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KYUSHU
Bed and bath under the volcano




Sakura-jima and Kagoshima at sunset
Photos by Simon Rowe

Lying in the shadow of the simmering Sakura-jima volcano, Kyushu' Kagoshima City nonetheless exudes a relaxed, bucolic charm. Simon Rowe stopped in for a few drinks with the locals.

A broken red lantern swings on its hook outside Densuke, a small seaside pub on Shiokaze Street in Kagoshima City. Shiokaze means "sea breeze," and here on the sultry southern coast of Kyushu, its namesake salty winds are never in short supply. Behind the lantern, a small, albeit rowdy, pocket of "local Kagoshima" awaits visitors. Gnarly-fingered fishermen, dockworkers, cargo-haulers and red-eyed college students cluster and drink around long sunken tables, perched on cushions under a heavy haze of tobacco smoke.

Kanpai
Over the lively banter, sake bottles teeter on wall racks in their dozens, each bearing the number and kanji characters of a regular customer. Those who buy a bottle and leave it unfinished can subscribe to the pub's "bottle-keep" system, which allows them to empty their dregs on the next visit.

Densuke is indeed a place where you can sip sake for hours while ogling the chef tossing his wok-fried yakisoba into the air, amidst greasy fireballs and the roar of gas burners. Densuke's menu offers hearty local fare including grilled sparrow, sashimi (horse, fish and chicken), grilled baby clams, as well as sumptuous moriawase (assorted) sashimi sets (JY1000) that arrive on beds of seaweed with crisp white radish and freshly-grated wasabi. To boot, large bottles of Kirin lager will set you back JY400.

Middle-aged and sporting a Ho Chi Minh-style goatee, Shinichi Nakazono is a big fan of Kagoshima cuisine. He is also the quintessential Kagoshima innkeeper and encourages his foreign guests to visit Densuke to experience "working class Japan." Nakazono's ryokkan sits tucked in an alley behind the Fudankoin Jodo Buddhist temple, off Kagoshima's main street and less than two minutes walk from Densuke.

Peace and calm pervade his old two-storied wooden inn. Its hallways are low-beamed, the floorboards creak and groan underfoot, but the rooms are comfortable and the JY4000 for a single make it an affordable option. Green tea with a hot water urn, a starched and pressed cotton yukata (informal summer kimono), and a thick fluffy futon laid out over time-worn tatami mats provide the necessary comforts for his guests.

Boil-over
"Kagoshima is the Naples of the Orient," Nakazono tells me one evening over beer and Kagoshima-ken tonkotsu, a local specialty of pork simmered in a rich paste of soy sauce and brown sugar and typically served with stewed vegetables. The city's year-round balmy weather, deepwater harbor, and smoking Sakura-jima volcano, he explains, closely resemble the Italian city and its neighboring Vesuvius. "There's even a street called Napoli Dori here!" he boasts.

Casting an ominous shadow over Kagoshima city, Sakura-jima constantly broods under a pall of purplish smoke. The volcano is one of Japan's oldest, and its track record for violent outbursts is notorious. Nakazono, who remembers it erupting more than 30 times, remembers once when falling ash became so heavy that locals had to carry umbrellas to shield themselves. Regular seismic grumbles remind visitors taking the 15-minute ferry ride from Kagoshima to the volcano's coastal hot baths that they are in the presence of a sleeping giant.

Monuments to the city's founding fathers abound

Spring fever
A minute walk from Ryokkan Nakazono is the Kagoma Onsen, one of dozens of traditional bathhouses scattered about the city. According to Nakazono, Kagoma has revived the weary working souls of his neighborhood for years with its luminous green mineral waters. Those not familiar with Japanese bath house etiquette should follow their nose: enter through the curtains, deposit shoes in a locker and proceed through a sliding door. Here, Kagoma's tough-but-kind cashier relieves you of your small change and directs you to a single-sex communal bathroom.

Pick up a plastic stool, plonk yourself down at one of the showerheads with towel and soap, and get scrubbing. Once rinsed, you can then ponder your tub options. Kagoma offers five sizable mineral water tubs, including the mandatory herbal bath. Braving the extra-hot tub is not advised, since passing out within 30 seconds is a real possibility. As one wrinkled regular assured me, though, it's a sure cure for the cruelest hangover - quite likely, after a night at Densuke's. Deliverance from any dizziness comes in a deep cold water pool fed by an icy spout that brings even the most pink-boiled bather slowly back to the land of the living.

While taking to the lanes and alleyways by foot is a good way to experience the sights and smells of Kagoshima's old neighborhoods, utilizing the mix of modern and aging street trams provides an excellent means to venture farther afield. Since 1912, the Kagoshima Electric Railroad Company has been transporting the masses, and together with Nagasaki, Kumamoto and Kochi, Kagoshima is one of few cities to still operate trams. There are two main lines, and you can travel one-way anywhere along their routes for JY160. Day passes are also available at JY500 for unlimited trips.

City tram terminus gets a good sweeping

Getting there
JAL flies from Haneda Airport to Kagoshima Airport. For flight reservations, call 0120-25-5971 toll free.

Where to stay
Ryokkan Nakazono, 1-18 Yasui-cho, Kagoshima, Kagoshima-ken 892-0815. Tel: 81-099-226-5125. Fax: 81-099-226-5126. Rates: single/double/triple - JY4000/JY8000/JY11,400. English spoken. Email: shindon@satsuma.ne.jp Website: www.satsuma.ne.jp/myhome/shindon  

For more information about the area's ryokkan visit the JIG (Japan Inn Group) website at http://members.aol.com/jinngroup/Page1.html Or check out the Japan National Tourist Organization's "Japan Travel Updates" website at www.jnto.go.jp 

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