Scott Nesbitt rides Kyushu's friendly rails to Nagasaki
Excerpted from To Japan With Love: A Travel Guide for the Connoisseur, available from ThingsAsian Press.
"Why do you want to go to Kyushu?" my Japanese friends asked.
Everyone seemed to be pushing me north toward Tokyo or Hokkaido, but neither place held any grip on my imagination. Kyushu, on the other hand, was different. I wanted to experience the famous hot springs, get close to a live volcano, and make the pilgrimage to Nagasaki.
So from Kobe I took the overnight ferry to Beppu, where I hung around for a few days. From there, I traveled to Kumamoto, where I boarded a ferry across Shimabara Bay and landed at Shimabara, the starting point for my journey to Nagasaki on Kyushu's old railway lines. At a weather-beaten Japan Railway station, I watched my train pull in. Its cars were faded white, with a liberal coating of grime just above the wheels. Not quite dilapidated, just old and growing rickety. "Kyushu," I muttered. "The place old JR trains go to die."
The cars came to a groaning stop and I waited for the doors to open with their familiar pneumatic hiss. Nothing happened. Farther down the track, I noticed a man pulling a handle to open his door. When in Rome, I thought, and reached out.
The seats were like that old sofa in your parents' rec room, with the distinctive sponginess that comes from thousands of behinds straining springs beyond their limits. Perfect for the long journey ahead.
An avid rail traveler once told me that every train has a distinct personality. In Japan, the famous Shinkansen (bullet trains) exude a sleek, moneyed power. The intercity trains and subways are plain, prompt, and utilitarian. Both project an impersonality that can make you feel like an outsider. The old trains in Kyushu, on the other hand, are worn and scrappy, but also friendly and personable-a refreshing mix, and one so different from what I'd come to expect.
Sitting in that train was like sitting in a Canadian public school classroom in the middle of winter. Stuffy and overheated. It was so hot that perspiration began to glaze my forehead, and beads of sweat snaked down my back. After a few stops, the train began to fill up. Not quite sushizume, "packed like sushi," but close quarters nonetheless. To my right, I noticed an elderly woman, standing with a cluster of shopping bags in one hand. I caught her eye and said, "Oba-san, seki o yuzurimasho"-"Ma'am, please take my seat."
What struck me was that the woman wasn't surprised that I could speak Japanese. She didn't pretend she couldn't understand me either, or refuse the offer. Instead, she sat down and started talking to me about the weather. We chatted about inconsequential things for awhile, then she got up and thanked me-for the seat or the conversation, I'm still not sure-and got off.
The train remained stationary for several minutes. An open door gave me the twin opportunities of enjoying a cooling breeze and taking a peek at the station. Beyond the barriers, blocking traffic with their flashing lights and annoying klaxon, there was nothing that I associated with a train stop. No ticket machines, no platform, no covered waiting area for passengers. The station house itself was nothing more than a small glassed-in shed at the edge of a beach.
Beyond the station was one of the nicest expanses of shoreline I'd seen in Japan-wide, flat, smooth, and empty. The sea rolled with an understated grace, and every so often, the waves assaulted a small breakwater. The shore hadn't yet been peppered with the monstrosities that the Japanese authorities put into place ostensibly to protect beaches. Here, the division between the beach and the nearby town was the railway itself. It bisected nature and civilization, like a line on a surveyor's map.
A couple of stops later, a group of five high school students boarded the train. My first instinct was to brace myself for the talk pointed in my direction. But it never came. The boys sat down and chatted with one another about their school's upcoming sports day.
In other parts of Japan, I was accustomed to stares, pointing, and shrieks of "gaijin!" Throughout my trip to Kyushu, no one seemed to notice me: no comments or gestures in my direction, and, blessedly, no one sidling up, speaking to me in what they thought was English. I drew no attention whatsoever.
Perhaps it had to do with history. Nagasaki was the first place in Japan to receive Western traders. Or perhaps it was because the residents of Kyushu were naturally more laid back than their stuffy northern cousins. The inhabitants reminded me of people in Atlantic Canada: friendly and easy-going.
On the last leg of the journey, from Isahaya to Nagasaki, I boarded a train of a slightly newer vintage than the one I'd just ridden. The cars were just as hot and stuffy, but there were fewer passengers, and I got a clear view of the landscape. Along the way, a long-unseen sight captured my attention: trees, lots of trees. Occasionally, a light shone through them, but the only other evidence of civilization was the stretch of rail I was on, and the stations along the way.
Reluctantly, I debarked at Nagasaki, and as I walked out of the station, I thought about the journey so far. I'd seen new facets of Japan, and a side of the Japanese people I didn't know existed. Near the station entrance, a clock caught my eye, and I smiled a silly little smile. It was reassuring to know that no matter how old the Japanese trains are, and no matter how run down their stations, there was one constant-they're always on time.
Riding the rails in Kyushu
The Kyushu Railway website provides information about traveling through Kyushu by train, including timetables, route maps, and information on fares and rail passes. For what to do when on Kyushu, the Kyushu Tourism Information website is a good place to start.
To read more essays from To Japan With Love, click here.
Published on 12/21/09