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May 30, 2011

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Fantasy island fun for all

KYUSHU Island may not sound familiar to first-time visitors to Japan, many of whom will presumably favor routes that cover Tokyo, Osaka or Kyoto, places best known for their modernity and a quintessentially Japanese flavor.

As the most southerly of Japan's four main islands, Kyushu is relatively sparsely populated and thus retains a tranquility unbeknownst to people in metropolises. Kyushu is home to numerous hot springs. It is blessed with pristine beauty and with it comes an agriculture that yields an amazing variety of specialties.

Yet Kyushu's tourism used to be hobbled by a low international profile and scarce rail traffic, which rendered many of its tourist areas inaccessible.

This is beginning to change with the launch in March of Kyushu Shinkansen, a bullet train that connects it to the country's biggest island Honshu.

But here Kyushu's remoteness is now working to its benefit. More than 1,000 kilometers from the quake-ravaged areas in northern Japan, Kyushu is little impacted by radiation leaks from the crippled nuclear power plants in Fukushima.

Moreover, while remoteness increases the difficulty of traveling, it contributes to the preservation of a local culture distinct from that seen elsewhere in Japan.

Kyushu's culture was deeply influenced by China because of their geographical proximity. It fell on the receiving end of a flow of goods and information from China for the better part of the last four centuries.

But since mid 19th century, China and Japan has taken divergent paths to modernization.

Historic tour

History buffs infatuated with Japan's modern trajectory are recommended to begin their tour in Sengan-en Garden and Shokoshuseikan Museum in Kagoshima, the southernmost tip of Kyushu and cradle of Japan's modernization.

Before it was turned into a cultural relic, Sengan-en had been a summer retreat of the Shimadzu family when Kagoshima was the center of Satsuma Domain, one of the most powerful feudal domains during the reign of Tokugawa shogunate (1603-1868), or bakufu.

Unlike other Japanese-style gardens, Sengan-en was built in a way that incorporated many Chinese features. Generations of lords from the Shimadzu clan were so fond of Chinese culture that they furnished the garden with plants and structures imported directly from China or via today's Okinawa, known as Ryukyu before its annexation by Japan in 1879.

Located at the foot of a wooded hill and using the scenic Sakurajima volcano as a "borrowed" backdrop, the garden boasts man-made rocks, towering banyan trees, a small bamboo grove and a "winding water" pavilion whose name was taken from an essay by Chinese calligrapher and writer Wang Xizhi during the Jin Dynasty (265-420).

The imported plants, mostly over 200 years old, attest to the love for all things Chinese at a time when Japan vigorously imitated and learnt from the Middle Kingdom. Japan had no bamboo trees before it imported them. Hereafter, appreciation gradually grew for them as bamboo trees are a symbol of tenacity in Chinese literature.

The banyans and other trees produced a cool respite for the Shimadzu lords in the humid summers. Plus, the barks, leaves and fruits were used to make traditional Chinese medicines.

The most interesting and lasting evidence of Chinese influence manifests itself at a befitting height. Three Chinese characters, "Qian Xun Yan," or huge rock, were engraved on a cliff roughly 50 meters above the ground behind the family mansion where the Shimadzu lords once received guests and discussed policies with aides.

This practice is unique in Japan, but Nariakira Shimadzu, the 11th Satsuma lord responsible for this feat, didn't intend it just to be fun. Inspired perhaps by the Confucian emphasis on equality, he hired locals for the inscription job and paid them rather handsomely in the belief that "employment would make people unite in solidarity, which provides better defense than any castles."

Modernization efforts

The larger-than-life Nariakira was more than just a caring lord. Like all those born into the aristocratic samurai class, he shared deep angst over the steady invasion by Western powers, first with their small trickle of goods and missionaries, followed by a show of military might to pressure Japan into ending its self-imposed isolation.

Japan was shocked by the black ships of US Navy Commodore Perry that arrived in waters off Edo (today's Tokyo) in 1853 and demanded the Tokugawa bakufu set up more trading ports besides Nagasaki in Kyushu.

Before Meiji Restoration, local samurai, like Nariakira, had already begun to look outward after their initial brush with Western science and technology filled them with awe.

The foresighted lord knew that Japan could only avoid being colonized by reforming itself into a strong modern nation.

With this ambition he established the Shokoshuseikan, an industrial complex next to his family estate.

On his watch, several industries began to develop quickly in Kagoshima, including textile, ship-building, metallurgy, glassware manufacturing and printing. Nariakira then exported the merchandise to the West, and with the money obtained he funded schools, public health care and other enterprises.

Visitors to today's Shokoshuseikan museum will see a replica of the huge cannon made by Nariakira's engineers upon entering the famous tourist site.

Nariakira didn't just promote Western technology in his jurisdiction, he also cultivated the brain power necessary to dismantle the institutions that held Japan back, most notably the bakufu.

Among a group of provincial samurai and intellectuals plotting to topple the bakufu, his crony Takamori Saigo was one of the most prominent Meiji reformers credited with establishing a modern Japanese state. Statues and wax figures of Saigo dressed in military uniforms can be seen in many places of Kagoshima, his birthplace.


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