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History on a resort island. Kagoshima's flower-fragrant warmth belies its hard-fighting past

HAWKS ride the updrafts here on Mt. Sakurajima, the Vesuvius of the Pacific, which smolders across the bay from Japan's gateway city to its subtropical south. Ash and steam spew thousands of feet higher than the 3,600-foot crater, which as often as not is shrouded in mist. The ever-changing veil of low-hanging cumulus clouds, light, and shadow are what give an eerie majesty to this region dotted with hibiscus, bougainvillea, and snapdragons.

Kagoshima is a quiet and ordinary city of about 600,000, known for its history. Western civilization entered here at the end of the Edo period (1603-1868), and now tourism is becoming important. Kagoshima is the largest town on Kyushu Island, one of Japan's four main islands, featured by volcanoes, springs, lakes, and rivers, and surrounded by other islands and coral seas. Eight of Japan's major festivals are held here in the mild climate, averaging 66 degrees F. year-round.

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Flying into Kagoshima from Tokyo, we noted the city's provincial feeling, along with its wide boulevards, numerous parks and museums, and the backdrop of Mt. Sakurajima.

A ferry leaves every 20 minutes for Mt. Sakurajima. The journey should be made if only to witness the millions of tons of cooled lava that looks as though it was steam-shoveled crudely into a monolithic pile. Small roads lace the volcano's three cones, only one of which is active. From the road that winds up to the highest observation point, one gets not only a good look at the island's bizarre moonlike surface, but also a spectacular view of Kyushu Island and Kagoshima. The former is stunning in vegetation and geography, the latter flat and nondescript.

The other most salient feature of the area is a result of Mt. Sakurajima's 1914 eruption, which covered villages at its base with lava and turned what was once an island volcano into a peninsula. Two unique examples of vegetation here are the Sakurajima daikon (a giant radish) and the smallest oranges in the world.

Kagoshima was the embarkation point for the kamikaze suicide missions against Allied warships during World War II. Retaliatory bombing raids leveled the city, most of which has been rebuilt since that time. Nagasaki, the port city destroyed by an atomic bomb at the end of World War II, is located in the northern part of Kyushu Island. The entire history of the area is laid out clearly in the Reimeikan Prefectural Museum.

Kagoshima was the home of the Shimazu clan, which ruled the region for seven centuries, remaining autonomous even through the era of Tokugawa Shoguns. In the 19th century, the Shimazus resisted foreign incursions, with the exception of an attack by the British Navy, which flattened the town. The town served as the last stand of the samurai against the overthrow of their time-honored traditions. In the nearby small town of Chiran, you can view a handful of Samurai houses and gardens, still occupied by descendants of the warriors. And one of the town's primary attractions is the Nanshu Shrine, dedicated to Takamori Saigo, who became a national hero in leading the 1877 rebellion. Some 2,000 of his warriors, many of whom committed suicide with Saigo, are buried here.

Near the museum is the Terukuni Shrine, which honors Nariakira Shimazu, Lord of Satsuma. Returning from Mt. Sakurajima by ferry, we taxied to Iso Gardens, his bayside villa, laid out about 300 years ago. The gardens are a good place to witness the glories of Japanese landscape design - wonderful paths, bridges, gardens, and even a small zoo with peacocks and koala bears. And if you want to know more about seven centuries of Shimazu rule here, you can find displays at the Shoko Shuseikan Museum. It is housed in one of Japan's oldest factories, now a national landmark.

Here you can see a photo of Nariakira Shimazu, taken in 1857, a year before his death. One of his legacies to the area was his program of sending young students to Europe for study, so that upon their return they could introduce Japan to Western civilization. Many of the students became the driving force behind Japan's Meiji restoration, which began the modernization of feudal Japan

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Besides the parks and museums in Kagoshima proper and its proximity to the southern islands and to Mt. Kirishima (the first national park of Japan, with 23 volcanoes), one of the attractions of Kagoshima is its proximity to the hot springs of Ibusuki.

This town boasts many spas and a hot spring resort, and the best show of all is considered to be at Surigahama Beach. We pulled over in our cab, paid about $3, donned special yukata cotton kimonos, and walked out onto a small beach with very hot sand. Popping through the sand was a row of heads wrapped in small towels and protected by miniature beach umbrellas just large enough to shade the heads.

An attendant dug a hole each for me and my wife; we lay down, and the attendant covered us with sand. Pleasant, yes, briefly. But after about eight minutes I felt overheated and had to get out of the sand and into the cooler seaside water.

We finished our stay at Kagoshima with three short visits: to an herb garden of lemon grass, rosemary, and marjoram beneath a stunning volcano; to a large, quite modern kimono factory, with a showroom of silk products that would make your head spin (beginning with ties costing $75); and to a ceramics outlet, where the famed local Satsuma pottery - ivory textured with fine crackled surface and hand-painted designs - were offered for sale.

En route to the small train station that would connect us with Japan's speeding Bullet Train, our guide insisted on showing us the famous Tosenkyo restaurant, surrounded by pools of carp and cascading waterfalls. Here, hundreds of tables encircle gushing Plexiglas whirlpools, where steamed noodles are dumped by waiters and then retrieved by patrons, who spear the whirling noodles with chopsticks. Invented at this restaurant 10 years ago, the whirlpools are now in use at 200 restaurants spread over every island of Japan.

Practical information

You can find out more about sightseeing and accommodations in Kagoshima and the island of Kyushu by writing to the Tourist Information Center of the Japan National Tourist Organization, 1-6-6 Yurakucho, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo (03-502-1461) or the Japan National Tourist Organization, 630 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10111; phone (212) 757-5640.

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