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Kagoshima Prefecture : a land of myths and mountains and more

Kagoshima Prefecture, on the southern tip of Kyushu region, has something for everyone. It boasts mountain ranges, numerous beach islands, pristine forests, the second highest number of onsen hot springs in Japan, two UNESCO World Heritage Sites (and another candidate site on the tentative list), and of course, quality washoku Japanese cuisine, some of which are unique to Kagoshima.
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This feature article aims to give you an introduction to Kagoshima’s best spots, food, and an update on the effect (or the lack thereof, to be precise) of the April 2016 earthquake and other natural events. Kagoshima’s symbol, Sakurajima, an active volcano, will be covered in depth as well.

 

Facts and fiction

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From north to south, Kagoshima Prefecture spans over 600 kilometres, and from its balmy beaches to Mt. Miyanoura, the highest peak in Kyushu region, there is an altitude difference of nearly 2000 metres. This means that you can enjoy a mild subtropical to temperate climate depending on where you visit. You may even see cacti and pine trees growing in the same area!

Kagoshima’s history stretches back for millennia. Mt. Takachiho, in the Kirishima mountain range, is steeped in myth and legend. It is said to be where Ninigi-no-Mikoto, grandson of the sun goddess Amanoterasu and great-grandfather of the first Japanese emperor, descended to from heaven. According to some accounts, the heavenly halberd left behind by the god on the summit, which can be seen semi-embedded in the rocks today, is the same spear used by the first male and female gods Izanagi-no-Mikoto and Izanami-no-Mikoto in the creation of the Japanese archipelago.

For more recent accounts of Kagoshima’s history, you can visit Reimeikan Museum and Museum of the Meiji Restoration, both in Kagoshima City. Kagoshima was populated since 30,000 years ago, and notable historical figures include Lord Nariakira Shimadzu (1809-1858), 11th feudal lord of the former Satsuma Domain and pioneer of Japan’s industrial revolution, and Takamori Saigo (1828-1877), widely known as the last samurai who rebelled against the Meiji Government for abolishing the social class of samurai.

 

Getting here

Kagoshima Airport is served by four international routes plying Seoul, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. Extensive domestic flights link mainland Kagoshima with its southern islands as well as to other major cities including Tokyo and Osaka. A free natural footbath located outside the domestic terminal serves as a literal warm welcome and an introduction to what awaits you in this tranquil prefecture. From the airport, a shuttle bus brings you to the center of Kagoshima City in about 40 minutes. You may also take the shinkansen bullet train from Fukuoka, or if you have the luxury of time, a ferry from Osaka or even Tokyo.

 

Major attractions

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Whether you are a nature lover, a history buff, or you are looking for some unique experiences, Kagoshima Prefecture has it all.

 

Kagoshima City

Popular attractions in Kagoshima City include Sengan-en, a Japanese villa and garden built in 1658 by the Shimadzu clan, which incorporates the views of Sakurajima and Kinko Bay in its immaculate landscaping. The Anglo-Satsuma War in 1863 between the United Kingdom and the Satsuma Domain was the catalyst for the close relations between the two regions and the subsequent modernisation of Japan, as Shimadzu retainers were secretly dispatched to Britain to learn their superior technologies. The UNESCO World Heritage “Sites of Japan’s Meiji Industrial Revolution”, reflecting the adaptation of Western innovations, are located within and near Sengan-en.

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Kirishima City

Up north, Kirishima is famous for its hot springs. Onsen facilities dot the area, and most hotels will have onsen. Mineral composition and medical benefits vary with the source of the spring. A fun introduction to onsen would be the huge baths at Kirishima Hotel. It has 14 pools with varying spring waters and settings, from an expansive mixed gender swimming pool or more intimate bathtubs built with different materials such as cypress wood and beech wood.

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Kirishima is also known for having the first national park in Japan. Certified as one of Japan’s Geoparks, its unique geological features of 23 peaks, 15 craters and 10 crater lakes can be appreciated by the numerous nature trails. With varying levels of difficulty and length, there should be something suitable for walkers of all ages and fitness levels. However, be aware that due to volcanic activity at Mt. Shinmoe, the paths to Mt. Shinmoe and Mt. Naka have been closed off since January 2011.

If you are wondering about the best time to visit, a type of rhododendron known as miyamakirishima carpets the slopes in pink from May to June, and if you’re here between October and November, the autumn foliage is equally spectacular. The hike to Mt. Takachiho (1,574m) is one of the best in the prefecture, passing through verdant forest, then opening to slopes with loose volcanic rocks of all shades from pink to black to yellow, leading to a narrow ‘horseback’ ridge on the rim of the crater before the final ascent to the peak.

 

Chiran

Toward the south of the Satsuma Peninsula, you can find Chiran. Here, you can visit the Chiran Peace Museum, built on the site of the former WWII airbase for the special attack units.

Kagoshima Chiran

The museum houses letters, photographs, and memorabilia of the young kamikaze pilots as well as artefacts from the downed planes. Electronic screens provide English translations of their heart-wrenching letters, rumoured to be written obliquely to avoid censorship. Chiran also has a district of preserved samurai residences where one can stroll down roads lined with stone walls and bushes, and observe the Japanese gardens of Takezoe-tei and Saisho-tei, which incorporate Ryukyu elements such as the stone walls that prevent passers-by from seeing into the garden.

 

Ibusuki City

At the southernmost tip lies Ibusuki, another major tourist attraction. Mt. Kaimon can be seen from afar, and its near-perfect conical shape closely resembles Japan’s iconic Mt. Fuji, hence the nickname Satsuma Fuji.

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Despite its unassuming height of 924 metres, the trail to the peak packs a punch. On the circular trek through the forest, one can see that the path has been dug out in certain parts, exposing thick layers of soil that evidence past volcanic activity. Halfway up, the path becomes a clamber up huge boulders, giving sweeping views of the curve of the coastline.

Like Kirishima, Ibusuki is host to numerous hot springs – and Japan’s only hot sand baths in volcanic sand. For the former, Healthy Land Tamatebako Open-Air Onsen is undoubtedly the best of all. The much-feted Japanese-style bath is sited just a stone’s throw away from the ocean, and offers views with glittering blue waters, azure skies, and Mt. Kaimon. On the other hand, the western-style bath offers a clear view of unique rock formations in the area. The Japanese-style open-air bath is open to men on even numbered days and women on odd numbered days.

If you’re going for both the sand baths and the Tamatebako, you might want to get the set ticket to Tamatebako Onsen and nearby Yamakawa hot sand baths, where you get to see the sea and steam-punkesque pipes of the nearby salt fields on your descent towards the warm sand. Be prepared to be slowly roasted in the black sand!

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Active volcano, Sakurajima

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Rearing 1,117m above Kinko Bay, Sakurajima is a majestic stratovolcano that shows a different façade depending on where you are in the prefecture. Good viewing points include Shiroyama Park and the 18th floor observatory in the Prefectural Office Building (open to the public) in Kagoshima City, and just about anywhere along the coast of Kinko Bay.

Sakurajima is one of the most active volcanoes in the world, seeing an average of three eruptions a day. This may sound intimidating, but the explosivity of each eruption is quite low. You may want to carry an umbrella and wear a mask to protect yourself from the falling ash if there has been a greater eruption, but locals take the regular fall of ash in stride and actually use them to fertilise the grass patches on the tram tracks.

 

Things to see and do

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The Visitor Center is an educational starting point on the history of Sakurajima. Its name reveals that it was an island until an eruption in 1914 linked it with the Osumi Peninsula. The Sakurajima Lava Nagisa Park and Footbath, adjacent to the Visitor Center, has a free 100-metre long footbath available daily till sunset. Romantics may want to catch the sun setting over Kagoshima City and watch the city lights blinking on. You could also take a scenic stroll on the Lava Nagisa Promenade with the impressive figure of Sakurajima to one side and the bay on the other.

Yunohira Observatory, at 373 metres above sea level, is the closest you can get to the twin peaks of Sakurajima. Travelling around the island, one can see wide channels for lava flow, and the many evacuation shelters with their entrances pointedly facing away from the peak.

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On the opposite side of the adjoined island is the Kurokami Buried Torii Gate. Torii gates are entrance markers to Shinto shrines, and it is surreal seeing the structure about the height of your knee and encircled by chains, as if the torii itself has become a sacred object. It was originally about 3 metres in height, but became largely buried by the lava flow of the great eruption in 1914. Villagers initially wanted to dig it up, but the village head called for it to be left in its current state to show the ferocity of volcanic eruptions to future generations.

Other, less majestic testaments to Sakurajima’s power are the staggeringly tall piles of bags that attest to the frequent emission of the fine grey ash. Japan is known for its meticulous recycling, but this ‘rubbish’ is unique to Kagoshima. The yellow plastic bags for volcanic debris can be found at rubbish collection points on sidewalks in the areas most affected by Sakurajima’s ash fits.

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Despite the potential dangers of living on an active volcano, about 4,500 people call it home, and the locals make full use of the benefits of volcanic soil. Sakurajima radish is recognised by the Guinness World Records as the largest radish, while the Sakurajima komikan mandarin orange is the world’s smallest. Besides agricultural benefits, pottery studios incorporate volcanic ash and spring water in their handmade creations, and the iron content of the water results in a metallic clink of the dark Sakurajima-yaki pottery. Reservations are needed for making your original pottery creation at places such as Ougaku Tougei and Pottery Murayama.

Other activities that you can do at Sakurajima include harvesting – Sakurajima radishes (from January till February), Sakurajima komikan mandarin oranges (from September till December), loquats (around May), fishing, kayaking, and a tour to dig your own seaside foot bath.

Do stop by the michi-no-eki for local produce, and make sure you try the Sakurajima komikan soft serve ice cream!

 

Access

If you are travelling from Kagoshima City, there is a 24-hour ferry near the City Aquarium. It costs 160 yen and is a mere 15 minutes ride to the volcano. You may drive your car or motorbike onto the ferry, and bicycles are available for rent right outside the ferry terminal on Sakurajima.

 

Earthquakes and other natural events

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Between 14 and 16 April 2016, Kyushu region experienced a series of earthquakes. Damage to buildings and loss of life occurred in the prefectures of Kumamoto and Oita. Tremors could also be felt in Kagoshima, but the effect on structures and infrastructure within Kagoshima Prefecture was minimal, and tourism numbers have rebounded since.

 

Local cuisine

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As one of the major primary producers of the country, Kagoshima Prefecture produces many quality agricultural and marine food products. Satsuma-age, a sweet fried fishcake mixed with various vegetables like burdock and carrot, and sweet potatoes – known as satsuma-imo in Japanese – attest to the provenance of the products. Kagoshima is a major producer of imo-jochu, liquor distilled from sweet potato and rice koji yeast. It can be drunk in a variety of ways: mixed into cocktails, on the rocks, neat, or diluted with water, carbonated water, or hot water. Besides the foods associated with satsuma, Kagoshima produces many foods with black in their names – Kagoshima kurobuta black Berkshire pork, Kagoshima kuroushi black Wagyu beef, kurozu black vinegar, and kokuto “black” sugar. Kurobuta is a fine marbled pork best had in shabu-shabu, by quickly dipping the thin slice of meat in a hot soup and is a must-try when you are in Kagoshima.

The next article is a feature on Amami Oshima Island, a candidate on the list of tentative World Natural Heritage Sites. Stay tuned!

Quek Ying Yan
Author: Quek Ying Yan

(Coordinator for International Relations for Kagoshima Prefectural Government)
My first trip to Japan was in 2003, and I have visited Japan nearly 10 times since then. During my 3 year stint studying in Tokyo, I visited Kagoshima Prefecture for the first time on a homestay programme. The two weeks in laidback Kagoshima opened my eyes to the gorgeous scenery, awesome food, and most importantly, the gregarious, friendly nature of the locals. I have returned to visit my homestay family multiple times, and it must be fate that I am once again reunited with this lovely place under the auspices of the JET Programme. I hope to share with you the beauty of Kagoshima Prefecture, and hopefully, pique your interest enough for you to come and experience the place for yourself!

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