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Thursday, February 26, 2015

Lunar New Year: Chiran and Ibusuki

Chiran 知覧

All that driving around on Sakurajima 桜島 the day before must've had an effect on me, because that evening, back at the hotel and before going to bed, I decided that instead of using buses and trains to get around the next day as originally planned, we would rent another vehicle and drive to Chiran and Ibusuki 指宿, our intended day trip destinations. And so it came to pass that following breakfast on Friday morning, we strolled over to a nearby car rental agency, and for just ¥7020 (less than $60) we found ourselves behind the wheel of a Nissan. With an easy-to-program GPS (just enter the phone number of your destination, choose a route and off you go), it was an easy drive out of Kagoshima 鹿児島 and to the small town of Chiran

A Doll Festival 雛祭り display at Chiran tourist information center

Chiran was the site of an airfield that served as a base for the kamikaze 神風 suicide pilots during the last phases of the Second World War. There's now a museum commemorating the young men whose lives were so tragically wasted, but as much as I wanted to visit it, with a nine year-old in tow it probably wouldn't have been the best choice for a family outing:

Instead we took advantage of the fact that Chiran is also home to a cluster of samurai houses 武家屋敷 dating back to the 18th century. The houses are still occupied and thus can't be entered, but seven of them have opened up their gardens for the public to come in and have a look. Most of them consist of plants and rocks designed to conjure up images of Chinese landscape paintings, with the Japanese twist of using nearby hills as "borrowed scenery". All seven are evocative of a time before Japan was forced to open up to the Western world in the mid-19th century:

No. 1 - the garden of Saigō Keiichirō 西郷恵一郎:

No. 2 - the garden of Hirayma Katsumi 平山克己:

No. 3 - the garden of Hirayama Ryōichi 平山亮一:

No. 4 - the garden of Sata Mifune 佐多実舟:

No. 5 - the garden of Sata Tamiko 佐多民子:

No. 6 - the garden of Sata Naotada 佐多直忠:

No. 7 - the garden of Mori Shigemitsu 森重堅:

All that garden appreciation soon worked up an appetite, so the three of us had lunch at a restaurant specializing in soba そば and udon うどん noodle dishes:

On this trip Amber carried a monkey on her back in the form of Calpis Soda カルピスソーダ:

Back in the car and eschewing the coast road, we drove inland, stopping at one point to admire the view looking down on Ibusuki...:

...and the familiar shape of Kaimon-dake 開聞岳, a 922 meter-high mountain that I would've hiked had I been going solo on this trip:

At Pamela's suggestion, we made a brief stop at Lake Ikeda 池田湖, the largest lake in Kyūshū 九州 and home to Japan's own version of the Loch Ness Monster, Issie イッシー. Amber checked out one unconfirmed sighting of the creature:

It was mid-afternoon when we rolled into Ibusuki, a seaside/hot spring resort town that was unsurprisingly quiet on a chilly day in late February. 

Ibusuki is most famous in Japan for sand baths 砂むし. How it works is that you buy a ticket and change into a yukata 浴衣, then walk down to the beach, where attendants bury you up to your neck in hot (over 50°C), black volcanic sand. As we couldn't take pictures, here is what it ideally looks like:

Despite an initial bout of nerves, the experience proved to rather enjoyable. At first it felt like being entombed in concrete, but once I established that I would be able to move my arms and legs, I could lie back and let the warmth sink in. Because of the cold weather and the threat of rain, all the sand bathing took place under cover, with bathers lining up and waiting for a spot to become free:

After the suggested ten minutes were up (though you can lie there for as long as you like), we trooped back into the Saraku 砂楽 bathhouse to wash of the sand, and then relax in the hot spring. All is right with the world when soaking in a Japanese onsen 温泉:

We followed the coast for the return trip to Kagoshima, stopping at one point to admire the view of Sakurajima, still puffing away in the dimming daylight:

I spent the Nineties living in Tōkyō 東京, and it was that intense urban experience that first defined what life in Japan meant for me. In 2004-2005, however, my wife and I lived in Yokkaichi 四日市, a suburban city within commuting distance of Nagoya 名古屋, where most people got around by car and did their shopping at large (by Japanese standards) shopping malls with plenty of parking spaces. In many of my travels throughout Japan in the years since, I've spent time in a number of similar small cities and large towns, and the drive back to Kagoshima was a familiar one, as I recognized many of the shops and restaurants that lined the highway as we approached the city (some of which would be unfamiliar to residents of Tokyo, Ōsaka 大阪 and other major metropolises). 

Back in Kagoshima, we filled up the Nissan at a gas station and returned it to the car rental agency, then walked over to the shopping plaza connected to Kagoshima-Chūō Station 鹿児島中央駅. Dinner was tonkatsu とんかつ, a favorite of Amber's and mine:

At the end of an enjoyable day we returned to our home for the three nights we stayed in Kagoshima, the Hotel Gasthof ホテルガストフ. The triple room could barely contain the three of us and our things, but it was comfortable, and only five minutes' walk from Kagoshima-Chuo Station. Plus the hallways had a funky period ambiance to them:

One of the products for which Kagoshima is noted is sweet potatoes, known in Japan as Satsuma-imo サツマイモ (Satsuma 薩摩藩 being the name of the former feudal domain that included Kagoshima). While on our drive around Sakurajima the day before we purchased two Satsuma-imo products, one a jam (sweet, sticky and delicious) and the other a craft beer 地ビール, the latter serving as a nightcap for this Friday:

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