Part of a trip concentrating on East Asia (China, Hong Kong, Japan, North and South Korea), continuing in South Asia (Bangladesh, India) and ending on the Arabian Peninsula (Oman, United Arab Emirates).

Japan – Kyushu

– fourth and last part of my visit to Japan in September/October 2015 –

Kyushu is the southernmost of the big Japanese Islands. It is mountainous, and Japan’s most active volcano, 1,591-metre-high Mount Aso, is on Kyushu. There are many other signs of tectonic activity, including numerous areas of hot springs. The most famous of these are in Beppu, on Kyushu’s eastern shore.

Beppu

I arrive in Beppu after nightfall and meet a Japanese-Austrian guy and soon find myself heading with him and the hostel owner to a hot spring somewhere deep in the mountains. We drive for half an hour before scrambling to the refreshing hot pool in pitch black darkness. By day, I find Beppu and its springs less appealing. One of these tourist towns where you ask yourself why people come there. I rather move on to Aoshima with its island shrine.

Transferring to Kagoshima I notice how much of Japan’s infrastructure is from the 1980s and crumbling. In this period there was talk about the Japanese economy overtaking the US and becoming the largest in the world. Japan had fabulous and constant growth rates. But with the bursting of the asset price bubble in 1992 growth stopped and Japan entered a period of stagnation from which it still hasn’t really emerged.

Yakushima

I head straight to the port; the cargo ferry has large carpeted areas where I can just lay my mattress for the overnight journey. Yakushima is one of the most beautiful islands in the world. Its unique remnants of warm/temperate ancient forest have been a natural World Heritage Site since 1993. In the core wilderness, no record of past tree cutting can be traced. Do you know the animation-film Princess Mononoke? Its forest setting was inspired by Yakushima. The flora and fauna of the island is unique, a variety of the Japanese cedar called yaku-sugi can be found as well as the yaku-deer or the Yakushima macaque. The roughly circular island with a diameter of 28 kilometres rises to 1,935 metres on Miyanouradake and this is where I want to go. The hiking trails are quite busy, but the Japanese are uniquely polite. As soon as they spot another hiker, they try their best to make way. I am glad that there is still space in the self-catering hut for the night. I have packed several bento boxes, wonderfully, tasty pre-arranged meals that will lighten up any journey. On the second day, I reach the summit and descend through beautiful landscapes.

I spend more time exploring Yakushima’s beaches and waterfalls. Japan has a peculiar pricing system on public buses. It seems Japanese engineers came up with the system in the 1980s, today it feels a bit antiquated but as it is still working perfectly there is no need for any changes. You enter the bus from the back and take a small ticket from the machine next to the door. It shows a number, somewhere in the range between 1 and 60. A display board at the front of the bus is showing slowly rising fares for different numbers. When you leave the bus, you look at the board and it shows the current fare for your number. You put your cash and the number into a box visible to the driver.

Kagoshima

Kyushu has long been an entry point to Japan. Its North is closest to the Asian mainland and its South is where ships sailing from Europe would make landfall first. A monument in Kagoshima marks the spot where St. Francis Xavier, the first Christian missionary to arrive in Japan, landed. Kagoshima is a beautiful city with the volcano of Sakurajima across the bay visible from everywhere. Smoke is rising from the cone. In August 2015, a level 4 emergency warning had been issued urging the residents (of Sakurajima) to prepare for a possible evacuation. The children on the island are all wearing hard hats, not very convincing as none of the adults is wearing one. Yellow bags are piled up along the road, volcanic ash that the residents have removed from their property and that is disposed of like rubbish. One point of interest is the torii that was nearly completely covered in volcanic ash during a 1914 eruption. I am on a bus as suddenly a nice view of the volcano appears. I get up from my seat to take a picture. Immediately, the bus comes to a halt. The driver turns around and looks at me, he gestures in a way that I am not allowed to stand while he is driving. I say sorry and take my seat again. There are only a few passengers and after a few hundred more metres the bus stops again without there being a bus stop. The driver turns around and communicates without words that this is the best view he has to offer and I should make use of it.    

Kagoshima was where Westerners first arrived and Kagoshima was where Western ideas first took hold. The Shoko Shusei-kan Museum charts Japan’s industrial revolution, it is housed in Japan’s oldest stone factory building constructed in 1865. The nearby villa of the factory owner is lovely.

Tokko Heiwa Keikan

I head southwest into the direction where Kyushu ends and the Pacific begins. The former Imperial Japanese Army airbase has become the Chiran Peace Museum for Kamikaze Pilots. Due to its location, it was the principal Kamikaze base during the Battle of Okinawa. Of the 1,036 army aviators who died in these attacks, 439 departed from Chiran. A third of those were classed as “young boy pilots”. With minimal training they were sent off in planes packed with explosives and with the aim of crashing into a US navy ship. Some succeeded, taking numerous lives others were shot down unglamorously (or crashed) before they reached any target. The museum is meant to document their “patriotic efforts for peace”. Really? Shouldn’t it rather be meant to document a total folly and accuse the military leadership that came up with this idea?

The museum holds photographs, personal letters, testaments of the pilots who died arranged in the order when they left for their final mission. Second Lieutenant Fujio Wakamatsu wrote: “Mother, I have nothing to say. In my last moment, and my first act of filial piety, I will smile and conquer. With dry eyes and knowing I have done well. Please offer some rice dumplings at our Buddhist mortuary tablet.” Hayashi Ichizo confided in his diary: “I will do a splendid job sinking an enemy aircraft carrier … I read the Bible every day … I will sing a hymn as I dive on an enemy vessel.”   

The tradition of death instead of defeat, capture and shame was deeply entrenched in Japanese military culture. Many of the kamikaze pilots believed their death would pay the (imagined) debt they owed and show the love they had for their families, friends and emperor. As Japan had surrendered, one Japanese general implored the people not to commit suicide, they would be needed to rebuild the country. He wrote that note and killed himself.

Chiran is also home to a number of interesting Samurai Gardens.

Nagasaki

In my report on Hiroshima I wrote that I, being in the position to decide, would have dropped that bomb as well. I am not so sure about the one hitting Nagasaki. The second bomb had been planned for delivery on the 11th of August, five days after Hiroshima. Due to a storm forecast the mission was started two days earlier. Nagasaki was the secondary target after Kokura (Kitakyushu) but as smoke from the recent (conventional) bombing of nearby Yahata obscured Kokura’s sky (the Yahata Steel works also intentionally burned coal tar) the planes proceeded to Nagasaki. Nagasaki was covered by clouds but as the cloud cover opened for a moment the crew could ascertain their location and dropped the bomb.

Was it necessary to drop that second bomb? Maybe. But it should have been dropped later. Hiroshima was attacked in the morning of the 6th of August 1945; in the evening the Japanese had finally learned (through US president Truman’s statement) what had really happened and on the 7th Japanese scientists confirmed that Hiroshima was indeed destroyed by a nuclear weapon. But the real impact of what that meant had no time to sink in. One the other hand, the Japanese cabinet had already made the decision, (semi-correctly) assuming that the US had a limited number of nuclear bombs available, to endure the attacks and to keep fighting. A decision US military intelligence had intercepted. But maybe with some more time to think, the Japanese government would have reconsidered.

The bomb thrown on Nagasaki, a city with large shipyards and amongst others the Mitsubishi Steel and Arms Works, was more powerful than the one that exploded above Hiroshima. But whereas Hiroshima has a flat terrain, Nagasaki is hilly. Due to the difficult weather conditions the bomb landed nearly 3 kilometres northwest of the planned hypocentre meaning the blast was confined to the Urakami Valley and a major portion of the city was protected by the intervening hills. Still, the explosion killed at least 35,000-45,000 people. Many of them workers in weapon factories but very few of them actual soldiers.

The next bomb would have been ready on the 19th of August but President Truman rescinded his standing order that the five target cities were to be attacked with atomic bombs “as made ready”. Inside Japan, heads started to spin and the Emperor signalled his desire to end the war as “the enemy now possesses a new and terrible weapon with the power to destroy many innocent lives and do incalculable damage”. Japan surrendered on the 15th of August with one condition, that the emperor would remain in his position.

Similar to Hiroshima, Nagasaki has a Peace Park, an Atomic Bomb Museum and a National. Urakami Cathedral, Nagasaki being a centre of Christianity in Japan, is another historical reminder. Mass was held as the bomb detonated only 500 metres away, the blast and heat-wave cindered and buried all those present in the Cathedral as the building collapsed. A Torii, of which only one leg survived the bomb is another landmark.

Nagasaki is an interesting city. At the sea, mountainous and the mountains helped that historical places survived the nuclear bomb. The Chinese museum, the former HSBC building, Oura Catholic Church, Glover Garden or the monument and museum to the 26 Christian martyrs are all worth a visit.  

Hashima Island, commonly called Gunkanjima (Battleship Island) is a top sight but also a missed opportunity. The small island of only 0.63 km² is full of abandoned concrete buildings and in the late 1950s housed more than 5,000 people. Coal miners and their families that exploited its undersea coal mines. Closed in 1974, it has been crumbling ever since. The name comes as from the distance it looks like a battleship. Gunkanjima would be such a beautiful spot for exploration. Unfortunately, our tour is limited to a few small areas and viewpoints, with no opportunity to really explore.

Aso, Kumamoto & Fukuoka

Mount Aso is the largest active volcano in Japan, and is among the largest in the world. The caldera has a circumference of around 120 km, being 25 kilometres wide from north to south and 18 km from east to west. Access has been limited as the volcano has shown increased activity lately, plumes of ash are rising from the Nakadake crater. In Kumamoto I stop for the castle.

Fukuoka currently has the Oktoberfest going! I rather visit the Robosquare, an exhibition with plenty of robots. Paro, the therapeutic robot seal is cute. Besides that, robotics still seems to have a long way to go. I’m about to leave Japan and realize I have not eaten enough sushi. I try to make up for it in the last two days, the first restaurant is traditional, the second fully digital. You order on a pad and smaller orders arrive in a racing car and bigger ones in a Shinkansen train. Delicious.