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.
With the possible exception of Miyazaki residents, Japanese are in near-unanimous agreement that Kagoshima’s shōchū is the best in the land, and there are more than 800 local varieties available. These are usually made from sweet potato rather than rice, which makes for a heavier flavour, and a higher alcohol content – 25 percent, rather than the national norm of 20 percent. As is the case elsewhere, one can have the hooch served straight, with soda, heated, mixed with hot water, or on the rocks. Like wine, each variety has its own specific taste, but lengthy izakaya lists will mean nothing to the average foreign visitor – so here are a few top picks to get you started.
Born in 1827, Saigō Takamori made his name as one of the leading figures in the Meiji Restoration. Though aware of the need for Japan to modernize, he grew increasingly alarmed at the loss of traditional values and eventually left the government to set up a military academy in Kagoshima. He soon became a focus for opposition forces – mainly disaffected samurai but also peasants protesting at punitive taxes. Things came to a head in January 1877 when Saigō led an army of 40,000 against the government stronghold in Kumamoto, in what came to be known as the Satsuma Rebellion. After besieging the castle for nearly two months, the rebels were forced to withdraw before the 60,000-strong Imperial Army. They retreated to Kagoshima where they were gradually pinned down on Shiroyama. On September 24, the imperial forces closed in and Saigō, severely wounded, asked one of his comrades to kill him. His courage, idealism and heroic death earned Saigō enormous popular support – so much so that he was officially pardoned by imperial decree in 1891.
Kagoshima’s most stirring sight, the volcanic cone of Sakurajima (桜島) grumbles away just 4km from the city centre, pouring a column of dense black ash into the air. This is one of the world’s most active volcanoes, and hiking its peak has been prohibited since 1955 – adventurous sorts should know that security cameras have been installed around the mountain. However, Sakurajima remains a great place to head for an onsen: unlike most such facilities around the country, the island’s smouldering cone provides tangible proof of just how its water has been heated.
Major eruptions of Sakurajima have been recorded from the early eighth century until as recently as 1947, though the most violent in living memory was that of 1914, during which enough lava spilled down the southeast slopes to fill the 400m-wide channel that previously separated Sakurajima from the mainland. Volcanic activity varies from year to year: there were just 18 eruptions in 2005, but this increased to an all-time record of more than two thousand eruptions in 2010 – around half-a-dozen every single day. During periods of high activity, the likely direction of the resultant ash forms part of the weather forecasts on TV – it usually heads northeast during colder months, and west (ie towards Kagoshima city centre) in the summer, when you may find yourself crunching granules of dust that were, just a few hours beforehand, several hundred metres below the surface of the earth, and considerably hotter. Sakurajima’s prime viewing point is its eastern coast at night-time – if you’re in luck, you may well see the faraway glow of molten lava.