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A few years ago I visited Japan for the first time, exploring Tokyo and Yamaguchi prefecture. It was an eye-opening cultural experience, sleeping on the floor in a Ryokan, bathing naked in an onsen for the first time, trying the “risky” Japanese delicacy fugu and figuring out what all those toilet controls actually mean.
For my second trip to Japan, I was invited to explore a new prefecture, Kagoshima, which is located at the south western tip of the island of Kyushu. When my British friends asked me where I was going this time I was met with blank stares…
“Kagoshima? Haven’t heard of it” is what most of them responded.
Tokyo is usually the place that most people think of when mentioning Japan but there is so much more to explore than just the country’s capital. So if you’re planning a trip to Japan and you’re wondering where to visit after Tokyo, perhaps my article will inspire you to visit Kagoshima, even if you’ve never heard of this prefecture before. I had a lovely time there and it was nice to experience somewhere so relaxing and peaceful after exploring the chaotic streets of the metropolis that is Tokyo.
Here are some awesome things to do in Kagoshima:
- 1. Learn how shochu is made
- 2. Visit Sengan-en Japanese Garden
- 3. Experience a sand bath
- 4. Take the ferry to Sakurajima Volcano
- Ride the design story train
- 5. Visit Ryugu Jinja shrine
- 6. Try chicken sashimi & korobuta pork
- 7. Bathe in an onsen
- 8. Visit the southernmost JR station in Japan
- 9. Eat like a local in Kagomma Furusato Yataimura
- 10. Explore the Kirishima Open Air Museum
- 11. Have lunch (or stay) at Wasure-no-sato Gajoen
- Getting to Kagoshima
1. Learn how shochu is made
Most of us in the UK have heard of sake, but did you know that shochu is actually more popular in Japan than sake? Kagoshima is a major producer of shochu, which is a alcoholic drink that can be distilled from rice, barley, sweet potatoes, buckwheat or brown sugar. The kind produced here is made from sweet potato and a visit to the Shirakane Ishigura Museum will teach you all you need to now about the distilling process. Visitors can create pieces of art out of the broken shochu bottles and purchase bottles of shochu in the gift shop to take home as souvenirs.
2. Visit Sengan-en Japanese Garden
Love Japanese gardens? You’ll definitely enjoy Sengan-en – a traditional Japanese garden and home built by the 19th head of the Shimadzu family in 1658. The 12-acre garden has stunning views of Sakurajima volcano and Kinko Bay, along with peaceful ponds and interesting shrines (including a cat shrine). The house welcomed many foreign dignitaries and important people over the years, including British kings. Definitely have lunch in the restaurant, which has panoramic views over the garden and serves a variety of Kagoshima cuisine, including korobuta pork.
3. Experience a sand bath
Perhaps one of the weirdest and craziest things I’ve ever done, the sunamushi sand bath at Sunamushi Kaikan basically involves being buried under volcanic sand. It’s supposed to be much more effective than entering a sauna and is helpful for all sorts of ailments, improving circulation and detoxifying the body. I was given a yukata to change into and a towel to cover my hair, then I was instructed to lay down in the sand. The whole thing looked hilarious, especially with the umbrella sticking out above my head. Visitors are only supposed to lay in the sand for around 10 minutes but ten minutes actually seems like a long time if you’re a bit claustrophobic like me. I could feel my heartbeat in my hands and feet and in general it felt heavy and hot, but it must have worked because the swelling in my feet caused by flying immediately went down.
4. Take the ferry to Sakurajima Volcano
Sakurajima volcano is an active volcano that had its last major eruption in 1914, which connected it with the Osumi Peninsula. The majestic volcano can be seen from the mainland and you can also catch a ferry to visit it up close. I was fascinated to learn that around 4,000 people still live beneath the volcano, despite the threat posed by it. Children wear helmets when they go to school to protect them from falling ash and there are 24-hour ferries in case there are any devastating eruptions. It’s definitely worth visiting the Arimura Lava Observatory and bathing your feet in the Nagisa Foot Bath Park, which has stunning views of the volcano.
Ride the design story train
On my second day in Kagoshima I had the chance to ride the “Ibusuki no Tamatebako” Scenic Train. The train is themed around the folk tale about Urashima Tarō, which tells the story of a man who saves a turtle and then is invited by the turtle to the underwater Dragon Palace.
The man spends several days in the palace and when it is time to return home, the princess gives him a gift box, telling him not to open it. Of course, curiosity gets the better of him and when he returns home, he opens the box. He suddenly becomes very old – the days he spent in the palace became hundreds of years on land.
The train therefore has a black and white theme running throughout, with the two colours representing the “old” and the “young”. The seats on this train face the windows so you can enjoy the scenic views as you travel along the coastline. After the Amtrak route in California, this is the second most beautiful train ride I’ve ever taken.
5. Visit Ryugu Jinja shrine
The Ryugu Jinja “Palace of the Dragon King” shrine can be found on in Cape Nagasaki-bana in southern Kagoshima. The location of the shrine is said to be the birth location of Urashima Tarō, the man from he folklore tale who saved the turtle. This striking red and white structure is also a popular place for visitors to make wishes – they write them on sea shells and leave them in a giant urn. After making our own wishes, we walked down to the Nagasaki-bana lighthouse where we admired the views of the ocean and Mt. Kaimon.
6. Try chicken sashimi & korobuta pork
In the UK we are just not used to the idea of raw chicken. When I posted an Instagram story of a plate piled high with chicken sashimi, the main reactions from my friends were ones of shock; “Be careful!”, “Don’t get salmonella!” Brits consider it an easy way to contract food poisoning, which is why it’s always advised to eat chicken thoroughly cooked. In Kagoshima, chicken sashimi (thin slices of raw chicken) is a popular dish, served with grated ginger and soy sauce. I tried it for the first time and I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised. It tasted OK and I’m pleased to say I’m doing perfectly fine.
7. Bathe in an onsen
No trip to Japan is complete without bathing in an onsen, which is basically a hot spring with spa-like bathing facilities. In Japan people enter the onsen naked, which might seem a little intimidating if you’re used to always wearing a bathing suit, but honestly, nudity is really nothing to be embarrassed about. Before entering the onsen you strip off your clothes and store them in the locker room, before sitting down on a plastic stool and showering yourself with soap. Once you’re squeaky clean, it’s time to enter the onsen and bathe with everyone else in the relaxing hot water. I stayed at Shiroyama Hotel Kagoshima, which has its own onsen with incredible views of the Sakurajima volcano. I really enjoyed going down there early in the morning to watch the sun rise from behind the volcano. Perhaps one of my best memories of Japan!
8. Visit the southernmost JR station in Japan
Nishi-Ōyama Station in Ibusuki is the southernmost JR station in Japan. It also happens to be absolutely breathtaking, with beautiful views of Kaimon-dake volcano. Waiting for a train can sometimes be boring, but this has to be one of the most beautiful train stations in the world. Outside the station there is a yellow post box which is painted the same yellow as the turnip rape flower that is a symbol of Ibusuki. It is said that it will bring happiness to anyone who sends mail from this post box.
9. Eat like a local in Kagomma Furusato Yataimura
Kagomma Furusato Yataimura is a bustling food village consisting of 25 different stalls, each only seating about 8 people. I loved the lively atmosphere here and seeing how local people wind down over food and beer after work. The narrow streets and small spaces give Yataimura and intimate, fun vibe and it’s easy to hop from place to place, trying different Kagoshima foods. For instance, I got to try some of the prefecture’s famous Korobuta pork “black pork”, which was absolutely delicious.
10. Explore the Kirishima Open Air Museum
Personally I’m an art lover, so I enjoy any kind of art museum. But Kirishima Open Air Museum is a little bit different because it is set outdoors, filled with unique and interesting sculptures from artists around the world. My favorite art work was a piece called “In the Beginning”, which consists of a dark tunnel that leads to a beautiful, panoramic view. I also enjoyed “Insiders”, which consists of five iron men in various poses, lurking in the woods. Throughout the park there are also several cute sculptures of dogs that you can count, which all have comical expressions.
11. Have lunch (or stay) at Wasure-no-sato Gajoen
On our last day in Kagoshima we had lunch at Wasure-no-sato Gajoen, an absolutely beautiful ryokan located in the quiet hot springs town of Myoken Onsen, which offers beautiful views over the forest and Amorigawa river. This rustic estate has be a its own chickens and fresh vegetables grown in a private organic garden, along with guest rooms featuring their own private onsen. The inn was incredibly peaceful and relaxing, and we enjoyed a lovely lunch featuring dishes such as chicken sashimi, black pork and egg roll.
My visit to Kagoshima was a very brief one, only lasting 3 days, but the above things to do are a great introduction to the prefecture. If you’re looking to explore the “real” Japan and escape the city, Kagoshima makes for a relaxing break.
Getting to Kagoshima
There are daily flights with ANA from Tokyo to Kagoshima, or you can catch the bullet train and stop off at various destinations along the way.
Bullet Train – You can travel to Kagoshima from Tokyo by taking the Tokaido, Sanyo and Kyushu Shinkansen (high-speed bullet train). The journey takes roughly seven hours and costs around 30,000 yen ($271 USD) if you buy a ticket individually. If you have a Japan Rail Pass then you can use it for this journey.
Flying – Skymark, Solaseed Air, ANA and JAL offer frequent flights between Tokyo Haneda Airport and Kagoshima Airport. Flights take around 2 hours. A quick search on Google Flights shows prices starting at around $140 round trip.