My first visit to Japan, in the early 1980s, was deeply unsettling. As a young backpacker, already familiar with much of southeast Asia, I thought I knew it all. But Tokyo destroyed my confidence. Suddenly I couldn’t speak to anyone or read anything. I couldn’t feel any personal connection with the scurrying herds of workers, heads down in the city streets, navigating an invisible labyrinth of etiquette I didn’t remotely understand. I only managed to feed myself because I was able to point at plastic models of dishes in restaurant windows. It was an alien world in which I was as helpless as a baby.
Since then, the news from Japan has been untemptingly adorned with economic problems, natural disasters and nuclear difficulties, against a perennial background of faster and faster trains. From a distance, those trains, whether jampacked with commuters or the fastest of speeding bullets, have been emblematic of Japan’s headlong rush into what seemed to be a science fiction society.
But now I am on a new train, an articulated, liveried reptile that prowls through the hills and around the bays, truffling for local delicacies and snuffling out hot springs, stopping for breakfast in old stations, and providing a chance for people such as me to get a handle on what is still one of the world’s most impenetrable nations.
It is the first time the Japanese have invested huge amounts of money – more than £20m – in a single train with the deliberate aim of going slowly. The Seven Stars of Kyushu has just 14 suites in its seven carriages, and it has been partly born out of a perceived need to pause in the sidings to take stock, to have a good look at where Japan has come from and where it stands now, not just at where it is going.
It is also aiming to introduce the island of Kyushu itself, a place with limited international recognition. In this the rail company has an ally: Dutch airline KLM has recently started direct flights to Fukuoka, Kyushu’s biggest city, the first direct international flights from Europe.
On paper, Kyushu, Japan’s third largest island, doesn’t sound anything special. Its economic profile, of car parts, semiconductors and agriculture, is fairly typical of the country as a whole but it is also the most southwesterly of Japan’s four main islands, the warmest, most tropically lush, the closest to the Asian mainland, and the one where outside influences have historically been most keenly felt.
Up close, it turns out to be a compelling semi-tropical lozenge of volcanic hills covered in forests of cypress and bamboo, surrounded by a skirt of rice fields and bays filled with fishing boats and seaweed farms. At times, on a train slaloming along shorelines with silky evening water and steep-rising land, it reminds me of a tropical Scotland, with dragonflies instead of midges. Not at all like my first impression of that alien science fiction society, 30 years ago.
Having said that, my first sight of Fukuoka is of the Blade Runner Japan. Among the marching rows of gleaming blocks, streaming with traffic, Hakata station is basically a giant shopping mall with tracks, but there’s a sanctuary in the Seven Stars’ Kinsei lounge, where guests assemble before boarding. Here I almost make my first false step in the Japanese cultural minefield, when I am presented with what looks like a marshmallow in a glass. “Magic,” says one of the train’s smiling hostesses, pouring water over it. It expands instantly into a refreshing towel, an oshibori, and I breathe a sigh of relief that I hadn’t tried to put it in my mouth.
On the train, too, there’s another potential ambush lurking in my en suite. The fully automated toilet, which goes through a discreet limbering up routine at regular intervals to remind me that it is ready to meet my every need, has a panel of buttons covered solely in Japanese script. Some of the illustrations are graphic enough to make me resolve to keep my fingers to myself.
Beyond that, though, the Seven Stars turns out to be a showcase of polished and beeswaxed craftsmanship. Floors are of walnut, walls are rosewood and maple, window coverings are paper screens, sliding glass doors are etched with flowers and birds and kumiko-style latticework. My bathroom has a hand-painted sink and a shower lined with sweet-smelling Japanese cypress. It is all beautifully done.
In the lounge car, beyond a piano and violin duo, the biggest attraction is the giant rear-view floor-to-ceiling window that looks out over the tracks. It becomes like a flickering cinema screen on which the star players are the landscapes of Kyushu, plus a goodly number of waving and smiling fans. Clearly, this is a train that is making the locals feel proud.
The Seven Stars has two main itineraries, lasting two and four days. I am sampling the latter, designed to give guests a taste of all aspects of the island. Thus in Nagasaki, Kyushu’s most internationally known name, we find ourselves up in Glover’s Garden, a carefully crafted hillside park dotted with the colonial bungalows of the first foreigners to settle here after Japan’s many centuries of isolation. Nagasaki reminds me of San Francisco, a cosmopolitan freewheeling place wedged into a steep cleft of land surrounding a deepwater port with clanging shipyards, and it is hard to conceive how anyone would want to target it with a bomb that killed 73,000 in one terrifying flash.
Next day we’re in a completely different world. To reach Aso, Kyushu’s most celebrated active volcano, the train clambers through hill country, ambushing rivers, clattering across iron bridges, scything through rice terraces spiced with hurricane lilies – crimson wildflowers that look like splashes of blood among the yellowing harvest. At Aso station we leave the sanctuary of the train, transferring to a liveried bus to ascend through a wind-whacked landscape to the crater rim, at the centre of one of the world’s largest calderas – 128km in circumference – with a magnificent view of the rice paddies, way, way down below.
Kyushu’s list of volcanoes is considerable, so hot springs are everywhere, even in foot spa form on the station platform in Yufuin, where we stop that afternoon for tea. But the proper savouring of hot pools is not one that should be curtailed by a train’s timetable, and the Seven Stars deals with this by breaking the journey with an overnight stop in a luxury ryokan – a traditional travellers’ inn – in a cleft in the mountains an hour out of Kagoshima, the island’s most southerly city.
Ryokan Gajoen turns out to be a rustic collection of low-beamed cottages, cobbled pathways, rootling chickens and wood smoke, with sweet-smelling tatami floors and my own personal bubbling onsen on the balcony, ready for me to leap into at any point of the day or night. And while the dining room of the Seven Stars makes some compromises to western diets, the Gajoen’s meal, served in a litany of ornamental dishes presented on a mixture of leaf and bamboo, is uncompromisingly Japanese. It would be very hard to identify what I am eating without a Seven Stars interpreter at hand; there are no plastic models to point at here.
For me, this is what the cruise train journey is all about. By progressing through its landscapes, by settling in sidings, by providing a moving medium that is part western, part Japanese, the Seven Stars offers a chance to get to grips with the fabric of Japanese life. Thanks to this train, I am beginning to understand.
Andrew Eames was a guest of Seven Stars of Kyushu (www.cruisetrain-sevenstars.jp/en). The four-day, three-night trip costs from £2,475 per person, including meals and two nights’ accommodation on the train, one at the ryokan.
Demand for places is fierce, particularly from Japanese tourists. The train is fully booked virtually a year ahead but, from April to June 2014, there are two rooms set aside for international applicants on each departure.
For more information about Kyushu, www.visitkyushu.org