When most people think of Japan, what comes to mind is raw fish, Mount Fuji, temples and Tokyo. Few step off the tourist path, but those who do will be rewarded: there are entirely new sides to this country waiting to be explored. Among the many is Kagoshima, a volcanic tropical paradise that could easily become known as the 'Hawaii of Japan'.
Sunk into one of the area's largest caldera systems, Kagoshima is one of the easiest places to get up close and personal with live volcanoes - some so active that certain hiking trails are closed, due to ash and releases of toxic gas. Eruptions happen daily: expect to hear a rumble, feel the ground shake for a few seconds, and see giant grey plumes rocket up into the sky.
Don't miss these top sights:
This massive three-peak volcano, active continuously, rises like a giant broken molar out of the surrounding blue waters of Kinko Bay. A road encircles the island (bridged on the east side by lava flows so fresh the vegetation is still sparse) and it's possible to hike to viewing areas on the foothills.
On the other side, in the Kirishima mountain range, long dormant kazan (volcano) Shinmoedake is now angrily awake. Takachiho, the highest peak of the range, is covered with a unique type of azalea which paints the mountainside in pink during spring. Some of the rivers here are so hot that it's possible to take a steaming hot spring soak just by wading out into the rocks and sitting down.
3. Yakushima island
Yakushima, one of Kagoshima's many outlying islands and a UNESCO World Heritage site, is a half-day ferry ride away but worth every second: see giant cedar trees, dive and snorkel with tropical fish, hike the highest mountain in all of Kyuushuu (Mount Miyanoura), and see unique species such as Yaku monkeys and Yaku deer.
The small town of Izumi, otherwise unknown and unassuming, is one of the largest congregating areas of hooded cranes - about ten thousand arrive each winter, flooding rice fields, roads, and even schoolyards.
Waterfalls in Kirishima. Photograph by Ray Bartlett
5.The ancient sites of Kinko Bay
Overlooking Kinko Bay lies a Jomon-era archeological site (discovered accidentally as people excavated for the foundation of a business that was going up) which turned out to be one of the oldest records of human habitation in Japan. A new museum with hands-on demos and interactive exhibits offers a look at this discovery, and (in Japanese) discusses how this find reshaped theories about early habitation of the Japanese island chain.
6. Hot sand baths in Ibusuki
At the tranquil tip of Kagoshima's Satsuma peninsula lies the tourist town of Ibusuki, famous for its amazing hot sand baths. The magma is so close to the surface that it warms the sandy beaches of the town. For a few hundred yen, cheery octogenarians will bury you up to your neck and even mop the sweat from your brow as you cook in the sand for as long as you can take it. It's an experience hot spring buffs travel from all over Japan to enjoy.
Steams rises from a river. Photograph by Ray Bartlett
Make the trip
Getting to Kagoshima just got a lot easier: a new bullet train line opened up in 2011, connecting Kagoshima City's Chuo Station to Fukuoka's Hakata station in northern Kyuushuu. From there, you can get to Kyoto, Osaka, or Tokyo in a matter of hours. Air travel is frequent and discount internet rates often make a one-way trip less than 15,000 yen. The Kagoshima Travel Guide (www.kagoshima-kankou.com/for) offers a number of sightseeing tips around the area.