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A Side Trip to the Gardens of Chiran

If you have an extra morning or afternoon, I suggest taking an excursion to Chiran, a small village 31km (19 miles) south of Kagoshima. Surrounded by wooded hills and rows of neatly cultivated tea plantations, it's one of 102 castle towns that once bordered the Shimadzu kingdom during the Edo Period. Although the castle is no longer standing, seven old gardens and samurai houses have been carefully preserved.

Apparently, the village headman of Chiran had the opportunity to travel with his lord Shimadzu in the mid-1700s to Kyoto and Edo, taking with him some of his local samurai as retainers. The headman and his retainers were so impressed with the sophisticated culture of Kyoto and Edo that they invited gardeners to Chiran to construct a series of modestly sized gardens on the samurai estates surrounding the castle.

Some of these gardens remain and are located on a delightful road nicknamed Samurai Lane, which is lined with moss-covered stone walls and hedges. As descendants of the samurai are still living in the houses, only the gardens are open to the public. There are two types of gardens represented: One, belonging to the Mori family, is of the miniature artificial-hill style, in which a central pond symbolizes the sea, and rocks represent the mountains; the others are "dry" gardens, in which the sea is symbolized not by water but by white sand that is raked to give it the effect of rippling water. The gardens are masterful demonstrations of the borrowed-landscape technique, in which surrounding mountains and scenery are incorporated into the general garden design. Although the gardens are small, they are exquisite and charming. Notice, for example, how the tops of hedges are cut to resemble rolling hills, blending with the shapes of mountains in the background.

The seven gardens open to the public are indicated by a white marker in front of each entry gate. All seven can be visited for ¥500 for adults, ¥300 for children, and they're open daily from 9am to 5pm. Plan on about an hour to see them. For more information on the samurai gardens, call tel. 0993/58-7878.

I also recommend a visit to Chiran's Peace Museum for Kamikaze Pilots (Heiwa Kaikan; tel. 0993/83-2525; daily 9am-5pm), dedicated to the mostly young pilots who trained in Chiran for World War II suicide missions, steering bomb-laden planes into Allied warships and other targets. In addition to kamikaze aircraft and uniforms, it displays photographs of 1,036 pilots just before their departures, along with farewell letters and personal memorabilia. A film shows actual footage of the kamikaze pilots in action. Although there isn't much in English, there's an English-language pamphlet, and volunteers are sometimes on hand to explain the museum (to be sure a guide is available, call for a reservation). You'll spend about an hour here. Admission is ¥500 for adults, ¥300 for children.

Chiran's samurai gardens can be reached in about 1 1/2 hours by a bus that departs across the street from Kagoshima Chuo Station at stop no. 16 East (the tourist office in the station has a timetable and a map showing bus departures). There are eight buses a day, including departures at 9:07, 10:17, and 11:17am; the ride costs ¥850 to the Bukeyashiki-Iriguchi bus stop. The same bus then travels onward to the Peace Museum (bus stop: Tokkokannon-Iriguchi) in 7 minutes. There are also three buses a day between the samurai gardens and Ibusuki, with the fare costing ¥940.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.