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The 12 Districts of Satsuma Samurai Defense in Kagoshima

With an optimum mix of beautiful nature and sophisticated cities Kyushu has been attracting increasing numbers of overseas visitors. Until the pandemic! But hopefully, soon, borders will reopen, and Kyushu will be ready to welcome back visitors. One of Kyushu’s next attractions might be its rich and colorful history that helped shape the modern Japan we know today. Even the island’s name, “Kyushu,” which linguists may know translates as “9 provinces”, tells a story of the nine warrior domains that once flourished on the island.

As spring approaches and the weather warms up, we at Fukuoka Now decided to explore a slice of Kyushu’s history and look at what life was like in the age of bushi warriors in one of the most influential domains of modernizing Japan, the Satsuma Domain, modern-day Kagoshima.

Text and photos: by Fukuoka Now (Jack James and Nick Szasz)

On our trip, we had the chance to check out 12 (yes 12!) cultural properties that are part of the defense network of Satsuma samurai districts in the Edo period, stand in awe of an active volcano, enjoy some luscious scenery, hike up a waterfall, and even enjoy some local delicacies on the way! So, sit tight, and buckle up for our Kagoshima fumoto road trip!

While we took four days to enjoy this trip, you could easily take a whole week or more to enjoy the locations at a more leisurely pace and take in some of the surroundings between stops. It’s worth noting, too, that this is just a suggested route. There are plenty of places to see between these stops, and you can change the order to suit your trip.

Now, you may be wondering, “What are fumoto?” To understand the theme of our trip, we first would have to take a visit to where it all started, the remains of Kagoshima Castle.

Index to the 12 Fumoto

1. Kagoshima Castle Ruins – 鹿児島城址
2. Former Kiire Fumoto – 喜入旧麓
3. Chiran Fumoto – 知覧麓
4. Kaseda Fumoto – 加世田麓
5. Tarumizu Fumoto – 垂水麓
6. Shibushi Fumoto – 志布志麓
7. Kamou Fumoto – 蒲生麓
8. Iriki Fumoto – 入来麓
9. Izumi Fumoto – 出水麓
10. Kushikino Fumoto – 串木野麓
11. Koshikijima Sato Fumoto – 里麓(上甑島)
12. Koshikijima Teuchi Fumoto – 手打麓(下甑島)

Day One

1) Kagoshima Castle Ruins

During the Edo period (1603–1867), Kagoshima was ruled by the Shimazu Clan. The clan was in charge of the Satsuma Domain that spanned throughout modern-day Kagoshima Prefecture, its surrounding islands, and neighboring Miyazaki Prefecture. This vast expanse of land was all overseen from their headquarters in Kagoshima Castle. We arrived at the castle met by its intimidating main gate, the Goromon. Most of the castle was lost to fires and battles over time, but the gate was successfully rebuilt in 2020, restoring it to its former glory.

The huge gate is roughly 20 meters wide and 20 meters tall, making it the largest castle gate in Japan. You get a feel for how intimidating it must have been for warriors of the past to try and storm the castle. Massive drawbars could be lowered to barricade the door, while holes above the door, known as ishiotoshi, allowed defenders to drop rocks and all other means of “fun” items on any would-be attackers.

Even after entering the gate, there were sheer rock walls in an L-shape to misdirect enemy forces, making them vulnerable to attacks from above. We learned later that much of the castle was lost to fires and battles over time, and these walls bore the scars that told this story. It was certainly thought-provoking to see the bullet holes that had gouged chunks out of these impressive rocks.

After making our way up to the main court, we checked out the garden behind the castle, which had a lovely pond, a tea room, and, further in, a traditional house that well-off warriors would have lived in.

Before setting off to the next leg of our journey, we stopped off to look at the Reimeikan museum and learn a bit more about the local history. The admission-ticket machines had multilingual options that made for a smooth entry, and the museum itself was full of many great exhibitions that gave a taste of Kagoshima history. It was here where we learned about fumoto.

Fumoto were military outposts located in the 120 administrative districts of the Satsuma Domain. They served to create a defensive network unique to Satsuma, which allowed the lord to defend his domain. With the necessary knowledge to start our adventure, we set off to our first fumoto.

Before leaving, we also got to have some fun with the COCOAR augmented reality app, available at the 12 fumoto locations on tour. That samurai never stood a chance against me and my brochure!

2) Former Kiire Fumoto

We drove just over an hour to Kiire, the southernmost fumoto of the 11 we would see on this trip. The road took us through winding mountains that gave us a great panoramic view of the Kagoshima coastline and Sakurajima, the volcano overlooking the prefecture. There were many restaurants and even a few souvenir shops on the way.

When we arrived, we were welcomed by a local guide who told us this fumoto was relocated under the orders of the ruling Shimazu clan, meaning the area’s layout has slowly changed over time. On our way into the town, we passed statues of tanokansa, statues of gods that watched over rice crops, and were shown the mountain that housed the fort as we strolled down the main road.

One unique feature of this fumoto was the babbling streams that follow both sides of the road. Not only did it give a calming soundtrack to our trip into the past, but combined with the stone walls of the bukeyashiki samurai residences, they essentially acted as moats. The houses featured impressive gates, some of which were engraved to ward off bad luck. We next visited Kobegabuchi (香梅ヶ渕), an idyllic aquamarine pond that, legend says, was formed when a girl known as Kobai threw herself into the lake for passing gas in front of her lord… to find out the rest of the story, you’ll just have to go and check it out for yourself!

We also visited an ancient graveyard on the mountainside with graves dating back to the Edo period. It was interesting to see the different shapes of the plainer Shinto graves and the more complex Buddhist graves. However, the most eye-catching piece was a Buddhist statue atop the mountain that had had its head removed during the abolishment of Buddhism in the Meiji period, a theme that we would discover ran deep in the fumoto culture.

3) Chiran Fumoto

Our next stop took us outside of Kagoshima City to Minamikyushu City, the home of the Chiran fumoto. While Chiran is famous for its Peace Museum, it is also renowned as the first area of bukeyashiki to be designated as a National Cultural Heritage site.

After a long drive, we indulged in some local food at Takian, a restaurant that made excellent use of a historical building. With ceiling-high glass doors, you can enjoy the beautiful bonsai trees in the garden outside while you keep warm next to the urns full of hot charcoal and ash. We ordered the restaurant’s set meal and were treated to seared chicken, konnyaku with a sweet mustard sauce, as well as other appetizers, before filling up on soba noodles, chirashizushi, and satsumaage.

After hoisting our stuffed bellies off the tatami mats, we started our tour of this fumoto at the Mori Residence, guided by none other than Mr. Mori himself. This vast house passed down by Mr. Mori’s ancestors boasted a beautiful garden and had three, yes, three entrances for varying ranks!

He took us onto the streets and informed us of how to tell which warrior families were better off— while all the bukeyashiki had beautiful gates, we were told those with staggered eaves were a status symbol, as were walls that used cut stones.

Another interesting feature was the tendency to have an outhouse by the gate to the residence; these were strategically placed so warriors leaving for battle could relieve themselves one last time before the journey ahead and so that visitors could do so before entering the host’s house and leaving a bad first impression. Another grim reminder of past battles was the “blood bath,” a stone trough that was filled with water so warriors could wash the remnants of war off their swords between respites.

As we stepped out onto the long streets, something seemed amiss. We were walking straight ahead, admiring the well-preserved samurai residences on either side, when it became apparent that we weren’t walking straight at all. The roads had been constructed with the slightest of curves. Chiran’s many bukeyashiki each have their unique characteristics. These seemingly small features showed the warrior ingenuity at play in this fumoto.

4) Kaseda Fumoto

Our trip took us next to Minamisatsuma City to see the Kaseda fumoto. A 20-minute drive from Chiran, we followed a river past rice paddies and forests that made for lovely views.

The bukeyashiki here are much fewer than in Chiran, and one of the mountain outposts has long been removed after developing the area and a school put in its place. However, these residences are unique: their large stone bridges cut from single pieces of stone cross the wide waterways into the houses’ impressive gates.

One featured a two-story vault that once housed a variety of treasures such as gold that was mined from nearby mountains. The area has also been set to Japanese movies!

However, there were also a few dilapidated houses that had gone untouched, a sad reminder that historical sites require constant care that can’t always be provided. One effort to reinvigorate the area has been a sand art project around the town. We saw many great handmade works that somehow had seemed to withstand the elements.

We then moved to Takeda Shrine, a beautiful shrine surrounded by luscious woods. Despite it being so close to a road, the shrine was incredibly peaceful, and the cooling wind blowing through the forest makes you feel at one with nature. It enshrines Shimazu Tadayoshi, an accomplished warrior of the Warring-States period, and his grave is situated deep in the woods. You can enjoy a light hike along the “path into the past,” surrounded by the 47 poems Tadayoshi wrote. You can also find the eight heart-shaped rocks hidden in the pathway if you have keen eyes.

Day Two

5) Tarumizu Fumoto

Sakurajima is an active volcano that was initially an isolated island in Kagoshima Bay, but an eruption in 1914 has connected it to the mainland.

We drove in the shadow of this awe-inspiring mountain on our way to Tarumizu fumoto, so after a lovely send-off by the hotel staff, we traveled to Kagoshima Port to take the ferry. Each ferry has a beautiful design painted on the side, which makes for great photo opportunities.

After arriving onto the island, we drove a short way before stopping part way up the volcano for some fantastic photographs in the sunny spring weather. We also had time to grab some souvenirs on the way down and sample the local clementines.

We soon arrived in Tarumizu, a large town where many of the highest-ranking samurai outside Kagoshima Castle were stationed. Two kind ladies met us who showed us around the residence, adorned with beautiful Tarumizu dolls, a traditional local handicraft. Outside of wartime, warriors had to make a living, and many created dolls in this area. They also treated us to a kimono-wearing experience complemented by some delicious green tea and candied fruit.

They also offer many other cultural experiences, such as handicrafts and sushi making. Unfortunately, my gorilla-sized feet didn’t fit into the tabi socks, so I just had to make do with Adidas while Nick got to wear silk! Before we left, our hosts revealed some family records that went back hundreds of years. The blood of the Satsuma warriors is still running strong.

6) Shibushi Fumoto

After changing back into regular clothes it was time to thank our hosts and head off to the easternmost fumoto in Shibushi City. Before visiting the bukeyashiki, we visited the zen temple, Daizenji. As mentioned in Kiire, much of Satsuma’s Buddhist history was lost during the Meiji period, and almost every temple was destroyed. However, this temple managed to survive. The temple’s abbot told us of the importance that this temple survived and that some of the items had been protected for hundreds of years. While the whole temple once covered a vast area, this was all that remained today. The temple also hosts zazen meditation workshops, but sadly, we didn’t have time on this trip.

We next visited a beautiful shrine embedded on the side of a cliff, surrounded by a pond with koi carp. The shrine also has a bridge that extends your life if you cross it enough times. Be sure to check it out. I know I will be going back again next century!

The residences in Shibushi were located along a long meandering road, and some had beautiful gardens. Despite some falling into disrepair, one residence has been renovated into a cafe inside to keep the local community interested in the building and raise money to take care of it.

Here we enjoyed another delicious lunch at Ura Cafe with local ingredients arranged in a mix of Japanese more Western-style dishes, with the centerpiece being the tomato and cheese rice!

Click here to continue to Part 2

Further reading and reference on Fumoto:

Kagoshima Prefecture
Published: Mar 25, 2022 / Last Updated: Mar 25, 2022

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