Ring of Fire: Kagoshima, Japan

Nobody likes to think about the worst-case scenario, especially when planning a vacation, but seasoned travelers know all about glitches. They purchase trip insurance, take a few extra doses of medications in case of delays, and always pack an umbrella. But nobody pays attention to events 1,500 miles away from their destination, so why would we be concerned about a new “flulike” virus in Wuhan, China, when we were going to Japan in January 2020? We were thrilled to be back on the Diamond Princess for a Southeast Asia tour with good friends and especially looked forward to celebrating Chinese New Year in Hong Kong on Jan. 25.

Our first port after leaving Yokohama was Kagoshima, at the southwestern tip of Kyushu island, off the beaten path of even Japanese travelers. It’s not easy or inexpensive to travel around the five main islands (out of almost 7,000) that make up the Japan archipelago, which is the main reason to cruise.

Just after we arrived in port, my husband checked his email while I went over the going-ashore checklist.

“Really?” Phil muttered.


“One of my worrywart friends is telling us to be careful because a Chinese health minister is saying that this outbreak should be considered a ‘global health emergency,’ even though they’ve only had nine deaths.”

“Nine out of how many billion people hardly sounds alarming,” I said. “Have you packed the camera?”

On our last trip to Japan we discovered the Systematized Goodwill Guide Groups. Their members are locals eager to show visitors around — for free — in exchange for the opportunity to practice their language skills. Since our previous guides acted like newfound friends, I was excited to find one in Kagoshima. All we were expected to cover was our guide’s fares, admission fees and lunch.

In Kagoshima I recognized Kyoko, a graphic artist who works at the Sakurajima Volcano’s visitor center and is studying English, from her Facebook page. We bowed and hugged like old friends.

As we walked to the ferry she explained that Kagoshima is sometimes called the Naples of the eastern world because its bay location is also formed by a caldera and Sakurajima is a stratovolcano built up by lava and ash, just like Vesuvius.

The Sakurajima Volcano in Kagoshima, Japan, is a stratovolcano built up by lava and ash, just like Vesuvius. Photo courtesy of Philip Courter.

We took a bus that wound its way up the mountain via numerous hairpin turns. In front of the observatory was a sign written in chalk that read: “Most recent eruption November 12, 2019” — a little more than two months earlier

“This is the most active volcano in Japan, and we have hundreds,” Kyoko said.

She pointed out the many monitoring sites and said that scientists went up all the time to take readings.

“They have thousands of small explosions every year and the ash can blow as high as a few kilometers above the mountain. At home we have evacuation drills and shelters where we go if there are falling rocks.”

Kyoko bent down and began brushing the ash that littered the pathway into a pile. Then she picked up a large pinch and began rubbing her fingers together.

“Come see!” I called to our friends, who were taking pictures of the south and north peaks from different angles. I’d seen Kyoko’s artworks online. They were fine lines of the volcanic ash she dribbled from her fingers. I marveled at how she controlled this flyaway medium. In a few minutes she’d drawn a ship at sea and written “Bon voyage.”

After the return ferry ride we had lunch at a restaurant that specialized in grilling prime meats at the table. Afterward, she signaled for some taxis to take us to the Sengan-en Garden, which for me was the highlight of the day. The summer house by the seashore in Japan where I’d stayed as a child had a similar landscape, with small ponds, shrines and a bamboo grove.

Cat-lovers can buy cat-related souvenirs or leave an homage to their feline friends at the Cat Shrine at Sengan-en Garden in Kagoshima, Japan. Photo courtesy of Philip Courter.

Kyoko bent near a stream and picked up a leaf and folded it.

“This is a special place,” she said. “They have poetry competitions here.” She dropped the leaf in a stream that wound around a small garden. “They drop a sake cup and the goal is to compose a haiku by the time it floats around the circular area.”

The custom at Sengan-en Garden in Kagoshima, Japan, is for visitors to compose a haiku as they walk along the paths. Photo courtesy of Philip Courter.

I took a picture of the arched bridge made of lava stone that we had just crossed and wrote my own haiku: Plum blossom opens / Lava stone makes a curved bridge / Goodwill unites friends.

Before we left Kyoko we gave her an an “omiyage,” the traditional way to show gratitude, especially when tipping would be inappropriate or as an extra-special thanks. The gift is of nominal value and representative of where you are from. The wrapping is more important than what is inside.

“That was a fantastic day,” Phil said once we settled on the shuttle back to the ship.

Now, as we look back on that lovely, low-stress day, we are more thankful to Kyoko than she knows because otherwise we would have taken the ship’s tour. And that would have been a tragic mistake. The first passenger with the coronavirus was on that tour and infected many of those on the bus.


Japanese Goodwill Guides: www.japan.travel/en/plan/list-of-volunteer-guides

Sakurajima Volcano: www.japan-guide.com/e/e4601.html

Sengan-en Gardens, Kagoshima: www.senganen.jp/en