Japan Series One: Kagoshima. The Land of Kurobuta Pork, Black Cows, Hot Springs and an Active Volcano.Tuesday, January 24th, 2012
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.