Japan Blossoms All Year Long

Japan Blossoms All Year Long

KAGOSHIMA CITY, JAPAN - It rains pink petals in this southern Japanese city. Each year, when the cherry trees shed their pink coats and a gentle wind blows off the surrounding sea, the pedals flutter about like snow flakes and the people of this charming city celebrate the event by gathering in parks to picnic.

They also invite lonely tourists to sample some of the dishes they make for the occasion - black pork, local vegetables and a soft ice-cream-like dessert that is made from sweet potatoes.

"Please, would you like to join us?" a woman named Satsuki asked two strangers as we wandered aimlessly in glorious Iso Gardens, located in the heart of this Kyushu Island city.

A few steps away, a father put his beautiful daughter on his broad shoulders and raised her up so she could touch the cherry tree branches and soak in the subtle fragrance of the magnificent pink blossoms.

Dark-eyed children, amazed by a stranger's blue eyes, frolicked on a pink carpet of fallen blossoms, the ones that provide the hordes of tourists who come here with lots of eye candy for a few weeks in late March and early April each year.

"We are very fortunate to have such beautiful blossoms," said the charming Satsuki as she offered us a cherry blossom cake wrapped in a cherry tree leaf - very yummy!

As fabulously beautiful as they are, the cherry blossoms are not the only attraction this city has to offer.

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Left: Japanese towns and cities are covered in cherry blossoms each year.. Right: A father and daughter enjoy the spectacle.

In fact, Kagoshima City is a place where many of the things that make Japan such a fascinating place to visit intersect. It's a virtual one-stop storehouse of tourist highlights.

Along with the cherry blossoms, Kagoshima City also offers Sakurajima, the mighty active volcano that sits on an island of the same name just a few hundred metres offshore and lets off a bit of steam each day - in the form of a puff of white smoke - just to let the residents who live in its shadow know that it could blow its stack at any time.

And then there is the area's ancient Samurai history, brought to life again thanks to Tom Cruise's recent movie, The Last Samurai.

All these treasures can be seen with one visit to Iso Gardens, from where you can watch the sun rise over Sakurajima each morning and marvel at the fiery monster's dominant presence. Or take part in an ancient tea ceremony in the lovingly restored summer villa of Lord Shimadzu.

The villa is where the ruler to whom the last Samurai - Saigo Takamori - reported, and is located in the enchanting Iso Gardens.

Kagoshima City, the capital of Kagoshima prefecture (province), is a wonderful place to use as a base when visiting the southern region of Japan. However, be prepared to spend a lot of time here - there is a lot to see.

After visiting the gardens, which were built in 1660, you can stop and see some of Lord Shimadzu's prized possessions, now stored in a museum at the entrance to Iso. It's a small collection but gives visitors a remarkable look into Japan's feudal past.

Then, board a ferry at the nearby city docks and take a 15-minute ride to Sakurajima Island, home of the mighty volcano - it has had three major eruptions, 1914, 1945 and 1955 - and 15,000 people, mostly farmers.

The fact that this mountain could spew a river of hot lava down on them at any minute doesn't seem to deter the islanders, who toil in the rich volcanic soil that produces the world's largest radishes - some as big as a watermelon - and the world's smallest and sweetest mandarin oranges - the size of golf balls. The island is also the place where archaeologists unearthed pottery that pre-dates Egyptian history - pots found here are 7,500 years old, according to scientists.

Many of the feudal traditions that highlighted Lord Shimudzu's era are still practiced (in theory at any rate) here - women are still expected to walk three steps behind their husbands, if they can find one. Most of the men in this city of 550,000 travel to major centres like Tokyo and Osaka to study or find work. The ratio of men to women here, according to a native of Kagoshima City, is "one man for every carload of women."

If the movie The Last Samurai - in which the life and times of Saigo Takamori was portrayed - did not quench your thirst for samurai history, then the small town of Chiran, a lovely 40 minute drive through magnificent mountainous terrain which affords you great views of Kagoshima City, its harbour and of course the ever dominant Sakurajima, will.

In Chiran you will find a 250-year-old samurai village, where the great warriors once lived together on a narrow lane when they weren't fighting Lord Shimudzu's battles.

The homes have been lovingly restored and many are still owned by the descendents of the mighty warriors. The traditional homes - there are 27 - are surrounded by huge hedges, each beautifully carved in the shape of the surrounding mountains.

Chiran has long been associated with Japanese military history. This is the place where over 2,000 kamikaze pilots - some as young as 14 - launched their one-way bombing assaults on American targets in nearby Okinawa during World War II. Their martyrdom is remembered today by the 1,036 stone lanterns that line the route leading into the historic town. Each year more of the lanterns are erected, usually by family members of the fallen pilots. In a tea room at the end of the lane, there are photographs showing the young pilots being sent off on their suicide runs by other pilots waving cherry blossom branches. A peace museum is now located in charming Chiran.

Kagoshima prefecture is the sweet potato capital of Japan and the starchy spud - it comes in a variety of colours in these parts - is used in everything from the local liquor - imojochu (think vodka with a distinct paint remover taste), to candy to ice cream - which, by the way, was simply fabulous.

Kagoshima City, which was originally known as Satsuma back in the samurai days, is also the pachinko centre of the universe, with thousands of parlours lighting up the night sky with their blinking neon signs. The game is a cross between pinball and slot machines in which gamblers deposit little metal balls and then get paid off with cash and prizes. The parlours are loud and smoky but a lot of fun to visit.

There is a benefit for those who live in the shadow of Sakurajima - lots and lots of hot springs in which to soak away their aches and pains.

There are over 80 bath houses in the city offering hot spring treatments and several hotels, like the classic Castle Park, tap into the hot springs reservoir and deliver the soothing waters right to their guests. The Castle Park, which is perched on a hill overlooking the city, also affords guests a great view of the volcano - from the comfort of their hot spring baths.

Because of its semi-tropical climate, Kagoshima prefecture is one of the top holiday spots for the Japanese.

The area offers some marvelous beaches, where exciting water sports are played out, along with amazing waterfalls and prehistoric trees.

The trees are located in dense forests where special species of birds and animals, all exclusive to this part of the world, can also be found.

This is also the golf mecca of Japan, offering 32 championship courses. Kagoshima is a popular winter destination for Korean golfers, who live a Big Bertha shot away across the local water hazard known as the Sea of Japan.

Each year, Kagoshima's pristine beaches play host to the world's largest sandcastle sculpturing contest. Some of the creations are as big as the country's real castles. On the drive from Kagoshima City to Chiran, don't be surprised by the sight of a huge rocket pointed towards the sky.

This is the home of Japan's space industry and the country's only rocket ranges are located here and on the nearby islands of Uchinoura and Tanegashima. The space industry has supplemented the loss of the city's once dominant ship building business.

Kagoshima City is a place where you will witness some odd things - like people drinking beer for breakfast. When you ask why they drink beer so early, locals respond: "Why not?"

The creation of Japan is believed to have taken place here when the god Ninigi-no-Mikoto descended onto Mount Takachimo. Judging by the magnificent beauty one witnesses on a visit to Kyushu Island the god obviously knew what he was doing.






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