Japan is known for its extensive train network that runs throughout the country. From local trains to the fastest bullet train, each will surely bring you to your destination on time. How about hopping on a sightseeing train down south? Let us take a ride on the SL Hitoyoshi (人吉)!
It was as if time went into slow motion. The announcement, repeated twice on the loudspeaker, resounded in the station. All eyes were on the tracks and soon, a jet black train slowly came into view. The SL Hitoyoshi has arrived.
As its name suggests, the “SL” in SL Hitoyoshi means steam locomotive. The train runs on coal as it takes you along the winding tracks of the Hisatsu Line (肥薩線). The SL Hitoyoshi is one of the trains of the JR Kyushu Railway Company and runs once a day from Kumamoto to Hitoyoshi and back. The ride takes about 156 minutes and stops at the following stations: Kumamoto (熊本), Shin-Yatsushiro (新八代), Yatsushiro (八代), Sakamoto (坂本), Shiroishi (白石), Isshochi (一勝地), Watari (渡), and Hitoyoshi (人吉).
The SL Hitoyoshi is a sightseeing train that allows you to have a glimpse of the Kumamoto countryside. The lush green Kyushu mountains (九州山地) and the Kumagawa River (球磨川) are sights to behold. The Kumagawa River is one of the three fastest rivers in Japan, and boat tours and river rafting are main tourist attractions in the region. Bridge after bridge also comes into view with the mountains in their background creating picturesque scenery you would not want to miss.
All seats in the SL Hitoyoshi are reserved. As a sightseeing train, it is quite popular among local tourists. Tickets have been considered really hard to come by, sometimes requiring reservations weeks ahead of your trip! When planning your trip, consider the season and the SL Hitoyoshi’s timetable which can be viewed on the JR Kyushu website. If you are a JR Pass holder, you can also reserve a ticket for this train.
With luck and careful planning, you already have your SL Hitoyoshi ticket in hand! What is next, you ask? There are many things to do to make your ride on the SL Hitoyoshi a memorable experience. First, let us consider what you can do inside the train.
The SL Hitoyoshi has three passenger cars. The first and last cars have observation decks where you can enjoy panoramic views during your ride. The cabin attendants also have interactive lectures and games to entertain children on board. They are also helpful enough to take your picture with the SL Hitoyoshi signboard marked with the date. Children can even try on cute uniforms with matching hats!
A commemorative ticket in the size of a postcard is given to all passengers once the train leaves the first station. This ticket has an image of the SL Hitoyoshi in front and space for stamps at the back. The stamp can be found near the snack bar inside the second car. Take the chance to walk inside the train while it is in motion! That stamp is waiting for you!
Inside the first car, you will find a small section where SL Hitoyoshi memorabilia are displayed. Some of these, such as the keychains, can be bought inside the train. Framed pictures of the SL Hitoyoshi and its route are also exhibited.
Similar to a bullet train ride, you can eat and drink on board the SL Hitoyoshi. One of the cabin attendants would walk through all the cars and offer some of the items on the menu to the passengers. This citrus soda (pictured above) is a perfect thirst-quencher in the middle of summer. They have a variety of light meals, snacks, and beverages available and most of them are local products of the areas along the train’s route. The menu is also available in English, so feel free to ask this from the snack bar and have more items to choose from!
The SL Hitoyoshi is furnished with classic interiors. The combination of genuine leather and wood make comfortable seats. The wooden tables in between the seats are foldable to give passengers more space when they are not in use.
These are just some of the fun things you can do while inside the SL Hitoyoshi. Now, it is time to stretch those legs as we get off the train. Let us now explore what you can do outside! The challenge is to make the most out of the quick train stops that we have during our ride.
The SL Hitoyoshi momentarily stops and spends a few minutes at each station. Passengers are free to get out of the train until a bell is rung to call them back. Take the opportunity to snap photos of the train then. Or how about the train tracks? Or maybe the station itself? The views are different each time and what better way to keep them in your memory and share them with others than through pictures? So click away! The cabin staff also steps off during these stops and offers to take your picture with the SL Hitoyoshi.
Shiroishi is a 108-year-old wooden railway station. Passengers immediately line up at a small table by the station where you can get an “eki stamp.” “Eki” means “station” in Japanese and an “eki stamp” is unique to each station as it represents the area and its surroundings. What images do you see in these stamps?
Omamori, or Japanese amulets, are usually available at shrines and are meant to give the owner a specific type of luck. At the Isshochi Station, you can get an omamori for certain victory! Each one has a designated number which you can see on the other side of the charm. The SL Hitoyoshi stops here for about ten minutes, a good enough time to get your charm and see the station too. There are also other souvenirs to buy inside the station office.
Surprised to see people along the tracks waving their hands as the SL Hitoyoshi passes by? They call this “tewofu-rail.” Do not be shy and wave back! This happens as the train comes close to the last station and before it leaves the first station.
This may be the last stop but we still have something to do! What awaits you at the Hitoyoshi Station is a delicious lunch! It is none other than the Kurimeshi Bento that is still sold in a traditional hand-carried manner. This bento is a chestnut rice lunch that completes our ride.
The SL Hitoyoshi experience is a celebration of the senses – the sights, sounds, and tastes all distinct to the region and its people. Discover this hidden gem of a ride in the heart of Kyushu! Create unforgettable memories on the SL Hitoyoshi!