Kagoshima | Hawaii of Japan

Kagoshima-Hawaii of Japan

The prefecture of Kagoshima is a volcanic tropical paradise also known as the ‘Hawaii of Japan’. With the opening of the Kyushu Shinkansen, accessibility to this area is greatly improved bringing with it great influx of local tourists. This southern Japanese city in the island of Kyushu, is effortlessly charming, big enough to be lively but most importantly, not hectic.

The city of Kagoshima is also known as the Hawaii of Japan. The view from Shiroyama Park of the city. The red and white structure is the Kagoshima transmitting tower.The city has spotless tree lined streets with many bronze statues littered among the city’s gardens and plazas.

From afar, visible from every part of Kagoshima, is a cloud of billowing smoke from the Showa crater on the Sakurajima. Sakurajima or “Cherry Blossom Island” is one of Japan’s most active volcanoes and THE symbol of Kagoshima. The volcano smokes constantly, and minor eruptions often take place multiple times per day. Located in the middle of Kagoshima Bay, Sakurajima has an elevation of 1117 meters and a circumference of about 50 kilometres.

Sakurajima seen here from Shiroyama Park. Seen in this pic, submarines patrolling the Kinko bay waters. Visible from almost everywhere in town, the mountain’s rocky contours blush pink with the dawn and, at dusk, form looming shadows wreathed in smoke. Although its last devastating eruption was a century ago, the volcano has been particularly active of late, and, in 2013, ejected its highest recorded plume of ash. As can be seen from this picture, Sakurajima base is actually inhabited and there is a 24 hour ferry that brings people across. Travelers visiting Sakurajima can find many attractions just around the Ferry Terminal, including an onsen, foot baths, short hiking trails and an information center. There are about 5000 people living on the island foothills.

Residents of Kagoshima suffer from Sakurajima. They are reminded of its great presence as a steady trickle of smoke and ash emerges from the caldera, punctuated by louder mini-eruptions on an almost daily basis. It does not seem to bother the residents, as we could see people settling down in its foothills with a 24 hour ferry service connecting the main island to the Sakurajima. The people that we met here were really friendly. Our driver, an elderly but strong man in his 60s, loved sharing stories about his beloved city. He was very knowledgable, sharing snippets of what makes Kagoshima such a unique one. He told us how they would always carry an umbrella when it rains ash, had to wear sunglasses to protect their eyes from the fine grains of ash and wash their cars almost every day. Laundry has to be hung indoors as they would perpetually be ash rain. Despite all these inconveniences, they love Sakurajima.

As of August 2015, the volcano is under a Level 4 alert by the Japan Meteorological Agency, signifying a very active volcano and those in the immediate area should prepare to evacuate. The residents here, despite these dangers of losing their home have learnt to coexist with Sakurajima. Professor Hans-Ulrich Schmincke stated that man has always benefited very much more from volcanoes than suffered from their eruptions.

The volcanic materials have blessed the region with rich volcanic soil making Kagoshima one of the most renowned food producing region in Japan with its most well known exports, green tea, sweet potato, radish, Pongee rice, Satsuma ware and Berkshire pork (“kurobuta”). This region produces record daikon radishes, roughly the size of basketball! Kagoshima features many shochu breweries, imo-jochu distilled from sweet potatoes. Brilliant isn’t it!  Sakurajima daikon, a local cultivar of radish, is famous for its size (6 kg/13 lb) and mild flavour. Oranges, including the smallest variety of mandarin, are grown here as well.

Festivalo Karaimo World (1-1 Gofuku-cho, Kagoshima City )

Karaimo (“potatoes from China”, “Kara” refers to China, “Imo” is the Japanese word for potatoes) or satsumaimo is Japanese for sweet potato. Listening to Hiroharu san from Festivalo explained the different types of sweet potatoes planted and their uses (from making desserts to imo shochu), I realised how versatile sweet potato is. There are over 150 species in Japan, but the most popular edible ones (not the ones exclusively used for making shochu) have red skins and light yellow flesh. They have interesting names like Bennyhyeto, orange fleshed ones from South America, Bennyharuka, the sweetest of them all.

Historically, Riemon Maeda, a sailor from Yamagawa in Ibusuki City, brought back sweet potatoes to Kagoshima from the Ryukyu Islands (today’s Okinawa) in 1705, after which sweet potatoes rapidly spread throughout Japan. The volcanic soil from Sakurajima is very suitable for the cultivation of sweet potatoes and today it produces 80% of Japan’s sweet potatoes.

Sweet potatoes from Kagoshima
Sweet potatoes from Kagoshima: good sweet potatoes are dimpled. There are about 150 varieties of sweet potato. The reason why sweet potato is grown here is its suitability to the volcanic soil. Volcanic soil drains off easily rendering it not suitable for cultivation of rice. However, the tropical climate paired with the well drained soil is ideal.The orange sweet potato is the most popular for making good quality sweets but not so for sochu.
Japanese sweet potato
Japanese purple sweet potato
Sweet potato cakes
Karaimo Rare Cake “Lovely” This no-bake confectionery is made from the “Kogane Sengan” sweet potatoes, grown on the company-owned farms. There are no preservatives or colouring added in the manufacturing process, and the nutrition and fibre of the sweet potatoes are left intact, retaining the natural flavour and sweetness.
Festivalo Karaimo World
Festivalo Karaimo World: Hiroharu san, the general manager shared that they have sold 350,000,000 pieces of the sweet potato cakes, 2,000 times the height of Mt.Fuji when they are all stacked together. Impressive indeed. We had lovely conversations over fresh mint tea and yokan (sweet potato agar slice) on ways to innovate on sweet potato dishes that can be sold in their upcoming cafe/restaurant opening in their sweet potato farm in Dec 2015. A farm to table experience indeed. Would definitely love to go back and visit.

Kurobuta no Yakata (4962 Kirishima Nagamizu, Kirishima 899-4202, Kagoshima Prefecture)

Our lunch took us into the mountains of Kirishima, an area bordered by the Kirishima National Park filled with lush thick alpine forest. This makes this area absolutely favourable to breed Berkshire pigs, from which we get the succulent kurobuta (black pork), well known throughout Japan. Kurobuta is known as the “kobe beef” of pork in Japan. The Kurobuta is a black Berkshire hog in Japan, and the Kyushu states and Kagoshima prefecture are most known for Kurobuta. The highest quality of pork is not only Kurobuta, but Kagoshima Kurobuta which is 100% Berkshire pork also known as Black Diamond Berkshires.

What makes them special?

The Kurobuta is fed barley and/or  sweet potato shōchū pulp and most importantly for last 90 days, they are fed sweet potato (satsumaimo). According to our host, there is cross breeding and not many can claim to be like D.O.P Kagoshima. It was very interesting when we found out how this restaurant was founded. The founder was originally from the Tokyo area owning a really successful catering business. His love for buta miso (miso with pork) led him into this region of Kagoshima to search for the best ingredient to make it. However, he fell in love with the place. He sold his business in Tokyo, opened up a restaurant selling kurobuta pork. As an entrepreneur, he probably saw the opportunity but it was still pretty gutsy to open a restaurant practically in the middle of no where. When he started his restaurant business, there were 7 kurobuta farms. Word has it, that most of the farmers were getting old and had wanted to retire. As such, his supply was threatened. He decided to buy land and start his own farm to ensure that his restaurant has a ready supply. Today, his farm is located not too far from the restaurant around Mt. Takochihi.

Kurobuta no Yakata shopfront
Kurobuta no Yakata shopfront, non descript restaurant. However when we arrived at 1215pm, the place was already full and there was a queue. According to our Japanese driver, this place serves lunch sets at very reasonable prices and hence very popular with families. The restaurant is an hour drive from the Kagoshima station in the thick of Kirishima National park. We drove along windy road uphill past tea plantations and pine forests.

Today, they supply to 100 plus restaurants all over Japan. The pigpens are under strict hygiene control and the kurobuta are raised in pretty spacious pens with good ratios. They are not really allowed to roam in the foothills as this is after all the national park and apparently, not too much exercise please to encourage the right levels of fat to muscle buildup to ensure the beautiful marbling that they are prized for. These babes are indeed a privileged lot, fed with natural spring water and for the last 90 days they are fed sweet potato (satsumaimo).

Kurobuta pork, is served in a number of ways from fried and boiled to the popular shabu shabu—lightly dipped into simmering soup. Interestingly, locals named roppaku kurobuta (“six whites”) after the six white spots typically found on a pig’s nose, tail and feet. It is highly valued for its rich flavour and beautiful marbling, and is often used for shabu shabu (Japanese hot pot), steak, tonkatsu (breaded, fried pork cutlet), ham, bacon etc., and can be served and eaten medium which is usually the case.

Kurobuta pork shabu shabu
Kurobuta pork shabu shabu: Kurobuta pork, literally “black pig,” is served in a number of ways from fried and boiled to the popular shabu shabu—lightly dipped into simmering soup. Interestingly, locals named roppaku kurobuta (“six whites”) after the six white spots typically found on a pig’s nose, tail and feet. Typically, it is expected that most would eat about 200-250g of sliced pork. The white round balls to the bottom left of the picture is call dasheen, taro mochi balls stuffed with pork. It reminded us of our teochew fish balls stuffed with minced pork.
Kurobuta pork shabu shabu
Kurobuta pork shabu shabu: The stock is made with stock from bonito flakes boiled with thin slivers of burdock root. Kagoshima prefecture’s production of bonito flakes is second only to that of Shizuoka. Once the slices of pork are cooked, they are dipped into either ponzu or sesame sauce.
Buta miso
Buta miso: the reason why the founder came to Kagoshima. His first love, the buta miso, essentially pork mixed with miso eaten with fluffy rice and japanese pickles.

Kagoshima is also a treasure trove of excellent food with its unique food culture fostered under the influence of mainland China and Ryukyu through its long history. We had the opportunity to enjoy a traditional style dinner served at the Shiroyama Park Hotel. These were some of the highlights featuring the best Kagoshima has to offer.

Another culinary staple is the tsuke-age, fried fish cakes—although the rest of Japan knows the dish as satsuma-age, since Satsuma is the historical name of the region. It is said that the word derives from “Chikiagi”, one of the Ryuyku’s cuisine introduced in the 19th century. It is also known as the traditional fast food of Kagoshima. It frequently contains carrots, burdock root or sesame seeds and is enjoyed a number of ways: raw, lightly roasted or dipped in a mix of wasabi and soy sauce.
Sashimi platter
Sashimi platter: The kibinago (seen here at the front left of the platter) also known as Silver Sprat is a signature traditional Kagoshima treat. In season in May, June, December and January, these small white fish are prepared without the use of knives and is mostly served as sashimi, and dipped in  sumiso, or vinegar miso (soybean paste). Caught at night in the Kinko Bay,they are delivered to restaurants first thing in the morning and served by the afternoon. The fishes’ freshness is discerned by translucency—the more translucent the fish, the fresher and more delicious it is.
Kurobuta tonkotsu
Kurobuta tonkotsu : a kurobuta pork stew made with the famous Sakurajima daikon, the world’s heaviest radish and konnyaku with black sugar and miso. The soft pork bone here was absolutely delicious and it was fall off the bone tender. A little sweet due to the amount of sugar added. The ginger slices provided a good contrast and cuts the sweetness of the stew.
Imo sochu
Finally, no Kagoshima meal would be complete without imo-jochu, a type of shochu spirit distilled from sweet potatoes. Experts say that it goes well with any food, especially the sweet and spicy dishes prevalent in Kagoshima cooking. Shochu has a history of at least 500 years in Kagoshima and there is a vast selection to choose from. Seen here, imo-jochu enjoyed on the rocks. In its most neutral form, it tastes something like an earthier, more complex vodka. We have also tried ones that are smoky with whiskey-like characteristics to the slightly floral in taste .

It truly deserves the title of Hawaii of Japan with similarities of a dynamic scenery from the smouldering Sakurajima and its rich volcanic soils. Kagoshima and her people are indeed blessed. Residents are willing to coexist harmoniously to extract the richness that comes with all the inconveniences and most of all the risk of losing everything in the event there is a major eruption. Sometimes, we all just don’t have much of a choice, as livelihoods are dependent on the land and the produce that comes richly from her.

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