Capital of Japan's southernmost prefecture, Kagoshima (pop. 535,000) faces the Kinko-wan Bay and the Sakurajima Volcano, menacing to erupt at any time. Kagoshima enjoys a sunny subtropical climate and has a relaxed atmosphere.
Kagoshima is often compared to its sister city of Naples in Italy, because of their palm-tree lined streets, hot-tempered inhabitants and their respective volcano (Vesuvius for Naples and Sakurajima for Kagoshima).
Kagoshima (pop. 544,000) played an important role in Japanese history. The region, formerly known as Satsuma was dominated by 29 generations Shimazu lords for over 700 years till the 1867 Meiji Restoration.
Satsuma was an important trading port with China and one of the earliest point of contact with the West. The first European to arrive in Japan were Portuguese on a Chinese ship blown off-course to the Tageshima Island (about 100km South of Kagoshima City) in 1543. They introduced the first primitive guns to Japan, which was to lead to a series of internal wars and finally the unification of the country under the great leaders of the Azuchi-Momoyama period (1568-1600) that were Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu.
The Jesuit missionary Francisco de Xavier visited Kagoshima in 1549 (=> see also Nagasaki and Yamaguchi). A church and a memorial are deicated to him nowadays.
In 1609, Satsuma invaded the islands of Okinawa, and the Northern half is still part of Kagoshima prefecture to this day. However, the harsh treatment they inflicted on the Okinawans left resentment and suspicion toward mainland Japanese almost to this day (combined with the unnecessary resistance against US troops during WWII and resulting in the massacre of 130,000 civilians, which Okinawans blame on indoctrination from the Japanese government).
Daimyo Shimazu Nariakira introduced modern technology from the West and built Japan's first factory in the 1850's. He sent 17 young men to study Western system and technologies in the UK in 1865.
At their return, allied with the Mori daimyo of Hagi in Choshu, and some samurai from Tosa, Satsuma samurai (mostly from Kagoshima) led the 1867 rebellion against the Tokugawa regime to restore imperial power.
The most famous samurai from Kagoshima were probably Saigo Takamori, sometimes considered as the "last samurai", and Okubo Toshimichi. You'll find several reminders of both men around Kagoshima, including a statue of Saigo near the City Art Museum, and one of Okubo near Takamibashi Tram station.
One of the highlights of Kagoshima is the Iso-teien Garden (磯庭園), laid out in 1660 by the Shimazu lord of the time. Note that it used the Sakurajima volcano as part of the scenery.
Kagoshima has numerous museums, including the Shōkō Shuseikan, next to the Iso Garden, that is housed in Japan's first factory. There is also the City Art Museum, Kagoshima Prefectural Museum of Culture on the site of the former Tsurumaru-jo Castle, and the Kagoshima Prefectural Museum concentrating on science and natural history.
Sakura-jima Volcano 桜島火山
Sakurajima is so active that eruptions of smoke and ash are almost as common as rain. The last major eruption were in 1914 (when the island became a peninsula from the large amount of lava that overflowed), 1915, 1946, 1955 and 1960.
Visitors are not allowed to climed to the top of the volcano, but there are several good lookouts on its side and around, including Yunohira and Arimura.
How to get there
There are only direct trains between Kagoshima Central and Miyazaki (2h, ￥2,420). Trains to Kumamoto (1h, ￥3,150) or Fukuoka (2h20min, ￥5,360) require a change at Shin-Yatsushiro.
JAL and ANA both have flights between Kagoshima and Tokyo (Haneda), Nagoya (Chuubu) and Osaka (Itami).
JAL also flies to Okayama, Takamatsu, Matsuyama, Hiroshima-Nishi, Fukuoka, as well as the southern islands of Tanegashima, Yakushima, Amami-Oshima, Kikaijima, Tokumoshima, Okinoerabu and Yoron. ANA has flights to Sapporo and Naha (Okinawa).
Kumamoto Airport is 1 hour from the city centre by bus (￥1,200).