If you have ever been to Philadelphia, you might have visited Independence Hall, one of the most famous monuments of the city and, in fact, one of the most iconic landmarks in the entire United States. The building itself is rather unimpressive. It is not much larger than a small school house you might find in a remote farming community. Built in the era in which opulent palaces like the Chateau dé Versailles were built all over Europe and Asia, this spare brick building would have been utterly unremarkable if it were not for its historic significance.
Visiting Kagoshima is quite like visiting Philadelphia. It’s the stories that tug on your heartstrings, not the landmarks themselves. In fact, this favorite destination of domestic tourism is often a mystery to casual foreign travelers. What exactly is the appeal of this provincial city? If you have never read the historical novels of Shiba Ryoutaro or grew up watching NHK dramas dealing with the Bakumatsu Period, you may be left unimpressed by the modest monuments that tell a grand story.
Like almost every other city in Japan, Kagoshima was carpet bombed during World War II, and little remains of its historic buildings. The entry point of modern Kagoshima is Kagoshima station, whose distinction is that it is the southernmost terminal of the Shinkansen line, and the building houses an IMAX theater and a Ferris wheel. Just outside of this station is a monument composed of 19 statues of young men in English coats depicting the group of men who sailed to England against the ban on foreign travel imposed by the shogun’s government to study modern law and technology in the late 19th century.
Kagoshima has a long and furious martial history that goes back to the Rebellion of Hayato in 720 AD, in which the Imperial army lead by Otomo no Tabito was sent to quell an uprising in the area. Official history says the emperor’s general was victorious, but his title Seihayatotaishogun was never used again. In contrast, Sakanoue Tamuramaro was sent to quell the rebellion of the north in 797 AD, and his title seiitaishogun became the official title of every shogun ever since. And young men of Kagoshima to this day are proudly referred to as Satsuma Hayato.
More than a thousand years later, in 1863, when the British Royal Navy sent seven steam powered gunships to attack Kagoshima, the British suffered 63 casualties against 3 on the Kagoshima side. Their flagship Euryalus was set ablaze, the captain died, and the ship had to cut anchor to evacuate the bay. The samurai soldiers of Kagoshima hoisted the anchor ashore and displayed it as war booty for a while until they were asked to return it. It is a shame that they did, since very few people managed to take booty from the Royal Navy in those days. Just like the emperor before them, the British claimed victory. The 19 men depicted in the monument at the station left for England only two years after this epic battle.
Bullet and cannon marks on the wall of Kagoshima Castle from Seinan War.
Getting around Kagoshima is easy and convenient. There are busses and street cars that depart from the station which specifically tour the areas of interest. One destination you should not miss is Senganen. Take the “Kagoshima City View” line or the “Machi Meguri Bus” to the Sengakuen stop about 20 minutes from the station. Sengakuen was founded in 1658 as a picturesque villa for Lord Shimazu who ruled the Satsuma, which is now called Kagoshima. Starting around 1851, Lord Shimazu Nariakira, the 28th Lord of Satsuma, took interest in Western technology and built, among other things, a steel mill, a foundry, and a glass factory on the villa grounds. He also built Western style war ships and created a textile mill to domestically produce sail canvas. But perhaps most importantly, he inspired a whole generation of visionaries who aspired to modernize Japan. The steel mill, foundry, and munitions factories were prime targets for enemies both foreign and domestic, and were destroyed, and rebuilt, many times over. Only the stone foundation of the steel mill remains today. It was one of just a handful of reverberatory furnaces built in Japan at the time and neither the stonemasons who worked on the foundation, nor the bricklayers who made the furnace had ever seen such a steel mill before. The heat resistant bricks were actually made by local potters using their knowledge of ceramics.
Delicate latticework of a Satsuma porcelain incense burner.
Satsuma glass tumblers.
There is a museum on the villa grounds that displays what little artifacts that are left of the Satsuma legacy. The villa itself is a beautiful work of art. The garden makes good use of the semi-tropical flora and the view of the volcanic island Sakurajima just off the shore. Hundreds of educational events, tours, and lectures are held at the villa all year round. One that might particularly appeal to foreign tourists is the one where you can pose for photographs in full samurai armor with Sakurajima in the background. Reservations can be made here
All revolutions are lead by small groups of visionaries. Often times, these visionaries are outsiders who have the least invested in the status quo. The movers and shakers of the Bakumatsu period were no different. The most important players belonged to the lowest rungs of the samurai hierarchy. They had the least to lose and most to gain when the shogun fell from power. The humble origins of these men add to their appeal. One of the biggest heroes of this era was Saigo Takamori, who was plucked from obscurity and poverty by Lord Nariakira, and eventually became the commander of the Imperial Army at the surrender of Edo Castle, the shogun’s stronghold which is now the Imperial Palace in downtown Tokyo. Although Saigo proved to be a great negotiator in a time of turmoil, he did not become a respected politician in a time of peace. The man who restored the emperor to power was ousted from the Imperial government for suggesting that Japan should not invade Korea but build a peaceful relationship. Eventually, as the new government curtailed established samurai rights, such as the right to carry swords, Saigo was compelled to lead a rebellion, called the Seinan War, which he eventually lost and was hunted down. His status as traitor to the emperor was pardoned after his death.
There is a statue of Saigo Takamori in Kagoshima and another one in Ueno Park, Tokyo. The statue in Kagoshima depicts Saigo in full military dress uniform, while the statue in Tokyo pointedly depicts him in a bare chested, knee-length kimono without so much as a coat, holding a leash to a dog. The statue of Saigo is just 5 minutes away from Kagoshima station and across the street from the art museum.
The tragedy of Saigo Takamori is one of many great stories surrounding the fall of the shogun and the restoration of the emperor. Other great men survived the initial power struggle and lived to influence the course of Japan well into the 20th century. You will find many statues and monuments all around Kagoshima if you are interested, along with monuments of such trivia as the first domestic telegram and the first gas street lights. Japan is one of the few countries in the world that was never colonized by European powers, and in fact became an industrial power itself. We owe a great deal of that to the visionaries of the 19th century. Since the year 2018 marks the 150th anniversary of the Meiji restoration, Kagoshima is a more popular destination than ever. How significant was the Meiji Restoration? Was it just a local coup, or the turning point for the massive tide of European domination of the world? It depends on who you ask.
Just as foreign visitors to Kagoshima tend miss the underlying stories that give Kagoshima its unique appeal, domestic visitors tend to make a quick round of the tourist stops and miss the unique qualities of the present day city. The most distinct aspect of the city is rooted in its proximity to Sakurajima volcano. When seen from the observation point in Shiroyama, the closeness of the active volcano is stunning. The main shopping district of Tenmonkan and the sidewalks of the most trafficked streets are roofed over to protect people from falling volcanic ash. The eruptions are so frequent, they are a part life. You can find volcanic ash disposal sites on the street corners. There was a major eruption just two weeks after I left. You can see a lush growth of ferns on the barks and branches of trees thanks to the constantly raining soil. A walk through Shiroyama Geo Park has an otherworldly quality to it thanks to the unique vegetation.
You can see a lush growth of ferns on the barks and branches of trees thanks to the constantly raining soil. A walk through Shiroyama Geo Park has an otherworldly quality to it thanks to the unique vegetation.
Porcelain and glassware production established by Shimazu Nariakira are still flourishing industries and produce upmarket items. It takes a bit of backstreet exploration to find less distinguished local produce, such as dried whole flying fish at a dried fish store. (They are great ingredients for traditional soup stock.) You can, of course, opt for more conventional souvenirs like a box of sweets, in which case you can’t go wrong with a visit to Jokiya in the Tenmonkan shopping district.
You can, of course, opt for more conventional souvenirs like a box of sweets, in which case you can’t go wrong with a visit to Jokiya in the Tenmonkan shopping district.
The food in Kagoshima is so awesome, it deserves an article of its own. One item you might want to try is yogan yaki. Literally, it means “lava grill” and you are served a slab of volcanic rock that is baked to a scorching heat, and you grill your meat by placing the slices directly onto it. You could argue that this is a touristy gimmick and not actual local cuisine, but it is worth the experience.
A trip to Kagoshima is a stimulating experience on many levels. If you ever wondered why, of all Asian countries, Japan was the first successful industrial nation, at least a part of the credit goes to the heroes of Kagoshima. But first, you have to wonder. You will only find answers when you ask questions. Stories told in a foreign language that pull on heartstrings not your own are the secret doorways to a universe hidden right in front of your eyes, without the keys to which most of the world will remain an unremarkable pile of bricks.