The following is a trip report for a journey I took in July 2012
To maximise the final day’s travel on my JR pass, I left the Ryokan Sansui in Hiroshima at just after 6am and caught an early morning tram to Hiroshima station, where I boarded a southbound Shinkansen to Kokura at the northern tip of Kyushu. Unfortunately, I was on a strict schedule, so I did not have a chance to travel on Kitakyushu’s monorail, which I saw as I changed platforms at Kokura station.
My next train was a “White Sonic” to Hakata. I had seen the name on the timetable, but had no idea what to expect as I waited on the platform for the train. I was surprised and delighted by the train that glided into the station. It was a sleek 885 series EMU, resembling a mini-bullet train; streamlined, white and complete with bonnet ornament at the front of the train. I found the Green Car at the front of the train; luxuriously appointed with leather recliners, parquetry floor and individual wooden tables. The best feature of the Green Car is the floor to ceiling window at the front of the car, allowing the Green Class passengers to see into the Driver’s cab and out through the windscreen! The White Sonic lived up to its appearance and was soon speeding along at 130 km/h through towns, clattering over the narrow gauge track and pretending to be like its bigger brother – the Shinkansen. All too soon, the 67km journey came to an end; we had arrived at Hakata station in the city of Fukuoka.
I only had a few hours left before I had to leave for the international ferry terminal, so I quickly stowed my luggage in a locker and went to look for another train to catch. I decided to take a limited express urban service on the Kagoshima line and made my way to the platform. As I waited for my train, I observed a sinister looking black train standing on an another platform. It looked like a villain from a Bond movie wearing sunglasses, and was black with dark tinted windows. This was the White Sonic’s evil twin, the 787 series. A handsome red and black 813 series EMU soon arrived for my limited express service. I decided that the best place to head for would be the junction station of Kurume. I could spend about an hour there before taking the Shinkansen back to Hakata.
After a comfortable journey through pleasant but nondescript countryside, we arrived at Kurume. The station consisted of 2 elevated Shinkansen platforms and 5 ground level conventional platforms. The hot sun beat down on the humid day, and my decision to choose this station was rewarded by a passing parade of 811, 813, 815 & 817 series EMUs, as well as regular Shinkansen services gliding by on the elevated track. I was intrigued, as I had only found 4 of the 5 ground level platforms, so I set of in search of the 5th.
I didn’t have far to walk, and behind a large column I found the short dead end platform 2. Standing at the platform was a 2 car train, made up of old, bright yellow diesel railcars. The railcars each had big black writing proclaiming (in English): “Yellow One Man Diesel Car”, with no air conditioning, opening windows and curtains. The train was very full; standing room only and about to depart. Unfortunately, I didn’t have enough time to go for a ride on this curious little train, but I watched it chug off to wherever it was going.
It was time to head back to Hakata, so I made my way to the elevated Shinkansen platforms. As I waited for my train, clouds were beginning to obscure the sunshine, but the heat and humidity were not fading. My final train journey in Japan was as to be expected, fast, clean, comfortable and exactly on time. By the time I arrived back at Hakata station, torrential rain was pouring down.
Strangely, the Hakata Port International Ferry Terminal is not served by railway or subway; it was the first place in Japan I hadn’t been able to reach by train (except for the ferry at Miyajima). The JR Beetle ferry website had good instructions on how to get there by bus, so I braved the rain and crossed the road outside the station where I waited for the number 88 bus. Buses in Japan do not seem to be as orderly or punctual as trains, and I waited in the rain for about 15 minutes when the timetable said there were “7 to 8 buses per hour”.
The bus lumbered through the streets of Fukuoka, and I anxiously watched out the window for my stop, terrified of missing it and being over-carried into the industrial back blocks of the port city. I needn’t have worried, as the bus pulled up outside a large building, clearly marked in Japanese, English and Korean as the International Terminal of Hakata Port. The majority of the remaining passengers left the bus here, and we walked up the wet footpath to the long, low terminal building.
I was glad I had pre purchased my ticket on the JR Beetle website, as the ferry was fully booked. Check in was quick and painless, and I was directed to a vending machine to pay my port tax and fuel surcharge; a total of about ¥2000 or A$22 (make sure you have enough local cash left for this – they don’t take credit cards). The vending machine issued a receipt, which I presented to the attendant on the gate, along with my boarding pass. My ferry was boarding, and I proceeded through the terminal to the boarding ramp.
I was surprised at how small the ferry was that would be taking me across the Korea Strait. It was of a similar size as the First Fleet class of Sydney Ferries (the older style catamarans introduced in the 1980s), and was bobbing around like a speedboat at the quayside. I went aboard and found my airline style seat in the main cabin. The interior of the ferry was a little cluttered, but comfortable with a bar and souvenir shop at the front of the main cabin on the lower level and TV monitors scattered around the walls.
We departed right on time and slowly made our way out of the busy port. A safety video was played on the monitors, with audio in Japanese, Korean and English. We were told to fasten our seatbelts and shortly after, the ferry revealed its party trick; it lowered the foils at the front and rear, and commenced skimming over the top of the water. The powerful twin gas turbine engines pushing the little hydrofoil up to speeds of 45 knots (83 km/h), the foils holding the boat above the choppy water. The sensation was not of a small boat on open sea, but more like a car with good suspension going down a dirt road with the occasional minor pothole.
The journey from Hakata to Busan took just over 3 hours (despite the 2 hour 55 minutes proclaimed on big signs at the ferry terminal), and we were soon in sight of the South Korean coast. Without fuss, our little ferry arrived at Busan Port International Terminal and we disembarked up the enclosed gangway into customs. After a cursory passport check, I walked out into the warm Busan evening.