Kyushu, Land of Fire

Visiting Kyushu, the most south-western of Japan’s main islands, is on the top of my itinerary when I next travel to Japan (written in December 2016). It is a very elemental place. Kyushu is known for its active volcanoes, lava beaches and hot springs. The 2016 Kumamoto earthquake captured the world’s attention and highlighted the unstable nature of the island.  Both Kumamoto and Kyushu are referred to as the ‘Land of Fire’. The origin of that name was an eye-opener for me, as is the fascinating history of the island called ‘The Gateway to Japan’. I am delighted to say that I was able to spend 3 weeks in Kyushu in June 2017. After introducing Kyushu, some photographic impressions of that wonderful time are shared below.

One of the three main fore festivals in Kyushu, held in August. The promotional material used by Kyushu-Japan-holidays.com refers to Kumamoto as the Land of Fire.

Held each August, Yamago Toro is one of the three main fire festivals in Kyushu. The promotional material used here by kyushu-japan-holidays.com refers to Kumamoto as the ‘Land of Fire’. The festival looks spectacular.

Another promotion for the Land of Fire. This time covering Kyushu itself. The focus on geothermal activity, which includes hot springs and volcanoes, gives the impression that the 'fire' in question comes from within the earth.

Another promotion for the ‘Land of Fire’ from allabout-japan.com – this time covering Kyushu itself. The focus on geothermal activity, which includes hot springs and volcanoes, gives the impression that the ‘fire’ in question comes from within the earth. The image is from Beppu, a hot spring town in the north-east of Kyushu. The steam from the thousands of hot springs in the city give it an almost surreal  appearance.

As someone with a keen interest in the elements in Japan, and as a ‘woman on fire‘, I was excited to learn that Kyushu was known as the ‘Land of Fire’. With the number of active volcanoes in the region, this intuitively makes sense. Mt Aso in central Kyushu is the most active volcano in Japan, and some say the world. Sakurajima, another very active volcano, sits opposite the town of Kagoshima in the south of Kyushu. The volcano, and the town found on its lower slopes, was featured in the BBC series ‘Joanna Lumley’s Japan‘. Seeing the children wearing hard-hats on their way to school (to avoid volcanic debris) is a practical  adaptation to local conditions.

My friend Yoshihiro Hidaka lives in Kagoshima. Not surprisingly he often shares images on Facebook of Sakurajima, the active volcano across the bay from his home. This photo of the beautiful sky over the volcano was taken on December 2nd this year. When I visit Kyushu, both Kagoshima and Sakurajima are places I plan to visit. Seeing images of the mountain on a regular basis makes it feel more familiar.

My friend Yoshihiro Hidaka lives in Kagoshima. Not surprisingly he often shares images on Facebook of Sakurajima, the active volcano across the bay from his home. This photo of the beautiful sky over the volcano was taken on December 2nd this year. When I visit Kyushu, both Kagoshima and Sakurajima are places I plan to visit. Seeing images of the mountain on a regular basis makes it feel more familiar.

Given the fiery nature of Kyushu’s landscapes, I was surprised and intrigued to read that the origin of the ‘Land of Fire’ (Hi no Kuni) came from fires seen on the sea. As early as the mid-eighth century, Tsukushi (as Kyushu was then called) was known as the isle of unknown fires. The fires in question arise from a magical interplay of light, air and water in the inland seas off the west coast of Kyushu.  They are known as shiranui and their source has been explored and debated for centuries. The inclusion of these unknown fires in the Nihon Shoki, the second oldest book of classical Japanese history, demonstrates the interest in the phenomenon over the ages.

This beautiful woodblock print illustratesthe Shuranui off the west coast of Kyushu in Kumamoto prefecture.

This painting  gives an impression of the shiranui (unknown fires) off the west coast of Kyushu in Kumamoto prefecture. It is from the very informative website on Japanese ghosts and monsters (www.yokai.com). According to yokai.com “Shiranui were thought to be manifestations of the lanterns created by Ryūjin, the dragon god of the sea. On days that shiranui appeared, local villages were forbidden to catch fish in the same area as the kaika. Boats that tried approaching shiranui reported that no matter how long they sailed, the fireballs remained far away on the horizon.”

My first exposure to the shiranui came from ‘Kyushu, Gateway to Japan‘, a book I read in advance of visiting the region. The book is jam-packed with information on the dynamic history of Kyushu and the major impacts of its proximity to China and Korea. It is a fascinating and complex story, one with female shaman rulers, mountain ascetics, changing allegiances and known and unknown fires.

This book contains a wealth of information about Kyushu. It is where I learnt about the shiranui.

This book contains a wealth of information about Kyushu. It is where I learnt about the shiranui, and much more.

In mid-2016 I wrote about my impressions of fire in Japan from a Kyoto perspective in my post Being careful of fire‘. Downtown Kyoto does not have shiranui, volcanoes or geothermal springs (I’ve been told the water in the public baths and onsen is heated by electricity or gas). The element of fire expresses itself in many different ways in the Land of the Rising Sun.

One thing that Kyoto does have is a major parade each January that acknowledges and celebrates the Kyoto Fire Department and volunteer fire groups in the city. Two young children are enjoying the super-duper rescue truck behind me. There were many opportunities for children to learn about fire and its management on the day. I was impressed and encouraged by these and similar initiatives elsewhere in Japan.

As well as natural fires, ‘nuclear fire’ is found in Kyushu. The Sendai Nuclear Power Plant in Kagoshima Prefecture was the first restarted after the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear disaster occurred in March 2011. Given the geologically active nature of Kyushu, as well as the rest of Japan, the concerns about the safety of the reactors is understandable. Fire and energy are inextricably linked, whatever form it takes. I was really looking forward to visiting Kyushu to personally experience fire and the other elements that abound there.

When I finally travelled to Kyushu in June 2017 it went way beyond my expectations. What a remarkable place. During my stay in Kyushu I spent several days in Fukoaka, travelled to Beppu (where I went on a day tour of the Kunisaki Peninsula) and from there down to Kagoshima. I used that city as a base to visit Sakurajima, the Kiyomizu magaibutsu, Kumamoto and Yakushima. I’ve posted a few images from my time in Kyushu to share some of the wonders of this island. Additional highlights are included in other posts, like visiting the first Zen Temple in Japan in Fukuoka.

When I was staying in Fukuoka I came across the Fukuoka Disaster Prevention Centre (FDPC). They run multiple daily sessions to give people experience with different ‘disasters’. English speakers are welcome. In this recreation we had to put out a fire that appeared on the screen using the fire extinguishers on the right. You started at the back line and moved forward, focusing the extinguishers on the fire. It is a drill that stays with me. The training session also allowed you to experience smoke-filled rooms, earthquakes and typhoons.

I would highly recommend visiting the FPDC if you find yourself in Fukuoka. Their displays show that Kyushu is not only a land of fire (e.g. volcanoes, hot springs), it is also a land of water (flooding was particularly bad in 2017; tsunamis also occur), a land of earth (earthquakes represent both earth and fire) and a land of air (typhoons are common bringing with them torrential rain and high winds). Then there are the diverse, stimulating and memorable cultural activities across Kyushu associated with the elements. It is an elemental hotspot!

After spending a few days in Fukuoka getting a feel for the city I took the local train to Beppu in NE Kyushu. Beppu is one of Japan’s most famous hot spring resorts so it was essential to spend time there.

On my first afternoon in Beppu, the city of hot springs, I walked up and up until I tracked down this steaming vent coming straight from the earth. It was feeding local houses it seemed. Beppu is a lovely town. It was a very enjoyable walk.

On my second day in Beppu I took a day tour by bus to the Kunisaki Peninsula in NE Kyushu. It was a remarkable experience. Before we even left Beppu I saw this whole mountain side cleared of trees (the bright green area at the end of the road). Each year it is burnt in a fire ceremony, similar to the one in Nara where a mountainside is consumed by flames. I would love to return to Beppu to witness the event.

A completely unexpected and amazing experience on Kunasaki Peninsula was meeting a female Tendai priest who took my photo with the goblin. He is a key part of the story associated with the large stone buddha and Fudo Myoo (the Kumano magaibutsu) who are carved nearby.

There is such a rich and fascinating history to discover in a relatively small area on the Peninsula. Although many of the temples in the region were destroyed in the Meiji Restoration, those that are left were remarkable. Allan Grapard has written a fascinating book titled ‘Mountain Mandalas: Shugendo in Kyushu‘ that includes Kunisaki. When we visited, the region was celebrating 1300 years of a syncretic religion similar to Shugendo, called Rokugo Manzan. The practices such as fire walking (pictured to my right above) are found across both (the same?) religions. Images of Fudo Myoo, known as the fire god, were prevalent at the temples we visited on the tour, including this one.  He is one of the more popular deities in Japan.

On my third day in Beppu I visited one of the groups of ‘hells’ – intensely coloured and very hot springs. This one is a toasty 95 degrees celsius. The hells were very popular with attractions such as being able to cook eggs and warm your feet in cooled down water. You could also drink hot spring water, which I partook of.

From Beppu I travelled to Kagoshima in southern Kyushu, where I stayed a week in an apartment overlooking the mesmerising Sakurajima. One of the most active volcanoes in Japan it erupts frequently sending plumes of smoke and ash hundreds of metres into the air.

The residents of Kagoshima have a love/hate relationship with the volcano. I found its presence very powerful. Ferries travel to the volcano with great frequency. Sakurajima is where you find the school children wearing the hard hats, although I didn’t see them. It’s worth the trip to see the volcano up close, even though it has the highest danger rating a volcano can have!

An unexpected trip and highlight when I was in Kagoshima was visiting the Kiyomizu magaibutsu near Kawanabe town with my friend Yoshihiro Hidaka. Like the large deities we saw on the Kunisaki Peninsula, magaibutsu are Buddhist images carved on cliffs and rock faces.  For me, the carvings at Iwayi Park near Kagoshima were extra special as the majority are gorinto (five element pagodas), carved into the cliffs over a period of 1000 years. Yoshihiro-san and I spent several hours looking at them.

This five element pagoda diagram was displayed in Iwayi Park, Kawanabe town where the magaibutsu line the cliffs that encircle the park.

The Itabi shown above are stupas cut into flat stone that were carved between the 13th and 17th centuries. Usually they are carved with the elements in Siddham (ancient Sanscrit). These seed syllables are written in English in the bottom brackets on the right. The top line has the Japanese word for each element, which follows it in brackets. The itabi we saw were numerous and of various shapes and sizes. Iwayi Park was an incredible place and a remarkable experience.

Being based in Kagoshima afforded the opportunity to travel to Yakushima by ferry. Yakushima is the wettest place in Japan although disappointingly it didn’t rain the two days I was visiting the island.

This spectacular waterfall on Yakushima was mesmerising to watch and listen to.

When it does rain on Yakushima the waterfalls and rivers can change to raging torrents in a very short period. Just two days before I arrived two people had died trying to cross a swollen river. Yakushima is known for its ancient cedar trees and being the inspiration for the Ghibli Movie Princess Mononoke. There is much more to its history and culture.

In May 2020 I wrote about the book ‘Water Forest‘ that was purchased on Yakushima. This beautifully illustrated story, by a local artist, is the first book I translated from Japanese. I couldn’t think of a more fitting choice.

2 thoughts on “Kyushu, Land of Fire

    • It is a part of Japan I am really looking forward to exploring more. My only experienced with Kyushu so far has been an overnight visit to Nagasaki a few years ago. A return trip is overdue.

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