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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.