The mountain seemed to be staring at us wherever we went. It sat quietly spewing an almost indiscernible puff of white smoke, dominating the skyline of Kagoshima city and the coastline that stretches from there in an arc around the eponymous bay to its east.
The mountain, known as Sakurajima, or Cherry Blossom Island, sits forbiddingly in the bay on the southern coast of the island of Kyushu, one of Japan’s four main islands.
It is the country’s most active volcano and forms what used to be the island of Sakurajima – until lava flows from an eruption in 1914 connected it to the main island across the water.
We could see the mountain as we strolled through the early morning quiet of downtown Kagoshima, allowing ourselves to be propelled high in the sky on the ferris wheel that rotates slowly but conspicuously over Kagoshima station. We sat staring at the mountain from the window of the local train that took us south to our onsen, or hot spring baths, in Ibusuki.
Residents throughout the area live in constant danger of a major eruption, such as the one in August 2013, which enveloped central Kagoshima city in darkness and volcanic ash. One of Sakurajima’s craters erupted again in July, 2016, spewing volcanic ash 5,000 meters into the air.
While careful monitoring of the volcano and regular evacuation drills have minimized the danger to livelihoods, the active volcano makes life rather inconvenient for nearby residents. The local weather report features a daily tip on whether it is safe for residents to hang their laundry outside.
We had spent a few hours in Kagoshima on our way to Ibusuki, a hot spring resort famous for its sand baths. The sand is naturally heated by the hot springs that run underground and is said to cure a wide range of ailments, from rheumatism to asthma.
Research by Kagoshima University has found, for example, that taking a sand steam bath increases blood circulation by a factor of three to four, compared with taking a regular hot spring bath.
There are sand baths all over Ibusuki, including along the beach. But we chose to take our “bath” in the relative privacy of the Ibusuki Hakusuikan.
At the entrance to the bath, we were given yukata, or light cotton kimono, to wear in the sand bath. Once inside, we were greeted by attendants scraping the sand with long broom-like poles who escorted us to our individual pit baths and then covered us with the hot sand.
I had heard stories about the sand bath but still, I was not prepared for the strange sensation of being trapped in a bed of hot sand, which I cannot say was particularly enjoyable.
Unlike onsen afficionados, I cannot sit in a hot bath for very long (and I avoid saunas altogether), so with temperatures of around 50-55˚C, which is higher than that of most hot spring baths, the sand bath was not my idea of relaxation.
Although we had been advised not to stay in the sand bath for much longer than 15 minutes, after 10 minutes the heat had become uncomfortable and I brushed off the sand and jumped out.
After escaping the sand baths, we took our yukata off and washed off the sand at the shower stall leading to the Hakusuikan’s other famous facility – a sprawling bathing hall with a variety of baths and architectural features, such as a wooden bridge and a gazebo-like structure, which make the entire place feel like a small, traditional village.
Hakusuikan is a massive Japanese-style hotel and the pleasure of staying there lies more in the variety of hot spring baths and quirky décor – a mixture of traditional Japanese and 1960s western touches – than in the sophisticated taste of the rooms, some of which have beds, or the quality of the meals, which is good, but not exciting enough to write home about.
However, the hot sand bath is a unique experience that is worth a try if you enjoy relaxing in a sauna. Those, like me, who do not care for saunas may prefer to head straight to the regular hot spring baths.
An added attraction of Hakusuikan is the Satsuma Denshokan next door to the hotel, a private museum, which houses the collection of intricate Satsuma ceramics and other art works amassed over the years by the founding family of Hakusuikan, the Shimotakeharas.
Satsuma Denshokan takes its name from an old province – Satsuma – which is now the western half of Kyushu island. The area was home to many of the key players who brought about the Meiji Restoration, which overthrew the military dictatorship, restored the emperor to power and set Japan on a course of westernization and modernization.
Traveling through the southwest of Kagoshima Prefecture it is impossible to avoid countless statues, museums and other memorial halls dedicated to one or another of Satsuma’s famous leaders, such as Takamori Saigo, arguably Japan’s most beloved samurai and a leading figure during the Meiji Restoration.
One such place is the Museum of the Meiji Restoration in Kagoshima city, where the pivotal role of Satsuma leaders during that tumultuous period from 1868 onwards is explained in considerable detail.
Although English commentary is very limited, it is still possible to enjoy the miniature displays of scenes from the Meiji era of the late 19th century and the realistic drama played out in the theater, which features life-sized mannequins of Saigo and other major characters of the Meiji era.
Kagoshima and the powerful Shimadzu clan, which ruled Satsuma for nearly 700 years, were also central to the industrialization of Japan – a fact that is amply displayed at the Sengan-en Garden and Shoko Shuseikan Museum next door.
Sengan-en is an expansive, Japanese style garden built in 1658 by the Shimadzu clan. In addition to ponds, shrines, a bamboo grove, and the Iso Residence, the Shimadzu family’s main residence after the Meiji Restoration, the Sengan-en, is home to the Shuseikan Industrial Complex, which was built in the late 19th century to produce iron.
While many of the original factories of the industrial complex are long gone, visitors can view some of the remnants of Japan’s early efforts to industrialize at the Shoko Shuseikan Museum, which used to be a machinery factory.
Sengan-en Garden, which is well worth a leisurely stroll, is famous for its use of Sakurajima and Kagoshima Bay as “borrowed scenery.” That is, both Sakurajima and Kagoshima Bay are key attractions of the garden, even though they are located outside of the actual grounds.
After an educational day at Sengan-en, we left Kagoshima to relax in the hot spring baths of Myoken Onsen and discover a bit of what some bemoan as “lost Japan.”
Among the best-known inns in Myoken Onsen, which is about an hour’s drive north-east from central Kagoshima, is Myoken Ishiharaso, a beautifully appointed hotel on the banks of the Amorigawa River.
Ishiharaso is one of those special hotels that manage to combine a refined Japanese sensibility, whether in its aesthetics or its cuisine, with the convenience of modern amenities.
The rooms offer spectacular views of the Amorigawa River that runs just beneath the windows, the meals are comparable to any that might be served at a refined kaiseki restaurant and the baths – both inside and outside – are soothing.
I particularly enjoyed the proximity to the Amorigawa River, which, with its constant rushing sound and clear waters, reminded me how nice it is to be so close to unspoiled nature.
On the opposite bank of the Amorigawa River is a hot spring resort of a very different style.
Wasure no Sato Gajoen is a lovingly restored complex of 10 thatched roof cottages, which serve as guest rooms, three stand-alone hot spring baths, a Japanese-style hearth where sake is served in bamboo stalks, open-air kitchen and other facilities that together re-create the atmosphere of a small mountain hamlet in Japan from a bygone era.
The vegetables featured in the healthy meals here come from the onsite garden and the chicken are raised on their own farm.
Our cottage was one of eight that have its own bath, and ours – a basin made up of massive slabs of rock – was actually in the living room.
As the proprietors intended, a stay at Wasure no Sato Gajoen will give you the illusion that you have slipped back in time to a more laid-back era, which you can enjoy without any of the hard labor that people back then had to endure, whether in cooking a meal or washing the linen.
For those who prefer greater privacy in more luxurious settings, Wasure no Sato also operates an exclusive property on a hill, about a 10-minute drive away, where guests can stay in one of the modern cottages, each with its own rotenburo, or outside hot spring bath.
At “Tenku no Mori,” or “Forest in the Sky,” as this exclusive resort is called, there are just 3 cottages for overnight stay and 2 for afternoon use only, which are scattered over an area that covers 60 hectares, ensuring maximum privacy.
The property includes a vegetable garden, which provides the fresh vegetables used in meals both here and at Gajoen, a pond complete with ducks who do not miss a chance to come greet guests, and a tree house, which is currently under construction.
According to one of the staff there, an American couple who came for lunch were so enamored of the place they ended up staying for a whole week.
We left Kagoshima and Myoken Onsen not just with a better understanding of how this unassuming corner of Japan played a crucial role in the country’s modernization, but also feeling thoroughly relaxed and healthier from the fresh produce and soothing baths we enjoyed day after day on a very long and memorable weekend.