Being an avid fan of belching, erupting active volcanoes, the Kyushu volcano of Sakurajima has been on my to-visit list for a while. Being Japan’s most active and one of the world’s most active, I just have to see it. On my recent trip to Japan, I soon found myself making my way from Tokyo, via Kyoto, then all the way to Kagoshima, the city at the western end of Japan’s main islands, right in the shadow of Sakurajima itself.
Overnighting in Kyoto, one of my favourite cities (yes, I do like some cities), Kyoto Tower is an eye candy. At 131m tall, it was built for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics right opposite the main train station, but courts controversy for being a modern structure in a venerable ancient capital of Japan. Just can’t please everybody.
Our journey to Kagoshima starts at Shin-Osaka Station, just a short hop from Kyoto — catching the morning shinkansen aka ‘bullet train’ for the long journey ahead. This station is especially busy since all shinkansen services between Tokyo and the western part of Japan must either pass through or begin/terminate here. By the way, Tokyo to Kyoto is about 520km and the fastest shinkansen (Nozomi) can make this trip in just 2 hours 15 minutes!
All very warm and comfortable inside this car of the Sakura service to Kagoshima. It’s part of an 8-car N700 train-set, which can cruise at a maximum speed of 300km/h. Of course it can go faster during trials.
The seat has a very generous leg-room, so even if the front seat is fully reclined, you would not notice it. The whole car is so comfortable, you’d hardly realise that the train is cruising at 300km/h, depending on the rail stretch.
Travelling through lunchtime entails planning for a meal, and bento sets are very popular with the locals — so I got myself a very good-looking one at Kyoto Station. I just can’t believe my lunch is so nicely packed, it simply looks too good to eat. For good measure, I also brought an onigiri, or compact rice ball, which is very filling on its own.
Bento unpacked and I have 5 pieces of sushi — this is the ‘persimmon leaf sushi’, a local delicacy only found in Nara, a city just 45min by train south of Kyoto. Nara is more ancient than Kyoto, and was the first permanent capital of Japan, established in 710, so this leaf sushi is a very old tradition.
The persimmon leaf gives a slightly ‘mature’ taste to the rice, and is said to act as preservative too, making the sushi last longer on hot summer days when there was no fridge. I also taste a hint of vinegar in the sushi, but the 5 pieces are really good. Note: do not eat the persimmon leaf.
Two and the half hours after leaving Shin-Osaka, the shinkansen crosses the very narrow Kanmon Strait, separating the islands of Honshu and Kyushu, and soon the landscape is filled with agricultural lands (especially ricefields), rivers, forests and mountains. The northern bit of Kyushu (Kitakyushu – Fukuoka) seems to be heavily industrialised but the rest of it, such as this area in Kumamoto, is virtually rustic, green and mountainous.
There’s also a shinkansen depot just south of Kumamoto city. These three look like the new Series 800 train-sets, with 6 cars each, exclusively used in Kyushu.
Almost 5 hours (and about 950km) after leaving Kyoto, including brief layover at Shin-Osaka to change trains, our Sakura service pulls into Kagoshimachuo station. This is the terminus of the Kyushu shinkansen line. We exit the station and stroll over to check in at our hotel right opposite it.
A usual, the yukatas are provided, plus a nice touch — origamis of the rare Japanese Cranes — we saw them in Kushiro in eastern Hokkaido a few years back: http://m.naim.my/the-japanese-dancing-cranes-of-kushiro/
First thing’s first – get to know the hi-tech toilet. Every time I come to Japan, I have to re-educate myself on this very important subject. This one is particularly interesting — it has a remote control. I mean you have to be at the toilet to use it, so I’m not sure why the remote. Anyway I found out I could control the warmth of the toilet seat, remotely of course. 😀
Time to explore a new surrounding, this famous city at the western end of Japan, with an ever-erupting dangerous strato-volcano next door, and a modern spaceport to boot (located 60km to the southeast, the place where Japan launches their satellites into space). I’m amazed that even this far away from Tokyo (1500km away), they still have a place as modern as Tokyo itself. I’d say the same for Sapporo on Hokkaido, at the other tip of Japan.
Wide grid-like streets are designed for vehicles and pedestrians alike, and everything in between. Of course guide tracks for the visually-challenged too.
It seems the city prides itself as a cultural centre. Statues of famous local personalities are erected throughout downtown. Kagoshima has been around for many centuries, and now has a population of 600,000 people. It is said the Japanese industrial revolution started here, when a bunch of local students broke the 17th century seclusion law to visit England and US, and to return with new ideas.
The city is well-served with public transportation and I’m impressed with this old tram still doing the rounds.
In some parts of the city, they laid turf along the tracks, which I think is very cool. I’ve seen something similar in Prague recently.
As usual, the Japanese are synonymous with cuteness, even with a pig on a tram, winking some more.
As we stroll towards the bay, there’s a rather hip commercial area, full of shops and cafes and eateries.
On the ground between the complex and the road, there’s running hot spring water where you can dip your tired legs in — blissful in the cold winter weather. This area is highly volcanic so hot springs are the norm.
Across the bay, the imposing active strato-volcano Sakurajima overlooks the city. It’s well-behaved today, I’ve been hoping it’d do the normal spectacular eruptions, so I’m a tad disappointed. This volcano used to be an island, but a massive eruption a hundred years ago caused the lava to flow down the other side and to join up with the mainland, thus making Sakurajima a peninsula. The bay is a natural harbour and in 1549, St Francis Xavier arrived here from Malacca, as the first Christian preacher.
They say Kagoshima is the Naples of Japan – dangerous active volcano across the bay, sunny weather, similar temperament of the people. It was the home of the near-mythical Last Samurai – Saigo Takamori – and still has the oldest Catholic community in the country. In short, Kagoshima is a very delightful place, unless you are scared of volcanoes and earthquakes.
Anyway after much walkabout in the city, we retire to our hotel, but not before I grab another good-looking bento. It is quite a wholesome dinner with a myriad of tastes! Good night.
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