Sweet potatoes were brought to Satsuma in 17th century. Kagoshima is now the kingdom of Satsuma-imo.
(Kagoshima cookie wrapper)
I live in Kyushu, the southernmost major island of the Japanese archipelago. It lies a comfortable distance away from the locus of metropolitan Kantō-Kansai hegemony, and Japanese travel companies generally promote Kyushu as rural and relaxing, quirky, old-fashioned, and nostalgic. The land is rugged and beautiful, the food is hearty and rich, the liquor is strong and simple, and the hot spring resorts are picturesque and plentiful. It has a history and culture both distant and familiar. It is the furusato, and it is exotic Japan.
Last weekend, my girlfriend and I took a three-hour train ride to scenic Kagoshima prefecture, which is Kyushu, distilled.
Our far too short two-night stay began in Kirishima, a mountain town famous for its very, very sulfuric hot springs. How sulfuric, you ask? So sulfuric that everywhere you go, the air smells like eggs in various stages of boiling or rotting – which, I promise, is not as nauseating as it sounds. In fact, it was quite tolerable, and oddly invigorating. It’s a sort of atmospheric quirk that helps set Kirishima apart from normal life in Japan, a constant reminder that you’re situated atop a volatile juncture on the Pacific Ring of Fire. The springs there are so active and hot, you can hear them gurgling away through holes in the ground, and clouds of pure white steam periodically billow upwards out of unseen tears in the densely forested mountain terrain.
As is customary in Japanese resorts, our stay included complimentary dinner and breakfast. Both meals were delicious, and deliciously Japanese: fresh, seasonal, local, and so attractively arranged they could have been snapshots in a coffee table book. (Our friend Koizumi would have felt quite at home.)
Dinner was a tour of traditional tastes, with an emphasis on autumn; sashimi, gobō, chestnuts, soba, shimeji mushrooms, pumpkin, persimmon, daikon, and miso were all prominently featured. It is said that traditional Japanese meals have no center – they are not focused on one main course or dish. But to me, the kurobuta 黒豚hotpot course is what clearly took center stage. Then again, kurobuta is one of the main reasons – maybe the main reason – I wanted to visit Kagoshima in the first place. Literally “black pig,” kurobuta is a pure breed of hogs descended from the prestigious, centuries-old Berkshire pedigree, originally introduced to Japan in the early 1800s as a gift from British diplomats. Around that time, the Buddhist taboo against eating meat was still widely observed, but perhaps the meltingly soft layers of fat and sweet, marbled flesh typical of kurobuta pork acted as an appetizer for the cultural revolution soon to come.
At our hotel, thick, bacon-like ribbons of fat-striped kurobuta were simmered in a buttery miso broth along with chicken meatballs and seasonal vegetables. The pork’s delicate, hammy flavor and firm yet supple texture left me wide-eyed. And it was not the last time on our trip that kurobuta would elicit such a happy reaction from me.
The next day we awoke to a misty sunrise, followed by a breakfast of fresh tofu, dried fish, and an egg boiled in hot spring water, among many other things. Then we enjoyed one last sulfur bath and one last gaze at the north face of Sakurajima, and then we were back on the train to Kagoshima City.
After checking into our intimidatingly posh hotel, we immediately set off in search of more kurobuta – this time, in its most concentrated and carnal form: tonkotsu ramen. At Tontoro, a ramen shop highly recommended by both RamenKyushu.com and JR’s Kagoshima Switch campaign, pillowy-soft slow-cooked hunks of kurobuta chāshū are entangled in a nest of wavy noodles, tree ears, brown bits of fried onion, and a salty, creamy broth infused with the very soul of pork fat and chicken bones. It was so good, so enveloping, that I don’t think Laura and I uttered a single word to each other over the course of the meal (except maybe monosyllabic grunts of approval) as we feverishly devoured the epicurean richness in front of us. Another highly-deserved merit badge for the venerable black pig.
After lunch, we spent some time wandering around the city and learning about Kagoshima’s storied military history (a petition to Japanese museum curators: please, please stop with the animatronics!). Then we perused the bizarre, hallucinatory displays at a fairy tale museum for children, and then it was back to the hotel for another mineral-saturated bath and another flavor-saturated meal.
Our hotel gave us four options for dinner: an international buffet, a Japanese restaurant, a Chinese restaurant, and a French restaurant. We chose French, mostly just for a change of pace, and I think it was one of the best decisions we’ve ever made as a couple.
First of all: one of the many wonderful amenities provided by our hotel was an in-house craft brewery, which I didn’t even know about until after we booked our hotels (what luck!). Now, Japanese craft beers are generally pretty tasty, but they also tend to be depressingly unimaginative and by-the-book. The offerings of Shiroyama Brewery, however, are clearly the products of creative minds. Their current lineup includes a Belgian white ale brewed with Kagoshima mikan zest, a pale ale brewed with lemongrass, a golden ale brewed with aloe, and a stout brewed with black sugar. Each one was delightfully flavorful and unique.
What’s more, they paired very well with our equally flavorful and unique five-course meal. From the jelly of shrimp and baby eggplant to the mikan cheesecake and chocolate tart, it was one of the best meals I have ever had in my life – even more impressive, I thought, than the gorgeous view of Kagoshima’s city lights laid out right in front of us.
There was kibinago きびなご coiled tightly around baby scallops and sautéed in butter with spinach, illuminated by a savory red pepper sauce with just an echo of capsaicin. There was also kurobuta, this time baked to soft, succulent perfection in a pastry crust and served with port-spiked gravy. In many ways, it was reminiscent of Beef Wellington – really, really good Beef Wellington – made with pork (thanks again, black pigs). But the dish that really blew my mind, the one that made me think, “Thank God we didn’t choose the Japanese place” was the salad course: maguro carpaccio with caviar, anchovy sauce, Romaine lettuce, and a heaping teaspoon of olive oil ice cream.
We went to bed sated and happy. The next morning, we enjoyed a top-notch breakfast buffet and another lovely outdoor bath, then we checked out, became hopelessly lost in the countryside looking for a shochu factory, stocked up on potato-based confections, and returned home. Two days later, I realized that my trip to Kagoshima had changed me forever. While lunching with a friend at one of our usual ramen shops, I found myself deeply unimpressed with chāshū I had once loved. I guess the old adage applies to pork, too: once you go black, you never go back.