The man approaching platform five almost trips over his own feet as he nears the bottom of the escalator. One moment he is business decorum personified — neatly knotted, tailored grey suit, hair slickly combed. The next, he’s leaping down the stairs two at a time, his face cracking into a grin.
When he reaches track level, he’s swallowed up by a very polite pandemonium. Hakata Station in Fukuoka swirls with excitement. A crowd has formed at the front of the train, everyone jostling for position as they direct their smartphones at the engine’s dark maroon livery. Teenagers take selfies by the gleaming carriage doors. A mother is crouched next to her daughter in her pushchair, trying to explain why this sleek apparition is significant. Six commuters pause to watch the show, flirting with the rare thrill of being late to the office.
Standing in my compartment, gazing back through the window, I’m also enthralled by the spectacle. Mainly because it feels strange to see Japan so agog at the prospect of a rail journey. This, after all, is the nation that took the British concept of the train in all its Victorian clunkiness, and turned it into something from the space age; a country where the shinkansen (bullet train) moves as lithely as an eagle soaring on thermal currents; where the rail network runs with such flawlessness that its brilliance is taken for granted.
And yet here we are, in the heart of downtown Fukuoka — on a cold, bright Saturday morning — and the inhabitants of Japan’s sixth-biggest city are behaving as if an A-list Hollywood star is strutting about for their entertainment.
To say that the Seven Stars in Kyushu service has been a hit since it came into operation in October 2013 would be quite the understatement. It’s become a phenomenon, its fame amplified by novelty in a country where trains have always been about high-speed transit rather than luxury and leisure. Its forays around Kyushu — two- or four-day affairs charting the most southwesterly nugget of the Japanese archipelago — are so popular they’re sold by application and lottery up to half a year in advance. Despite running two departures a week, each carrying up to 30 guests, demand far outstrips supply. It’s not hard to be impressed at the sense of restraint. With the engine and rolling stock — crafted by Japanese industrial designer Eiji Mitooka — having cost ¥3bn (£17m), the temptation to strap on a few extra carriages must have been huge. Instead, there are just seven — one for each of the administrative ‘prefectures’ into which Kyushu is divided.
Striding aboard feels like stepping back into the 1920s. Despite its Far Eastern genesis, the Seven Stars — like kindred spirits the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express or the Belmond Hiram Bingham train to Machu Picchu — clings to the sepia glamour of the interwar years. The decor — in the five sleeping carriages, lounge car and dining car — is a feast of pale wood and art deco glass; a setting that dreams of a summer afternoon on the French Riviera in 1926, gin slings on the veranda, Agatha Christie scribbling in a corner, F Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald giggling tipsily on a chaise longue. The lounge car features a vast rear window offering an extravagant view of the scene outside; my compartment has a writing desk with brass fittings. Only the wash basin, shaped by Sakaida Kakiemon XIV — a ceramicist from the Kakiemon porcelain dynasty — makes any murmur of oriental origins.
This is precisely the selling point: classic European style in a most Japanese of contexts. And Kyushu is certainly that. The second-smallest of the country’s four main islands (larger only than Shikoku) is a realm of rural contours and steep angles. Rice fields dot an agricultural landscape; volcanoes rise from faultline-tortured soil — not least the 5,223ft Mount Aso, whose visibly active bulk sits roughly at Kyushu’s heart. Urban life is left on the fringes — in the west, the pretty, resurgent port Nagasaki, forever tied to the shadow of the atom bomb; elegant Kagoshima, guarded by another giant volcanic firefly, Sakurajima, in the south; Fukuoka, the cosmopolitan capital, in the north.
Exploring Fukuoka before boarding, I find a city where the concept of a swish, Western-style holiday train seems wholly out of kilter. Fukuoka is defiantly Japanese, and a Friday night on its streets leaves me feeling gloriously, head-swimmingly foreign amid an ocean of incomprehensible signage, neon illumination and characters from a dream — flying children and saucer-eyed cats who soar and dance on flashing billboards. In Tenjin, the main shopping district, a mall of unfathomable scope spreads out below ground — the ancient Greek underworld reimagined as a maze of fashion stores. In buzzy Imaizumi, chic sushi bar Fishman deals in delicate pieces of fish, served, for no apparent reason, by a waiter in a sleeveless vest and stars-and-stripes underwear.
Certainly, a magical gap between East and West seems discernible in the reception afforded to the Seven Stars as it glides out of Fukuoka. Here is a dapper ‘European’ wanderer, a guest to be greeted and bid fond farewell — before it disappears to take in an island that’s not overly used to tourists, and is delighted to have visitors. After a southbound hour, we arrive at Tosu just as football fans are gathering to watch the city’s team, Sagan Tosu, in a key match. There’s a further flourish of well-wishing — a man perched statuesque at the platform’s end with a placard that reads (in English): ‘Passengers of the Seven Stars — welcome to Kyushu. Thank you for coming over today — please enjoy a wonderful trip.’
I’m on the abridged, two-day route — but don’t feel deprived. Although the train’s four-day tour embraces more of Kyushu — forging south and east along the lip of the Sea of Hyuga, and on, via the Shinto shrines in Miyazaki and Kirishima, to Kagoshima — the two-day excursion takes in a fair swathe of the island as it flits (initially) west. We make peaceful progress; the gentle waves of the Ariake Sea appearing on the left side of the carriage, Omura Bay shooting a smile through the rear window. The surrounding land sings of fertility — orange groves on the hills, wide-shouldered greenhouses flirting with the sun. The calm is only shattered by the wind-rush roar as the shinkansen from Nagasaki to Fukuoka charges in the other direction, a 160mph blur of white, oblivious to its track colleague’s 62mph stroll; a Formula One race car whooshing past a top-down Aston Martin on a leafy country lane.
Nagasaki comes with a mild sense of deja vu. The line ends here in a full stop of buffers, coffee outlets and the mundanity of a shopping centre, and for a second I’m convinced I’ve pulled into a provincial British terminus — a Brighton, a Penzance, a Great Yarmouth.
It’s soon palpably obvious that I haven’t. Two miles north of the waterfront, Nagasaki wears the scars of America’s second nuclear sledgehammer — although it does so with grace and dignity, in a clutch of museums and memorials arranged around the epicentre of the explosion, which devoured the city in 1945. The Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum recalls that awful 9 August morning in grim detail — black-and-white footage of the mushroom cloud choking the sky; a ceramic vase horribly warped by the firestorm; six glass bottles fused as one by the heat; a clock frozen at the fateful minute: 11:02.
Adjacent, the Nagasaki National Peace Memorial Hall for the Atomic Bomb Victims turns a more hopeful face to the future — an elaborate underground structure of green glass crowned by a reflecting pool, designed as a tribute to the estimated 80,000 people killed in the blast and its aftermath. It’s a serene space where the sound of trickling water brings a soothing ambience to so harrowing a location. The effect is furthered a short walk away by the Peace Park, where rows of statues bear witness to the indiscriminate destruction — notably a 30ft-tall figure by sculptor Seibo Kitamura, a man seated in prayer, eyes shut, one arm lifted to the heavens.
Yet to consider Nagasaki a phantom is to overlook the flourishing city that emerged from the radioactive debris. The 21st century rushes through its arteries in the busy shops of the Hamanomachi Arcade, and in the striking contemporary works, both Japanese and European, set within the transparent walls of the Nagasaki Prefectural Art Museum — a cultural temple on the harbour’s edge forged by the hand of Tokyo architect Kengo Kuma.
Into the firmament
If this is a shard of modern Japan, then the train’s next stop — after we’ve headed north along Omura Bay, then east into Saga Prefecture — drops me into a realm of tradition. Fifty miles from Nagasaki, Arita is the Japan of the 17th century, deeply devoted to porcelain. A turn down an unassuming street reveals the headquarters of Kakiemon — a name that’s sung of exquisite ceramics since 1643. This may be the perfect place for the train to halt. I’m able to glimpse the compound where the ornate wash-basin in my cabin was created, learn about the company’s history in a small museum, and marvel at the craftsmen who labour, faultless of touch, in its workshops.
I return to the train, only to be swept into another time-travel vortex. As dusk descends, it’s the Roaring Twenties again, some enchanted evening on the Côte d’Azur, a jazz pianist conjuring intricate melodies in the lounge car. Dinner seems to be served direct from France, all small parcels of foie gras, slivers of steak, chilled glasses of Sancerre — the fact it’s been prepared by chefs from the Hotel New Nagasaki a footnote to a Gallic gourmet feast. As night falls, there are dessert wines, petits four and cream-swirl coffees.
When I awake in my compartment and open the blinds, Kyushu has asserted its authority. In the dawn gloom, Mount Aso swells up and out. During the night, the train has snaked south and east, battling stark gradients, before depositing us at Aso Station, within the volcano. This leviathan is so colossal that its caldera — 15 miles long by 11 miles wide, with five peaks along the rim — plays host to a town.
My initial reaction (that this is an alarming site for civic construction) is underlined by the sight of one of the five peaks, Mount Naka, blazing ash and fire into the firmament. Of course, it’s all very safe. Aso has long lived in its ‘protector’s’ grip without coming to harm. The only danger is the risk of being hypnotised by its furious beauty.
A bus is ready to take us towards the summit, and we inch closer to the inferno on switchback bends and hairpin turns. Seen from a safe distance — a viewing area outside Aso Volcano Museum — the power of the eruption is clear, the smoke bursting from Naka’s broken mouth tinged red by the flame beneath. I return to the train fully reinforced in the idea that I’ve come to the fiery Far East, and find a Japanese breakfast— bowls of miso soup and noodles, tofu, fresh salmon — laid out in a waiting room next to the platform. This will not be a Mediterranean morning.
It is as if Kyushu has made its point. The Seven Stars continues on its way, to the very east of the island at Oita, before looping back west to Yufuin — a town where magma-cooked steam spurts up from the forested slopes that frame it, casting a shroud over the afternoon. Suddenly, rain breaks through, sending weekend families and Sunday couples scurrying for shelter in the shops that line the main drag. Thanks to its vulcanicity, the town is known for its onsen (thermal baths) but as the downpour strengthens, all thought of sulphuric heat fades, water dripping from eaves and gutters. Then comes a moment to lighten the mood. A proprietor emerges in front of his store, and proceeds to lay out an artful, opportunistic cluster of umbrellas — each open, in a sweep of red, pink and purple. In the absence of any sunlight, it makes for a rainbow.
It’s an image that stays with me because, three hours later, when the train slips back into Fukuoka, it’s repeated on platform five — a phalanx of tautly curved fabric keeping dry the spectators who’ve assembled for the return of the Seven Stars. It seems a fitting end to my journey, ambling out of the gilded carriages and back into reality — the porcelain plates stowed away, the ghosts of 1926 left to their conversations, the city lost in drizzle. And it would be just that, but for my desire to see Kyushu’s exclamation mark. The next morning, I make a leap across the island that seems to take an instant, the shinkansen needing a mere 80 minutes to eat up the 175 miles to the south coast — where Kagoshima waits on its bay.
The city was one of the birthplaces of Japan’s industrial revolution, a forward-thinking enclave that became a crucible of ideas and clanking machines in the mid-19th century.
But on this warm Monday, it’s the scenery that dominates again; Sakurajima tilting its head above the water, impassive, stern — although I’m sure that, as I stare, an ashen puff of breath drifts from its summit. Maybe it is another greeting — or maybe a goodbye. Either way, this southerly outpost of Japan’s archipelago seems determined to remain a mystery to the last moment.
KLM has a direct daily service from several UK airports via Amsterdam Schipol to Fukuoka. British Airways flies to Tokyo (Narita and Haneda) from Heathrow — as does Japan Airlines (Heathrow to Haneda). The Tokyo-Fukuoka shinkansen takes five hours.
Average flight time: 11h.
Kyushu’s railway system is superb. Most towns are on the network, and there are fast shinkansen connections between Fukuoka (Hakata Station), Nagasaki and Kagoshima. A three-day All Kyushu Area Pass (covering all train journeys on the island except the Fukuoka-Kokura shinkansen) costs JPY14,400 (£79); a five-day pass is JPY17,490 (£96). jrkyushu.co.jp
When to go
Kyushu has a similar four-season climate to Britain’s, with the addition of a rainy period in May and June. Summer (July-August) tends to be hot and humid so early spring is a good time with temperatures around 15C the cherry blossom season.
Need to know
Visas: British nationals can visit Japan for up to three months without a visa.
Currency: Japanese yen (¥). £1 = ¥183.
International dial code: 00 81.
Time difference: GMT +12.
Rough Guides Snapshot: Kyushu. (E-book): $2.99 (£2). roughguides.com
How to do it
Seven Stars in Kyushu runs twice a week from Fukuoka (Hakata Station). The two-day journey includes accommodation on the train, from JPY210,000 (£1,175) per person. The four-day version features on-train and hotel accommodation, from JPY480,000 (£2,684). All meals and most drinks are included. Tickets are allocated via lottery but a proportion of places are reserved for the international market. The application window for journeys between October 2015 and March 2016 opened in April. The next window opens in November.
Inside Japan offers a 14-day ‘Kyushu Elements’ group tour, calling at Nagasaki, Kagoshima, Mount Aso and Yakushima Island, from £2,500 per person, excluding flights.
Published in the June 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)