Bed and bath under the volcano
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.
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.
"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
Monuments to the
city's founding fathers abound
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
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
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: email@example.com 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