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Kumamoto, Kagoshima and Sakurajima

Posted on 2011/09/29 04:10:13 (September 2011).

[Monday 26th September 2011]
Started the day with an early morning tour of Kumamoto Castle. I think it's generally considered to be one of the more impressive ones in Japan, although when it comes to Japanese castles I always find it a bit disappointing to discover how much new material there is in the structure, and how often they end up getting more or less rebuilt from the ground up. I prefer my castles to be completely original, even if that means they have to be a bit crumbly round the edges.

From there we got on the shinkansen once more, heading down to Kagoshima. Rather impressively we were able to book seats on the train just minutes before it left Kumamoto, and moreover as Chie's parents were on the same train, we could actually book seats next to theirs. So the four of us travelled together down to Kagoshima.

Apart from the excitement of using the newly opened Kyushu shinkansen line, one of the other main reasons for visiting Kyushu was to see some volcanoes. Today's focus of attention was Sakurajima, an "island" just off the coast from Kagoshima (which, owing to the last major eruption isn't actually an island any more), which has an active volcano on it. Or to put it more accurately, the island is the volcano.

So on arrival in Kagoshima we had a quick lunch (I ate some so-so Indian food while Chie and her parents went for ramen), and then went and got on a bus tour which would take us around Sakurajima.

I was rather surprised to see the streets of Kagoshima were covered with volcanic ash - Sakurajima seems to spew it out almost constantly, which can't be very pleasant for the local residents. Cars get dirty very quickly, and it seems nobody hangs their washing outside to dry. Japanese shop owners tend to take responsibility for keeping the bit of street in front of their shop clean, and in Kagoshima this seems to mean an almost constant process of sweeping up volcanic ash. At times it gets blown about by the wind and gets in your eyes. It really isn't very nice at all - I couldn't help but wonder why people choose to live here.

The bus tour took us on a ferry over to Sakurajima (although it is connected to Kyushu now, it's over the other side of the bay furthest away from Kagoshima). Unfortunately the weather wasn't particularly great today, so when we got our first glimpses of Sakurajima it was hard to distinguish the ash clouds from the rain clouds, and it pretty much stayed that way all day.

The bus tour was what I imagine a typical tourst bus tour to be in Japan - a busy schedule of stopping at various places where you could take a picture of the view, from a vantage point which just happened to be next to a shop selling souvenirs. It was interspersed with commentary by a typical Japanese tour conductor which I found a tad jarring, to be honest. We couldn't really get particularly close to the actual crater at any point because it was apparently too dangerous, but I couldn't help but wonder if the real reason was that there wasn't a souvenir shop at the top.

We got back to Kagoshima around 5, and from there headed to our hotel for the evening, which was a bit out of the town, up on a hill overlooking the bay, and Sakurajima. From here I was treated to possibly the best view of Sakurajima of the day - the sky had just about cleared enough to clearly make out one particular ash eruption, and I got a very pleasing before and after shot, just minutes apart. Apparently Sakurajima bellows out clouds of ash like this several times a day.

Dining options at the hotel didn't look very promising, so we got a taxi back into the centre of Kagoshima, and again split up for dinner. I attempted to find some Italian food, thinking naively that Kagoshima being twinned with Naples (presumably because of their similar proximities to volcanoes) might have had some positive effect. The place I wandered into though was pretty awful, some of the worst Italian food I've ever had in Japan. I didn't really eat very much of the awful spaghetti I ordered (at least partly because despite a very careful process of asking about the ingredients it still had a dangerous fishy taste to it). After that I went and joined Chie and her parents for a drink at the local izakaya place they'd found.

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