Japan Series One: Kagoshima. The Land of Kurobuta Pork, Black Cows, Hot Springs and an Active Volcano.
It wasn’t a very difficult decision to spend our winter break in Japan. Just the summer before, we rocked it out at the Fuji Rock Festival – undergoing some of the worst weather conditions for nearly five days and putting our relationship to the test to see world class bands. We survived without any casualties and with nothing but big smiles. Then in March 2011, the tragic tsunami hit and all of a sudden, we missed Japan. We had taken the train along the eastern coast of Japan through Sendai, which was hit the hardest. I’ll remember the dark blue ocean and green scenery with quaint villages peppered along the coast – all of which was gone on that fateful day. We had an even stronger appreciation for Japan and it was only natural that we would go back as soon as we could. So begins my series on Japan and our experiences in Tokyo, Osaka, Sapporo, Hakodate, Fukuoka, Kagoshima, the Fuji Rock Festival and Kurokawa. You may not know these names now, but you will very soon. This series is a collection of postings from our trips to Japan from 2010 – 2011. Bare with me – these are long postings with the intention of making it easier for your future reference . Enjoy.
When Jeni and I decided that we’d be going to Japan, she quickly pulled out our collection of various Japanese travel guides. “Where do we go?,” I asked. Jeni had already lived in Osaka for two years and it was all she really knew until we would travel to other prefectures in Japan. “I’ve always wanted to go to Kagoshima,” she said. I had no idea what she was talking about and responded with, “What’s it known for?” I guess I’m easy, because the second she said the K-word, I was sold. “Their known for kurobuta pork. You know Berkshire pork.” Even in the U.S., that stuff isn’t cheap. But when you see it on the menu, you should probably order it because it is amazing pork. Kagoshima is highly agricultural, and as you’ll see in this posting, they really know how to raise some of the best beef, pork and chicken around. And like that, we were in 30,000 in the air traveling to a prefecture we knew nothing about – with nothing but our soon-to-become-true fantasies of dreamy, melty pork leading the way. Funny to fathom how food can be the main objective in traveling.
Twelve hours later, we arrived in Kagoshima, the southern most prefecture of the island of Japan. Prefectures are governmental bodies larger than cities, towns, and villages. A prefecture, may sound like a state, but it functions more like a large district with administrative jurisdiction or subdivision. Basically think of them as a county. The entire country of Japan is smaller than California and is broken up into 47 prefectures. Tokyo being the “metropolis” prefecture. Example: Los Angeles, Orange County and Riverside would be considered separate prefectures.
The second we stepped out of the Kagoshima airport, we were hit with the cold wind. I LOVE cold weather, Jeni hates it. Luckily she had some of those hand warming heat packets with her because this was going to be one cold trip. Living in Los Angeles, we don’t really have seasons. And that’s why I look forward to visiting cities like New York more than once a year because the seasons completely change the character of the city. Certain foods taste better, people are in a different mode and there’s an overall different vibe. Same with Japan since we went last year during the summer – this would be a different kind of Japan.
Our check in was set for 3 pm and we arrived in Kagoshima 3-4 hours early. We left our bags at the hotel and decided to kill some time. Kagoshima City itself isn’t that big and we relied a lot on the train to get around since it was easily navigable, taking taxis when it was too cold to walk at night. This train made us feel like we were in a tiny model city.
We took the train back towards the Kagoshima train station to hang out at the shopping center there called Amu Plaza. FYI, a shopping center or train station in any Japanese city is more than what it seems. There are usually cafes, restaurants and grocery stores many levels beneath the ground. This ferris wheel you see is on top of the Amu Plaza which also has a movie theater. We lucked out and ran into a vendor’s market selling all sorts of Japanese goodies like bonito flakes (katsuoboshi), rice crackers (senbei) and various marinated fish. They even had jarred honey with Japanese hornet carcasses inside – crazy! Ever watch the famous “30 Japanese hornets vs. 30,000 Killer bees” video? If not, YouTube it now. We tried the mochi grilled over charcoal and then wrapped with seaweed and a brush of soy sauce – so good.
And then, the smell of something very very familiar… not just meat, GOOD meat. Within two hours, we would finally be getting a piece of real kurobuta pork. The guy on the left was grilling some various chicken parts and the guy on the right was grilling skewered kurobuta belly. I’ll take both… delicious. Right then and there, I knew this would be a fantastic trip down to Kurobuta City, I mean, Kagoshima City.
In Amu Plaza, we found a nice selection of restaurants and food stores. There was a ramen shop with large posters screaming for us to try it out. Having tried some tasty ramen during last year’s visit to Fukuoka (Hakata), we were completely blown away with their style of ramen. I was a firm believer that there is no bad ramen in Japan, but this particular place just wasn’t very good. Kagoshima-style ramen employs the Hakata-style tonkotsu broth boiled for hours, but it could be the sauteed cabbage and fried shallots that might have rained on the parade. There was another place we tried a few days later that was a little bit better but I think overall Kagoshima may not as big of a ramen town as Sapporo, Fukuoka or Tokyo. Rameniac and I had a conversation about Kagoshima-style ramen and it seemed like we were both on the same page. I’ll have to give ramen another shot once I come back to Kagoshima. Another thing we tried was yaki tamago, which literally means “grilled/fried egg”. You may recognize this as a type of common ingredient served with sushi rice. Scrambled eggs are mixed with seasoning, probably with tsuyu (a dipping sauce, made of dashi, mirin and shoyu), and cooked in a rectangular pan. Watching the chef make it was a real treat – an old man, with chopsticks watching an egg cook like he was dismantling a bomb. No matter what the Japanese are doing, they’re going to put in 110% detail and attention. The omelette was great!
On the top level of Amu Plaza, we found even more restaurants. We were sold once we saw a line outside this restaurant that serves kurobuta shabu shabu. This would be our first time eating kurobuta pork in shabu form – nice! We started with some yellowtail sashimi and I was quite surprised to find the soy sauce to be very sweet. I later read that in Kagoshima, sweet soy sauce is the regional twist. It was interesting but I still prefer the standard kidney-punishing stuff.
We both got bento box lunch sets. Mine came with what I thought was miso soup, but was in fact a popular regional soup called tonkotsu. Not like tonkotsu as in pork bone broth ramen. Tonkotsu is a slightly sweet stew that is made with none other than tonkotsu pork bones, veggies and not sake, but shochu, the potato rice wine, and served with slivers of sliced kurobuta. I could eat this all day. Jeni got the kurobuta katsu and it was beautifully fried.
The next morning, we got up early to check out the Kagoshima New Port fish market (Kagoshima Shinkō), but not early enough since it begins daily at 7 am. We already had Tsukiji Market in Tokyo planned, so it was not a big deal. We had been using a great Japanese travel guide published by D & Department, a boutique design/lifestyle shop, and it lead us to a sushi restaurant the editor-in-chief dined at right in the market place. We peeked our head in through the sliding door and saw a tiny restaurant with fisherman. Good sign, but then again, there was only 1 or 2 places to eat at this time of the day.
For 1500 ¥ each, this is what we got. Everything was super fresh and the perfect kind of breakfast. Not mind blowing good, but better than Todai Buffet of course. Walking around the market I saw a lot of fish tanks holding live fish. It was nice knowing that some of the fish being sold at the fish markets didn’t need to be frozen.
For dinner, we decided not to bother looking at the many restaurant brochures that are offered at malls and train stations. Because the Japanese (Asia in general) have a very high standard in food, you can basically walk into a place blindly and get some solid food. Even the worst place will make you happy. Unfortunately that doesn’t work in places like Los Angeles. Trust me, you’ll save yourself a headache in Japan trying to pinpoint a certain restaurant. Google Maps is somewhat useless in a city where restaurants are not limited to tight spaces, high rises or the underground. We walked to an area called Tenmonkan (天文館), which is a large restaurant, shopping arcade and nightlife area. There’s no way you’ll starve once you walk down one of the alleys in this area. I love walking around the streets of Japan and looking at the signage – seeing what clever methods they’ve devised to attract your attention. We stuck our head into a place that seemed pretty happening and took a chance.
Oblivious to the Japanese words on the menu, we turned to the waitress and asked, “Kurobuta shabu shabu?“ “Hai!” And within 15 minutes, she was back with a portable burner and shabu shabu pot. And out came beautiful, thin cuts of kurobuta pork… reminscent of melt-in-your-mouth cotton candy. I held up a piece of the pork like the Phantom of the Opera and could see Jeni’s mysterious silhouette through the fatty white part. A quick 2-3 second dip and you’re good to go. A little bit of pink is fine – especially with animals raised in Japan.
Left to Right: Soft burrata-like tofu. Shabu shabu broth flavored with a little yuzu kosho. Perfect for the cold weather.
For dessert, we tried a Kagoshima specialty called shirokuma, which means polar bear. It’s similar to the Taiwanese shaved milk ice version but WAY sweeter with sparse toppings. Taiwan 1 – Kagoshima 0.
Although it was in the 40s, walking around Kagoshima was nonetheless enjoyable with the sun out. I’ve spent some time looking at the work of Japanese photographers at many bookstores, particularly food photographers. A lot of their photos are shot simply on light colored wood, ornate dinnerware with wooden utensils. Very plain yet memorable. But I’ve realized why their photography looks so stark and beautiful… it’s the sunlight. And the same can be said about the lighting techniques in Nordic photography. Take a look at the work of Denmark’s Ditte Isager, photographer of the NOMA cookbook – gorgeous natural light that you can probably only get in Scandinavia. I didn’t want to miss a photo opportunity with this soft, glowing daylight.
Kagoshima is nowhere as busy as Tokyo is… but it doesn’t mean you won’t get tired from walking! Good thing is there’s a shopping center on every corner. We stopped in this shopping center called Maruya Gardens just east of the Tenmonkan restaurant/shopping area which has more boutiques than your big-brand shops. On the top floor, you’ll find a ramen shop and chill cafe. We stopped by for some coffee and waffles. Look at that Japanese daylight on the right!
But the real reason we stopped in Maruya Gardens was for the D & Department shop, the same store that publishes the travel guides we love. We just love the stuff they carry here. Think Muji but cooler.
Left to Right: artisanal soy sauces from Kagoshima (sweet & salty). Nice selection of design books.
Left to Right: snazzy dinnerware for your instant ramen. See the travel books on top with the “d” logo – get them!
Since we already had stellar kurobuta pork, it was time to try Kagoshima’s other prized meat: beef. In Kagoshima, they raise various grades of “kuroushi”, which means “black cow” (“kurobuta” means “black pig”). Kobe beef has become a common term in the U.S. by now but in Japan, Kagoshima beef and Matsuzaka beef are the most popular. The latter being sourced only from female cows while Kobe beef comes from males (bulls). Writer Lynn Fung states in her article:
“Every cattle farmer in Japan has his own method of indulging their cows, from secret blends of soybeans, tofu byproduct or sake mash in the feed; mineral water to drink; and daily walks and supposed beer massages to encourage fat distribution. Some even play classical music to relax the animals, while making sure they receive plenty of time in the sun.”
You can read more about it here. We’ve had beef from Kobe while in Japan but this would be our first time trying Kagoshima beef. We walked around one night and found this teppanyaki place in Tenmonkan. Probably not the best, probably not the worst. Really, how bad could a steak be if you already know it’s going to be good? We knew the steak would be rich so we only ordered one plate which still came out to about $50 with salad and dessert.
You all know teppanyaki thanks to restaurants like Benihana. But thank god, you won’t be seeing any onion volcanoes or table-top shenanigans. One look at this soft-spoken chef and we knew he was all about business. Teppanyaki refers to a style of cooking done on an iron griddle. The flat surface allows the chef to cook, cut and serve right on it. He took out a huge block of Kagoshima beef and cut out a nice piece of sirloin. He trimmed off a majority of the fat (which was painful to see it go to waste) because Kagoshima beef is already very balanced in marbling. The result was a nice 1″ thick block of red marbled beef. He salted the steak and using two spatulas, cooked that steak meticulously – flipping it onto the other side once and carefully searing the edges to lock in the flavor. In less than 7 minutes, he was done searing it to a medium rare.
Center: Adding a bit of alcohol for one last kiss of flavor or grooming his eyebrows? I have no idea what he poured over the steak. If it was kerosene, it was tasty.
Center: A beautifully-cooked Kagoshima-style steak.
Center: Kagoshima steak served with grilled vegetables, garlic chips, seasoning, dipping sauces and even wasabi. Notice the wispy lines of fat that seem to gradate into the red meat. This steak was seriously good and more than enough for Jeni and me to share.
I forgot to mention that when you take the bus or taxi from the airport into the city, you’re going to be amazed by the mass of rock that sits directly across the water from Kagoshima. Known as Sakurajima (Cherry Blossom Island), this island consists of a few active volcanoes sitting in the water like a fat queen overlooking her kingdom, occasionally unloading her fury and PMS (thousands of times every year apparently) in the form of toxic smoke and white ash. Fortunately, Sakurajima’s temperament is regarded as manageable and the island itself is deemed habitable. We’ve never been on a volcano before and this would be a good time to check that off our long list of things to do in life. The lava is purported to flow mostly out of the southern end of Sakurajima, not from the city side. To get to Sakurajima, you’ll need to take a daunting 15-minute ferry ride!
Left to Right: View of Sakurajima from Amu Plaza. Volcanic ash on street. Shoes from Nordstrom (Rack).
Center: Sakurajima in Ansel Adams-vision.
In the D & Department’s Guide to Kagoshima, the editor-in-chief geeked out on some hot udon noodles that are served on the ferry for 400 ¥, so we gave it a shot. Not bad at all! But you only have 15 minutes to eat it, slurping allowed.
If you get the chance to catch spewing lava from the active volcanoes on Sakurajima, definitely catch it. If not, at least treat yourself to an amazing view of the ocean… while in a bathrobe… with people you don’t even know. Our main reason for visiting Sakurajima was to check out the Ryuujin Rotenburo (Ryuujin outdoor bath). This outdoor, co-ed bath (wardrobe required) is set on the edge of a cliff overlooking the ocean and it’s gorgeous. The whole region of Kagoshima lies on a volcanic zone and receives geothermal heat which the Japanese have used to heat the many spas and bathhouses in the area. We slipped into the bathrobes and headed out.
At first, you’re freezing in the 35-40 degree air because you’ve got nothing but a bathrobe and sandals on, but the steaming finish line is within sight just down the steps. And it’s amazing how good you feel within first contact of the hot water. You don’t realize how tired you are from working a 9-5 until you dip into a 130 degree pool (and even hotter in different parts). Although I was on vacation, I’ve carried the American workload with me. In the single plunge into the hot water, your stress and fatigue diminishes. I realized that when you’ve walked for more than an hour or two, your feet are being overworked and there’s a lack of blood flowing down there. Hot water basically gets the blood circulating throughout the body again and you’re instantly revived and no longer sore. At one point, we were the last to leave and it was very serene hearing the waves crash, with steam rising out of the waters. It was a “where are we right now?” kind of moment. We could have stayed out here for another few hours.
Another thing Kagoshima, actually all of Kyushu (Southern Japan), is known for is the sweet potato rice wine known as shochu. I’ll be honest, my many years of poisoning myself with the Korean rubbing-alcohol version (Chamisul and Jinro soju) has scarred me, but in Japan, there are not 2-3 brands – there are hundreds of variations that are not used to disinfect wounds. What’s the difference between sake and shochu? Sake is brewed with rice and more well known due to marketing and like wine, goes better with food, but shochu is distilled and treated more like a sipping alcohol like vodka or whiskey. We found this sochu bar called Bar S.A.O. through a magazine – it’s also right in the Tenmonkan area.
From the outside, it can be quite difficult to find – it looks like a cramped apartment complex. But when you find it, you’ll be happy. This is the Japanese detail and decor that I love. We pulled up a seat at the bar and with Jeni’s limited Japanese, we somehow got the bartender to pour her favorites.
With sake, you’re allowed to drink it one of two ways: either hot or cold. Hot, as I’ve learned, is a way for cheap restaurants with cheap owners to mask and sell cheap sake. With shochu, there are three ways to take it in: hot, cold and “rock”. Hot is known as oyuwari, which means to drink the shochu mixed with hot water. Drinking it with cold water is known as mizuwari. And “rock” (pronounced “rock-ku”) is basically “on the rocks”. The purpose in diluting it with water not only brings down the alcohol percentage but like whiskey, opens up flavors hidden during distillation. The oyuwari method was a bit interesting to me, almost like drinking tea but I felt like I was drinking hot vodka – not a pleasant thought. I noticed the older Japanese enjoyed it in that manner. My favorite was shochu on the rocks (“lock-ku”) – refreshing and fragrant with nice whiskey-like smokiness.
Never drink sake or shochu on an empty stomach – the stuff is dangerous and can make you time travel. You’ll almost find delicious cooked food at these shochu bars. Or not. The bartender suggested chicken tataki, which is basically chicken sashimi slightly seared like albacore, and then chilled upon service. It didn’t have much taste and was a bit too cold but still did its job in soaking up the shochu in my stomach. Some fried chicken (tori karaage) came to the rescue as well. In the Fukuoka postings, you’ll be seeing more of the chicken sashimi phenomenon and it’s so good!
You’ll probably spend a whopping $800 on the 2-week JR pass (Japan Railway) so you might as well take as many day trips as possible. About an hour south of Kagoshima is the charming city of Ibusuki (pronounced “ee-bu-skee”) known for their hot, black-sand baths (sunamushi onsen), another delightful benefit of being situated on top of a geothermal zone. The JR Company offers seven stylish, limited edition trains to take you to various parts of Kyushu. The Ibutama train has a nice yin & yang look and responsible for taking you down to Ibusuki.
There’s something therapeutic about sitting on a train in Japan. They are smooth, comfortable and quiet. It’s necessary to give yourself a break from the fast-paced city life wherever you are. The rhythmic sound of a car passing over tracks can actually be quite soothing. I can understand how one appreciates idyllic scenes like this as you get older. Last year, we rode the train once for nearly 8 hours and we didn’t mind the long ride at all.
Left to Right: Sakurajima, still as majestic from a distance. Beautiful wood interior/cabin with seats facing out the window by default.
Left to Right: Kurobuta steamed buns – amazing. Satsuma-age: fried fish cakes.
For nearly 300 years, the natural hot sand baths may be the only thing to do in this town. It’s easy to find signage. You walk into the lobby of the spa and from there, we split off into male and female locker rooms. The first order of business is to slap on these stylish yukatas (Japanese robe; a casual kimono) and rubber sandals. I walk out of the changing room and see that Jeni’s ready to go, wielding a Hot Dog on A Stick parasol. I’m actually quite thirsty and waiting for those lemonade-squashing HDOAS girls to pop out of the sand any minute now. We walk down towards the black sand beach and see employees waiting for us with their shovels. They signal for us to lie in our shallow graves and proceed to shovel warm black sand from our feet up. So this is what it’s like to be buried alive?! The employees also make a headrest for us with a mound of sand and plant the parasol above our heads to shield the bright sunlight.
For a few seconds, you don’t feel anything. You definitely see the steam rising out of your body but nothing else. I turn my head as far left as I could and look over at Jeni and we just laugh. “Dude, what the hell are we doing here?!” I ask. Then, you start to feel the heat from the sand and it feels amazing. The employees there tell us that this is not so much for sweating out toxins as it is for improving circulation. The weight of the sand pushes down on your body, constricting all your veins – forcing blood to be pumped harder throughout the body. Ten minutes later, we’re given a hand by the employees and yanked out of the ground like ginseng. I felt so recharged and revived – no soreness in my feet either from all the walking we’ve done.
Afterwards, we head back into the bathhouse and just soak away. And refresh ourselves with the onsen cider Ibusuki is known for. Don’t worry it’s completely organic and only made with the public bath water and club soda.
Before heading back, we had to fill up on some food. There wasn’t much open around the train station so we asked a lady on the street what she thought would be “oishii” (delicious). She pointed at the restaurant pictured above called Aoba (ah-oh-ba). I can’t read any Japanese but I do recognize Chinese characters (kanji) and I know very well what that sign suggests – “kurobuta” (黒豚). We walk in and the place is packed – win! As we’re looking at the menu, turns out that this place is not a Michelin-star restaurant, but one of hundreds of recommendations made by the Michelin group. Double win!
Figuring this place was all things kurobuta, we sort of guessed the things they might offer. I saw a table eating some skewers and I took a guess on some things like this: kurobuta tsukune (grilled ground pork patty). I’ve only had the chicken version of this and I was so glad that they offered a pork version served with a softly poached egg which would serve as a dipping sauce. If you see anything in Japan that comes with an egg dipping sauce, you will not be disappointed – this was excellent. I would gladly contribute this photo to Josh of Food GPS’s “Vitamin P” (“P” for pork) column of his site.
I loved that the waitress offered a coffee thermos filled with tsuyu (dipping sauce) for refills. I wanted to take the thermos home!
Another Kagoshima specialty is kibinago, a type of smelt or sardine. It is often served sashimi style or deep fried tempura-style – the bones are small and edible. When you’re done eating all of the kurobuta pork, you end the meal with handmade soba (buckwheat noodles) cooked in the same broth. So good, this was our favorite kurobuta-related meal in Kagoshima. I still think about it.
Left to Right: One last dip in the public foot bath right outside the train station. Cooling off with Kagoshima-style green tea ice cream.
Center: Tenmonkan at night. This area is heavily loaded with bars and restaurants.
There is one street in the Tenmonkan specifically named “Gourmet Street”. I found this street to have fewer restaurants than the main Tenmonkan area. In any case, it’s fun to walk down this alley-like street.
Once again, we referred to the D&Department’s Guide to Kagoshima for the editor’s choice of restaurants. Most of the places the guy suggested were OK, but this one would prove to be his best. We find ourselves parting the outer curtains of the restaurant and walking into yet another shabu shabu place. But the specialty here is this old man’s homemade tofu. We saw the guy’s photo in the guide and knew right away that he’s probably been doing this since he was two and loves every minute of it. For that we’ve named him “Mr. Tofu-san“.
Versus the usual tsuyu you’re given, this place provides you with a soy sauce/wasabi mixture with ripped pieces of roasted seaweed (nori). There are probably a thousand people who make homemade tofu like Mr. Tofu-san but we were still happy to find a charming place like this. Although this meal cost the same price as a shabu shabu meal with kurobuta pork, it was still worth it. The tofu is good, just like burrata cheese.
Left to Right: All-you-can-use yuzu kosho for your broth. Mrs. Tofu-san serving me shochu, oyuwari-style (mixed with hot water).
Left to Right: With the nice man, Mr. Tofu-san. He made it a point to show us his poster covered with photos of his dog. When asked how old the dog was, Mr. Tofu-san formed an “X” symbol with his arms symbolizing the dog’s departure from this world. Apparently, he had a large fan-base. Goodbye Mr. Tofu-san!
Above: One of many cozy bars on “Gourmet Street” in Tenmonkan.
This concludes our 4-day stay in the wonderful Kagoshima City. I loved it for many reasons as you can see. And I wouldn’t hesitate in coming back here. What I loved besides the food was the pace of life here. We were never rushed to do anything and enjoyed life at our own leisure. We were actually forced to relax.
Next up: even more hot spring (onsen) action in a town known solely for its beautiful Japanese inns called ryokans – Kurokawa (Kumamoto prefecture). Thanks for reading.
Tags: amu plaza, berkshire, black cow, chicken sashimi, d & department, hot springs, ibusuki, ibutama, kagoshima beef, kagoshima city, kobe beef, kurobuta, kuroushi, maruya gardens, matsuzaka beef, mkagoshima, natural sand bath, onsen, ramen, sake, sakurajima, satsuma age, shabu shabu, shirokuma, shochu, soba, tenmonkan, tonkotsu, tsuyu, udon, yaki tamago