December 07, 2003

Japan 8: Good times, good times

We awoke the next morning to a stunning view of Sakurajima - Kagoshima's signature volcanic landmark whcih sits just across the bay. From Jon's fourth floor apartment, east facing, it looks like the volcano is pretty much in the heart of the city. In fact, Sakurajima sits on the far side of the Bay, joined to the eastern coast by a land bridge formed in 1914 when it erupted, its constant plume of smoke fuming over the course of three days into an enormous explosion of ash and 30 billion tons of lava. It buried three villages and changed the contours of Japan in the process.

Tuesday was the first day that Jon was able to take off work, so we spent it together. Felt very much like old times. We grabbed a stash of snacks from the local grocery store (called "Lawson") to tide us over for our intended plans for the day. As with a lot of places we went, Jon was happily chatting away with the locals. Apparently he pretty much lives out of Lawson, so he knows all the staff personally, and introduced me to them. We grabbed some drinks (deciding, rather wisely I thought, to avoid two of Japan's most popular beverages, Pocari Sweat and Calpis - say the last one fairly quickly and you'll see why), a sandwich each (crusts having been removed already), a couple of seaweed covered rice triangles with assorted fillings, and some pork balls and a variety package of fish balls, rice, sushi and such.

We then shoehorned ourselves into Jon's boxlike Subaru and headed south out of Kagoshima. His car is like many that seem to be popular in Japan, which basically are variations on the theme of an upturned milk crate with scooter sized wheels.

This was my first experience with the Japanese countryside (once we cleared the traffic), and it was stunning. The area around Kagoshima, and I believe pretty much all of Japan, is extremely mountainous. Most of the mountains, volcanoes excepted, sport a dense outfit of tree cover. And pretty much any area down to the smallest half acre that isn't too hilly is either cultivated or developed - there simply is no wasteland. The roads are narrow and winding, highly over-populated with traffic lights, and there is an unfeasible amount of road construction/repair (most of which appears to be completely unnecessary). Every road construction area is bookended by "traffic wardens" who are there in addition to directional signs up the wazoo and contraflow traffic lights, to show you where you need to be on the other side of the road. All are uniformed, as seems to be the fashion, possibly with helmets, flags and whistles (presumably dependent upon rank). Yes, this is a serious case of jobs for the boys.

Of course, in Britain and the US, anyone doing a job like this also seems to be issued with some additional items as part of the uniform - a slouch and a sneer. Not so in Japan. This vital, life saving job is taken very, very seriously, with a considerable amount of pride (superficially at least), and often comes with a bow to passing drivers.

However, driving is still a pleasure, as the scenery is unfailingly stunning. And so it was that we made our way down to Kaimon-dake, an extinct volcano on the southern coast of Kagoshima-ken, about an hour south of the city. Mount Kaimon sits half way out to sea and resembles Mount Fuji in its shape. For those, like me, who'd only seen Mount Fuji in paintings, it really is as sharply triangular in its profile as it looks. And Mount Kaimon is the same. A huge wide-based cone, 924 meters high, and covered in trees, save for the last few meters at the peak. In its shadow, just north, is Lake Ikeda, which is Kagoshima-ken's largest lake, framed by the crater of a sunken volcano, and is the home to Issie (think Nessie), as well as huge pale blue eyed eels. The latter do actually exist, and having seen them, I'd've thought they were monsters enough for the lake.

Posted by mthaddon at December 7, 2003 09:03 PM