An aerial view of the Satsuma peninsula, glimpsed from a light, low-flying craft, would reveal a pastoral landscape of striking warmth, a concentration of green volcanic peaks, white stucco-faced houses and time-worn hot spring inns tucked away down leafy lanes. In this warm, emerald garden, not unlike an Eastern Camelot, the oil refineries and fuel dumps of Kagoshima to the north seem a world away. Such must have been the view, little changed today, that the tokko-tai, better known in the West as kamikaze pilots, flying from Chiran and other bases in southern Kyushu would have taken in on the first leg of their one-way missions.
Established in January 1942 as a military airfield and training camp for the Imperial Air Force, the site where the Tokko Heiway Kaikan (Peace Museum for kamikaze pilots) now stands marks the take-off point for February’s inaugural run in a practice plane, called the “red dragonfly,” over Chiran. As the war turned against Japan, however, the aerodrome was requisitioned from April 1945 onwards as a base for the Special Attack Forces. The meticulously laid-out grounds, which lie a three- or four-kilometer taxi or bus ride into the hills north of town, are a fitting if at times perplexing memorial to the 1,036 tokko-tai who flew from Chiran.
A splendid plane, superior to the hastily refurbished trainers most flew, greets visitors to the open space beside the museum where the statue of a pilot, the Toko Kannon, provides the backdrop for tour-group photos. The pilot’s names are inscribed on 1,036 strips of wood, which were placed inside the statue before it was sealed. Another statue on the other side of the plaza depicts the figure of a mother peering proudly up at the skies above Chiran.
Visitors to the museum grounds often overlook a small Nissen hut, a building of the starkest simplicity, nestled in a copse of trees behind an altar, and a stone that has the names of all Chiran’s lost pilots incised on it. Visitors shuffle through the dim and stuffy interior, which is squat and partially sunken in the manner of an air-raid shelter, an earthen floor passing between two raised platforms covered in rush mats and neatly folded blankets and futons, the olive and brown of military bedding, still in place. This Spartan setting, beneath an asbestos and cinder roof, is where pilots spent their last night.
The museum’s centerpiece, its Peace Hall, was completed in 1975. Its collection, though chilling, is more sentimental than gruesome, with drawers full of uniforms, flying gear and adolescent mascots, its walls and cabinets bristling with letters and photos. In one image, a pilot tightens the rising-sun hachimaki head scarf of a comrade, a symbol of samurai valor and pre-battle composure, around the head of a doomed but smiling youth. Another picture shows a boy, still in his teens, being presented with a puppy to cheer him in the few remaining hours before takeoff. Although the number diminishes with each passing year, some guides and curators are ex-kamikaze, spared by adverse weather, lack of fuel, or mechanical failure.
Back to nature
The Peace Museum, the images it invokes, the moral questions it stirs, and the ghosts it momentarily raises, is not for everyone. Less harrowing are Chiran’s wonderful gardens and green, sub-tropical lanes. Chiran is a small town of tea plantations, old wooden samurai villas, volcanic hills and shallow valleys, but it is best known for its miniature, Edo period gardens.
The Sata family were once the old lords of Satsuma. In reward for their good services they were promoted to membership of the samurai class. Traveling to Kyoto, Chiran’s family heads were able to see some of the best examples of Japanese culture at the time. Suitably impressed by the gardens they saw in Kyoto, a city with the largest number of formal gardens in Japan, on their return to Chiran they hired gardeners to design grounds that would match the natural surroundings of their own village.
Chiran has three basic types of gardens. The borrowed landscape type uses background scenery, such as mountains, forests and hills, as part of the garden. This makes the garden look bigger than it really is. The miniature hill garden has a central pond, which is understood to be the sea. Rocks symbolize mountains and waterfalls. In the karesansui, or “dry landscape” garden, the sea is represented by sand or gravel, which is raked into patterns around a number of carefully selected rocks that represent mountains or islands.
In a sense, all the gardens at Chiran are the “borrowed view” type, using a tiled roof or the top of a stone lantern beyond the garden wall. Each is named after the head of the family who lived in the house. The Keiichiro Saigo garden looks simple, with most of its landscaping in one corner of the yard in front of the house. If you look closely though, you will see how complex it is. Its rocks are carefully angled, and its plants and miniature trees beautifully arranged. As we look, the garden changes into something like the landscape of a Chinese ink-wash painting. A few steps across the lane and you’re in the peaceful Katumi Hirayama garden, with its old lanterns and Buddhist stones.
Located along narrow, winding lanes, the gardens were designed to stop, or at least delay, possible attackers. Each garden is surrounded by high hedges planted on stone walls. Kantsubaki (winter camellias) bloom along these walls in February and early March. Samurai are said to have been fond of the flower, the sound of its head as it fell supposedly reminiscent of decapitated warriors in the last moment of seppuku. There are more stone walls inside the main gates of some of the gardens. At the entrances to some of these villas, between the garden and the main gate, are stone water basins. These were placed there for returning samurai to rinse their blood-stained swords.
Ryoichi Hirayama’s garden is rather different from the others. Rocks, much loved by the samurai class, are completely absent. Instead there is a wide area of azalea shrubbery, which represent mountains. The contrast between the different shades of green, the color of the azaleas, the hedge, and the emerald hills on the horizon is a very effective technique. The top of the hedges are clipped like topiary into angles so that they match the outline of the hills.
Contrived and increasingly gentrified, there is, however, a method and appeal to Chiran’s artifice that many will find refreshing. And the fact that there is very little written about the gardens allows you the freedom to form original, rather than borrowed, thoughts and opinions.
Buses leave Kagoshima on the hour from 9am. The journey takes about 50 min. Get off at the Buke-yashiki-iriguchi stop, where there is a small shop selling tickets for the gardens. A “My Plan” bus pass, available for ¥2,500 from the Kagoshima Kotsu bus office, gives you unlimited travel in the region for two days. Coming from the opposite direction, there is a sightseeing bus from Ibusuki that stops off in Chiran.
Where to stay
Most visitors to Chiran stay in Kagoshima. Nanshukan (tel: 099-226-8188), a reasonable, well-positioned business hotel near Chuo Park is popular. Near the ferry terminals are a few minshukan. The friendly Nakazono Ryokan (Tel: 099-226-55125) is excellent value at ¥4,000 a night. The owner is a mine of information.