Anyway, that first evening Chiho took me to a restaurant where we ate some pretty fabulous udon noodles, amongst many other lovely things. Since we have a picture, I needn't bore you by describing them:
The next morning she picked me up for a day's sightseeing, but not before I nipped to the convenience store across the road from my hotel to buy a breakfast bento:
Note the sausage shaped like an octopus - a common food-kawaiification technique.
Chiho's was the first Japanese car I'd ever been in, other than taxis - and it was strangely familiar, being a Fiat Punto with manual gears, as well as right-hand drive of course. Apparently automatics are much more common here, and Chiho, who like most sensible people prefers manuals, had to hunt hard to find one. Hers is the same bright yellow as Thunderbird 4, which didn't prevent us from losing it in every car park we visited. We visited quite a few, too. First stop was a mall (which I still don't know how to pronounce), where we bought each other Moomin mugs. Okay, that's not very Japanese, anime version notwithstanding, but we had discovered a mutual passion for Snufkin and Little My (Mi-chan!). We went to Chiho's local shrine, and then Senganen, once home to the Shimadzu family, who were influential in (amongst other things) importing Western industrial knowhow to Japan in the nineteenth century. It was very strange to see a machine identical to one I'd seen in a Lancashire cotton mill sitting there in Satsuma, but the Shimadzu made it happen.The garden is a world heritage site, and very beautiful with Sakurajima in the background, but best of all it has a shrine dedicated to cats:
At one point we heard the sound of screaming, which came from a small building. It turned out to be a loop tape of men practising kendo (I think?). They seemed to do more screaming than actual fighting, but it was quite disconcerting, all the same. I think it's one of those martial arts that's all about building up mental and spiritual discipline as much as physical. I imagine the training goes like this:
Year One: "All About Screaming"
Year Two: Here is a stick. Contemplate its length, colour, and weight. Think about the tree from which it came, the sunlight and rain that fed its leaves and roots. Think of the birds that nested in its branches, the moss that grew on its trunk. Think of the woodsman who felled it, and the carpenter who seasoned it and cut it to shape.
Year Three: You may now pick up the stick.
Year Four: This year, you will master running forward a few paces while holding your stick aloft.
Year Five: Time to bring it all together. Hold the stick aloft and scream at the same time.
Year Six: You may now use the stick to kill people.
Year Nineteen: Enough people have died. Put down the stick and become a monk.
Year Twenty: Achieve enlightenment.
I don't really understand martial arts.
The tonkatsu lunch we ate at Senganen was perhaps a mistake, considering that we had a ryokan meal waiting for us later (the ryokan being Chiho's incredibly generous gift), but it still tasted pretty damn fine:
Afterwards we visited Chiho's mother - which was my first time in a Japanese home, and thus very exciting for me! Though - darn! - I forgot to say "Ojama shimasu!" on entering. This dreadful faux pas passed unremarked, however, and we had a very pleasant conversation at the kotatsu, with tea, okashi and laughter. (My first kotatsu!) Chiho's mother was lovely, and would probably have liked us to eat more, but we thought of that ryokan feast and the big lunch lying at the bottom of our stomachs like the Mary Rose, and refrained.
As you know, sakura is a big deal in Japan. All over the country, TV reporters are being sent to stand beside cherry trees and report on the fact that this year, like last year at this time, they are in bloom. It's one of the top three stories in every bulletin. Kagoshima, however, despite being so far south, is always later than other cities for some reason, so it was a relief, when Chiho drove us out of the city into the surrounding hills, to find some yamazakura (I think) in blossom there. We stopped to indulge in its ephemerality, but only briefly, as was meet. In fact, we were on our way to Kagoshima Jingu, the big regional shrine, and my favourite of the places we visited that day.
The shrine itself was at the top of a long flight of steps, and thus answered to my ideal conception of a shrine, accessibility issues notwithstanding. At this time (about half past five on a weekday) there were hardly any visitors left, and it felt as if the god, though no doubt tired after a long day's work, had more attention to spare for us. As we climbed we talked and puffed of belief and disbelief, and found a wonderful prospect at the top. The woods were exhaling, and the low sunlight shafted between the trees, vying with the warmer light of the shrine lamps. We cleansed ourselves in the proper way, prayed, and admired the huge camphor tree in the grounds, where (but I read this only later) the spirit of the kami is said to reside. A very calming way to end the day.
But the day was not yet ended! There was still the ryokan to come, along with the food thereby implied! So we drove back to the outskirts of Kagoshima and checked into our chalet room, which was austerely luxurious in a way the Japanese have made such an art of - but with the accent on luxury. (Here is the private onsen, fed with volcano juice.)
We drank tea, put on our yukata and geta, and tottered (in my case) to our dining booth, where this was the feast awaiting us.
Shabu-shabu, my old nemesis. Last year you defeated me, and again this year I was unable get through more than half. But I had appetite enough to eat almost everything else, highlights being the sashimi (the salmon was incredible) and the pork belly from Kagoshima's black pigs, a famous dish of the region and you can see why. It was all as good as it looked - and you can see for yourself what that means.
Finally, no matter how many times I may come to Japan in the future, I will never tire of the thrill of sitting on the flight deck of a Japanese toilet. The one in our chalet even had a special function for mermaids:
They think of everything!