So you’ve packed your suitcase and made it down to Kagoshima, on the South Coast of Japan. You’ve boarded the ferry at the port for the speedy crossing to Sakurajima, home to a volcano that belches out ash on a daily basis. Now what? Stepping off the ferry, you have arrived in a bewildering port of nothingness and now have to figure out a way to actually see the volcano.
Luckily for you, there are several sightseeing bus tours that can help you make the most of your trip – but which one to choose?
Pass by the Tourist Information Desk in the ferry building and you can pick up a leaflet produced by the Sakurajima-Kinkowan Geo Park organisation, which tells you about the bus tours of Sakurajima. Three tours are available, two of which I took during my visit in the Summer of 2015. Let’s take a look at the different bus tours available.
The longest of the three courses (and the one that I didn’t take), the Kurokami Buried Shrine Gate Tour, takes you along the North side of the island, a 40-minute journey from the Ferry Terminal. The gates of the Haragosha Shrine were almost totally buried under volcanic ash and pumice in just one day, during the massive eruption of 1914. We opted not to take this tour for several reasons – first of all, though the shrine gates look pretty in the pictures, we thought it was of limited interest to warrant spending 40 minutes of travel in each direction. At 600 Yen it is the most expensive tour, and due to the necessary bus changes it looked needlessly complicated for us on our one-day visit. However, if the gates sound interesting to you, perhaps this tour could be a good choice.
On the face of it, this seems to be the most interesting tour bus option. The main attraction is the Yunohira Observatory, which is the highest point of Sakurajima that visitors are allowed to go to. The view from the observatory (provided you can get a clear shot of it without flocks of selfie-sticks being waved in your face) is pretty special and rather photogenic. Plus, this tour bus is no one-trick pony – you also get to visit the Visitor Center and several other viewing parks.
However, (and this is a BIG however) this tour is set up in that oh-so-Asian style where you don’t actually, really, get off the bus at all. Sure, the tour has 8 or so stops along the way, but you can’t actually get out and spend any decent amount of time at any of them.
For the stops at the start of the tour, the bus literally just pulls in and that’s it – if you want to get out and have a look around, you’ll have to wait for the next bus to come along (in an hour’s time) which of course you won’t be able to get onto anyway because it will already be crammed full of people. Other stops (such as the Karasujima Observatory) the bus will stop for a whole five minutes – so by the time you’ve managed to squeeze off the bus and get out your camera, it’s time to pile back into the bus and discover that someone has taken your seat. The main stopping point at the Yunohira Observatory is little better – visitors can spend 15 minutes taking photos and the like before it’s time to trundle back on down the hill.
This is a very Asian style of travel – just spending long enough at an attraction to take a selfie and then leaving again – basically, just visiting to say that you’ve been there but not really experiencing it at all. This is clear from how the tour bus (which, given that you see almost everything from the bus, you’d assume would be designed so that you can easily see out the windows) is basically just an ordinary public bus with people standing in the gangways, so you can’t even see anything unless you have a window seat.
My advice? Don’t take the Yunohira Observatory Tour Bus if you actually want to see anything. If you want a noisy, uncomfortable nap… go for it.
After the disastrous experience on the previous bus, my hopes were not high for the second bus tour of the day. At 370 Yen it is the cheapest of the tours, and is just a normal public bus service that so happens to go to a tourist attraction. The bus takes 20 minutes from the ferry terminal to the observatory, and they run once or twice an hour depending on the time of day, so plan carefully when you will return.
Given the disappointment of the morning tour, I was completely surprised to be blown away by the Arimura Lava Observatory. This is the observatory that is nearest to the showa crater, and it’s not unusual to hear the sound of the eruption from that point. Also known as the ‘Lava Fields’, your trip will see you walking around fields of beautiful rock formations, with a fine ashy dust covering everything.
Set up on the hillside with views out across the sparkling water, the grey environment is surprisingly beautiful and feels like another world. Views of the volcano from this angle are just as impressive as from the highest peak you can visit, and in my opinion, it is by far the superior tour.
Not only that – because the tour actually involves getting off the bus and traipsing around on your own two feet, it’s the complete opposite of the usual Japanese touring style, and as such we found the bus completely deserted. Even up on the hillside where all the other visitors had come by car, we had the place mostly to ourselves. It was surreal, other-worldy and a stunning location to see the beginning of the sunset from.
So as you might have guessed, I’d recommend that you give the Yunohira Observatory Tour a miss and make a beeline for the lava fields instead! Of course, if bus tours aren’t your thing, another popular option is to hire bikes to get around the island. You’ll need to be quite fit to make it up those steep hills, and it will take pretty much all day to cycle around the island. Bikes can be hired in front of the ferry terminal if you want to give it a go – 400 Yen for 1 hour or 900 Yen for 3 hours. You can find out more information on arrival at Sakurajima, but all you really need is the Bus Tour leaflet to set you up for your sightseeing needs, which can be picked up at the desk directly as you get off the boat.