The small town of Chiran is located right at the bottom of Kyushu, in Kagoshima Prefecture. Despite the town's location, it remains a popular tourist destination for those looking for something a little different and off the beaten track.
Chiran is perhaps most well-known for its sad history. During the Second World War, it was here that many a young (even school-age) soldier was trained to become a kamikaze (literally 'divine wind') suicide bomber. The airfield at Chiran is now covered over with green fields, but there is a museum with some old kamikaze planes, graves, and bunkers nearby. This is known as the Chiran Peace Museum for Kamikaze Pilots (founded in 1975), and, for a 500 yen per adult (300 yen for children) fee you can enter and learn all about the ordeals the pilots went through as they struggled with thoughts of patriotism, family, and death. There are numerous video presentations, 30-minute live presentations, flags signed by the pilots, and letters to their loved ones. You will be able to see that while on the flags the soldiers declared glorious victory for their country, in their letters they expressed despair and depression regarding their own lives and the fate of Japan. The most famous figure of Chiran is, however, not a soldier, but a grandmother, Tome Torihama, pictured above.
The story goes that the young soldiers often went to Tomiya Shokudo for their dinner, a restaurant run by Tome. She was like a mother to them, and talked them through the struggles they encountered. There is one story where Tome and her daughter were walking with one of their regular restaurant customers, Sergeant Saburo Miyagawa, after dinner. The next day was his kamikaze mission, and he told Tome, pointing out some fireflies by the side of the path, that after he died he would come back to the restaurant as a firefly at precisely seven o'clock and wait for them to sing to him. The next night at exactly seven, Tome saw and pointed out to her daughter a small firefly which sat on the ceiling above their head, and said with a smile, 'look, he came back after all'. Together they sang him a war song and he flew back out of the door. This short anecdote became the basis for the 2001 film Hotaru ('firefly') and resulted in a tourist boom in Chiran (even now more than one million people visit Chiran each year). In Chiran you can visit Tome's restaurant, now preserved as a museum, and even see the exact spot where the firefly landed. There is also a restaurant right near the Peace Museum run by the grandson of Tome. If you are lucky enough, he might just be in, and let you ask him about his grandmother.
On the other side of town is the Chiran Samurai Street, a 700 metre road lined by old, preserved samurai houses with beautiful gardens. The eldest were built over 250 years ago. While you cannot enter the houses, you can walk around the immaculate gardens and enjoy the scenery of seven of them for 500 yen. Be aware that some people actually still live down this street, so don`t go strolling into their gardens by accident! There is also a thatched-roof house, one of the oldest houses there, and next to it a small store selling souvenirs and traditional sweets if you get the munchies while you`re walking.
While it is a thirty minute bus ride away, there is one last place you should definitely visit before you leave the area – Ibusuki Onsen. Ibusuki is not just any ordinary onsen – it`s a sand onsen. That`s right, an onsen – in the sand! How does this work? Well, you`re given a yukata, you lie down in a ditch in the sand next to other sand-bathers, and the staff cover you up from neck to toe in warm (or rather, hot) sand. It truly is much hotter than you think it is going to be, and the staff will typically tell you the average person will stay in ten minutes. Do not take this as a challenge as you can actually get burnt from the sand if you stay in too long! When you come out we guarantee you will be sweaty (and potentially light-headed, so take it slow), so hop back in the shower to refresh yourself. Don`t forget to hand over your camera to staff so they can take your picture while you`re in the onsen! These sand onsen are found not just in Ibusuki, but all around Kyushu, the most famous being in Beppu on the east coast, so if you have some more time, jump on a flight to Oita Airport – your personal sand bath awaits!
Chiran is an eighty minute, 900 yen bus ride from Kagoshima (you can catch the bus from either the Yamagataya Bus Center or Kagoshima Chuo Station). Ask your bus driver to tell you when to get off for the Peace Museum stop and start your unique Chiran experience from there!