with cozy shotengai shopping alleys. Historic Canal City Hakata blends a ramen food theme park with theaters, shops and cafes.
Fukuoka Castle ruins perch on a hill overlooking the city, providing sweeping views and glimpses into the role this 16th century fortress played in the city’s past. The remains include the largest stone wall of any castle in Kyushu. Nearby, Ohori Park transforms into a festive scene when its 2,000 sakura trees bloom each spring.
As a port city, Fukuoka enjoys fresh seafood like fatty mackerel, mentaiko cod roe and karashi renkon (fried lotus root with mustard). Local ramen stands out for its creamy tonkotsu broth, thin noodles and sprinkling of crunchy fried garlic. Yatai food stalls serve up these specialties along with yakitori skewers and oden hotpot dishes.
Fukuoka’s residents are among the friendliest in Japan, quick to offer up tips on hidden gems around the city. Ask a local for the best spots to join energetic street dances celebrating Hakata Gion Yamakasa festival each July. Or get recommendations for tiny bars where you can chat with locals over shochu cocktails.
Travelers planning trips around specific interests have plenty of options to fill their Fukuoka itineraries. Architecture buffs admire designs by famous Japanese architects like Kengo Kuma and Hiroshi Nakamura dotted around the city. Hakata Machiya Furusatotokan showcases a painstaking reconstruction of a traditional house and merchant shop.
Art aficionados browse the Fukuoka Art Museum’s extensive Asian art collection and workforce sculptures at Etsuzankaku Gallery. Music lovers take in live jazz shows and the Fukuoka Symphony Orchestra’s performances at theaters across town.
Sports fans cheer on the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks professional baseball team at the PayPay Dome. And techies check out the latest at facilities like Fukuoka Growth Next center promoting startups.
Hop Aboard: A Local's Guide to Exploring Kyushu by Train - Journey to Kumamoto Castle and its Famed Stone Walls
No trip to Kyushu is complete without a visit to Kumamoto Castle, whose picture-perfect keep and surrounding stone walls create one of Japan’s most majestic fortress complexes. As the grand castle of the Hosokawa clan for over 400 years, Kumamoto Castle stands as an enduring symbol of the samurai legacy and martial prestige. Historic structures transport you back to feudal Japan, while expansive grounds encourage leisurely strolls surrounded by nature.
Approaching the castle across the expansive Ninomaru plaza impresses its immense scale upon visitors. Construction first began in 1467 under feudal lord Yamamoto Kiyomasa, who directed the building of fortified stone walls up to 30 feet high and 9 feet thick. After withstanding multiple sieges, the castle was largely demolished in 1877 during the Satsuma Rebellion. Meticulous restoration work over the past 50 years brought Kumamoto Castle back to its former glory.
The soaring, black-and-white main keep provides camera-ready views from the outside. Venturing within reveals a stately historical reconstruction of the shogun’s inner quarters. Interactive displays recreate scenes of samurai life, like ceremonial armor and sword rituals. Climbing to the top floor outlooks rewards you with panoramic vistas of the castle complex, downtown Kumamoto, and the surrounding Aso mountains.
Connecting the keep to the remaining castle walls, a wooden overpass invites you to trace the ramparts studded with turrets. Cherry trees burst into pink bloom here every spring, cascading petals around the timeworn stone. The Kumamoto Castle illuminated night walk fills the grounds with ethereal light.
Surrounding gardens epitomize Japanese aesthetic ideals. Suizen-ji Jōju-en recreates iconic scenes like Mount Fuji and Lake Biwa through meticulously arranged landscapes meant for serene contemplation. Hanami spots abound, including 600 cherry trees whose blossoms frame the Hosokawa mansion during sakura season.
Staying overnight at the castle lets you soak up its ambiance after the crowds depart. Kumamoto Castle Hotel offers modern lodging incorporating traditional design elements within the former samurai stables. Sleep surrounded by history and wake to sweeping castle views. Or choose the contemporary comforts of the nearby Hotel Nikko Kumamoto just a short walk away.
Hop Aboard: A Local's Guide to Exploring Kyushu by Train - Explore the Pottery Town of Arita and Nearby Ceramics Museums
Renowned for its porcelain production for over 400 years, Arita provides a rewarding detour for craft enthusiasts. As the birthplace of Japanese porcelain, Arita offers a living workshop where master craftsmen have passed down techniques through generations. Visitors can tour historic kilns, see potters at work, and browse galleries showcasing exquisite porcelain. Nearby museums document Arita’s pivotal contributions to Japanese ceramic arts.
Wandering through Arita, you’ll spot INAX-brand chimney stacks dotting the landscape – an omnipresent reminder of the pottery legacy here. By the early 17th century, kaolin clay discovered in the region formed the basis of a thriving porcelain industry under the feudal lords of Nabeshima. Chinese potters brought over by the Nabeshima clan introduced coveted skills and established Arita as the center of Japanese porcelain production for centuries.
Today around 100 ceramic companies operate in Arita, producing porcelain ranging from household dishes to elaborate art pieces. Master craftsmen devote decades honing specialized skills like perfecting glazes or painting delicate motifs. At studios open for visits, you can observe generations of potters carefully shaping porcelain forms by hand at the wheel. The concentration of creativity and dedication sustaining Arita’s porcelain tradition remains palpable.
Galleries scattered around town showcase Arita’s finest works from vividly painted Kakiemon-style ware to translucent Nabeshima porcelain. Exclusive products exclusive to Arita include the delicate eggshell-thin Gossu porcelain and finely crackled Narumi glazes. Seeking out small neighborhood workshops offers opportunities to chat with craftspeople while perusing original pieces.
As the first Japanese porcelain pieces to achieve renown in Europe, Arita wares hold an important place in ceramic history. Nearby museums chronicle Arita’s artistic evolution and global influences. The Kyushu Ceramic Museum displays around 3,000 representative works showcasing major styles. Here, a wide span of pieces convey how Arita porcelain progressed in refinement over the centuries. You’ll gain insight into renowned artists like Tang Yin and Sakaida Kakiemon XV.
At the Arita Porcelain Park, centuries-old climbing kilns have now become exhibits themselves. Outdoor installations integrate contemporary Arita porcelain into the natural landscape for an immersive experience with this craft. Indoor exhibits walk you through how clay is transformed step-by-step into finished porcelain masterpieces. Hands-on workshops let you paint your own Arita-style blue and white plate to take home.
Hop Aboard: A Local's Guide to Exploring Kyushu by Train - Head South to Kagoshima for Sakurajima Volcano Views
As Kyushu's southernmost major city, Kagoshima treats travelers to sun-drenched seaside scenery crowned by the dramatic presence of Sakurajima, one of Japan's most active volcanoes. Sakurajima's recurring eruptions may frequently make headlines, but experienced travelers rave that seeing this mighty volcano up close represents a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Rumbling to life in 1914, Sakurajima volcano initially created an island 3 kilometers across Kagoshima Bay. Lava flows eventually connected it to the Osumi Peninsula by 1955. Minor eruptions still occur frequently, with plumes of smoke and ash often visible rising above the peak. This cycle of creation and destruction makes Sakurajima a humbling embodiment of the forces of nature.
Hopping a 15-minute ferry from Kagoshima Port brings you across the bay for a close-up look at the volcano. Hiking trails like the hour-long Daikon-no-Tsuki course take you directly beside sun-scorched lava fields. Signs warn hikers to keep moving and not linger too long as explosions still fling rocks through the air. Reports by those who have witnessed full-on eruptions describe the earth-shaking spectacle of seeing giant plumes shoot into the sky accompanied by deafening blasts.
From the Sakurajima Observation Deck, the impressive lava dome dominates the horizon, belching out sulfurous fumes. Nighttime views glow red from the heat flowing beneath the surface. Near the centrally located Nagisa Lava Center, eerie volcanic remnants like half-melted telephone poles shed light on the destruction wreaked by past eruptions.
The locals, however, take Sakurajima's outbursts in stride. In fact, the surrounding fields yield bountiful crops of radishes, tea, and sweet kabosu citrus nourished by the fertile volcanic soil. Kagoshima's citizens are proud of their homegrown hot-house oranges and pudgy Berkshire Kurobuta pork fattened up on the area's pumpkins.
This juxtaposition between untamed wilderness and abundant cultivation characterizes Kagoshima. Within the city, subtropical palms line the breezy Tenmonkan shopping arcade leading to terrace cafes with panoramic bay views. A stroll through Terukuni Shrine's sprawling gardens reveals ancient camphor trees shading mossy sculptures. At night, grab a front-row seat at Family Restaurant Shiambashi to watch Sakurajima's tentative glow, reflected in the bay's still waters against a backdrop of glittering urban lights.
Travelers seeking their own close encounter with Sakurajima should consider staying at a hotel with an outlook on the smoldering peak. Shiroyama Kagoshima Hotel features open-air hot spring baths for gazing at the billowing eruptions across the water. Alternately, Hotel La Soeur sits right across from the ferry port, making for speedy access to active nature exploration.