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Winter Trip (part 2) - Kagoshima & Kirishima National Park

Written on: Saturday January 12th, 2008

A journal entry from: Japan

From Hiroshima, I travelled to the second smallest of the four main islands of Japan - Kyushu. And what drew me there was volcanos. All of Japan sits on some pretty active earth, but there are a lot of active volcanos in Kyushu. The most famous is Mt Aso, but I decided to head down to the southern tip of the island to try my luck at Kirishima; since this place was a national park with a group of volcanos, some active and some dormant, it sounded more interesting than Aso to me. But since it is winter, no matter where I went, I would be trying my luck weather-wise. There could always be snow, fumes from an active volcano making it impossible to get close, or as I found out, a lot of fog making it impossible to see much. But I love a good hike, so I was up for it, and I still loved the day that I had.

First, I took the train to the nearest city, and the biggest city in the area, Kagoshima. Even though I didn't spend a lot of time there, I still think I really liked this city. The city's view is also dominated by a volcano, Sakurajima, just across a narrow bay. The cone of the volcano more or less forms its own island. I read that Sukurajima is so active that it puts out smoke and ash continuously, and has erupted several tmes in the the last century alone. I guess it's a good thing that stretch of bay is between the volcano and the city.

In the morning, I took a train and a bus to get to the national park. The town where I started, called Ebino-kogen, was smaller than I expected, and in fact reminded me a lot of some of the small one-hotel resort spots in the Rockies. From here I was able to start on a half-day hike to the top of Mt. Karakuni-dake, a dormant volcano with a lake filling its crator, which I'm sure would have been beautiful if I could have seen it. I do wish I had come in the summer, though, as from Karakuni-dake I could have happily spent a couple of days hiking and camping over an area that contains five different volcanos and some very interesting scenery.

The top of Karakuni-dake was shrouded in fog, so I knew before I started I would run into it. The first part of the hike was no problem, but when I got about half-way up I noticed that all the bushes were tipped with white. When I looked closer, I realized it was ice - deposited by the strong wind at a sideways angle. The fog got thicker the further up I got, and the wind was cold and blowing hard, but the path was clear, broad, and easy to follow. It wasn't raining or snowing, but the wind and fog was coating everything in ice crystals, some of which looked exactly like bird feathers. Unfortunately, there wasn't much else to see at the top, because of the fog.

After I came back down, I soaked my feet in a natural hot spring foot bath (it really wasn't very hot, more like body-temperature) while I waited for the bus, and then headed back to Kagoshima. Back in the city, I headed out for some food, ramen this time. In Canada, ramen means a cheap pack of Ichiban instant noodles. They do have instant noodles ramen here, but having ramen at a restaurant or cafe is something different. What you get is a big bowl of noodles - not freeze-dried - in a delicous broth chock full of veggies and usually meat, and it's fantastic. There are endless variations for ramen, too, what you can add into it, and the kinds of broth you use. (By the way, Ichiban means "first" or "number one" in Japanese.)

I spent some time walking around the city and visiting a few historical points of interest. Many of them related to a man named Saigo Takamori, an intriguing historical figure. He had been a leader of the Meiji Restoration (which changed the policital and social landscape of Japan by ending the rule of the feudal samurai shogunates and began the modernization of Japan); but then later he lead a revolt against the new government from his home in Kagoshima, perhaps because he felt they had gone too far, or possibly becuase he felt they were becoming corrupt. In any case, he is a hero here, as well as the rest of Japan, and some apparently call him the last true samurai. His revolt ultimately failed, and in the end he committed ritual suicide. I saw the walls of his old samurai academy school which still showed bullet holes from one of the battles, next to the walls of the old castle (all that is left of the castle). I also saw the place where he committed suicide and a memorial to him.

In the morning, I spent another couple hours walking around. I saw the remains of an ancient aqueduct system (very small, just some small stone pipeway on the side of a hill, but historically interesting), and a memorial to St. Francis Xavier and two prominent Japanese Christians from the area.The first one,Yajiro, had heard of Xavier and sought him out, and eventually brought him to Kagoshima as part of his missionary work. The second man, Bernard, was sent as an emissary to Portugal by Xavier. I hadn't known any of this until I came to Kagoshima, so stumbling upon this engaging bit of eastern-wesrtern history was great.

I hopped on a local train after that and by lunchtime, I was in Ibusuki. It's a little resort town on the sea with one big, unique draw. Sand baths. Hot springs are a big thing in Japan - I mean really big - and of course they have a lot of them because of all the volcanic activity around here. But as far as I know, this is the only place in Japan (maybe anywhere?) with sand baths. Here, the thermal sources underground are heating up a stretch of sand along the beach, instead of water. I headed to the sand bath spa, changed into a yukata (a Japanese bathrobe) and headed out to the beach. Because it was an overcast day, and the rain kept sprinkling down off and on, everyone was in a covered area instead of the open beach. I headed over to where an attendant indicated I should go. The sand was steaming all around, and the first area I passed was lined with people, all in a row, buried up to their necks. In the next area, a few people had already been buried, and I was asked to lie in the sand, while two people with shovels expertly buried me in 30 seconds or so, with my head resting on a pillow of sand. The sand felt a bit heavy sometimes, but the heat was relaxing. So, there I laid, buried in sand, with the steam billowing around me, the scraping sounds of the shovels working to bury more people, the alternating clouds and bits of blue sky through the gaps in the bamboo covering, the sound of the waves only two meters or so away from me, and at one point the sounds of a light rainfall on the roof above me. I have to admit, I loved it.

I stayed as long as I could, then shook myself out and started to head back to the bath area to wash off the sand. As I headed back, though, I noticed that looking out over the bay, there was a huge, perfect rainbow out over the ocean. I stayed to stare at it for a while, and a few other people came to look on as well, thoroughly delighted. One old woman clapped her hands and said something in Japanese towards the rainbow, and seeing me watching what she was doing, she tried to show me how to do it. But I really didn't understand her Japanese at all. I think it seems to have been considered a sign of good luck or something like that; I'll have to see if I can find out anything else about it. Eventually, I headed to the bath - which was a traditional-style Japanese public bath area, with showers to scrub off and a hot bath to soak in, before getting changed and heading back to the train station. I felt fantastic.

On the train on the way back to Kagoshima, I got a great, clear view of Sakurajima, with a plume of smoke trailing from the top of it. After that, it was time to catch another train, and on to Nagasaki.