Upon the German’s advice, we rose early and took the bullet train south to the coastal town of Kagoshima. We arrived around 10am and purchased a ‘Welcome Cute’ card, which allowed us to travel on the buses and ferries all day and gave discounted entry to some of the sights. As we left the station we saw plumes of smoke billowing from the volcanic island of Sakurajima. We were also pleased to encounter the warmest temperatures since… England?! You don’t hear that very often!
Our first stop on the bus was Senganen. This is a beautiful landscaped garden and villa, which was first built in 1658 by the Shimazu clan. They were a very powerful family who ruled Satsuma (now Kagoshima prefecture) for around 700 years until the feudal system came to an end in 1868. The garden is famous for making use of the surrounding natural features – the bay and the smoking volcano – as ‘borrowed scenery’. Most Japanese gardens will represent natural features like the ocean, lakes and mountains by miniaturising them in the form of ponds and large stones, or piles of sand. Here at Senganen, there is no need, as there is a very real volcano and the sea right in front of you, and they are incorporated into the design of the garden.
We used our Welcome Cute cards to get a free gift of some sticky orange sweets, and treated ourselves to a purple Mr Whippy style ice cream made from sweet potato, then meandered through the garden, passing by the cat shrine and the cat shrine shop, the small streams and stone bridges. Once we reached the back of the garden, the fun began. We each chose a bamboo walking stick, and started to climb up a path that led up the steep wooded hill. It was like Indiana Jones territory! The fences were made from bamboo canes and the vegetation was a vivid tangle of ancient trees, writhing vines and crops of bamboo. Unseen birds squawked as they flew through the canopy. Once we reached the top, we had a great view of the volcano and across the bay. We didn’t see a soul on our way up or on our way down – people were really missing out, but all the better for us! Back in the main garden, we came upon a stream that is used every year during a poetry festival. Aspiring poets seat themselves along the waters’ edge, and the challenge is to complete their poem before a floating sake cup reaches them. I’d love to see this in action! I wonder how ‘on the spot’ the poems are in reality; I imagine they would need to have a theme that is revealed on the day to prevent cheating.
We then caught the ferry to Sakurajima itself. It is not strictly an island any more – lava from the massive volcanic eruption of 1914 solidified to join the volcano to the mainland at the Osumi peninsula. It is still very much an active volcano and has several small eruptions on an almost daily basis, with the result that dealing with volcanic ash is routine for inhabitants of the island and sometimes Kagoshima itself if the wind carries it that way. The volcano was merrily puffing away, as we bought our lunch, kicked about in the thick layer of ash that smothered the pavement and headed for the second longest footbath in Japan for a soak in the volcanic heat. The footbath was covered over with a roof so that ash doesn’t settle in the water, which was very hot, but great for tired feet once you learnt how to bear it. Living near a volcano has its benefits as well as its inconveniences (and dangers of course).
After lunch and a trip to the visitor centre where we learnt a little more about volcanoes, we caught the bus to the viewing point closest to the crater – which was at a reassuring distance away as you might expect for such an active volcano! After reading about the eruptions in recent history, you certainly looked on it with a greater respect. It has been known to send plumes of ash 2km into the sky, and the islanders and people from Kagoshima have regular evacuation drills.
The origins of the volcano are fascinating. 22,000 years ago, there was an enormous eruption causing a huge magma chamber to collapse, forming the Aira caldera. This is 20km across, and debris from the explosion fell hundreds of miles away, so it must have been colossal. Sakurajima was formed by subsequent eruptions within the caldera, and the modern day volcano is an active vent of the original. It is a composite volcano, made up of three peaks, but only Miname-dake, the southern peak, is active now. Up close, we could see clouds of yellowish brown ash billowing into the sky – it is strange watching how quickly the plumes build up; it really does seem like a giant monster is belching it out. Luckily the wind wasn’t blowing in our direction, so we were spared a dusting in ash, but now and then we caught a sulphurous smell on the breeze. We made our way safely off the island without being engulfed in lava or poisoned by noxious fumes and back to the train station and the Shinkansen.
Once back at Fukuoka Hakata Station, we treated ourselves to an evening at the Christmas market, which was in full swing for Friday night. There was a brilliant American soul singer performing – he had a magnificent voice and really knew how to work the audience, which was no mean feat as he only had a backing track on his i pod to sing to and the Japanese are quite reserved! We were quietly boogying away at the back, when a man came up to us and picked up our bags and coats and said, ‘I am the owner of the market – we can keep your bags behind the bar, please go to the front and dance!’ I of course, was quite happy to do so, but Luke was not so eager! However, he came to the front with me without much persuasion and we had a bit of a dance. The Japanese were very happy to join in singing, but were very shy about dancing, and it wasn’t until quite a bit later in the evening that we had companions. In the interval, the market owner found us again and gave us a cup of mulled wine each, which was great because at £5 a cup it would have broken our budget! There was also a fantastic Japanese duo who played French accordion and guitar music, who were great fun.
The following day, we packed up our things and set off on a journey to Aso, another region of Kyushu renowned for its volcanic activity. The scenery there is stunning and we were looking forward to some hiking.