Published: November 22nd 2007November 21st 2007
Well, well... what do you know? As my imminent departure drew near, someone figured it was time to ease up on the clouds. Frustratingly so, the blue sky began to peak out again. I guess someone wanted to make sure the weather wouldn't keep my plane grounded as if to really make sure I got off the island pronto. Naha's immediate proximity to the airport meant that I could just casually check out and walk a few hundred meters to the nearest monorail station, and then find myself at the airport concourse some fifteen minutes later. The whole process of leaving my room and securing a boarding pass didn't even take 30 minutes. Quite impressive.
Domestic flights in Japan generally seem to board around fifteen minutes before departure, so with more than an hour to spare I was easily one of the early arrivals. However, it is always good to have some time to go sightseeing the terminals. But it wasn't the large marketplace with twenty sellers all hustling the same things that drew my interest. Okinawa-decorated t-shirts, purple sweet-potato cookies (a regional specialty it seems... which reminds me, there was alot of whale meat for sale at Omura/Nagasaki airport),
P-3 Orion at Naha Airport
gift wrapped fresh fruits (incredibly expensive), little keychains with tropical fish and fluffy Hello Kitty dolls with the little cat riding on the back of a clownfish (I almost decided to get you one, Kay.....) and more weird foodstuffs that I couldn't even begin to guess what they were. And it wasn't those incredibly tired tax free shops at the gates with their endless supply of Lancorny, Bvlimi and all those other branded cancerlike outgrowths on civilization either. No, it was the fact that Naha airport doubles as a military airport.
Parked in close proximity to the JAL domestic terminal were no less than ten P-3 Orions waiting for their assignments. Some of them I had already seen circling over town leaving dark trails of smoke behind. There was also a CH-47J Chinook out practicing takeoff and landing stuck in a rut of doing constant circles. Just as I had rigged my telescopic lens and set the parameters (the damned thing only works on manual settings, must have broken something) I could see another plane taking off from the runway. Figuring it would be an ANA 737 or one of the government Dash 8's I casually zoomed in only
F-4EJ Phantom II
to be met with a mighty roar as a JASDF F-4EJ Phantom II took to the sky. There were three more hot on its tail followed by a single Kawasaki T-4 and I was seated in a prime position. I couldn't believe my good fortune (and wonder when and how I will have to repay in bad luck again).
As we finally left Naha I was eager to get going as I had high hopes for the next destination on my list; Kagoshima
. Not because some tourist brochures describe it as the Venice of the Orient
(eh...?) but because this city is located on the east coast of the western peninsular leg of Kyushu island. It is separated from the right leg by a trickle of water, but on the other side of the just mentioned strait lies the 1117 meter high Mt. Sakurajima
, a beautiful cone-shaped mountain. Wait a minute...cone-shaped? Does that mean... yes it does. Not only is Mt. Sakurajima a volcano, but it is an active
volcano, having had near constant little eruptions ever since 1955. It used to be an island, but a massive eruption in 1914 poured out so much lava that it has
now been connected to Kyushu island. There are three craters but only one is active, its distance from downtown Kagoshima roughly nine kilometers. The strait that separates the volcano from the city is just two kilometers wide. There are also lots of people living on the edges of the volcano. The soil is most fertile in places, and hot spring lovers can also enjoy a bath here. But... I am getting ahead of myself.
Some thirty minutes into the flight from Naha I suddenly saw something strange from my window. We had reached the edge of that massive wall of clouds that had covered the whole(?) of Okinawa island during my stay. It looked like a big and thin white disk, slowly gliding over the world. Skies were blue as we came up on Kyushu island once more, but I was unfortunate to be seated on the wrong side of the plane, so I missed most of the spectacular views of both Mt. Sakurajima and my newfound love Mt. Kaimondake
, with its lovely near perfect conical profile. On my next trip to Kyushu Island, I am determined to go visit it firsthand.
Just like Nagasaki Airport is located
in Omura, the Kagoshima Airport is actually located in neighbouring city Kirishima
. These regional style airports effectively serve a number of cities instead of having to build facilties at each city, but of course the commute will be longer. However, as can be imagined, the airport bus transfer is highly effective as well. I purchased a ticket to Kagoshima priced at 1200 yen from a subway-style ticketing machine and got onboard the bus. In this case the driver waited for it to fill up fully before leaving. Once the regular seats were taken the last passengers could fold out mini-seats in the aisle to fill up the bus completely. Clever engineering to seat 50 paying guests, but I wonder what would happen in a case of emergency and the chaos that would ensue when two dozen sararimen try to cram their way out of such a deathtrap, trampling the occasional old lady (or gaijin tourist...) in the progress.
Thirty minutes later the bus made a number of stops downtown and after getting off at the heart of the city at Tenmonkan-dori
I found my hotel just a short walk from the dropoff point. However, check-in wasn't until 3pm and
Like a giant lid in the sky
Here's the reason my stay in Okinawa was so dreary
since it was just past midday they sent me on my way again. I didn't mind at all, this afternoon was perfect for a little volcano-sightseeing so I secured a map, dumped my bag and was shortly on my way to the port area. The streets were once again full of those maddening bicyclists dodging the pedestrians and zig-zaging up from behind you. They never use the bell either, so I seriously consider getting myself a pair of those horseblinds and just develop tunnelvision which seems to be the way the locals do it. There is a city tram in town too, tickets go at a fixed price of 160 yen no matter the distance. But since the city center is fairly compact and I realized I wouldn't make much use of it after all.
Once I started getting near the waterway I started looking down into the pavement, not wanting to spoil my impression of Mt. Sakurajima. As I got nearer though, it was impossible not to look up between the buildings and there it was, towering above the city. I quickly went down to the pier at Dolphin Port
to take in its magnificent beauty. Once the
Nearing Kirishima Airport
Japan has a highly engineered and somewhat artificial countryside. Save for the mountains, much land has been flattened, in this case even some of the hills too
immeidate spell was broken I noticed that it was kind of cold down here, in fact it was really cold. There was a strong chilly wind blowing from the north and not even the high noon sun could do much about it. As I made may way back from the pier the park was suddenly swarmed by some 200-300 students on a school outing, sitting down with their lunch boxes for some picnic. At first it looked like the crowd from a rock concert was moving in, then they quickly scattered into little groups spread out very thinly. It was a strange thing to see.
Bothered that my view of Mt. Sakurajima had been partially obscured by some uselessly placed buildings I started making my way north along the waterfront, figuring there must be a better place to get a clean view. As the entertainment area gradually gave way to port offices and some light industry I found myself walking along the highway and started to wonder exactly where I was going, but as long as there was a pavement I figured I might as well see where it leads to. After a while the curiosity paid off, I
A tram passing by at Takami-Baba
reached a residential area near the highway with a nice waterfront promenade, allowing for an uninterrupted silhouette of the volcano. Sakurajima was smoking today, like she does on many occasions. Sometimes the clouds can reach high, today it seemed to be a very small little white puff of smoke, maybe 100 meters tall or so. The little cloud did change shape and size continuously which was fascinating to see, the very closest thing I've ever come to witnessing an active volcano. The wind had slowed down a bit so sitting at the wall in front of the waterline just watching the ever present Sakurajima ferries coming and going was actually really pleasant. I think I must have spent an hour and a half here just taking in the sights.
On my way here I had passed by the Kagoshima Aquarium
and although it felt a little sinful to cover both of my most interesting locations before even having checked in at the hotel I figured I might as well go over and have a look. And I am glad that I did. Once I got in, the only way for them to get me out was to close the
The busy Tenmonkan-dori
place for the day. The Kagoshima aquarium may not be the world's biggest or most spectacular, but it is very sympathetic and they have many nice small and medium sized tanks full of eyecatching species. But their most prized asset is without a doubt the Kuroshio Current exhibition. And you can't miss it either, as it is the first thing you will see. Riding up a little escalator you step into a darkened room with large tank housing a whole slew of rays, mantas and similar sized behemoths of the ocean. The star of the show is their whale shark who keeps doing counter-clockwise laps around the tank, escorted by a pair of Cobias who apparently consider themselves worthy to hang. The lower segment houses the coolest guys on the team, the flattened bottom-dwellers with their surreal outlooks on the world. And then there is the music, a superb ambient loop that I simply have to get my hands on.
In fact, there was a lot to see at the aquarium, but I kind of raced past a lot of it to emerge back at the Kuroshio room and spend most of the remaining time there. I could easily
have spent hours here. This is when I started to mourn the fact that I had only scheduled two nights in Kagoshima. Still, this trip is but a recon mission, and I will know exactly where to head next time. You will notice that this blog entry only features photos from the Kuroshio room. This is due to the fact that I a) took an obscene amount of photos and b) went back to the aquarium again on the following day, so the rest of the species will be featured in the following journal entry.
Once the aquarium had closed its doors behind me I made my way back downtown to finally get access to my room. I was impressed to have got a little room on the top 14th floor, although it was clearly a smoking room, no matter what was listed. This in fact, matches all the other hotel rooms I stayed in here so far. It doesn't bother me in the slightest, but you may be wanting to consider this if you are planning to stay at a hotel in Japan. You do see smokers in the street, although nowhere near the frequency of what I've
seen in mainland China. My room was also pretty cold, and for the first time on the trip I had to turn the air-con on, pumping out twentyfive degree hot air into the room which made it quite cozy. Then tere was the ultra-advanced toilet in the bathroom. It scared the shit out of me the first two times it decided to have some kind of weird activity entertaining itself with loud gurgling and dunking sounds, as if the pipes were about to rupture and come out of the walls. It was as if some demonic presence was spawning minions in there.
I headed back out in the night to look for some food, and with Tenmonkan-dori just around the corner it only took a few minutes before I was cruising the busy bar/restaurant district. It reminded me a bit of Nagasaki with its number of small venues, simple doors with or without paper lanterns outside. A quick glance through the barred windows and you'll see sararimen seated in diner-like miniature restaurants finishing their quick suppers. I walked around for a bit causally reading (i.e. looking at the pictures, if any...) the menues outside each place, but couldn't really
bring myself to work up any enthusiasm. I would have paid good money for some Thai paneng curry right now. I must say I am a bit surprised that there are so few international style restaurants here,save for all those steakhouses and burger joints, McD seems to be everywhere. After ten days in Japan I have still not seen a single Thai restaurant, althought I did find one Korean, three or fours Italian, one Vietnamese and two Indian. In the end I got myself some sushi and headed back to the room.
There are more photos below