Sakurajima – Out and About on Japan’s Most Active Volcano
Sakurajima is one of the most immediately striking things for visitors to Kagoshima City. Standing out in Kinko bay just five kilometres from the city, the volcano’s hulking shape and constantly smoking presence is so iconic that it's the main feature of Kagoshima’s city flag. Sakurajima is one of Japan’s most active volcanos and has been erupting on and off constantly for the last 60 years, sending huge columns of smoke and ash up into the air almost every day. Most Kagoshima residents will tell you that they have a love/hate relationship with the volcano because while it certainly is a beautiful sight, there’s nothing more irritating than having an eruption dump clouds of ash over your freshly washed car or laundry.
Perhaps the strangest thing about Sakurajima though is that a sizeable population of people choose to live on the volcano itself. Once an island but now attached to the mainland since a huge eruption in 1914, Sakurajima has a population of around 4500 people and despite the eruptions has all the trappings of a regular little fishing village. The only thing slightly out of place is the sight of children making their trip to and from school wearing helmets to protect from debris in the case of a sudden eruption. So why would people choose to live in such a potentially dangerous place? The reason is that Sakurajima's constant eruptions make the soil enormously fertile, producing some very large and rich crops of things such as sweet potatoes and the famous Sakurajima Daikon which are so huge they can weigh up to 30 kilograms.
Sakurajima is a must visit if you're in Kagoshima. It’s easily accessible by ferry from the city and the ferry port is close to several attractions such as the Sakurajima Visitors centre which provides a host of great information about the volcano. Right near the visitor's centre are hot spring footbaths and a 3km walking trail along the old lava flows. Most people only venture this far however there are a number of sights spread around Sakurajima that are well worth visiting. The most obvious ones are the various lookouts around the island. The craters of Sakurajima are closed to the public so the highest point you can get to is the Yunohira observatory which offers a great view of the volcano, as well as a gift shop. My personal favourite lookout is the Arimura Lava Observatory. This area gives a lovely view of the South peak and stunningly shows off Sakurajima's landscape which, thanks to the old lava flows and strange rock formations, is startlingly different to Kagoshima city's just a short distance away.
Another iconic sight on Sakurajima is located all the way on the opposite side of the volcano from the bay and this is the Kurokami Buried Shrine gate. Sakurajima's constant activity is mostly limited to small explosions however there was a major eruption in 1914 that led to an evacuation and buried the landscape in ash. The resulting lava flows connected the island to mainland Japan. A visible reminder of the devastation the eruption caused is this Torii gate at Kurokami Shrine that still remains buried almost all the way to the top in ash.
Sakurajima is also home to several onsen and some nice restaurants that showcase the local produce. For something a little more whimsical, there is also the Sakurajima Dinosaur Park located close to the ferry port. This is a very large playground with seven huge dinosaur statues and play equipment. It’s a great spot for a picnic and fun for kids if you're traveling with them.
Getting around Sakurajima beyond the ferry port can be a little tricky without a car, however there are a couple of options available. The Sakurajima Island View tourist bus travels all the way around the island, visiting several key spots including the observation points. A day ticket costs 500 yen. As the stopping time at each point is fairly brief, it's a good idea to check out the timetable beforehand just so you won't be stranded. Alternatives to the tour bus are taxis or local buses. The local buses aren't as regular as the tourist bus but may give you a little more leeway to explore the area on foot. There are also bicycles available for rent though the further you get from the ferry port, the more difficult cycling becomes.
Sakurajima is a must visit if you're in the Kagoshima area and a place with lots to see and do. It’s well worth making the effort to get around to see its many attractions though you’ll still get a lot out of even a short trip.