With time remaining on my JR Pass, I decided to make full use of the unlimited travel, by shinkansening (first used as a verb: seen2screen, 02/2017) down to Kyushu, the most south-western of the four main islands that comprise Japan.
Unlike on previous journeys, I decided not to con anyone out of their hard-earned cash on this train and the 10-hour journey was largely uneventful. I arrived in Kagoshima, on the south coast of Kyushu, in the early evening and made my way to my hotel: New Nishino Hotel in the heart of the city.
I had been in contact with the hotel manager, Yuki, prior to my arrival and she had informed me that the hotel’s onsen was free for guests (male only, sorry girls – massage is available for women). No sooner had I set my bags down, I was changed into the kimono provided and heading to said onsen.
The inquisitive looks I got for being tall, Caucasian and having chest hair notwithstanding, the onsen was wonderfully relaxing and I returned to my room cleansed of the effects of travel and ready for sleep.
In our correspondence, Yuki had also informed me that the first fish market of the new year would be held on my first morning in Kagoshima. It would mean an early start. Would I like to come along?
“Just name the time and plaice! I’ll take sole responsibility for being on times and, if running late, will get my skates on.”
So I met Yuki at 5.30am and she drove us to the local fish market, on the docks. Yuki has been running tours of the fish market for some years and consequently, is something of a local celebrity among the fishermen. In the market we couldn’t move 10 metres without someone coming up and greeting her with a courteous bow. It was great to be in the company of a local dignitary!
The floor was paved with crates and boxes full of the freshest, most delicious-looking fish, some of which I had never set eyes on before in my life.
Each auction consisted of about 30 seconds of calls from the auctioneer followed by people affixing ownership stickers to the fish. I didn’t even see the bidding, it happened too quickly.
Just outside the market building, a food truck owner was already slicing up a tuna he had bought in preparation for the lunchtime rush.
And then what better than to sample the wares in the tiny restaurant at the back of the market?
It was fresher than the Prince of Bel Air!
Kagoshima is famous for two main things: kurobuta pork and the Sakurajima volcanic island. I was determined to experience both.
Let me start by linking to an excellent description of kurobuta by insights.looloo.com. It is, essentially, the Chuck Norris of the pork world (but with less hair and skill in martial arts). It’s hard to describe without drooling on the screen on my phone, but it was both succulent and flavoursome. It lived up to the hype.
As for Sakurajima? Well, sadly, having prioritised the pork, I left it far too late to adequately explore an island that is home to one of Japan’s largest, active volcanoes. This article in Japan Info by Alfie Blincowe gives an excellent description of the things I could have done. As it was, a slightly hazy pic or two from the vantage point closest to the ferry was all that I managed. Damn you, you delectable kurobuta! *hushed voice* I still love you, though.
Leaving Kagoshima with the promise to return (I kind of had to anyway: I had a return ticket), I boarded a ferry for the port of Anbo on Yakushima island, a 3-4 hour journey from the mainland. In typical, haphazard style, I knew very little about the place and still less about what I would do on arrival. But these were problems for the future. I closed my eyes on the ferry and dozed off.
When I awoke, we had arrived in Anbo. The problems of the future had very quickly become the problems of the present. Determined not to take one of the island’s two taxis (alternative fact alert! Investigation shows there were actually more than two), whose tariffs were commensurate with their rarity, I waited for the bus. In the rain. In the heavy rain. One taxi passed. The other taxi passed. I muttered something to myself about Sod’s Law and stood stubbornly still, rainwater starting to drip from my nose.
When the bus did arrive, the journey was mercifully short and I was soon checking in with Haruka, a computer programmer who had quit her job in Tokyo to manage a guesthouse on a remote island!
Yakushima Guesthouse Suginoko was a wonderful base from which to explore the island and the breakfast provided each time was both healthy and sumptuous.
A short walk from Suginoko lay a bridge which afforded great views down to the shoreline, I was informed, so I waited for the rain to stop then meandered in the direction indicated. On my way I passed orchards of Yakushima oranges, plump and ready to fall from the tree. I was not the only observer….
The bridge gave a wonderful view out to sea, showing just how sparsely settled large swathes of the island are.
The cedar forests of Yakushima have gained renown since Hayao Miyuzaki cited them as inspiration for his film “Princess Mononoke”. As a poetic soul in constant search of a muse, this piqued my interest and I decided to spend the next day exploring.
Haruka prepared a lunch wrapped neatly in a banana leaf and an obliging bus dropped me at the entrance to the Shiritani Unsuikyo trail among the cedars.
I walked onwards into a woodland wonderland where thick moss glistened with the morning’s dew and gnarled cedars with roving roots and twisted branches leant in to whisper to each other. The deeper I went, the more enchanted my surroundings until brick and mortar became myth and this leafy realm was the only reality.
The path led in a loop, the furthest point from the start being a vantage point from where one could survey practically the entire island. Unless it is totally enveloped in cloud, of course……
On the balance on things I’m very happy to be tall, however, in four ways my long legs are a curse: on aeroplanes, when encountering low door lintels, when auditioning for a key role in Snow White and when trying to make a trek last the allotted time. You’ll realise the fourth was applicable here. I had finished the five to six-hour hike in under three and was left at something of a loose end. I ate my banana leaf bento whilst pondering what to do with my unexpectedly free afternoon.
This question was answered not by me but by Haruka. The townsfolk of Anbou would be burning a sheaf of ceremonial bamboo that afternoon and I was welcome to come along and watch.
The tradition held that the burning of bamboo would bring luck to the town, however, it nearly did the reverse when the burning column toppled sideways, narrowly missing the waiting fire engine.
My parting gift to myself before returning to the mainland was a dinner of 飛び魚 – tobiwo – the flying fish that had become a speciality of the island. I was recommended to eat it on its own, with soup and with rice and all three versions were stomach-pattingly sumptuous.