Active Volcanoes and Arcades: These Are the Best Things to Do in Kagoshima

The peaceful Sengan-en garden is set against the backdrop of Sakurajima volcano
The peaceful Sengan-en garden is set against the backdrop of Sakurajima volcano | © mauritius images GmbH / Alamy Stock Photo
Celia Jenkins

Kagoshima in Japan’s southernmost island of Kyushu has a host of activities to offer. Here are the best, from time outdoors on a peninsula with an active volcano to sampling shōchū at a high-end bar.

Kagoshima has a variety of attractions on offer from the natural wonders of Sakurajima (one of the most active volcanoes in the world) and the astonishing view of it from the mountain of Shiroyama, to shopping experiences in the Tenmonkan arcade where you can sample local delicacies. These are the best things to do in and around Kagoshima.

Visit one of the most active volcanoes in the world

Kagoshima’s number one attraction is undoubtedly Sakurajima, a peninsula that is home to one of the most active volcanoes in the world. Most days, the eruptions just produce a fine dusting of ash rather than spewing hot lava, but bigger eruptions do happen from time to time so always heed safety warnings about where you are and aren’t permitted to go. On the island, visit the old Haragosha Shrine which was all but buried in 1914, leaving just the top of the Kurokami Torii protruding from the ground. The lava fields are also a must visit, an ethereal place to get a sense of the devastation caused by larger eruptions. Down by the coast, visit the Sakurajima Yogan Nagisa Park footbath to enjoy a relaxing soak while enjoying the view.

Sakurajima volcano in Kagoshima is one of the most active in the world

Spend a day on Culture Street

Are you the kind of person that likes to blitz the popular museums and art galleries of a city in a day? If so, head to Iso-Kaido, nicknamed Culture Street because of all the cultural attractions you can find there. The Reimeikan Museum of Culture is of epic proportions that could take half a day to explore. Built on the ruins of Tsurumaru Castle, the museum covers everything from pre-historic Kagoshima to modern day life here, with excellent exhibits of local arts and crafts as well as samurai swords. A short walk down the road takes you to the Kagoshima Museum of Art, which boasts artwork by Japanese artists as well as global painters and sculptors, many of whom you’ll be familiar with. It’s right next door to the Kagoshima City Modern Literature Museum, and not far from the Terukuni Museum, which focuses on local history.

Kagoshima Museum of Art features artworks by Japanese and international artists

Eat Kagoshima delicacies like kurobuta

Each city or region in Japan has its own speciality dishes, and in Kagoshima the most sought-after dish is kurobuta, meaning black pork. The name comes from the colour of the animal’s skin rather than the colour of the meat. Popular ways to try the meat are as a breaded pork cutlet (called tonkatsu) or in a special type of hot pot called shabu shabu (named after the sound of the ingredients swishing in the nabe pot). Satsuma-age is another popular dish; made from a minced fish paste that is deep fried. The texture can be quite rubbery but it has an interesting flavour. The volcanic soil of Sakurajima is rich in minerals, making it an excellent place to grow vegetables. Try some local daikon (giant Japanese radish), sweet potato and citrus fruits. If you can find sweet potato cakes (often in a floral shape with a tiny dollop of purple jam in the centre), try them for sure!

Kurobuta pork is a local speciality

Soak in a geothermal hot spring

Kyushu, Japan’s southern island, is one of the best places in the country to visit an onsen for a hot-spring experience. Regions with volcanoes produce geothermally heated waters, and with Sakurajima just across the bay, it’s no wonder that there are plenty of places for a dip in and around Kagoshima. If you just want to sample a footbath, you can visit Yogan Nagisa Park for free on Sakurajima. Nearby is the Rainbow Hotel with mineral rich waters, perfect for a soak after a day of hiking around the island.

You could also try the Kagomma Onsen, which isn’t fancy, but an authentic local hot spring where you’ll make friends with locals who have lived in Kagoshima all their lives. Also in Kagoshima prefecture, but an hour away from the city by train, Ibusuki is a top place in the region to visit an onsen. There are hundreds of bathhouses to visit, and you can also try out the local suna-mushi (sand-bathing) experience.

Ibusuki is the top place in the region to visit an onsen

Visit the former home of the Shimadzu family

With legends of influential samurai families and daimyō (feudal lords) across Japan, it’s no wonder that there are numerous stately homes and palaces that you can visit today which were once owned by these important members of society. In Kagoshima, you can visit the home of the Shimadzu family who were once feudal lords and discover their 800-year history at Sengan-en, which has won numerous travel and tourism awards. The exquisitely manicured garden, juxtaposed against the backdrop of the wildness of Sakurajima volcano, has an extraordinary view. The house was built in the traditional style using local cedar wood, and the treasures within are just as captivating as the views of the stylish gardens. Enjoy events such as poetry recitals, seasonal floral displays, annual festival celebrations and archery demonstrations. On-site there are two restaurants (with incredible views), a café and a traditional sweet shop selling famous treats from the Satsuma province.

The garden villa of the Shimazu family at Sengan-en is well worth a visit

Get the best views of Sakurajima from Shiroyama Observatory

If your visit to Kagoshima is too brief for a trip over to Sakurajima, head to the mountain of Shiroyama instead where you can catch the best view of the volcano. A short walk away from the city centre, the mountain rises up behind Culture Street and there’s a footpath that will lead you to the top. If you’re a keen hiker then the hillside will be a doddle, and worth it for the amazing view over the city, the bay and the volcano peak. If you’re lucky, you’ll catch the volcano as it belches out plumes of smoke and ash.

Soak up the view from Shiroyama Observatory

Sample some local shōchū

With over 1,500 local brands of shōchū to sample, you need to choose carefully to make sure to try a varied assortment on your visit. Shōchū is a distilled alcoholic beverage, usually made from rice, barley, buckwheat, sweet potatoes or brown sugar. Usually containing 25 percent alcohol, it’s weaker than whisky but much stronger than a glass of wine. To get the best out of your shōchū experience, visit a speciality bar with knowledgeable staff who can help you pick which drinks to sample. Ishizue is one of the best places in Kagoshima for an introduction to shōchū, and although a night out here doesn’t come cheap, it will be one of the most memorable culinary experiences of your time in Japan.

Try shōchū for a taste of Kagoshima

Go shopping at Tenmonkan

Tenmonkan is the name given to downtown Kagoshima, dominated by a shopping arcade that runs through the centre of the city. From cafés, bars and restaurants to shops and entertainment, Tenmonkan is where you’ll get a real flavour of life in Kagoshima. There are several alleyways (or dori) here which are worth checking out – Meizanbori has a rustic, nostalgic feel to it, Gourmet-dori is the best place to find a restaurant, and Bunka-dori boasts fun nightlife.

Try shopping in Tenmonkan’s enormous shopping arcade

Check out Terukuni Shrine

Every city has at least one shrine or temple worth visiting, and in Kagoshima, that shrine is Terukuni. The Shinto shrine is easily recognisable by its giant white torii, and the tree behind that has been pruned into the shape of a bird with outstretched wings. It’s relatively young as temples go – founded in 1864, the temple was damaged just a few years later in the Satsuma Rebellion, and air raid damage in World War II means that many of the current structures date to more recent years. The temple is typically quiet and peaceful despite its city-centre location, but it transforms into a bustling hub during local festivals.

Pay a visit to the quiet and peaceful Terukuni Shrine

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