Favourite Places in Japan: Kagoshima

Continuing with my posts about my favourite places in Japan, I’m writing about Kagoshima (鹿児島). I have been to Kagoshima many times, having first gone there in 1992 when I travelled around much of Japan (including all of the four main islands) on JR Passes. When I first went I didn’t like Kagoshima much, but my view has changed significantly over time so that it’s now one of my favourite places to visit (not sure I would choose to live there though thanks to the typhoons).

Why didn’t I like Kagoshima at first and what caused the change?

The simple answer is learning from a mistake. The first time I went I was wearing contact lenses and wore a white T-shirt. The wind direction during that visit meant that ever-active Sakurajima was dumping ash on the city. Volcanic ash and contact lenses are not a good combination. I could put up with my darkened shoulders on the T-shirt, but the pain of the ash meant that I spent much of the day with tears streaming down my face. It probably wasn’t actually that bad, but it’s how I remember at least some of the day and was the reason why, if anyone asked me if there was somewhere I didn’t like in Japan, I would say that it was Kagoshima (it was an exaggeration, of course, and I said it partly as there was a story to go with it). Learning from this lesson, I have never worn contact lenses again when visiting Kagoshima (in fact I rarely wear contact lenses at all… which helped to contribute to a different problem in Matsuyama, but that is a story for another day).

A view of Sakurajima from the train near Kagoshima

Since that time, I have been back to Kagoshima a few times.

Firstly, I went back for my research about the shinkansen, visiting when the southern section (which opened first) of the Kyushu Shinkansen was being constructed between Shin-Yatsushiro and Kagoshima-Chuo (as the station was renamed). Some of this was discussed in my book Shinkansen.

Kagoshima-Chuo under construction in 2003

I went back to Kagoshima again in 2004, by which time the Kyushu Shinkansen had opened, and again in 2009 – this time in conjunction with my research about the flight JL123 crash. I also visited the area in relation to my research about depopulation, which led to my article ‘The Shinkansen’s Local Impact‘ and also a contribution to ‘Contrasting Experiences of Growth and Decline in Regional Japan‘ in Japan’s Shrinking Regions in the 21st Century: Contemporary Responses to Depopulation and Socioeconomic Decline by P. Matanle and A. Rausch with the Shrinking Regions Research Group (eds.).

My next visit to Kagoshima was in 2013. This was the point when Kagoshima jumped to being one of my favourite places in Japan.

I was in Japan doing a variety of pieces of research – a large portion of which I used for my book Japan: The Basics, for example, but which also led on to my publications relating to ‘contents tourism’, such as ‘Contents Tourism in Plane Sight‘. During my busiest trip to Japan, I travelled on most of the Japanese airlines and also visited their HQs to conduct interviews. Amongst these was a visit to Japan Air Commuter (JAC) after I had taken a flight from Kansai International. After the interview at JAC, I was shown around their maintenance facility. By chance, some pilots were using the JAC flight simulator, which I was not only invited to go into, but I then was asked if I would like to pilot the plane (didn’t take long to answer that) and I then safely landed the plane at Kagoshima (there was a small bounce, but nothing more than you’d get on a Ryan Air flight). The picture of me in the simulator became my profile picture for many years.

After being at JAC, I then went to my hotel. The hotel had a restaurant/izakaya on the ground floor (in fact this seemed to be the main business rather than the hotel itself). When it came to having a drink (the food was an easy choice as I knew that the place specialised in kuro-buta [black hog] food), it was obvious that the place also specialised in shochu (a distilled drink). I’d not tried the drink in many years, but knowing that it was a regional speciality, I thought that I should try it again. I asked for the menu and was presented with the following…

It turned out that they had (from memory) 360 different types. I had no idea where to start. The menu listed the types alphabetically and also by the place where they were brewed. Having spotted that there was one from one of the places I would be going to the next day, I went with that. I was then asked how I wanted it. Since I have my bourbon on the rocks, I decided to do the same out of the options that were offered. Once I had my first sip, I immediately realised how much older I now was as I clearly now liked shochu (I’ll probably be singing enka next). Some of these experiences helped to inspire some of what is written about shochu in my novel FOUR.

Just a small selection of some of the bottles on display

The next day was Saturday and I had a break from interviews (and one of my few days without a flight to catch). I had hired a car and spent the day driving around the southern part of Kagoshima and Kagoshima itself. I started off by revisiting the cave (I had been in 1992) where the ‘last samurai’, Saigo Takamori, hid during his (and the samurais’) final stand. This was the story I was told when I both learnt about it in Japanese history classes as an undergrad and what is written in many books. A cave. To hide from government forces. Well, this picture is, allegedly of the ‘cave’…

Now, admittedly, the city bus stop probably wasn’t there when Saigo was ‘hiding’, but the cave really wasn’t what I was expecting it to be like when I first visited (I wanted to go again to get some better photos). But a sign nearby confirms that this had been his ‘hideout’…

To be fair, there are some more, slightly, more extensive caves just up the hill, next to which there is also a statue of Saigo.

“Segodon” (Saigo’s name in the local dialect)

As I wrote, I then drove around the peninsula, going to the southern-most point of Kyushu, Akime, and Ibusuki. I have already written about Akime and may write about the others another time. The day’s driving ended back at Kagoshima, from where I took the shinkansen (the first time to use the whole Kyushu Shinkansen line since the northern section opened in 2011, the day after the Great East Japan Earthquake) to Fukuoka.

It’s now nearly 9 years since I was last Kagoshima – definitely time to go back.

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