The popular railway along the Kyushu West Coast promises a truly great small railway journey in Japan.
by Andrew J Wood.
I’ve heard a lot about the Hisatsu Orange Railway in Kyushu (Japan’s third largest island), and I was really looking forward to a unique, world-class experience. I knew that the train was often fully booked, sometimes a year in advance, and reservations for the small but popular railway along Japan’s Kyushu West Coast were extremely difficult to come by. I took it as a good sign that this was truly a great railway journey in the making.
Japan’s rail system is legendary; the smooth almost silent Shinkansens that whisk you effortlessly at 250kph or more are testament to the importance of rail travel in Japan.
The Hisatsu Orange Railway stops at 28 stations between Yatsushiro in Kumamoto prefecture and Sendai in Kagoshima prefecture, a distance of 117km along the coastline of Kyushu. And unlike the Shinkansen that travels straight and fast as a bullet, the Orange Railway takes a slow and winding scenic route, with many stops along the way.
Onboard, with lunch in the Orange Restaurant, the journey takes approximately four delicious hours. For me this was heavenly: lots to see and do and lots of new tastes, and even new drinks.
The Orange Railway is a private enterprise set up in 2004. The railway’s shareholders include Kumamoto and Kagoshima prefectures (regional governments) and various towns and cities along its route. It has a very strong focus on being a local railway for the people with a real drive to develop tourism and local gastronomy.
On the train ride you can enjoy the spectacular coastline that borders the East China Sea, as well as take in the wonderful views as you traverse through the citrus fruit farmlands which gives the railway it’s name.
We were told that during the journey we would make a number of stops at various stations and we will be presented with gifts. To receive these we needed to bring along our special gift vouchers that were beautifully presented, along with our boarding passes, at the start of our journey.
The gifts in many cases turned out to be local food items, many of them being made at the stations that we stopped at and this was the beauty of a gourmet railway journey.
We were treated to an array of absolutely delicious items, my favorite were Hinagu chikuwas (a kind of BBQ soft fish paste made into a roll); locally brewed beers and fruit juices; curry pan (a delicious deep fried breaded beef curry ‘samosa’) and in Minamata, Cremia soft ice cream famous throughout Japan.
As well as the treats we were also going to enjoy a very fine lunch in the Orange Restaurant, which utilizes produce sourced from local communities. This was a perfect example of CSR: how larger corporate businesses can make responsible choices to support smaller local industries, in a caring and sustainable way.
Rail travel is not all things to all men. For me I enjoy the luxury of kicking back, relaxing and letting the journey and the day unfurl. Fortunately this time around with no deadline and time sensitive appointments at the other end. Unlike car and air travel I could thoroughly enjoy the journey with very few does and don’ts to restrict my movement or social interaction. I could chat with my fellow passengers or not. I could walk around or not. I could take pictures or just read, or not.
The idea of taking a nap never really occurred to me, I was much too interested in the journey and the views outside. It was more a case of carpe diem – seize the day! The choice and space was mine and it was bigger than just a seat. It was a delightful journey and I didn’t want it to end.
(Editor’s Note: Former hotelier Andrew J. Wood, a long-time resident of Thailand, is a director of Worldwide Destinations Asia Co. Ltd. He is also Immediate Past President of Skal International Thailand and a most sought-after lecturer in travel forums.)