Drinking to health and history in Kagoshima

by

Special To The Japan Times

Passengers flying into Kagoshima Airport in Kyushu pass over verdant mountains and lush agricultural fields just before landing. This rich terrain, fertilized by ash from a nearby active volcano, partially explains one facet of the prefecture’s reputation: Kagoshima is famous for healthy cuisine.

Centuries-old seaports have brought foreign spice to the mix, and Kagoshima’s powerful leaders of the past and its devoted artisans have ensured that pride will continue to protect traditions here. Aside from being a heaven for foodies (and drink enthusiasts) though, the place sports a plethora of natural spas for the ultimate in relaxation.

In fact, you’ll find the first spa stop just outside the tiny airport’s arrivals and departures area. To use the ashiyu (hot water foot bath), simply pop ¥100 into the nearby honesty box to purchase a small souvenir towel, doff your shoes, then dip your dogs in to revive the blood circulation in your legs and lift your spirits.

Speaking of spirits, a popular destination in the city of Kirishima, where the airport is located, showcases the most crucial ingredient for making shōchū, the local specialty in distilled liquor: Aspergillus kawachii, or white koji mold. It’s a five-minute drive to Barrel Valley Praha & Gen, a self-proclaimed “theme park” where white koji mold is produced at a facility presided over by the firm’s president, Dr. Masahiro Yamamoto.

The use of koji, a filamentous fungus, in the production of various foods dates back about 9,000 years, but Yamamoto’s grandfather-in-law, Genichiro Kawachi (1883-1948), was the first to isolate strains of mold spores high in citric acid, which allow for significantly less spoilage in shōchū production. “Today, we provide koji spores for over 80 percent of all shōchū breweries,” Yamamoto says. “If we stopped production for six months or so, there’d be virtually no shōchū made in Japan.”

Mold husbandry — while unquestionably a highly skilled profession — doesn’t offer much in the entertainment department, but Yamamoto is an animated guide (in English) to his own cutting-edge studies on new uses for koji. Because the mold is reputed to reduce cholesterol, alleviate allergies and fight both diabetes and various cancers, Yamamoto’s plans for the humble fungus include superfertilizers, nutritional livestock feeds and koji-infused green tea capsules. His innovative thinking has begun to attract international attention. “I believe koji will change the world,” he says.

It’s pleasant to stroll through the complex’s Prague-inspired buildings, too, which house a shop offering local koji-fed black pork products and a charming restaurant featuring pork shabu-shabu hot pot. A tip: If you’re there early in the day, grab one of the restaurant’s homemade choux cremes, an airy, custard-filled treat that usually sells out by noon.

A short zip south from the koji factory, another ingredient that’s gaining popularity can be found at the Sakamoto Kurozu organic black vinegar factory. Here, long rows of capacious black-glazed earthenware vessels stretch over the rolling hills and glisten in the sun. The handmade Satsuma-yaki jars hold only three ingredients: rice koji (Aspergillus oryzae), water and steamed unpolished rice. A process called saccharification, together with time, alchemizes this mix into black gold.

With two centuries of know-how behind their product, Sakamoto artisans constantly taste and tend each vessel’s contents, occasionally stirring things gently with a bamboo stick. From the light amber and mild bite of one-year batches to the smoky quartz shades and mellow flavors of three- or five-year brews and the inky, pungent 10-year elixir, Sakamoto’s products are all believed to lower blood sugar, reduce risk of cancer, fight lactic acid build-up and even assist in dietary weight loss. That last claim may be true, but all bets are off if you venture to the second-floor restaurant, where delicious vinegar-inspired cuisine awaits.

Along the Hayato Road heading east, the main “attraction” is Sakurajima, an exceptionally active stratovolcano that was an island in the middle of Kinko Bay until lava that burst forth from a 1914 eruption fused it with the mainland. Though experts predict the volcano will explode again several decades from now, they also admit that the frequent mini-eruptions — dramatic to witness, but generally harmless — could let off enough steam to delay that event. “If you don’t see an eruption,” my local guide tells me, “you’re just unlucky.” I wonder if the term “lucky” has been lost in translation.
Heading south on the Kyushu Expressway for the city of Kagoshima, an exit to route 16 leads directly to UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site Sengan-en and Shoko Shuseikan, a must-see in Kagoshima. The story here centers on the powerful Shimazu (also spelled Shimadzu) clan that presided over the Satsuma domain (present-day Kagoshima) from the 12th to the 19th century. Toward the end of the Edo Period (1603-1868), the Shimazu family threw itself into importing Western technology to Kagoshima, and the Shoko Shuseikan’s 1865 machine factory, now a museum, commemorates their early industrial forays.

The site’s real gem, though, is Sengan-en, a “borrowed vista” garden designed in 1658 for the Shimazu family. It incorporates Sakurajima and Kinko Bay in the background to extend the perceived perimeters, and features massive stone lanterns as well as flowering trees for each season. Of particular interest is the Kyokusui (meandering stream), which is designed for a literary drinking game. Wooden cups of sake are set afloat, and poets who are downstream race to compose verses before the cup reaches them, or drain it as a penalty.

The grounds include the exquisitely preserved second home the Shimazus, originally built in 1658 and reconstructed in the mid-1880s. To tour inside, you must be accompanied by a professional guide and pony up an additional ¥600 fee. Despite the fact that most guides speak only Japanese, the estate’s architectural features and inner garden are worth the look, and the tour winds up nicely with green tea and wagashi (traditional Japanese confections) to sweeten the deal.

Before departing the UNESCO site, definitely duck into the Satsuma Kiriko Factory, where artisans pull glowing orbs of molten clear glass from furnaces, adding a layer of colored glass to the surface before blowing and shaping each work. Once cooled, diamond circular saws are used to slice through the colored glass in geometric patterns that allow the inner clear layer to sparkle through. A gift shop nearby has the famous works for sale.

Pulling into the city of Kagoshima, it’s sad to see all that remains of Tsurumaru Castle, built by Iehisa Shimazu in 1601, is the moat. Still, in summertime, this fills with dramatic blossoming lotuses, a pretty sight en route to the Shiroyama Kanko Hotel. Spacious rooms, an awesome hilltop location, and an outdoor spa overlooking the volcano are reason enough to visit the hotel, in business since 1963, but an on-site craft brewery makes it the toast of the town. Pale ales, stouts, Belgian whites and a lemongrass herbal ale have all won international awards.

While rumors swirl that it’s set to be dismantled, no dining trip to Kagoshima is legit without experiencing Kagomme Furusato Yataimura. About 25 tiny stalls — most seating a maximum of 12 — dish out delicious local fare, such as Sakurajima ash-dried herring and black pork, along with favorites such as ramen, sashimi, pot-stickers and grilled seafood. Locals are likely to sit down with you and clink glasses, and a festival-like atmosphere tends to prevail.

Two attractions make a trip a bit further down the coast, to Ibusuki, worthwhile. First, no gourmet itinerary would leave out Ibusuki Shusui-en, a luxury ryokan-style hotel that scored this year’s first prize for cuisine in travel newspaper Ryoko Shinbun’s all-Japan hotel and ryokan contest, an accolade it has held for 33 years running. Accommodations at Shusui-en, I discover, are enormous by Japanese standards, and the suites have been recently updated to include comfy bedrooms, Wi-Fi, flat screen TVs, and en suite cypress baths.

Dinner at Shusui-en arrives in multiple courses, including fresh seafood, delicate dipping sauces, a cube of moist black pork, shabu-shabu and an absolutely astonishing abalone, served in its shell with a cream-based sauce and toasted pine nuts. Paired with local brands of shōchū (ask for the hotel’s citrus-flavored cocktail for something lighter), it’s divine.

Though there are several swell hot spring spas at Shusui-en, just minutes away, at the seashore, the naturally heated Saraku sand baths beckon. Donning a yukata (cotton kimono), you lie face-up on a plot of black sand. Shovellers then gently heap the heavy stuff over you until, wrapped in a towel, only your head pokes above the surface like a happy sand worm. The heat penetrates to your core and gets your extremities pulsing as the sound of gentle waves lulls you into deep relaxation. Supposedly good for circulation, skin and general beauty, the 10-minute treatment leaves you with a blissful glow, and the conclusion that Kagoshima can get under your skin in a good way, fast.

Flights depart daily from Tokyo and Osaka to Kagoshima Airport. Kagoshima is also reachable via the Kyushu Shinkansen.