Adventure & Experience

Marumaru no Hanashi: Yamaguchi Prefecture’s Breathtaking Train Ride Along the Sea of Japan Coast

Marumaru no Hanashi: Yamaguchi Prefecture’s Breathtaking Train Ride Along the Sea of Japan Coast

There is no place quite like Japan when it comes to the excitement for trains.
Throughout the country you can find an endless amount of high speed, local,
scenic, luxury, and all aroundbeautiful trains to take you through all the
gorgeous mountains, seascapes, cities, and farmlands the country has to
offer. Riding the train, whether it’s to the office or for an adventure
into the countryside, will always be one of my favorite activities.
It’s so easy to simply gaze out the window and forget all my troubles,
especially on scenic trains. I was especially looking forward to visiting
Yamaguchi Prefecture for a scenic train that runs along the beautiful coast of
the Sea of Japan.

Yamaguchi: Stunning Beaches, Delectable Seafood, and Rich Culture

Copy: Setouchi DMO

Yamaguchi is the westernmost prefecture on Japan’s main island of Honshu. Being home to many coastal cities, it is renowned for its fresh and mouth-watering seafood, with one of the most famous dishes being “fugu” or pufferfish of which Yamaguchi Prefecture handles the largest volume in the country. Yamaguchi Prefecture is not as crowded with tourists as destinations such as Tokyo and Kyoto, which makes it a hub for hidden gems like Motonosumi, a shrine leading down the sea, and various other historical and nature spots.

I began my day in the city of Shimonoseki, situated on the western coast of Yamaguchi Prefecture. Though it was a gloomy morning, nothing could deter my excitement for the train ride I was about to take along the coastline. I had woken up quite early that morning and started my long journey from Kyoto, where I live, to Yamaguchi Prefecture. After riding the shinkansen and a local train, I arrived in Shimonoseki and suddenly felt rejuvenated as reality set in while I waited in line to purchase my ticket for the “Marumaru no Hanashi.”

Marumaru no Hanashi: A Scenic Train That Holds Significant Meaning

The Marumaru no Hanashi is a sightseeing train that runs on the San’in Line along the westernmost coast of Honshu, Japan’s main island, that began operation in August 2017. The train runs from Higashi Hagi Station to Shin-Shimonoseki Station, passing through the cities of Hagi, Nagato, and Shimonoseki. Taking a bit from each city’s name, Hagi (Ha), Nagato (Na), and Shimonoseki (Shi), the name (HA・NA・SHI) came about. In Japanese, “hanashi” can also mean story or tale, which perfectly represents this train that tells the story of each city and of the valorous people who brought Japan and the Western world together.

The Train’s Design: Stories Told Through Immaculate Details

The cities of Hagi, Nagato, and Shimonoseki all have a history of bringing Japan and the West together. Hagi, for example, is also known as the birthplace of the Meiji Restoration and of many great figures who played an active role in the Meiji Restoration, which, in short, was a political revolution started in the late 1860s which brought about the demise of the military government and was the start of major social, political, and economical reform. Through this movement, Japan became a more modern country.

The Marumaru no Hanashi tells the story of Japan’s modernization through myriad well-crafted details in both the train’s exterior and interior. Car one is green, Car two is red, and the connecting section is a beautiful gradation with a blue background representing "the sea connecting the West and Japan." Also painted on the outside of the two train cars are Hagi City’s “natsumikan” summer tangerine flowers, which bloom alongside the city’s famous citrus fruit, and Shimonoseki’s beloved “hamayu” crinum lily.

Bridging the Gap Between Japan and the West Through Two Train Cars

Each of the two cars has a different theme. Car one has a Japanese-style design. The seats and tables are a calming beige color, and the light green cushions add to the healing atmosphere.

Some of the seats even have straw tatami mats, which you can find on the floors of traditional Japanese homes and teahouses. Make yourself at home, take your shoes off, and enjoy the feeling of the straw mats on your feet.

The train’s second car has a Western theme. Upon entering, I was immediately reminded of a vintage 1920s steam train and I felt as if I had been transported back in time. There were subtle brick details around the windows, soft lighting, and fashionable Western-style leather seats.

I appreciated that each seat and table in both cars were designed with the view in mind, as that is the main appeal of any sightseeing experience. Every seat offered an immaculate view and was strategically facing the side where the sea could be enjoyed.

A Grand Departure: Japanese Hospitality at Its Finest

Stepping onto the train, I was so amazed at the interior design that I almost forgot we would soon be setting out along the coast. I found my seat at a table in the Japanese-style car. There is plenty of space to walk around and enjoy the train itself and the displays within. Next thing I knew, the doors began to close and it was time to begin our journey! I looked out the window and my heart was full as I watched several staff waiting on the platform to see us off waving flags and showing smiles in their eyes. A few other customers and train enthusiasts also waved us goodbye! I felt this was true “omotenashi” Japanese hospitality, where guests are looked after wholeheartedly.

A Train Full of Surprises: Exhibits Dedicated to the Local Traditions and Crafts

Inside the Japanese-style car, there were a few small exhibits to be enjoyed. The first one I noticed was a display of “Hagi-yaki” or Hagi ware, a form of pottery treasured by tea ceremony masters and other ceramic enthusiasts. The city’s level of dedication to exquisitely crafted pottery was the first thing I ever learned about Hagi, so I was pleased to see it represented on the Marumaru no Hanashi.

In the other display cases were famous specialty goods from Shimonoseki and Nagato. Nagato’s display featured wooden toys as the city promotes educational activities about the wood industry.

There was also a lantern shaped like a pufferfish, which is commonly eaten in Shimonoseki, especially in the winter when it's in peak season. This pufferfish lantern was wearing a top hat and it really made me chuckle.

Lunch Time: A Bento Box Full of Carefully-Selected Local Specialities

The train ride between Shin-Shimonoseki and Higashi Hagi is around three hours, so there is plenty of time to relax and eat lunch.

For lunch, I ordered the “Misuzu no Furusato Bento” lunch box, named after Misuzu Kaneko, a famous nursery rhyme poet born in Nagato City. Her favorite food was “wakame musubi,” a rice ball wrapped in seaweed. This was included in my bento along with many ingredients commonly eaten in Nagato like “unagizaku” (vinegared cucumber and eel) and “yakitori” grilled chicken skewers.

We were also given a sheet in Japanese to explain what each item was, and where it could be found in the bento. Google translate will be useful in this case if you wish to avoid any of the items inside or need to look up allergy information.

Bento must be reserved at least 3 days before departure. During the outbound trip, passengers can enjoy seasonal lunch boxes that change depending on the time of year and relish sets with snacks or sweets during the return trip.

Superb Viewpoints and Photo Opportunities

Throughout the ride, the train stops at certain viewpoints for passengers to take photos of the sea, mountains, and even shrines that can be seen from the window. After a couple of minutes, the train will begin moving again, and the staff will make an announcement as the train approaches the next viewing spot.

There is also a chance to briefly exit the train at Agawa Station. There is the popular Cafe Agawa right next to the train platform, allowing passengers to buy coffee and snacks before boarding again!

Passengers can buy an exclusive set called “Marumaru no Hanashi Original Set” which includes an assortment of snacks, a drip pack, and a drink (limited time only).

Agawa Station is also a great spot to snap some photos of the train’s exterior, as the bridge over the tracks allows you to see the whole train.

Original Goods Found Only on the Train!

Inside the Western-style car is a small gift shop selling many products exclusive to the Marumaru no Hanashi, like keychains, pencils, and other stationery, alongside "tenugui" hand towels and coasters, which were produced by a local fabric-dyeing company from Hagi called Iwakawa Hataten.

Iwakawa Hatten's products are great souvenirs, as they are hand-dyed by local craftspeople! Many of the towels and other products on the train also featured designs of local specialities like sea bream and Hagi’s “natsumikan” summer tangerine flowers.

A Warm Welcome to Hagi Station

At last the train began pulling into Hagi Station, my destination for the day! Jovial staff were again awaiting our arrival, holding up adorable welcome flags. They were also waving these flags at Shimonoseki, Nagato, and Hagi stations, which made the whole experience feel even more special. These flags are also produced by Hagi’s renowned dyeing factory Iwakawa Hataten, and each of the three cities has their own design! Shimonoseki is green, Nagato is blue, and Hagi is red, each further adorned by the different flowers and fish they are known for.

I had actually been to Hagi a few months prior, and one of the tourist association officials who was waving a flag at the station remembered me! Hagi might still be an area not well known to many foreign tourists, but I felt so honored that they found my previous visit to be as memorable as I did. Hagi is a wonderful city full of history and, of course, pottery!

We arrived in Hagi in the early afternoon, so after getting off the Marumaru no Hanashi, we had plenty of time to enjoy the city! We visited one of Japan’s largest wooden school buildings at Hagi Meirin Gakusha Visitor Center, explored Shokasonjuku Academy which is registered as a “Site of Japan's Meiji Industrial Revolution”, strolled around Hagi Castle Town while taking pictures of the traditional streets, and even tried some local beer. There are a lot of hidden gems in Hagi, so visitors are sure to spend an unforgettable time!

An Unforgettable Experience on the Marumaru no Hanashi

Marumaru no Hanashi celebrated its 5th anniversary in 2022, operating to share the joy of Yamaguchi’s coastal cities with the world. I found the Marumaru no Hanashi to be one of my most memorable train experiences. I was so impressed by the level of detail found in every feature both inside and outside of the train. From the artwork painted on the train itself, to the layout and design of both the Japanese-style car and Western-style car, each city the train passes through was represented exquisitely. I am so happy to be able to share this adventure with you, and I would be honored if I could ride the Marumaru no Hanashi again someday!

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Yamaguchi is surrounded by ocean, mountains and rivers and is characterized by its climate, which is comfortable throughout the year. Its natural scenery, which includes some 1,500 kilometers of coastline, is a cut above. The prefecture has Kintaikyo Bridge, one of the three most famous bridges in Japan, and other tourist attractions, and its fugu (pufferfish) is famous as a winter dish.