18 August A volcano, seppuku and a tea ceremony
Once again there was no scrambled egg at breakfast! The waitress said it was very popular and always disappeared first. I asked why they didn’t make larger quantities, and was told that if they did, people would leave the other comestibles provided, which would be a waste. Inscrutable, or what?
Anyway, after checking out of the hotel, Yasuko’s mother picked us up and drove us down to the ferry terminal. We caught the same boat we had enjoyed the fireworks from last night. A short journey saw us disembarking onto three-peaked Sakurajima, Japan’s most active volcano. Sakurajima used to be an island, but was joined to the mainland by the effluvium from the 1914 “Taisho” eruption. It must have been some eruption!
We drove to the Volcanic Institute visitor centre and saw the displays and dioramas showing how volcanoes function and the specific effects of the various eruptions that have taken place at Sakurajima. There was a video presentation, with an English commentary on the headsets provided. My headset – and no one else’s – made the commentator sound exactly like Mickey Mouse, which was a bit of a distraction. However, Mickey seemed to know his stuff, and I feel fully clued up about vulcanology. At least, I know as much as I need to know.
We left the visitor centre and drove up to the Yon-go-Mei, or Fourth Station, an observation base for the volcano. As it was half way up the sides of the volcano, and the limit beyond which no casual visitor may approach the summit for safety reasons, it was extremely windy, with a gusting 40 mph breeze. There was an excellent view of the volcano, with a cloud of smoke lazily emerging from its currently single active crater. We also had a fine view of Kagoshima across Kinko Bay. As it was so sunny, it was appropriate that we could see the Sun Royal Hotel, where we had eaten so splendidly a couple of nights previously. We could also see Iso-ten, and, with the help of binoculars, we could see Yasuko’s parents’ house. At least, Yasuko’s mother could identify it, but we could at least see the general location.
We drove round the island and stopped at the Haragosha Shrine. This is just by the school where Yasuko’s grandfather had been a teacher for many years. The Shrine is remarkable for its buried Torii. On the day of the Taisho eruption in 1914 (the eruptions are named after the imperial era in which they occur) 11 feet of ash rained down in less than eight hours. Although over succeeding months most of the ash was cleared from roads etc, the mayor of Sakurajima ordered that the ash at the Haragosha Shrine should be left to indicate the extent of the eruption. Hence only the cross-bar of the Torii pokes through the ash, and you can sit on the top of the gate. Just round the coast we had a fine view of the ash that joined the island to the mainland in 1914.
Motoring on in an anti-clockwise direction, we came back to the ferry terminal and had lunch in a hotel just a little past it. Past the terminal, I mean. It was by no means past it: very modern and spruce. There was an enormous grasshopper about five inches long on the glass of the panoramic windows of the restaurant. Fed and watered, we took the next ferry back to Kagoshima.
We then drove up to the cave where Saigo Takamori had his headquarters during the abortive Satsuma rebellion of 1877. Saigo Takamori is sometimes called “the last samurai” He had risen from humble beginnings to be the commander of daimyo Shimazu’s samurai. He was a wise adviser to his master, and became respected by the other daimyo. He fiercely opposed the shogunate and in 1867, along with other disaffected samurai, staged a coup d’état to install the Emperor as the effective power in the land. This became known as the Meiji restoration.
“Meiji” means “enlightened rule”, and the emperor adopted the era name “Nengo” in 1868. Takamori was an active and enthusiastic participant in the new government systems and was instrumental in bringing about needed reforms in education, communication and government systems. However, in 1871, the Emperor abolished the samurai class in furtherance of the reforms. Daimyo (feudal barons) had to return land (and therefore power) to the Emperor. Both Daimyo and samurai were awarded state pensions. As many as 8% of the population of Japan were samurai or their dependants. The abolition of the class, with its many privileges, gave rise to severe social problems, for the samurai knew only one way to make a living: being enforcers for the daimyo.
In 1876, Saigo Takamori had become disenchanted with the restored Imperatorium, and he retired to Kagoshima, founding a military school teaching samurai skills and the code of bushido. Thousands of other disaffected samurai joined him and the so-called “Satsuma rebellion” commenced. They started to wage war against the Imperial forces. In 1877, the battle of Satsuma took place. 40000 samurai, armed with swords, bows and arrows, faced 60000 imperial troops equipped with firearms. Despite Takamori’s great generalship and the samurais’ disciplined fighting skills, the result was inevitable. Takamori’s men were routed, over 20000 of them being killed in a bloodbath. It was a clash between ancient and modern, old technology and new, the modern world against feudalism. The defeated Takamori was wounded and, in accordance with the code of bushido, the last of the samurai committed seppuku.
Subsequently, in a skilful political manoeuvre, the Emperor pardoned Saigo Takamori posthumously, thus clearing the way for him to be considered a great national hero. He is seen by the Japanese as embodying the unique Japanese concept of wa, the fullness of Japanese character and spirit.
We then drove to the top of Shiroyama, the big hill behind Kagoshima, where there is a splendid view over the city, with the shimmering blue waters of the bay and Sakurajima the backdrop.
From there we drove down to the Museum of the Meiji Restoration. We were in time to see mechanised tableaux of the history of the restoration and the central part played by men from Kagoshima and the Satsuma region. The whole thing was in Japanese, but it was fascinating to see the clever way that the characters rose into view, and the skilful lighting. I recognised Saigo Takamori!
In the museum, there were interesting items relating to the 18 young men despatched to England by Lord Shimazu to learn western manufacturing techniques. These led to the establishment of the blast furnace and foundry at Iso-ten, the start of Japan’s industrial revolution. There were also photographs of Takamori and many other notables involved. They all had a stern, not to say constipated, expression.
Leaving the museum, we drove to Yasuko’s mother’s house. There (shoes off) we were greeted by her father and taken into the tatami-ed room where he was watching baseball on the television. In an alcove, our autographed cricket bat had been hung. Yasuko’s mother and grandmother bustled about, bringing us beer and rice crackers. Later, she brought us a special sort of cake made from “anko”, or red bean paste. She expected us to find the taste inimical to our western palates, but I found it quite pleasant. We were then brought some green tea, made in the tea-ceremony method. Val (who drinks tea but never coffee) pulled the expected “Yuck!” face, to the amusement of the family. I, on the other hand, found it pleasant and flavourful, if unusual in “texture”. (This is surprising, since I do not normally like the taste or the aroma of tea.)
The two ladies demonstrated how the tea is made. “Match-cha” (powdered tea) is used, and water considerably below boiling point. It is whisked with a special bamboo whisk that looks rather like a shaving brush, and presented in a bowl. In the full ceremony, the drinker first admires the bowl by turning it three times before drinking the tea. We did not have to do that, and simply drank the tea. I had, for three months prior to visiting Japan, limbered up in the tea drinking stakes. I do not drink “English” (black) tea, finding, since I gave up sweetening my hot drinks 30 years ago, the flavour and aroma coarse and astringent. I always prefer coffee. But I bought some Japanese (not Chinese!) green tea and had a cup at the middle of each morning. Japanese green tea (sencha), drunk without additives, has a mild aromatic flavour that is much fresher and less “muddy” than black tea. By this means I prepared myself for this moment. The tea we were presented with was opaque, green, frothy and at drinkable temperature. This last is important, for I (in common with Stephen) suffer from what the Japanese call “Neko jite” or “Cat’s tongue”. In other words, I cannot bear food or drink that is excessively hot. As I said, the tea was pleasant and, well, green-tea-like. I would be happy to drink it again.
I was introduced to Milk-chan, Yasuko’s aged cat. We got along fine. Most cats take to me, and I am their willing servant. Japanese cats have very short tails, said to be caused by inbreeding and isolation. They say that the further south in Japan, the shorter the cats’ tails.
Too soon it was time to leave for our flight. The weather was changing, and there was a report that a typhoon was about to strike. We waved farewell to Yasuko’s maternal forbears and Nagayama-san drove us to the airport. We boarded the last flight to Tokyo, amid fears that the typhoon would keep the plane grounded. However the flight was uneventful though a little bit bumpy. I wrote some postcards and, thanks to the bumpiness of the flight, they looked as if I had had taken a little too much schoshu. We eventually rolled into bed at 2.45 am.