Since comedian-turned-politican Hideo Higashikokubaru was elected governor of Miyazaki Prefecture in January, the previously nondescript, countryside region of 1.14 million people on the southeastern coast of Kyushu, southern Japan, has had its profile dramatically boosted.
Even Higashikokubaru’s past — he was questioned by police but not charged for having sex with an underage girl, then subsequently divorced from his actress wife — seems to have enhanced his current image as a reborn, serious-minded reformer bursting with an ambition to turn his native, corruption- ridden prefecture around.
One need look no farther than the prefectural government office in downtown Miyazaki for proof of the hype surrounding the 50 year old.
Busloads of people young and old storm the building daily to pose for a photo with a life-size cardboard version of the governor sporting a happi coat and a big smile at the main entrance. Other than the photo op, there is not much to see or experience in this 75-year-old, three-story office building, but that doesn’t faze the visitors. People say they go there not to immerse themselves in the 1930s Gothic architecture, but in the hope of stumbling across the nama (real) governor.
Fortunately, Miyazaki has much more to offer to travelers than two-second sightings of a celebrity governor. Sweeping views, ties to Japanese mythology and great food are among them. It has also long been known as a major producer of shochu, especially types made from sweet potatoes, called imo-jochu. The key to good imo-jochu, which is transparent and colorless like water and which retains a rich aroma and a subtle sweet aftertaste, is the quality of the water and sweet potatoes. The sweet potatoes are steamed, mashed and mixed with koji (mold-covered steamed rice) and mineral water.
During a recent trip to Miyazaki at the invitation of Miyazaki-based shochu maker Kirishima Shuzo, Takuzo Enatsu, the company’s managing director, explained that shochu was brought to Japan around 400 years ago from Fujian Province in southeast China via Okinawa.
“The roots of sweet potatoes can be traced back to South America 10,000 years ago, and a museum in Peru has a collection of carbonized sweet potatoes. They began to be consumed before Christ and the Buddha, and ended up in southern Kyushu,” he says. “The culture of distillation originates in the Mesopotamian civilization, and the use of koji also started before Christ. I just find it so amazing the three cultures — the sweet potatoes, distillation, malt — all ended up in this region.”
Long considered a regional, old man’s drink, shochu today has become a popular, even trendy beverage, thanks to a huge boom of imo-jochu in the early 2000s. Behind the nationwide craze back then was a growing health consciousness among the public. Shochu is touted as being less likely to cause hangovers than other alcoholic beverages such as sake and some scientists claim it is less fattening, though you won’t get any healthier by gorging on fatty foods with it.
Shochu does go down well with Miyazaki’s local dishes, many of which use local fresh fish and vegetables. Among them are kanimaki jiru, a miso soup rich with the flavors of river-crab meat, and hiyajiru, a cold miso soup of fish and cucumbers that is poured over rice. Visitors can also enjoy from now through to the end of the year ise-ebi prawns, which locals say are much more affordable in Miyazaki than in other cities.
Minato-no-eki Meitsu, a small, seaside restaurant in the Nango area, run by the Nango Fishery Association, features sashimi and other lunch sets of tuna and bonito, and for the time being it offers ise-ebi miso soup. It also sells live ise-ebi caught in the nearby ocean to take home. The restaurant is so popular even among locals that customers wait in a long line on weekends, association officials said. The restaurant offers various a la carte dishes, including such local delicacies as deep-fried gonguri, the chewy stomach of bonito.
For history buffs, Miyazaki has something to offer as well, as it’s rich in ancient myths and legends. Some academics claim the Imperial Family’s roots lie in the mountainous region of Takachiho on the border of Kagoshima Prefecture. That’s where Ninigi no Mikoto, an important figure in Japanese mythology who was the grandson of the sun goddess Amaterasu Omikami, is believed to have descended from heaven to rule the island. In Japanese mythology, his grandson became the first emperor, Jimmu.
Overlooking the Nichinan Coast and built inside a cave is Udo Jingu Shrine, dedicated to Ugayafukiaezu no Mikoto, the father of Jimmu. The Ochichi-no-iwa (breast-shaped rocks) inside the cave are worshipped by locals to help expecting mothers have a safe delivery. The shrine also sells Ochichi-ame (drops from the breasts), candy made from water that drips from the rocks and which are believed to fulfill pilgrims’ wishes to have a safe childbirth and healthy children.
All in all, though, a trip to Miyazaki is a reminder of the huge expectations that locals have for the governor to lift the spirits (and the economic fortunes) of the prefecture. When I was “lucky” enough to see Miyazaki’s most famous man for a few seconds at the government office, visitors mobbed him as he sauntered down the stairs and into a cab to attend a meeting outside. If you miss him, there are more than enough chances to feel his presence at Miyazaki Bussan-kan, a semigovernmental local-products center next door, which sells jidori (chicken), shochu, crafts and other district specialities. A majority of the products sold there bear illustrations, pictures or logos of the governor or his name, and a store official bragged that the sales of the shop have jumped seven-fold since Higashikokubaru took office.
In fact, from the airport to Udo Jingu shops to local restaurants, Higashikokubaru is all around you — in pictures and cartoons. I could not help but wonder what would happen to Miyazaki when his term expires. I also wondered when the people of Miyazaki will truly start taking pride in their treasures, like their temperate climate, the gorgeous coastline, good food, shochu and rich historical traditions, which, after all, makes Miyazaki so much more special than a man who is on national TV all the time.
Getting there: Miyazaki airport is a 90-minute flight from Haneda airport, 60 minutes from Itami airport in Osaka, and 70 minutes from Chubu International Airport in Aichi Prefecture. To see the Miyazaki Prefectural Government Office (tel.  26-7111), take a bus bound for the Miyako City bus center at JR Miyazaki Station, get off at Tachibana-dori Nichome, and walk for 5 minutes. Kirishima Shuzo Co. ( 21-8111) offers a free tour (reservations required) of its Shibita shochu factory daily; the factory is about 10 minutes by taxi from JR Miyakonojo Station on the JR Nippo Honsen Line, which is an hour from JR Miyazaki Station. To get to Udo Jingu Shrine, take a bus from Miyazaki airport to the shrine entrance, a trip that takes about an hour. For further instructions on how to get to Udo Jingu, visit www.btvm.ne.jp/~udojingu/ Further south, Minato-no-eki Meitsu ( 64-1581) is about a 10-minute walk from JR Nango Station. By train, it takes two hours to Nango from central Miyazaki on the JR Nichinan Line. For general tourism information about Miyazaki, visit www.kanko-miyazaki.jp