The longhaul train trip to Ibusuki, south of Kagoshima, was relaxing and offered great scenery with the opportunity to read for long stretches uninterrupted. We had no real reason for travelling to this small seaside town other than it was about as far south as we could go and there were potentially interesting onsen experiences.
On arriving at Kagoshima-chou station we changed onto some kind of special tourist train. All the people on this short, two-carriage train were infectiously happy and everyone tried on a train driver’s cap. It was all a little odd but we participated as to not spoil the fun…and I like hats.
On arrival, we were collected from Ibusuki station by our host, Mr Hideaki (Hide-san). We spent the next few hours touring the local sites in his car, receiving some excellent insights into the local region, especially 19th century and more recent history.
It is interesting that the hot springs were depleted by agricultural and salt production in the mid-20th century until this was banned (and a new source of water was discovered). There are about 500 local sodium hot springs. The area around the old Yamada Saltworks provided some spectacular views all the way to “Satsuma-Fuji” (so named as the shape is reminiscent of Mount Fuji).
Hide-san showed us the southernmost tip of Japan and the girls rang the bell to signify they had voyaged this far south. We also learnt about the bonito industry in the town, the importance of Mr Saigo Takamori (“The Last Samurai”) in the history of the area and failed to see “Issie” at Lake Ikeda.
We also visited Ryugu Shrine where unmarried people seek divine intervention in the New Year by writing a message on a shell. Funnily enough, at a nearby store was a message explaining that they were closed:
“Due to a marital dispute today we are temporarily closed. As soon as the bride is feeling better we will reopen”
which will not likely encourage the lovelorn pilgrims on their way to seek better fortunes at the shrine.
After walking around the local onsen we decided to have a “sand bath” (“suna-mushi”)at the spectacular Yamagawa Suna-mushi site Hide-san had shown us earlier. We all dressed in long yukata and were buried in the volcanic sands. It does become quite warm and after about 20 minutes felt mildly uncomfortable so I arose from my burial mound.
The therapeutic benefits of sand baths I could not vouch for (“de-tox” was the usual response when I asked anyone) but it was certainly fun and makes one feel very relaxed afterwards. My daughters, especially the eldest one, was a little reluctant to participate (so I bribed her – see lunch below).
Our family usually travels with a film crew and you can see the lads here below. They were featuring this onsen in a television travel program. I was keen to be interviewed but my beginner’s Japanese prevented me from sharing any great insights into the nature of the experience for their audience. I noted them filming the sweet potato (a delicacy of the region) and tomago (onsen cooked eggs) that were available after a sand bath, at the front of the onsen, to tempt their viewers. Our lunch, at the nearby restaurant was spectacularly delicious and the film crew would have done well to follow is there too.
Hide-san drove us to an out of the way spot known for eels (unagi). When I search for the village online there is no information, just a name on a map. Mr Saigo Takamori has a memorial hidden away in the village as he managed to evade his pursers for three years hiding here. As we wandered around the village I could see that the locals put the hot springs to good use for cooking. Just about every home had an outside oven fuelled naturally by naturally occurring, boiling hot water.
It was rainy so we caught the train to Kagoshima and wandered around the a while under brollies. After listening to Hide-san talk about Mr Saigo Takamori, we decided to visit the Museum of the Meiji Restoration which is only a ten minute walk from the station. I studied Japanese history at university and in various courses over the years have explored the Meiji Restoration but that was a long time ago and I certainly only had the broad brushstrokes in memory.
The museum had two quite lengthy multimedia shows with holograms and animatronic historical characters to bring the history of the region to life. It focused on the Satsuma clan, especially Takamori. It was really very good and one could imagine the local school students really benefitting from from the theatricality of the presentations.
We particularly enjoyed the story of the Satsuma students who traveled from Japan to gain a Western-style education at the behest of Satsuma clan leaders, like Takamori who realised, after being defeated in battle by the British, that Japan could never compete without quality, modern education. These students travelled to Great Britain, seeing many wonders along the way, like the construction of the Suez Canal. The Satsuma clan had believed in investing in their people rather than castles for some time and the achievements of these students were remarkable and assisted the country to modernise during the Meiji Restoration period.
I only have a superficial understanding of the role of Saigo Takamori in the overthrow of the Tokugawa shogunate and his paradoxical – he was a traditional, conservative samurai who was instrumental in ending the power of his class – role in ending feudalism and the formation of the new Meiji government but I suspect that deeper study would have many rewards.
We met Hide-san through renting accommodation via Airbnb. This was good luck for us. Not only did he have a palatial home to offer with a great little hot spring in the bathroom but assisted us with many matters and was very good company indeed. The girls loved playing ping pong and it was great to have so much room, as Japanese accommodation can be very pokey. He was a thoughtful host and suggested we should try an onsen town that was established 1300 years ago. We took his advice and appreciated the assistance rendered to find a family ryokan at short notice. It turned out to be a great piece of advice.
Next stop: Kinosaki Onsen
Featured image: flickr photo by Darcy Moore http://flickr.com/photos/darcymoore/24334729135 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license