Sponsored by Hitoyoshi city
Everyone knows that Japanese railway services are well developed. The trains are clean, always on time, and the entire network is extremely efficient. It is not surprising that many Japanese are train fans, for example, all Shinkansen (Japanese high-speed trains) have their own name and design, and the train ride is sometimes considered as much a part of the travel experience as the destination. This is undoubtedly the case with the Limited Express Kawasemi Yamasemi, which runs between Kumamoto and Hitoyoshi, in Kumamoto Prefecture. This brand new, retro-style train line offers an unforgettable journey through the beautiful mountains of Kyushu.
A delightful and luxury retro train
Kawasemi Yamasemi is a brand new train that commenced service in March 2017. It feels as if the train came from another era. Consisting of two cars, one green (yamasemi) and one blue (kawasemi), there is no video screen updating the progress along the train route, but rather a good old-fashioned panel that is changed manually. The theme of nature is at the center of the decor and you can find silhouettes of regional birds on the train exterior.
After entering the train, you’ll be amazed by Kawasemi Yamasemi design. Wooden chairs that sit facing the windows, next to a small bar and a lightly insulated couch corner; all in a bright and Art Deco-inspired interior. I had a hard time believing that I was on the train that would take me to the small town of Hitoyoshi.
The construction of this train was hoped to be a symbol of the reconstruction of the Kumamoto Prefecture, devastated by violent earthquakes in 2016. Signs of the disaster are still present in the region and the recovery is ongoing. The region’s materials such as cypress or Japanese cedar woods have been favored in the design and regional products are honored inside the train.
The attention to detail is quite remarkable and the decorations sublime. Time passes quickly on this train, as you’ll be enamored with its luxurious ambiance.
There are different types of seats and seats are arranged two by two in a conventional manner. Well-padded seats offer all the comfort you would want in the warm and comforting Kawasemi Yamasemi.
There are also face-to-face sofas and isolated seats, like wooden chairs that face out the train windows. The wooden chairs are actually fixed to the floor, and while they may seem less comfortable than other options at first glance, but they are an ideal choice if you’re looking for a view of Kumamoto’s passing natural scenery.
A Journey Along the Kuma River on Kawasemi Yamasemi
This is one of the most important features of a trip aboard the Kawasemi Yamasemi. The train runs along the Kuma River which runs through the mountains of Kumamoto Prefecture. Far from the endless urban areas that are common in Japan, it’s a delightful one-and-a-half-hour dive into the heart of nature.
When the train enters this part of the journey you’ll the full meaning of the train’s name, with the view of lush green mountains and the sere Kuma river. The retro look of Kawasemi Yamasemi compliments these natural landscapes. It’s a journey back to a simpler time. There are fewer concrete buildings and bridges, the river continues its rambling route, and as the train journeys through a series of mountains pass the landscape is constantly evolving. There are very few houses and it takes little imagination to be transported back to the 1930s on this adventure.
The region is known for the quality of its water. A typhoon passed the day before my trip, so the water was still turbid but when the weather is nice the water of the Kuma River is known to take on beautiful emerald green colors.
And to perfect this immersion, it is possible to taste a bento (lunchbox) composed of local specialties. Multitudes of small bites sample the diverse flavors of Kumamoto Prefecture’s cuisine. Just as beautiful to see as to eat, the bento is served with a small and rich serving of miso soup.
This is not the only thing you can buy on the train. Drinks, alcohol or non-alcohol, are available at the bar, as well as some snacks and ice cream. The train shop specializes in regional products, including Kumamoto’s famous rice alcohol (sake and shochu) breweries.
It is possible to leave your trip with souvenirs such as keychains, T-shirts, and pens. From the most basic to the most luxurious gifts, the shop is full of such diverse memorabilia and it shows the love of Japanese for trains. We must keep it mind when taking on the Kawasemi Yamasemi that there is opportunity to bring back an original souvenir from your trip.
A train accessible with the JR Pass
The Kawasemi Yamasemi is part of the JR network, so it is possible to take the train with the JR Rail Pass. There are two possibilities: the national JR Rail Pass that you will have to buy before your arrival in Japan, or the JR Kyushu Rail Pass. There are two regional passes to board the Kawasemi Yamasemi, the JR All Kyushu Area Pass and the JR Southern Kyushu Area Pass. The first costs 15,000 yen for three consecutive days and the second costs 7,000 yen for three consecutive days. The pass allows you to board all JR trains from Kyushu Island (for the All Kyushu Area Pass) or the southern half of the island (Southern Kyushu Area Pass) for an unlimited three days. Unlike the national JR pass, it is possible to buy these passes directly online. You will find all the necessary information on this site. Note that it will still be necessary to reserve a seat before boarding, which will not cost you anything if you show your ticket at the ticket office.
Without a pass, a trip between Kumamoto and Hitoyoshi with the Kawasemi Yamasemi costs 3,270 yen.
This is not the only train worthy of interest on the Kumamoto and Hitoyoshi line. The SL Hitoyoshi is an equally retro and striking train, which is a real steam engine train that is straight from olden times. SL Hitoyoshi’s journeys are less regular so it is better to check the schedule in advance, as the train does not run every day. But it is also possible to board the SL Hitoyoshi with one of the passes mentioned above.