Kyushu is the most southwesterly of Japan's main islands, and has been high up on my list of places to visit, mostly for the following; volcanoes, hot springs and breathtaking scenery. I'd booked some super cheap flights from Tokyo to Kagoshima, a subtropical city that resides vulnerably next to a very active volcano, Sakurajima. One of my bucket list wishes is to see lava (from a safe distance...) and although the chances of that in Japan are thankfully low, I couldn't miss the chance to see an active volcano!
Initially, my plan had been to visit Yakushima, a small circular island off the coast of Kagoshima, famous for it's ancient cedar forests. But, in the weeks before I left, extremely high levels of rain struck the southwesterly parts of Japan, causing devastating floods and landslides. There were weather warnings for high waves around Yakushima, and I decided it was best to stay on the main island. My plan was to pick up a rental car in Kagoshima, drive up to Takachiho and then on to Aso-Kuju National Park.
On arrival in Kagoshima, I caught a bus from the airport straight to the ferry port, and took the 15 minute ferry over to Sakurajima. I'd read beforehand that it's often clouded over, even on clear days, making it impossible to see the top. But I was lucky, and there sat the volcano in full view. It's intimidating! After leaving my backpack in a coin locker (one of the many useful things about Japan!) I walked around to the visitor centre to wait for the island bus. It was HOT. The air conditioned bus was a dream as it took me up the winding roads, stopping briefly at points of interest for passengers to hop off, have a look around, and hop back on. The main destination was Yunohira observatory, the highest accessible point on the volcano, where you can see the smoking volcano as close as possible. The roads, cars and trees were covered in ash. It's humid, but the air feels dry, and your skin dusty. It's amazing, but I regretted wearing white converse.
After returning to the ferry port area, I walked around to the Sakurajima Nature Dinosaur Park, a place I'd read about in a little guide on the ferry. I didn't really know what it was, but dinosaurs? Sold. After an incredibly sweaty hike up a steep, steep road, I turned a corner and was face to face with a T-Rex. There are 10 or so dinosaur models, some of which have slides emerging from their bums, or tunnels carved through their torsos. All in view of an active volcano. The whole place has seen better days, but even so... what sort of kid wouldn't approve?!
I headed back to the ferry port, ready for my return trip to Kagoshima city. There is so much more to see on Sakurajima, but I didn't have much time. I would recommend hiring a car and bringing it over on the ferry. It's not expensive to do so, and it means you can explore the island easily. I had really wanted to soak my feet in the free 100m long footbath that overlooks Kinko Bay, but it was 35 degrees outside, and immersing any part of my body in hot water seemed nightmarish.
It was on the return ferry that the most exciting thing happened. THE VOLCANO ERUPTED.
I sat next to an equally horrified Australian woman and looked out at the enormous mushroom cloud of grey ash ballooning into the sky. There was no noise, and somehow that made it scary. No one else on the boat seemed worried though, which was comforting. The ferry reached the dock and I walked out along the waterfront, keeping an eye on the ash cloud. It had been caught in the wind now, and was heading toward the city.
I was lucky I had an umbrella, as it had just started to rain.
IT WAS RAINING ASH.
Like filthy snow, everything was covered in grey, gritty, powdery dust. It was in my eyes and ears and stuck to my skin. Cars drove past with their windscreen wipers on, tyres flinging ash clouds out behind. My converse were now fully grey as I shuffled blindly to the hostel, thankfully close to the ferry port. It was one of the most incredible afternoons I've ever had!
The next morning I awoke at a ridiculous hour, maybe to do with the hostel bunk beds shaking as lorries drove past along the main road outside. I looked out and could see the sun rising over Sakurajima. All the ash had settled and the sky was clear and golden, so beautiful.
To be continued... !