Kyushu’s southernmost prefecture of Kagoshima is an enchanting region whose numerous attractions include warm tropical weather, all manner of onsen (fancy a bath of hot sand or mud?), and even a majestic active volcano. Dotted with numerous island chains fanning out toward Okinawa, the prefecture offers fascinating opportunities to explore the intricacies of island culture – including innovative culinary fare being introduced by chefs in kitchens across the archipelago.
The luxurious cuisine on offer at the three Kagoshima resorts profiled below makes each of their restaurants deserving of a spot on the global dining map. And with the numerous low-cost flights now making travel more affordable than ever, why not treat yourself to an extravagant meal or two – and an island getaway weekend while you’re at it?
Tucked cozily into the spot where the Satsuma and Osumi peninsulas seem poised to reach out and hug each other over Kagoshima Bay, Ibusuki – the gateway to Kagoshima’s islands – is an exceptional place to indulge in the region’s superb culinary offerings.
Lying due north and south of Yakushima and Sakurajima respectively, Ibusuki is a lovely onsen town that deserves at least a full day of exploration. Once your sightseeing is done, head up the hill overlooking the city to Yurian – a stylish resort located deep inside an enchanted forest of tropical foliage.
With individual villas nestled into the thicket – some with their own private pools – Yurian’s luxurious touches include fragrant tatami mats and views of the sun rising softly over the ocean. Its onsite restaurant, Yukusa Tsumugitei, which is beautifully accentuated with framed traditional textiles and multicolored silk lamps, truly showcases the best of Kagoshima cuisine.
Needless to say, in this region seafood reigns supreme. Chef Akito Higashi’s creative approaches to Kagoshima’s bounty of the sea include a delightfully colorful sashimi appetizer featuring local fish such as kibinago (banded blue sprat); a grilled akitaro (sailfish) steak adorned with shaved parmesan, crispy lotus root and lemon wedges; and kamasu (barracuda) grilled atop a local bamboo leaf as part of a sumptuous breakfast spread.
A short ferry ride away from Ibusuki is the sacred island of Yakushima, famed for its power spots, ancient cedar trees and some of the lushest rainforest scenery throughout all of Japan. It is also home to the Sankara Hotel and Spa, an eco-resort whose many environmental initiatives include encouraging guests to contribute ¥500 toward local conservation programs; utilizing biodegradable garbage bags and all-natural laundry detergent; and creating original, all-natural amenities and spa treatments from plants, fruits, well water and salts foraged from around the island.
When we visited and dined at the resort’s French restaurant, Okas, imaginative dishes were plated in an elegantly minimalist presentation by chef Kenji Hayashi. These included a luxurious “fish and chips” amuses-bouche of seared and smoked hata (grouper). The fish was set atop razor-thin discs of crisped potato, accented by basil and kurozu (black vinegar, a Kagoshima specialty), topped with delicate morsels of an onsite edible flower known as the sanjika (which is so named because – wait for it – its petals open at 3pm daily), and then perched upon a plank of kunugi (sawtooth oak).
A tough act to follow for sure, but Hayashi managed to outdo himself, continuing to blow us away with each new dish that arrived. Even better, many of the dishes at Okas – as well as at its other onsite restaurant, Ayana – are sourced from local organic farms as well as from the onsite herb and vegetable garden.
The Amami Islands, of which Amami Oshima is the largest, are home to a rich spiritual tradition as well as being a prime subtropical travel destination with unparalleled views of the expansive ocean. Nest at Amami Beach Villas, located along one of the finger-like peninsulas peeking out from the northern end of the island in the town of Tatsugo, is a gorgeous collection of oceanfront cottages offering lunch, afternoon café time and elegant evening dinners at its onsite restaurant, Amanari.
Fronting the ocean and featuring a stylish case near its entrance with a collection of terra cotta and folk art pieces – many of which were crafted by local artisans – Amanari prides itself on showcasing Amami’s unique culture.
“The Amami Islands stand at the intersection of Japan – Kagoshima and Okinawa in particular – and other nearby Asian countries,” explained our attentive host as we sat down to dinner at the atmospheric restaurant. “Our local island food culture incorporates elements from all of these places – and yet remains distinctly unique in its own right.”
The menu itself was one lovely example of this, having been fashioned from washi (traditional handmade paper) using fibers from the banana plant, tinted in the local dorozome (mud-dyeing) technique, and tied with a tsumugi (silk pongee) cord. Our dinner course was also infused with local character, including such imaginative creations as a refreshing cocktail of local kokuto shochu (brown sugar distilled spirits) accented with keraji mikan citrus from the neighboring island of Kikaijima; a dish of plum-infused local tako (octopus) atop a cube of agedashi (gently deep-fried) tofu and garnished with handama (Okinawan spinach); and a bowl of locally sourced kurobuta (black pork) atop jasmine tea-scented rice in a nod to the island’s Asian neighbors.
Our dinner was followed by a long session of star-gazing on the restaurant’s patio, and as we sat enjoying a delicious breakfast the next morning overlooking the turquoise waters on the same terrace, it was hard to believe that these two stunning views were possible in the same spot. While we’d always considered phrases such as “a soft breeze caressing your skin” as being cliché, this changed during our visit to Amanari. As we departed, certain we would be back, this is exactly the phrase and feeling that lingered in our minds.
One More Spot to Explore…
Got time for another stop? Head to Sakurajima – nature at its mightiest
Gorgeous from any vantage point, Sakurajima – the most active among all of Japan’s volcanoes – is a lovely place to spend an afternoon enjoying any number of activities, whether it’s hiking, cycling, kayaking, dolphin-watching, sea-cruising or just enjoying the stunning panoramic views. Visitors who come to Sakurajima by car (or cyclists with time and energy on their hands) will want to visit the Sakurajima Shirahama Onsen Center, located on the peninsula’s northern coast, for an ultra-relaxing soak.
Other creative ways to spend time on the island include perusing the stone haiku monuments, crafting lava-based ceramics, visiting a local Sakurajima radish or mandarin orange farm, or enjoying a lunch that you create yourself at the local Lava Manufacturing Center, which has a pizza oven on its premises. The center fashions volcanic lava into tiles that are utilized for everything from flooring to yakiniku (grilled meat) plates to use in hot yoga studios. The pizza oven – available to individuals or groups that have reserved ahead by at least a week – is the brainchild of the factory head, who conceived of the project as a way to repurpose broken and chipped lava tiles.
Photos by Solveig Boergen