Imagine having an onsen in waters heated by a live volcano. It sounds almost too good to be true, but this is more than possible in KAGOSHIMA (鹿児島), one of Japan’s sunniest and most likeable cities. Kagoshima curls round the west shore of Kagoshima Bay, while on the other side of the water, and just fifteen minutes away by ferry, is the smouldering cone of Sakurajima – one of the world’s most active volcanoes, and home to the aforementioned hot springs. Frequently to be seen billowing an enormous cloud of ash into the southern Kyūshū sky, this is the city’s most obvious and compelling attraction, but Kagoshima contains a few sights of its own which justify a day’s exploration. Foremost of these are its classical garden, Sengan-en, which uses Sakurajima in the ultimate example of borrowed scenery, and several excellent museums of local history and culture.
South of Kagoshima, the great claw of the Satsuma Peninsula extends into the East China Sea. Here lies the town of Ibusuki, whose trademark is a piping-hot, open-air sand bath on Surigahama beach; and Kaimon-dake, whose volcanic cone makes a good hike. Farther north is the town of Chiran, which contains a strip of beautifully preserved samurai houses, each with a diminutive traditional garden. Those staying in Kagoshima can tour both Chiran and Ibusuki in a single day, though if using public transport, bus schedules decree that Chiran must come first.
Originally known as Satsuma, the Kagoshima region was ruled by the powerful Shimazu clan for nearly seven centuries until the Meiji reforms put an end to such fiefdoms in 1871. The area has a long tradition of overseas contact and it was here that Japan’s first Christian missionary, the Spanish-born Jesuit Francis Xavier, arrived in 1549. Welcomed by the Shimazu lords – who were primarily interested in trade and acquiring new technologies – he spent ten months working in Kagoshima, where he found the poorer classes particularly receptive to Christian teachings. After just a few months Xavier declared “it seems to me that we shall never find among heathens another race to equal the Japanese”.
Soon after, Japan was closed to foreigners and remained so for the next two hundred years. As central control crumbled in the mid-nineteenth century, however, the far-sighted Shimazu Nariakira began introducing Western technology, such as spinning machines, the printing press and weapons manufacture, and it was Kagoshima that saw Japan’s first gas light, steamships, electric lights, photographs and Morse code transmission. However, not all relations were cordial. In 1862 an Englishman was decapitated in Yokohama by a Shimazu retainer for crossing the road in front of the daimyō’s procession. When the Shimazu refused to punish the loyal samurai or pay compensation, seven British warships bombarded Kagoshima Bay in 1863. Fortunately there was little loss of life and the Shimazu were so impressed by this show of force that three years later they dispatched nineteen “young pioneers” to study in London – many of these young men went on to assist the new Meiji government in its mission to modernize Japan. Easily Kagoshima’s most famous son, however, is Saigō Takamori.