Japan’s big Little Italy


Local sobriquets are not hard to come by. A place that is home to a few dingy canals on which some dodgy craft manage to stay afloat gets tagged the “Venice of Somewhere.” A town in Japan that manages to keep some old houses out of the predatory clutches of developers becomes the “Little Kyoto of Somewhere Else.” So hearing that Kagoshima styles itself as the “Naples of the Orient” is not the kind of thing that tends to elicit immediate, straight-faced belief.

With Kagoshima, though, the Neapolitan connection is not quite as fanciful as it may at first seem. Like Naples, Kagoshima is a port situated on a bay, which it shares with a menacing volcano. Both are cities located in the south of their respective countries and have distinctive, strong local dialects. The two places, which have been sister cities since 1960, are known for their sultry climates, fine cuisines and the fiery southern temperaments of the inhabitants.

Best known by far among Kagoshima’s temperamental locals is Saigo Takamori. Visitors to Tokyo’s Ueno Park can find in one corner the statue of burly Saigo. He’s dressed casually in sandals, an informal summer robe and is portrayed taking his dog out hunting. In Kagoshima, Saigo’s statue depicts him in a rather more historically pertinent fashion. Clad in a military uniform, he looks as if he is about to take a platoon of soldiers out for a walk.

It was Saigo who played an instrumental role in bringing to an end the Tokugawa Shogunate, which had lasted over 260 years, and establishing the Meiji government. In the process, he became a national hero. Later, though, he changed his mind about the government he helped install, and openly revolted against it when he led the ill-fated Satsuma Rebellion of 1877, at the end of which he and his supporters committed ritual suicide. The great hero thus died a great traitor. For its part, the government later changed its mind about him too: Fourteen years after he was safely dead, the Meiji government gave popular Saigo a full pardon.

Kagoshima doesn’t let you forget its famous son. The beetle-browed, heavy-jowled face of Saigo stares out at you from just about every key ring, ashtray, coffee mug, calendar and other knickknack turned out by the local souvenir industry. Saigo is also conspicuously seen decorating the bottles and flasks of the local hooch, which in Kagoshima is most definitely shochu. The prefecture of Kagoshima is the only one in Japan that produces no sake, only shochu. And the preferred kind here is imo-jochu, made from sweet potatoes, which is drunk straight, on the rocks or mixed with hot water. For the shochu aficionado, the quest to find a fine imo-jochu is akin to that of the whisky connoisseur seeking out a rare single malt, but for most, drinking hot imo shochu is like drinking someone else’s bath water. Still, the people of Kagoshima regard their town to be the home of shochu and are rather proud of that status.

Of decidedly broader appeal is the local cuisine, which is one of Japan’s most distinctive. Kagoshima folk know how to eat well, and their food shows the influence of their proximity to China.

Pork is a big favorite here, with perhaps the best-known dish being tonkotsu, a delicious, rich, black-pork stew that is slowly simmered in miso for hours until the meat almost falls off the bones. A local dish enjoyed country-wide is satsuma-age, the deep-fried fish cake that takes its name from Satsuma, the former name of the province.

As Kagoshima is a prominent port, seafood naturally figures highly on local menus, and markets gleam with freshly caught produce. Notable are kibinago, small silvery sardinelike fish, typically served as sashimi on large plates in floral patterns.

If kibinago, tonkotsu and satsuma-age are the signature dishes of Kagoshima, the signature sight is the great peak of Sakurajima. Just 4 km away from Kagoshima, this brooding volcano dominates the skyline and provides it with one of the most dramatic backdrops of any city in Japan. Often, Sakurajima does more than just brood. It is one of the most active volcanoes in the world, and the ash that it regularly spews forth means that residents have to sometimes go out toting umbrellas. As the name indicates, Sakurajima is an island, but heavy lava flows during the eruption of 1914 fused it permanently to the mainland.

Aside from its grand volcano, Kagoshima is not the prettiest of Japanese cities, though it does have a number of attractions.

Sengan-en, or Iso Garden, which was laid out in 1660 for a local feudal lord, is a popular spot.

Visitors with a fond interest in Saigo can also see the cave where he and his remaining followers did their disemboweling.

As you would expect, Saigo makes no small showing at the Museum of the Meiji Restoration. But probably the most interesting local point of interest is Reimeikan, the Kagoshima Prefectural Museum of Culture, located on the site where Tsurumaru Castle once stood. The museum does an impressive job of tracing the history of Kagoshima back to prehistoric times, such as detailing the city’s pre-eminence as a pottery center after Korean potters were brought here at the end of the 16th century. But best of all is a delightful model showing the city’s main arcade, Tenmonkan, as it appeared in the 1930s. Somehow, it all seemed so much more charming then.

Altogether, Kagoshima is no bad place to spend a day or two. The warm climate must bring out the warmth in the people — for despite their reputation for being fiery, the locals are a relaxed, approachable, agreeable lot. The one thing this Naples of the Orient might not have, though, are any decent Italian restaurants. But as the local food is a delight, and the volcano spectacular, nobody seems to be complaining about that.