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Thursday, February 26, 2015

Lunar New Year: Sakurajima

Sakurajima 桜島

As an admitted Japanophile, last year was a difficult time in that it was the first year since 1988 that I never stepped foot on Japanese soil for any purpose whatsoever - not for travel, not in transit and certainly not to return to a home and a job. Thanks to my better half, however, all is right with the world again early in 2015 as it was her suggestion we visit Japan during the Lunar New Year holiday. Pamela initially wanted to travel to the northernmost island of Hokkaidō 北海道 to experience some snow, but the thought of being surrounded by thousands of Chinese tourists led us instead in the opposite direction, to the city of Kagoshima 鹿児島, on the southern island of Kyūshū 九州. There were still plenty of Mandarin-speaking visitors there, but many of them were from Taiwan, and in any event we were fortunate not to run into any large tour groups. 

We left Shànghăi 上海 last Thursday afternoon, and arrived at Fukuoka Airport 福岡空港 almost at the scheduled time of 5:15. The airport there is one of my favorites, mainly due to the fact it's only two stops on the subway to Hakata Station 博多駅, a claim to convenience that few major urban airports can make. By 7:00 in the evening local time the three of us were seated on the Kyūshū Shinkansen 九州新幹線 for the 138-minute bullet train ride to Kagoshima-Chūō Station 鹿児島中央駅:


Kagoshima's most famous attraction is an impressive one. Not many cities in the world are situated just 4 kilometers from an active volcano. Sakurajima is only a 15-minute ferry ride across Kagoshima Bay, and on Friday morning we took a tram from Kagoshima-Chuo to the port:


As we approached the west coast of Sakurajima, the volcano was smoking away:


A single, 40-kilometer road makes a circuit around the former island, and we rented a car from a small shop across the road from the ferry terminal. First stop was the visitor's center, where there were displays on the volcano, including photographs from a massive eruption in 1914, the lava flows of which connected the soittheastern half of Sakurajima to the mainland, thus ending its status as an island:


In the rear of the center was a long foot bath 足の湯, comfortably warming in the chilly winter air:


Our road tour really began with the drive up to the Yunohira Lookout 湯之平展望台, 373 meters above sea level and providing views of the Kita-dake 北岳 and Naka-dake 中岳 peaks. Smoke could be seen rising from the still-active Minami-dake peak 南岳 in the background:



The view toward Kagoshima city was also pretty impressive on this clear day. Much of the land visible in the photo below was the result of lava flows from the 1914 eruption:


From the lookout, we continued on our circuitous route, enjoying the views out to sea on our left:


Looking to the right, we were greeted by a sight none of us had ever seen in person: a volcano in the throes of an eruption. Knowing that this happens numerous times on a daily basis on Sakurajima was little comfort as the ash cloud seemingly made its way toward us:





The scale of the 1914 eruption is best realized by the sight of this Shintō 神道 shrine gate. This torii 鳥居 once stood three meters high, until it was covered in ash:


Almost as astounding as the ongoing eruptions is the fact that people live at the foot of the volcano. The buried torii lies in front of a school, and we had lunch at a cafe across the road. Afterward, we stopped off at a small store, where Sakurajima's famous giant daikon 大根 radishes were growing in the plot in the back (in contrast the local mandarin oranges, mikan みかん, are tiny, a result of the same rich volcanic soil).



The best place to see Minami-dake in action is the Arimura 有村 Lava Observatory. Below, Amber checks out one of the many shelters located around Sakurajima, a sobering reminder that another major eruption likes the ones in 1914 and 1946 could happen at any time:


And as I was pondering the necessity of the shelters, Minami-dake erupted yet again:



By this point on our journey, our clothes were covered in a light coating of ash and dust:



In the southern part of Sakurajima is the Karasujima 烏島 Observation Point, built over the same 1914 lava flows that engulfed a small island that used to be located 500 meters offshore:


After dropping off the car, it was time for a selfie before getting back on the ferry for the ride back to Kagoshima:



Amber became quite attached to the mikan plush toy that she bought at the visitors center. It would be her constant companion on our trip:


Back in the city, we took a tram to the Tenmonkan shopping arcade 天文館本通アーケード:


Images of local hero Saigō Takamori 西郷隆盛 can be seen all around Kagoshima. Saigo was one of leaders of the Meiji Restoration 明治維新 that ended centuries of feudal rule and started Japan on its drive toward modernization, only to become a tragic hero when he rebelled against the new government after fearing that the reformers were moving ahead too quickly. The Satsuma Rebellion ended in failure and Saigo's death, but his ultimately futile resistance is still admired in modern-day Japan (and served as the inspiration for that ridiculous Tom Cruise vehicle The Last Samurai):


Dinner in Tenmonkan was okonomiyaki お好み焼き, a dish often described as a "Japanese pancake", though it bares little resemblance to what that word conjures up in North America. Mine was a seafood mix garnished with seaweed and bonito fish flakes. Japan is a land of many attractions, and sampling some of the cuisine is (or ought to be) one of the definitive highlights of any visit:


Following dinner, we walked back to the Kagoshima-Chuo Station area. While Pamela retired to our hotel, my daughter and I decided to try out the Ferris Wheel located atop the Amyu Plaza アミュプラザ shopping center next to the station building. Amber elected to ride in the "skeleton" car - the one with the transparent floor and sides. A little unnerving, but a fun way to end the day:





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