I woke up in the northern Kyushu city of Kokura to the sight of rain heavily falling outside my hotel window. I didn’t have an umbrella, but thankfully my hotel had them on sale for ¥250 (about A$2.75). It was useful for the walk to the railway station, but unfortunately I left it on the first train I caught. At Kokura railway station, I found that the heavy overnight rain had taken its toll on the station; the domed glass roof in the centre of the concourse was leaking, and part of the station was cordoned off as a small army of workmen in bright orange boiler suits attempted to control the flooding.
My JR system wide pass had expired the previous night, but I had a voucher for 3 day Northern Kyushu pass for the rest of my stay in Japan. To obtain the pass, I had to exchange my voucher at the pass office at a major railway station (such as Kokura), a fairly simple procedure once the pass office is located. I approached the ticket gate attendant at the station, who gestured up a flight of stairs. I found myself in a shopping centre, which had no relevance to the railway station at all, so I made my way back downstairs and asked at the main ticket office. The Booking Clerk directed me downstairs at the north entrance where I found a private travel agency, who didn’t have anything to do with the JR pass. I walked to the southern exit, and found a tourist information booth, who spoke perfect English, but directed me back to the places I had already tried. I told them this and said that they didn’t know, but I should try downstairs. I wandered downstairs, starting to despair and wonder if I would ever find the pass office, I turned a corner and there it was! I walked over, only to find that it didn’t open until 10:00, it was now a little before 09:00.
Never mind, I wanted to go for a ride on the Kokura monorail anyway, so I made my way to the upper level of the station and on to the monorail platform. The Kitakyushu Monorail runs 8.8 km from Kokura station to the suburban JR station of Shiikoen. It is double tracked, with boxy 4 section articulated trains running at up to 65 km/h. I boarded the next train, which was painted in a Manga livery and we made our way along the elevated track into the commercial heart of Kitakyushu. Due to the rain, the windows inside had fogged up and few passengers were aboard the train. The bulkhead wall between the saloon and the Driver is partially glass, so I was able to watch out the front as we made our way through the wet morning. After catching the monorail about halfway along its route, I made my way back to Kokura and finally exchanged my rail pass.
My destination for the day was Huis Ten Bosch, not because I knew what was there, but for no better reason than I thought it had a cool name. To catch a train there, I first had to go to Hakata, but my Northern Kyushu Pass did not cover the Shinkansen between Kokura and Hakata. That didn’t matter as I had a more interesting train to catch; the Limited Express Sonic!
The Limited Express Sonic is a mini bullet train that runs between Oita in the north east of Kyusu and Hakata in the north west via Kokura. They are operated by 883 Series EMU (Blue Sonic) and 885 Series EMU (White Sonic), and run at up to 130 km/h. They have polished wood floor, leather seats and classy looking wood panelled vestibule areas. Limited Express Sonic services stop at few stops between Kokura and Hakata, but at around 45 minutes, they take three times as long as the non-stop Shinkansen services.
On reaching Kokura, I found my next train. it was 2 783 series EMU sets coupled together; half was a Midori Express (no, not the drink) and the other half a Huis Ten Bosch Express. I climbed aboard, and found the non-reserved car almost empty. A quick walk showed the whole train to be very lightly loaded and I started to wonder if my journey had been a wise one. For a few days, I had seen vague warnings of Typhoon Phongvong hitting the south of Japan (specifically Okinawa and Kyushu). Suddenly, the heavy rain and damage to Kokura station made sense and as we slid out of Hakata station, I wondered if the worst was yet to come.
We made our way through deserted towns, and past rice fields flattened by the already strong winds. The sky was steel grey and the clouds were moving almost as fast as the train. By the time we arrived in Haiki, there were only a handful of passengers left on the train and JR staff yelled at each other through the wind (which was now gusting at up to 200 km/h) as the Midori and Huis Ten Bosch sets were split.
After departing Haiki, we travelled for another 5 minutes before arriving at Huis Ten Bosch. I had no idea what Huis Ten Bosch was before I arrived, and found myself in the almost surreal situation of looking at a European Castle from the window of a Japanese train against an almost black sky. Huis Ten Bosch is a theme park, recreating life sized buildings from the Netherlands on the west coast of Kyushu. The typhoon had turned a normally calm inlet beside the station into a foamy, churning ocean with 2 metre swell.
I left the train and exited the station into the forecourt of the park. The normally busy area was all but deserted; littered with bicycles blown from their parking places. I struggled back onto the platform, and decided to catch the train straight back to Hakata. I boarded the train and waited in the relative comfort and safety of the carriage, again the train only had a handful of passengers. Departure time came and went and 20 minutes later, we were still sitting at the platform – this was most un-Japanese and quite concerning! Finally, 25 minutes after departure time, a combination 66/67 Series DMU arrived on the opposite platform on a Seaside Liner service to Nagasaki. The train stood at the platform for about 5 minutes; the Guard and station staff deep in conversation, yelling to be heard over the wind and rain. The Seaside Liner finally moved on, and my train departed.
We crawled through the countryside, travelling at no more than 25 km/h. At Haiki, we coupled to another Midori Express and resumed our sedate pace. I did a quick calculation and worked out that at this pace, it would take us 5 hours to get back to Hakata! We crept along through the raging wind, pausing at stations where no one boarded or alighted. Finally, we reached an elevated section of track and resumed normal running. By now it was dark and after a 3½ hour journey (that should have taken under 2 hours), we arrived back into Hakata. Although it was still raining, the wind had stopped, and the evening was eerily still; Typhoon Phongvong had passed. I caught a White Sonic service back to Kokura and waked back to my hotel in light drizzle.