The Compass Points of the Japanese Railway Network

Over the past fourteen years of travelling to Japan I have visited all four of the home islands and passed through all but two of the forty-seven prefectures. Yet it is never enough.

I am somebody who likes to travel all the way to the end of the line, to explore as far as I can and see all that can be seen. I also love trains. So I set myself a challenge to travel to the farthest reaches of the Japanese railway network, to visit each of the compass points.

Nishi-Oyama, the southernmost station on Japan’s railway network.

You can read the full account of my travels and view more photos and videos at JRNEWSTour: A trip around the compass points of the Japanese railway network. What follows here is a brief summary of two weeks on the rails.

The journey started with a Friday night alone at the rather uncomfortable Ibis Basic hotel at Sydney Airport. Early the next morning I caught a Jetstar flight up to Cairns Airport and then onwards to Kansai International Airport outside of Osaka. Both flights were fantastic, it was like the old days of flying before the turbulence anxiety took hold.

Jetstar Boeing 787 at Cairns International Airport

Another very early start the next morning, catching the first Hikari Shinkansen of the day from Shin-Osaka to Tokyo. From there it was a quick change to the Hayabusa Shinkansen all the way up to Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto, changing to a train to Sapporo, another train to Asahikawa and the final service of the day to Wakkanai, the most northern station in Japan and terminus of the Soya Line. It was almost midnight when we arrived, eighteen hours after my departure from Shin-Osaka.

My Shinkansen waiting to depart from Shin-Osaka

Arrival at Wakkanai, the most northern station in Japan

Wakkanai is a quiet fishing city in the far north of Hokkaido. Its most famous feature is long semi-arched breakwater that once protected train travellers from the fierce winds experienced by the city. I spent half a day wandering the town, eating seafood and shopping at a local market.

The Wakkanai breakwater

Japanese Coast Guard vessel

The most northern station marker at Wakkanai

From Wakkanai I caught the train back to Asahikawa and then changed to another to the prison city of Abashiri. It was a pleasant ride past forest streams and granite outcrops before darkness fell, followed by a late night meal at a diner in Abashiri.

Scenery off the coast from Wakkanai

On the train to Abashiri

My hotel and a  fake snow covered telephone booth at Abashiri

I woke early for another train ride down south to Kushiro. The route initially followed the coast, then swung inland past Mount Shari and the volcanic Mount Io behind Kawayu Onsen, where the air stank of sulphur. Before arriving at Kushiro we passed the marshes that are the only home of the Japanese crane.

Abashiri in the morning

Down the Senmo Line

Approaching Kawayu Onsen and Mount Io

Kushiro Marshes

Arrival at Kushiro

At Kushiro I changed to the train to Nemuro, the terminus the most easterly line. The actual easternmost station is Higashi Kushiro, the station before the terminus. I spent a couple of hours in Nemuro before returning to Kushiro. Nemuro had the air of a dying town with many abandoned buildings and closed businesses. Despite its reputation for seafood I wandered around for a long time looking for somewhere to eat. Still, it had its own charms and the scenery along the railway is beautiful, with a ride through marshes and forests where sika deer jumped away from the tracks.

Crab shop at Nemuro

Empty streets

Nemuro port

Higashi-Nemuro, the easternmost station

Riding through the marshlands

Towards Akkeshi Bay

Back at Kushiro, I changed to the express train back to Sapporo, another arrival close to midnight. I had just completed a loop around the northern island of Hokkaido. Sadly, many of these lines are threatened with closure at the railway company struggles to pay for their upkeep.

B and Alex were booked to fly up to Osaka from Sydney on the Tuesday. I now had to race down to meet them, retracing my earlier sequence of trains from Sapporo south all the way to Kansai International Airport.

Hayabusa Shinkansen at Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto

Evening light toward Kansai International

While waiting for B and Alex to exit through the arrivals gate I was interviewed for the “Why did you come to Japan?” television show. Then we returned to Shin-Osaka for the night.

With the rest of the family arrived I now took a break from my compass points quest. The next day we rode the Shinkansen to the city of Nagoya. I had to cancel a tour of the Toyota factory and museum as we were just too tired to make the early trip. Instead we took Alex in the Japanese summer heat to Legoland Nagoya where many of the rides were too mild, but the Lego models of Japan were amazing, with working Shinkansens, baseball games and animated monsters.

Legoland entrance


Model Tokyo

The Thursday saw us returning to the area for the SCMaglev and Railway Park train museum. Alex got to drive a Shinkansen simulator and went crazy over the working ticket gates. The museum itself is very educational on the workings of railway.

Some of the trains on display

Driving the Shinkansen

Amazing model railway

Following the railway museum we explored the Toyota Commemorative Museum of Industry and Technology which celebrated both Toyota’s start as a weaving loom and fabric manufacturer and its move into automotive manufacturing. There is a hands-on area, but the real start are the operational looms and robot car manufacturing displays.

Car robots at work

For B’s birthday we caught the scenic train up to the historic mountain town of Takayama to enjoy a meal of their delicious beef, followed by Alex and B playing in the river. I explored the amazing historically recreated scenes of the Museum of the Showa Era, playing a game of original pachinko. We retired for the night to the authentic ryokan, complete with onsen bath.

Scenic ride to Takayama along the river and through the mountains

Hida gyu, the best beef!

Playing in the river

Museum of the Showa Era

The ryokan room

Hida Kokubunji Temple

We only stayed the night in Takayama. Then we caught the train up to Toyama, changing there to the private Chihou Line to Unazuki Onsen up in the Kurobe River gorge. The quiet onsen town was a delight, with hot water gushing up through fountains and footbaths. We took a walk up along the gorge to the gushing spillway of the Unazuki Dam. The Kurobe River hydroelectric system was a massive engineering undertaking. A narrow gauge railway was built to service the dam and today it also provides tourist train rides. Unfortunately, due to recent flooding the Kurobe Gorge Tourist train was only scheduled to run as far as Sasadaira the next day, which is disappointing because it was the reason for visiting the town.

Fortunately, the town is pretty enough to warrant a visit in its own right. Our tatami room in the the Kisen Green Hotel overlooks the Kurobe River and there are both indoor and outdoor onsen baths providing welcome relief from a long day of travel and walking.

Toyama Chihou Railways

Riding the rickety Chihou Railway
Yamabiko bridge

Looking up the river towards the train bridge

Through tunnels

Unazuki Dam

Inside the Kisen Green Hotel

Despite the shortened journey, we caught the Kurobe Gorge Railway the next day and were treated to gorgeous scenery and the sight of monkeys running across a custom built cable bridge over the river. I would love to do the whole length one day.

The Kurobe Gorge Railway with open side carriages

Heading back down to Unazuki Onsen

We caught the Chihou Railway back as far as the Kurobe Unazuki Onsen Shinkansen station, where we discovered the fascinating Kurobe City Tourist Information Gallery, with information about the geology, hydrology and ecology of the region. Then it was a Shinkansen ride to our favourite hotel in Shinjuku, Tokyo.

Yoshinobu Toide’s painting of the Kurobe River

Back in Shinjuku

The Gracery, Godzilla and the Moon over Shinjuku

I farewelled B and Alex the next morning to continue my journey to the compass points alone. From Shinagawa I caught the Tokaido Shinkansen down yet again to Shin-Osaka and then changed to the Sakura Shinkansen under the Kanmon Strait to Fukuoka/Hakata in the southern island of Kyushu. There I changed to the Midori Express for Arita.

The Midori Express at Hakata

At Arita I changed trains to the private Matsuura Line for Imari, where I swapped trains to continue on to Sasebo. The two and half ride was stunning, past rice paddies and views of the coast, through tunnels of green and tiny rural stations. Along the way we stop at Tabira-Hiradoguchi, Japan’s westernmost station, continuing on to the terminus at Sasebo.

On the line to Imari

Passing through green

Tabira-Hiradoguchi, Japan’s westermost station

Ocean inlet

Sasebo is the  JR network’s most westerly station, though private Tabira-Hiradoguchi is further west. No matter, I had passed through both! From Sasebo I backtracked to Hizen-Yamaguchi and then caught a Kamome Express to Shin-Tosu station, before catching my final train of the day, the Kyushu Shinkansen south to Kagoshima-Chuo.

Train at Sasebo

Futuristic interior of the Kamome Express Series 885 train

Arrival at Kagoshima-Chuo

While I was exploring Japan’s south B and Alex were sweating their way through the Heiwa no mori obstacle course in Tokyo and eating sushi.

JR Kyushu has a number of special trains specially fitted out for rail tourists. After riding Kagoshima’s tram network in search of breakfast I was fortunate to be able to book a seat on the Ibusuki no Tamatebako Limited Express. This two car DMU is painted black and white on the outside and decked out with a wooden interior.

A Kagoshima tram

Ibusuki no Tamatebako on the right, next to an express

Tamatebako interior

The Tamatebako ran down along the bay as far as Ibusuki, where, after a dip of my feet in the hot foot bath, I changed to a regular DMU for my ride to Makurazaki.

The Ashi-yu at Ibusuki station

The line to Makurazaki, which had a distinctly tropical feel to it, runs past Nishi-Oyama, the southernmost station on the JR network. I actually passed it twice, as after a brief stop at the Makurazaki terminus I returned to Kagoshima-Chuo aboard the same train.

Nishi-Oyama, the southernmost station

End of the line at Makurazaki

And the other end of the line at Kagoshima Chuo

And so my quest to visit the compass points of the Japanese railway network had come to a conclusion. Now from Kagoshima-Chuo I only had a brief time to change to the Shinkansen back to Osaka to meet B and Alex in that city.

Evening falls across an industrial city as I head back to Osaka

The canal in the Dotombori area of Osaka was festively decorated

Despite have completed the rail tour component of the trip my time with trains wasn’t quite over. The next day Alex insisted we visit the relatively new Kyoto Railway Museum in the hope of another ticket gate experience. Fortunately his desire was rewarded and the museum was different enough from the Nagoya version that the visit was worth it. The Japanese railway museums go beyond static displays and offer hands-on education into the complex workings of the system.

A Type 500 Shinkansen

There were plenty of steam locomotives and a working turntable
A great view from the cafeteria

Afterwards we headed up to the Toei Studio Park, where many Japanese samurai dramas are filmed. As it was late in the day many shows were already over, but we had fun in the maze and laughed at the antics of the Jidaigeki show with its behind the scenes look at some of the effects.

The Amazing Maze

Recreated town
Modern Japanese heroes

We went from Japanese film studios to the Hollywood attractions of Universal Studios Japan on our final day. I’m not into the rides, but despite a couple of terrifying experiences Alex and B tried many of them. The frozen butterbeer at Harry Potter World was appreciated in the tropical heat. I felt like we were back in Universal Studios Singapore!


Goblet of Fire show

Minion Mayhem

Flight of the Hippogryph

After a day of aimless shopping it was time to fly home to Sydney. We returned the way we came aboard a Jetstar Boeing 787 to Cairns followed by an Airbus A320 to Sydney. Boths flights were smooth and comfortable and we were welcomed back to blue skies and cooler weather.

The Nankai Rapi:t Beta train to the airport

Our flight to Cairns
Heading back to Sydney

Two weeks and countless rail journeys later and I had completed by journey around the compass points of the Japanese railway network. It was an exciting, but exhausting trip. I wish that I had the time to explore each of the destinations in more detail, to stop along the way. I guess I have no choice but to return.

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