Flying into Kagoshima from Tokyo across the volcanic landscape of Kirishima and Ebino Kogen, I feel as if I’m arriving in another country. The air is moist and warm, the light sharper, the sky bluer and the foliage intensely green, sprawling exuberantly over the rugged hills.
Less than 150 years ago, this really was another country — Satsuma, the domain of some of the fiercest warriors in the land.
I’m here in search of the last Samurai, Saigo Takamori, whose statue, with swirling robe, sword and faithful little dog, stands at the entrance to Ueno Park in central Tokyo. Saigo famously died in 1877 in the Satsuma Rebellion. But I soon discover that he’s still very much alive in Kagoshima.
I leave my bag in my hotel and set out to explore. And there, on the hillside opposite Chuo Park, is an enormous bronze statue of a stern uniformed figure, silhouetted against the sky.
Saigo arrived here by ship in 1873. He was coming home. Born in 1827, he was the most famous and beloved of the Satsuma generals. He led the troops that fought and defeated the forces of the Tokugawa Shogunate that had ruled Japan since 1603, overseeing the negotiated handover of the grand castle in Edo (present-day Tokyo) in 1868, and ushering in the restoration of the Meiji Emperor.
He and his colleagues formed a new government. Shortly afterward, most of them went to Europe and America on a two-year fact-finding mission. Saigo stayed behind to head the caretaker government, effectively as prime minister. But when they returned they fell out over the issue of samurai privilege. Saigo resigned and returned to his birthplace, Kagoshima.
From his statue I follow the massive lava-stone walls that were once the outer ramparts of Kagoshima Castle, beside the moat where brilliant orange and gold carp swim. Right behind them, Shiroyama, Castle Mount, looms above the city. It looks like a near-vertical wall of rock covered in dense foliage, but I find a footpath and climb to the top and look down on the buildings, like a child’s building blocks. Kagoshima is very much a maritime city, crammed into a narrow strip of land between the hill and the sparkling waters of Kagoshima Bay. There are ships and small boats at anchor and ferries shuttling to and fro. Sirens echo long and low across the water.
Across the bay, visible from wherever you are in the city, is the spectacular cone of the Mount Sakurajima volcano, a plume of smoke floating above its jagged mouth.
“If the wind is from the east the ash blows toward the city,” observes a woman standing next to me. “If it’s from the west, it blows away from the city.”
Yes, she tells me, it’s not smoke but ash. As I watch, a fresh fist of ash balloons out, growing ever larger.
Saigo, I soon discover, came from the wrong side of the tracks.
“High-ranking samurai lived around the castle,” Kenji Fukuda, curator of the Museum of the Meiji Restoration, tells me. “The lower your rank the further away you lived. He lived a long way away, right across the Koutukigawa River. His family had samurai status but no income. They had to farm to support themselves.”
The museum focuses in particular on the starring role played in the Meiji Restoration by the city’s most beloved son, Saigo. Everything is here: clogs he wove himself — noticeably large ones, for his famously big feet; his fan and his ink pot; even his underwear.
There are also portraits, painted well after his death. No photographs exist at all. The British diplomat Ernest Satow, who knew him well, described him as “a big, burly man with an eye that sparkled like a big black diamond.”
It’s well known, too, that he liked his food — tonkatsu (breaded, deep-fried pork cutlets), Castella cake, rabbit soup, eel. In Kagoshima he’s universally referred to as “Saigo-don” — don being an affectionate abbreviation of the honorific dono (milord) — and he’s portrayed as a wise, almost saintly figure.
Ryutaro and Miwa Higashikawa, local guides and authorities on all things Saigo, take me to Daimonguchi, the city’s old geisha district, which the lords of Satsuma, the Shimazu, populated with the classiest, most sophisticated Kyoto geisha. Then we cross the river to the location of Saigo’s house.
The city was flattened during the Satsuma Rebellion that raged from January to September 1877 after Satsuma ex-samurai launched a revolt against the Meiji government. Consequently, the house is gone but the grounds are still here, together with a plan of the building and a statue of Saigo and his friend, the calligrapher Kawaguchi Seppo.
Here Saigo wrote poetry and lived the life of a gentleman farmer, growing vegetables, plowing, hoeing and carrying night soil. He had pictures of his heroes — Washington, Napoleon, Peter the Great and Nelson. But other than that the house was a simple place with no formal entrance. Visitors just slid open the shutters anywhere and stepped in. Nearby is a house reconstructed in the traditional style, like Saigo’s would have been, with two separate buildings, one for living in, one for cooking, each with its own straw roof.
Besides farming, Saigo loved hunting and taking the waters. He had a house in Hinatayama, an onsen village at the top of the bay. I go there by taxi. Saigo would have gone by boat, seeing the spectacular purple peaks of Kirishima rising in front of him. Hinatayama is an idyllic place. His house is still there, carefully preserved with a sign under the eaves reading “Saigo-don no yado“ (“Saigo’s house”). It’s a big thatched house in a beautiful glade with threshing and planting machines inside.
“He used to sit in the shadow of the mountain near the river and fish and weave sandals,” the owner of the local bath-house tells us. “They offered him a special private bath but he said he was perfectly happy to bathe with everyone else.” He was a humble man, as everyone tells me; he had no airs and graces.
He also set up schools. The main one was the Shigakko, literally “Private school.” It was more a military academy than just a regular school, what with its infantry and artillery units, though the students also studied the Chinese classics and foreign languages. Saigo denied he was training up a private army, but three years after he launched his schools program there were several thousand well-trained young men all over Satsuma — all itching for a fight.
Today, there’s nothing left except a sign reading “Shigakko,” and the massive lava-stone walls, pocked with bullet holes, at the foot of Shiroyama, right beside where the castle was. The castle too has been destroyed, but the Shimazu lords’ summer villa, Sengan-en, is still there along the coast, with its landscaped gardens incorporating a view of Mount Sakurajima across the bay.
Beside it was Japan’s first manufacturing plant, built in 1855 by Shimazu Nariakira, a forward-looking lord of that ilk, on the advice of Saigo and his colleagues. In Saigo’s day, it was the biggest machinery and gunpowder factory in Japan, with blast and reverberatory furnaces producing ships, cannons, firearms, gunpowder and shot. Some of the splendid stone buildings are still there, including a glassworks and a museum showing artifacts the factories produced.
In 1876, Saigo’s idyllic life came to an abrupt end. That year the government passed a series of laws clamping down completely on samurai privileges. Samurai were no longer to carry swords or wear their hair in topknots, and, most devastating of all, they lost their stipends.
Initially Saigo didn’t want to lead a rebellion, but in the end he was persuaded. In February 1877, 12,000 men assembled in front of Kagoshima Castle and marched out of the city. There was a snowstorm that day, blanketing both the streets and people in white, which seemed to symbolize the purity of their cause as they felt it.
After a disastrous campaign they ended up back in Kagoshima that September. There were only 300 men left. There was fighting around the school, which accounts for the bullet holes in the walls, and they retreated to Shiroyama. There, Saigo spent his time playing go, exchanging poems, listening to the biwa (a sort of lute) and joking with his companions — all awaiting the inevitable end.
On my last day, I climb Shiroyama in search of the caves where Saigo holed up. There’s an outcrop there with a cliff right behind, with roots growing out of it and vines hanging from the trees. Black dust swirls in the wind. As for the famous caves, they are not much more than a couple of hollows which wouldn’t have sheltered more than a few men.
On the morning of Sept. 24, the army closed in. Saigo and his men charged straight toward them. Saigo made it around 200 meters before he was hit. There’s a monument marking the place where he fell.
The graveyard is in the grounds of a nearby temple. When I get there it’s pouring with rain, which seems appropriate. There’s a torī gate at the entrance and 755 stones marking the graves of the Satsuma; two of the youngest were 13. A huge stone engraved with characters that read “Saigo Takamori” marks the great man’s grave. There are fresh flowers in front.
From the graveyard I look out at Mount Sakurajima looming over the city, a sight Saigo used to love to contemplate. Perhaps it was the last thing he saw as he fell.
Roughly two Kyushu bullet trains arrive at Kagoshima-chuo Station every day. There are also plenty of flights. I stayed at Nakahara Besso, next to Chuo Park. On a previous visit I stayed at the Furusato Kanko Hotel, right on Mount Sakurajima. There, guests can take a lift down to the water’s edge and bathe in the volcanic waters, looking out over the bay. Besides the places described here, the Reimeikan Museum, on the old castle site, is excellent, informative and well laid out. Lesley Downer is a writer and journalist. She lived in Japan for many years and is now based in London. Her latest book is a novel, “Across a Bridge of Dreams,” which centers around the life of Saigo Takamori.