This is the post about my visit to Kagoshima in southern Japan. I am really pushing out these articles at the breakneck speed of a limping three-legged turtle, considering that I was in Japan in early April and so far have written on barely two places. At this rate I should be done around the time I graduate from college.
Kagoshima is not a super hot travel destination for foreign tourists, but I really loved it. It used to be rather inaccessible as you had to take a slow-ass 7-hour multiple-transfer train ride from Hakata, Fukuoka unless you take a direct domestic flight there, but now it’s a short 1.5-hour ride on the new Kyushu Shinkansen’s Sakura service.
Kagoshima prefecture is rather rural and the popular tourist locations (mostly natural sceneries) are spread quite far apart. You really need a rental car or a cab to access many of them, both of which are terribly expensive.
Fortunately, most of the places of interest (mostly historical sites) are located in Kagoshima City itself between the main Kagoshima-chuo station and the old Kagoshima station. There are multiple bus and tram lines serving all the tourist sites in the city, including the aquarium, the Tenmonkan shopping arcade, the Museum of Meiji Restoration and the ferry terminal to Sakurajima.
Kagoshima is similar to Nagasaki in that they both played incredibly huge roles at certain pivotal points of Japanese history and served as vital gateways to foreign influences, but are today rather small and laid-back cities that are not particularly well-known outside of Japan.
Kagoshima was once part of Satsuma-han, one of the many fiefdoms Japan was divided into before it was properly united. Satsuma-han led the Meiji Restoration in overthrowing the Tokugawa shogunate, restoring power to the emperor and uniting the Japan under a modern (for its time) constitutional monarchy modelled after Prussia, the first of its kind in Asia. As a result of Satsuma’s success, a disproportionate number of the important figures of government in the young Meiji government came from Satsuma, despite its relatively small size and its location far from the capital.
Satsuma-han was also the reason why modern Japan had a close relationship to the United Kingdoms up till WW2. During the reign of Tokugawa, Satsuma had a rather nationalist anti-foreigner streak and its members once assaulted and killed a British nobleman in Kanagawa (Namamugi Incident) for blocking the way of a feudal lord’s path. The British demanded compensation, but the Tokugawa shogunate was powerless to compel Satsuma to do anything. The Brits took things into their own hands and sailed from Yokohama to Kagoshima and bombarded the crap out of Satsuma’s technologically inferior coastal defences. After this large-scale equivalent of a drunken bar brawl (Anglo-Satsuma War), the obvious outcome was that Satsuma and the UK became Best Friends Forever.
After the battle, the UK saw in Satsuma a strong political faction that might grow to overthrow the corrupted and faltering Tokugawa government, while Satsuma realized that foreign barbarians had some good ideas after all, such as the technology to make cannons that could actually hit anything farther away than a fat guy standing in front of the barrel.
This begrudging mutual acknowledge soon blossomed into a beautiful full-blown bromance. In a time when travelling to foreign countries was still forbidden by the Tokugawa shogunate, Satsuma secretly sneaked its people out to study at top universities in the UK, hence giving it a virtual monopoly of Western educated elites ready to run the government after the Meiji Restoration.
Interestingly, the Japanese national anthem “Kimigayo” was composed by a British military band officer who was helping Satsuma-han to train its own military band.
Okay this is turning into more of a history post than a trip report, but really the history is what makes Kagoshima so awesome in my opinion. There’s just something magical about how a bunch of people from a small geographically insignificant corner of Japan left such a great mark on the country’s history. And there are many historical and memorial sites scattered across Kagoshima City related to these figures. In particular, the Museum of Meiji Restoration is definitely worth a visit. It’s a rather small museum but its displays are all very informative. Of course, the English descriptions tend to be rather incomplete and you need to read Japanese to get the full details.
The Kagoshima aquarium was actually rather disappointing. I expected better given the city’s proximity to the sea and its location closer to the tropics, but Osaka’s Kaiyukan is many times better. Still, it’s worth a visit if you are into such things. There’s a regular dolphin show.
Similarly, the Tenmonkan shopping arcade is nothing to write home about. It’s a typical cluster of Japanese shopping arcades whose claim to fame is being situated on the ruins of an old 18th-century observatory, hence its name Tenmonkan (literally “Observatory”). Well, there’s an Animate located there too.
Outside of the city, the only place that is really accessible without a car is Ibusuki, a small coastal onsen town about an hour by train away from Kagoshima-chuo. It feels basically like Hakone but next to the sea instead of mountains. Although you get to try sunamushi onsen, which is basically getting your whole body buried in hot volcanic soil for 15 minutes. It’s like onsen without the water. I tried it and it’s not nearly as exotic an experience as it looks.
And of course, there is Japan’s southernmost JR train station for those who are as dorky as me.
Come to think of it, Kagoshima is the perfect location for an anime. It has the small-town feel, plenty of scenic spots, electric trams, an aquarium and that huge ass volcanic Sakurajima in the background. Wonder why it doesn’t show up more often…