A tattered red lantern swings back and forth on a rusty hook outside Densuke, a small, family-run pub-restaurant on Shiokaze Street. The name of the street means salt breeze, and inside Densuke a gregarious, decidedly “salty” bunch of customers sit on sagging tatami mats whose surfaces, like rough hessian, have seen better days.
Others perch at the counter where the real action (if, that is, you can understand Kagoshima-ben, the local dialect), takes place. Dockyard workers and ferrymen, students and middle-aged women, join the lively alcohol and tobacco-fueled banter, in a scene that can have changed little over the years. Over greasy gas burners and sizzling woks, cooks prepare local favorites like chicken and horse fillets, grilled sparrow, squid fried in butter, broiled baby clams, or the region’s sweet potatoes which are a permanganate color, stained by the iron, potassium and sulfur in the soil.
The local poison here at Densuke, as everywhere in Kagoshima, is shochu, a powerful sweet potato and grain based liquor. A 1.8-liter bottle will be plonked in front of you, along with a bucket of ice, after which you will be encouraged to help yourself and get as sozzled as you like. Locals frequently do, earning the good people of Kagoshima the unflattering nickname of “potato samurai.” At 150-200 yen a glass, shochu is an easily acquired taste.
Densuke was recommended to me by Shinichi Nakazono, the friendly proprietor of the Nakazono Ryokan, a creaking old wooden inn, cozy and well-appointed, just behind the Fudankoin Jodo Buddhist Temple. The avuncular Nakazono-san, like most of the local residents, is apt to see life with a rosy tint.
For Nakazono-san, Kagoshima is nothing less than the “Naples of the Orient.” There are, to be sure, some obvious similarities: The sweeping city is grandly ranged along Kinko Bay; there is the profusion of palms along its esplanade, its flower-lined pavements and the looming proximity of Sakurajima, the city’s very own Vesuvius. But there the comparison ends, and quite rightly, for Kagoshima, with one of the most stunning settings of any city in Japan, has plenty to recommend it in its own right.
Historically, this semitropical city, geographically distant from the old capital of Edo, enjoyed an unusual degree of independence. Center of the feudal domain of Satsuma, Kagoshima’s Shimazu clan ruled Okinawa for almost eight centuries, simultaneously absorbing much of the culture of China and Southeast Asia. The legacy of that contact is evident today in Kagoshima’s cuisine, which relies heavily on sweet potatoes rather than rice, and in its typically Okinawan preference for pork dishes. Kagoshima’s noted craft traditions, particularly its Satsuma ceramics and fine silk brocades, also reflect an aesthetic of Asian provenance.
Kagoshima’s main attraction is Sanganen Garden, where semitropical plants grow alongside plum trees and bamboo groves. The centerpiece of the garden is a beautiful pond and miniature waterfall where nobles once held poetry-composing parties. The Shimazu family built a detached villa here with a view of the bay and Sakurajima. A nearby gazebo, a gift from Okinawa, is decorated with colorful Chinese tiles.
Kagoshima is a city of considerable historical importance. It was here that Japan experienced its first contact with Christianity in the person of Francis Xavier, who arrived in Kagoshima on Aug. 15, 1549. On leaving Japan in 1551 he declared, “These people are a delight.” To Xavier the Japanese, a courteous race in full mastery of themselves, were a people “lost in gentility.”
Xavier’s missions to the East had taken him from Rome to Madrid, Lisbon, Goa, Cochin, Macao and Kyushu. It was a path of faith as well as misunderstanding. The aroma of oranges and the subtropical sea breezes failed to lighten the spirits of the Jesuits, who persisted in smelling only idolatry and brimstone. Declaring that satori (illumination) as taught by the Buddha was humbug, Xavier soon lost friends among the influential Zen monks; when the daimyo of Satsuma, who had welcomed the visitor, heard that the ancestors they venerated were roasting in hell because they were not baptized, the Jesuit was kindly asked to preach elsewhere. Kyushu, despite the persecutions that followed in the years after Xavier’s visit, still has the largest proportion of Christians in the country.
The city is also strongly associated with the Meiji-Era philosopher, educator and subsequent dissident Takamori Saigo, who led the ill-fated Seinan Rebellion. Many Japanese people visit the cave on Shiroyama Hill where Saigo committed ritual suicide in 1877. Before Saigo’s last stand, Kagoshima had experienced a brief, not altogether damaging, contact with the British when the city was bombarded by their navy in 1863. This was in retaliation for the cutting down by samurai warriors from the Satsuma clan of a British subject who refused to kowtow before the approach of the Satsuma retinue. Rather than being offended by the assault, the head of the Satsuma clan was so impressed by the naval capacity of the British that a request was made for one of his men to be sent for training with them. The man chosen was Togo, the future commander of the Japanese fleet that scuttled the Russian Navy in the Battle of Tsushima. His statue is not far from the ferry key. A local pointed him out to me, proudly describing him as “Japan’s Admiral Nelson.” With his cocked hat and frock coat, even then a good half century out of date, there was a certain similarity, especially after a glass or two of shochu.