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Sunday, April 8, 2012

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Smoke signals: Seen from Mount Shiroyama overlooking the city of Kagoshima, Sakurajima sits under its characteristic plume of ash-laden smoke. MATTHEW HOLMES PHOTOS

Moving and shaking on Sakurajima


Special to The Japan Times

It looked like the kind of comfortably oily rag that makes a mechanic's job easier — the sort you find scrunched up in the corner of a garage soaked with tales of its long career, how it protected all manner of tools from rust, greased jamming gears ... and helped fix Mrs. Jones' "unfixable" carburettor back in '83.

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As this small eruption shows, Sakurajima is very much an active volcano.

Being a more agrarian kind of rag, though, this one was fresh from polishing hundreds of mikan mandarin oranges.

Slightly folded then scrunched and tossed, it was delicately positioned on the corner of a box taking a break not from mechanical toils but from volcanic ash. Meanwhile, our host made the only thing he said he could — coffee. Though he was only looking after the guesthouse (called Garamasala) while its owners were away, he certainly knew his way around the cosy kitchen.

"Go ahead, you can have one," he said, peering between the garage's accumulated bric-a-brac and pointing at a half-dozen or so almost-shiny fruits that hadn't yet made it into a bag for sale. Not bigger than a golf ball, and some the size of a large grape, they were the smallest oranges I had ever seen. And as it turned out, they tasted superb.

"Where are these from? Did you pick them?"

"Oh, just around here, yeah. Sakurajima is famous for mikan." And rightly so. They are in season, so you'd expect them to be good, but from the moment you pierce the skin and release the zesty oils from beneath, they deserve their distinction. And if they weren't so abundant, our host would be a rich man.

As it is, his crates of orange gold join those of many other locals, which seem to sprout up all over the island with an honesty box — they'd be a snip at twice the price of a ¥200 bag.

We had met Hiroshi just a few minutes ago, but could already understand a lot about his outlook on life. A well-thumbed, handwritten Okinawan songbook was open on the table, and the fretboard of his guitar looked like it had never been far from his fingers.

He told us, suddenly switching to English, that his usual home was on "Space Rocket Island" — and before he clarified, I briefly wondered if there was something in the coffee.

Tanegashima (it didn't take long for him to proudly add) is the island off Kagoshima Prefecture thought to have been the first landfall in Japan for the first European explorers, who arrived in 1542. More recently, it is from this 57-km-long island that the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) launches satellites and asteroid exploring rockets into space.

Hiroshi has conducted his life at a considerably slower than space-age pace. After growing up in Yokohama with his parents, he island-hopped (and surfed, and fished) through Hachijojima, Okinawa, and his current home, where he'll stay "for a while." And next? "Well, maybe I'll go to Sri Lanka next year. I think it suits Japanese people. And it's an island."

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Easy does it: Both male and female bathers (wearing yukata summer kimonos, as required) enjoy the hot waters of Furusato Spa onsen beside the sea on Sakurajima. The onsen is attached to the Furusato Kinko Hotel, which allows people who are not guests to bathe there for a mere ¥1,050.

Today, he's here, keeping the small guest-house's coffee pot warm and steadily working to shine those mikan.

We had just returned from the breathtaking Yunohira observation point, and I asked him if he'd made it up the hill yet. He said no. "But the foot spa over there is free."

His was quite a different mood to mine when I woke up.

Sitting up on my futon, just reaching for a glass of water, I looked about 30 degrees to my left, and pulled back the curtain. Out of the window, past the balcony, over the bay, was a plume of smoke. "It's erupting!"

Myself and a friend arrived in the city after dark the previous night, and never one to completely trust brochure-promised views, I had almost forgotten where we were. It was Jan. 2, and as it turned out, the volcano on Sakurajima was erupting for already the 12th time in 2012.

Sakurajima is actually a composite-, or strato-volcano, which has three main peaks, and it is the active Minami-Dake (southern peak) from which ash pours out. For us, the gray plumes were at first an astonishingly sharp interruption of the crisp morning sky, but drifting across Kinko Bay they lose their shadowy texture and turn to clouds. Then, their ash dusts the surrounding area — locals timing when to hang out laundry to dry in view of the daily wind forecast.

The "island" became part of the mainland when, in 1914, the so-called Taisho Eruption spilled lava across the bay toward Kirishima to the south. However, looking at it from the west on the 15-minute ferry journey from Kagoshima City, it seemed we were going to another world. Lava flows and explosions have permanently etched their mark into the landscape.

Next to the ferry terminal, oddly shaped and balanced black rocks litter the flat plain jutting out into the bay and help give the area that otherworldly feel I associate with volcanoes. But there is also lush vegetation, with the rocky outcrops rearing up to the top of the mountain sharply bordered thick evergreen forests.

About to disembark, we were as close as we'd been to the volcano — yet for the first time the peak was out of view.

As the cars streamed off the boat (well, slowly made their way along to the toll gate), it did seem that we may have been better able to explore with our own transport. The island-peninsula is about 77-sq.-km, after all, and we would need to go to the other end to see places like the Kurokami Buried Shrine Gate — a torī which survived the major 1914 eruption, but is now covered up to its crossbeam in ash. There is a bike hire place, but no need. We got lucky.

Where there's a volcano in Japan, it's fair to assume there's a hot-spring resort. As we were checking out our itinerary — I'd been too busy gazing up at the mountain to more than glance over my research and guidebooks on the way over — it seemed a nice way to start.

The lucky bit was when walkie-talkie wielding staff at the ferry terminal bus station pointed us to a free shuttle bus with a beautiful picture on the side. It matched the image I had shown them from my trusty Kagoshima City Tourist Guide (pick this up at the station and you won't miss much around here!). Then, before we knew it (and without what would have been an easy call ahead) we had bagged a ride. The driver welcomed us aboard, and whisked us 11 km south to beautiful Furusato Spa.

The location seemed too good to be true. Climbing down the cliff from the hotel, we saw men and women in yukata summer kimonos relaxing side by side in the hot water below the roots of a huge tree edging down the cliff. When we reached the bath, it felt like a giant infinity-pool — I could have looked out to sea for hours.

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Home from home: Our host Hiroshi in his friends' Sakurajima guesthouse he was looking after, and where he made us welcome and plied us with coffee, mikan and his many and varied traveler's tales. Having already spent time surfing and hanging loose in Okinawa and "Space Rocket Island" (Tanegashima), he wonders if Sri Lanka may be his next port of call.

But as this was to be a day trip, and we wanted to learn a little more about the history of the place, we didn't soak too long.

Back on the shuttle, the driver let us out at Akamizu View Park. An all-night rock concert in 2004 attracted 75,000 people to the quarry here, and a sculpture commemorating local star Tsuyoshi Nagabuchi's homecoming appears at first a cross between Stonehenge and intriguing modern art — what with its circle of stones that includes sculptures of a guitar and the head of the singer. "Portrait of a Scream" is not to my taste, but the arena leading down to the sea must have been spectacular.

So far we had hardly touched Sakurajima. A little further on, our shuttle, which, thanks to the driver — who even kindly slowed down as we took photographs so all our shots wouldn't be blurry — had turned into a personal taxi service, stopped again at Karasujima Observation Point.

From there, we picked up the nature trail that runs around the coast, past scattered so-called lava bombs and the very visible lines of different levels of post-eruption revegetation. Study these, and we could see which major eruption's wake we were wandering on.

The "bombs" hold none of the fear they would have in their early life when, sprayed out of the volcano in semi-molten form, they'd have solidified just before fizzing into the sea or smashing down onto the ground.

At the visitor center, newspapers and documents from major eruptions intrigued us — and taught us new Japanese onomatopoeia for what must have been horrifyingly magnified versions of the groaning sounds we'd heard from the peak a few kilometers above us that day. Reprinted eyewitness accounts bring the volcano to life. The most dramatic is from the scene in 1779, known as the Anei Eruption, when "water wells boiled and the sea turned purple."

The local mayor ordered the evacuation of 10,000 people after seismologists predicted the 1914 eruption, and the motto inscribed on the memorial to the 35 people killed serves as a poignant reminder of the fragility of life on a volcano: "We cannot trust science, we must be prepared. And while the mountain looks over us, we have no way to know her sentiment."

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Some 5,000 people live on Sakurajima, and taking the Island View Bus — just ¥500 to get on and off anywhere around its loop — we passed concrete shelters in people's gardens, even tombstones with shelters over them to minimize ash-fall on the flowers.

We were heading to Yunohira Observation Point, and it seemed the heavens knew the bus timetable. We were as close as we could get to the peak, and as we watched the almost full moon resting above the summit, billows of ash again coated the lenses of our cameras. Perfect.

There was not much left to do other than get back on the bus, seek snacks, coffee, and somewhere warm — and to see if we could partake of some of the local Kagoshima hospitality we'd heard so much about.



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