Luckily for avid beachgoers, the Fukuoka Weather Bureau has predicted even more hot, sunny weather for August and September – as if it hasn’t been enough of a sizzling summer already. In Kyushu, beachgoing choices range from long, curling waves at Miyazaki to the glorious peace a few hours away by ferry at Iki and the Goto Islands. For busy Fukuokans, one of the easiest ways to enjoy beach-hopping is by train.
A number of excellent beaches are dotted along the 50-km coastal rail route that runs west from Fukuoka to Karatsu, ranging in mood from surf city to old-fashioned seaside. Pack your beach essentials (the less the better) and a picnic, board a city train and, 20 minutes after leaving the subway lines, the suburbs thin out. A sparkling sea looms ahead. On a clear day you can see as far as Iki and Tsushima Island from most points along this coast, and in the evening the beaches are bathed in a soft, golden sunset.
First stop of note is JR Imajuku Station, on Fukuoka’s outskirts. Buses leave regularly for popular Nishinoura Beach, passing the little-known city beach Obaru on the way. Nishinoura is outside Fukuoka’s harbor, and surrounded by luxuriant bamboo and rice fields. A large pair of sacred meoto (“husband and wife” rocks) and a shrine remind you that you really are in Japan, despite all the vans and surfboards. In the evening, surfers and city girls sip drinks at Nishinoura’s groovy Sunset Cafe, site of the vastly popular music festival Sunset Live, a two-day party of sounds coming up Aug. 26-27.
If you can resist skipping Nishinoura’s surfer scene, try a swim at less exotic Obaru Beach, with its glimpses of Fukuoka’s taller buildings in the distance. Although it’s part of Hakata Bay, Obaru has Fukuoka’s cleanest water, according to the Fukuoka City Environment Division, and the laid-back sprawl of beach huts, bamboo and family-run kiosks almost makes you forget you’re still in the city.
Back to our train circuit. After leaving Imajuku, the train chugs west for another 10 minutes to JR Chikuzen Maebaru Station, curving past the distinct green cone of Mount Kaya – the area’s miniature Mount Fuji. Kaya’s peak can be reached in just 40 minutes.
From Chikuzen Maebaru, buses leave roughly every hour for Nigi-no-hama Beach, an immaculate sweep of white sand separated from the main road by a 10-minute walk through windswept trees. Waves roll in all day, making it a paradise for the surfers and windsurfers who come here in droves. There are no showers, shops or other facilities, so if you go, prepare for a full day out – and take your trash home with you.
Still on the train, almost empty after Chikuzen Maebaru, you are now on coastal tracks that follow the wide sweep of Karatsu Bay, passing verdant bamboo, rocky seaside outcrops and quiet rural villages. To the right are the forested hills of Nijo County, where several cool waterfalls and streams splash down at Nijo Keiryu Park. There’s even a hot spring – Mamushi Onsen, its waters said to be an antidote to snakebite.
Skip the somewhat unkempt beaches near Chikuzen Fukae and Dainyu stations and get out at the next stop, Shikaka Station. Shikaka and its surroundings have a wonderful rustic charm. A riot of flowers spills onto the station’s train tracks, and flaking gelato-colored paint covers the old station building. Shikaka is quiet. Only a few wooden homes line the one-minute walk to the beach and hardly a resident is in sight. The beach is clean, has lovely views of Karatsu Bay and is usually empty. The family who run the beach’s sole kiosk never seem too busy to chat, or to mind storing your picnic in the fridge while you swim.
About 2 km back towards Fukuoka along coastal road Route 202 is the Nijo parking area, with its own pristine white beach, Anego-no-hama, a 20-minute walk from Shikaka Station. This is one of only 24 beaches in Japan with nakizuna (“squeaking sand”) – sand so fine and clean it makes a faint squeaking sound when you walk on it. Although it is located immediately on Route 202 and fitted with brand-new shower and toilet facilities, few people other than local families seem to bother coming here. A peaceful day is guaranteed.
From JR Shikaka it’s seven minutes by train to JR Niji-no-Matsubara Station, a 10-minute walk from Niji-no-Matsubara Beach. Niji-no-Matsubara is not as pristine as the above beaches, as it’s set back in Karatsu Bay, but it offers a generous choice of camp sites, parks and restaurants. The 2-km-long stretch is hedged from the main road by giant, gnarled pine trees – some as many as 400 years old. The trees are stunning, easily a match for those at some of Japan’s most renowned gardens.
After a leisurely day’s bathing, the train is a carefree way to go home, and a safe one if you’ve had one chilled beer too many. As it winds slowly along the seaside tracks, the setting sun casts pink rays into the carriage and just after sunset, the twinkling lights of squid trawlers grow brighter on the horizon as night sets in outside.
Remember, after the Bon holiday period jellyfish really do drift into most beaches with the changing currents of late summer, so get your fill of swimming soon. Sometimes, it’s those one-day getaways that make for the best relaxation.