Kurobuta pork is like the wagyu of the pig world, prized for its juicy flesh, intense flavour and heavy marbling of fat. Kurobuta means "black pig" in Japan, and this specific breed - the same one known as Berkshire pork in England - is exclusively bred in Kagoshima, after first being exported about 120 years ago.
Kagoshima sits near the bottom of Kyushu, the third largest and southernmost island of Japan. We took the shinkansen bullet train from Osaka to Kagoshima, a journey that took about 10.5 hours. It's a scenic journey, passing through rolling fields and quaint townships.
We only had one night in Kagoshima and ended up eating most of our meals at Kagomma Furusato Yataimura, a manufactured village of 25 stalls specialising in Kagoshima food, also known as Satsuma cuisine. Before its current name of Kagoshima, the prefecture was formerly known as Satsuma.
The yataimura can feel a little touristy at times, but it's an efficient way of trying a number of local specialties in the one spot. Most staff only speak limited English but all stalls should have an abbreviated English menu in their front window with a list of their recommended specialties, an initiative by the local tourism bureau.
Kurobuta pork skewers 500 yen / AU$5.50
We stop at stall number one which translates as Kurobuta Alley, focussed on kurobuta pork sourced directly from Minami-shu Farm on the Osumi Peninsula. The Kurobuta pork skewers are a delicious way to start, with five different parts of the pig threaded onto skewers and licked by the charcoal flames of a grill.
Kurobuta pork liver, heart and tongue skewers
We chomp our way through all parts of the pig, starting with thin slices of pork tongue, moving onto the impressively rich liver, and savouring the lush fattiness of Kurobuta pork belly.
Kurobuta pork gyoza 300 yen / AU$3.30
The pork gyoza, too, are made with Kurobuta pork mince. These may be dainty in size, but the pocketful of pork mince is sweet and tender, sealed into thin pastry dough that has been steamed and then panfried until golden.
Shabu shabu with Kurobuta black pork ribs 800 yen / AU$8.80
Our eye-opening highlight of the evening, however, is the shabu shabu Kurobuta pork. It's a simple affair but proves that no fussiness is required when using prime ingredients. The wafer thin shavings of Kurobuta pork rib are more fat than meat, with each tinted a faint rosy pink.
Around the corner, we find ourselves at Satsuma Grill. The smell of charcoal is hard to resist, and we park ourselves at a table in the alleyway. Inside is already full, with just eight diners crowded around a u-shaped counter.
Grilled Kurobuta pork 700 yen / AU$7.70
The Kurobuta pork offering here is a pork fillet, cooked on the charcoal grill until smoky and caramelised at the edges. Ladled across the top is a refreshing citrus dressing. We savour each mouthful with wilted bean sprouts and finely chopped green onion. A squeeze of the chargrilled lemon adds extra zing.
Kuroushi or black beef is another breed specific to Kagoshima. The black cattle are a type of wagyu beef, and it's evident in the eating. We marvel first at the supreme pink hue of the grilled steak and then rejoice as we relish its melt-in-the-mouth juiciness.
The cosy stall set-up
We ate at Tagiruba for lunch, one of our memorable meals where we ended up chatting with the chef, befriended other diners, and mangled our way through hybrid conversations of English, Japanese and a lot of sign language.
Kuro satsuma-dori lunch set 700 yen / AU$7.70
Black satsuma chicken with rice, salad and soup
The lunch set menu offers incredible value. Just 700 yen nets you a multi-course meal of black satsuma chicken, salad, rice and miso soup.
Black satsuma chicken grilled sumibi-yaki style over charcoal
Kuro satsuma-dori is black satsuma chicken, raised free-range and prized for its texture and flavour. Just like black satsuma pork and beef, it's only the outside of the animal that has black skin, coats or feathers.
Here the chicken has been grilled over charcoal. We notice the difference in texture immediately, quite lean and chewy but markedly stronger in flavour.
Onsen egg on rice
Taking a cue from other diners, we asked for an onsen egg on our rice. It's a extra 70 yen, or less than a dollar, but worth it for that gooey blanket of rich egg yolk.
Preparing our black chicken sashimi
We also order the black chicken sashimi, a bewildering thought for most Westerners, but a dish that's not uncommon in Japan.
Kuro satsuma-dori torisashi
Black chicken sashimi
It does look a little intimidating at first, but I'm reassured by the Japanese obsession with hygiene, and the fact that chicken sashimi is always from a chicken slaughtered that morning.
The first mouthful is irrefutably raw. Soft and squishy with a chewy layer of fat and skin across the top. It's a bewildering sensation, and one that threatens the sensible side of your brain. "This is raw chicken. You'll get salmonella. You shouldn't be eating this!" it yells.
But the jaws plough on, and while your brain processes everything, it starts to appreciate an alluring freshness about it, like the difference between cooked and raw salmon. You can taste a faint hint of sweetness in the flesh, and notice the gentle chew of the chicken flesh.
On the side is a sweet soy and vinegar dressing, along with raw onions, shallots and a dollop of raw minced garlic.
Tagiruba by night
Sakurajima Cherry Island, an active volcano
We didn't have much time in Kagoshima, but we did catch the train down to Sakurajima, or Cherry Island, an active composite volcano. The volcano has regular mild eruptions. It had erupted that morning, making the skies hazy with ash. The last major eruption was in 1914, killing 60 people and destroying 3,000 homes. Originally a volcano island, the spray of molten lava continued for so long that the river of lava cooled into a land mass that turned that island into a peninsula connected to Kyushu.
Today residents regularly endure volcanic ash, and often carry hardhats, umbrellas and masks for protection.
Giant Yakult drinks make me happy
We didn't notice any volcanic ash in the air from where we were standing, but we did zero in on the giant Yakult drinks in the vending machine at the station. Forget those tiny bottles of Yakult. This baby was 500 millilitres of probiotic happiness.
Kagoshima Morning Markets
Grocery store at the morning market
Unfortunately the major market, Asa Ichi, was closed on the one morning we were there (they're open Monday to Saturday only) but we wandered around until we found a local morning market, a small nest of shops covering 1.5 blocks.
Sweet potatoes, a specialty of Kagoshima
Kagoshima is known as "the land of sweet potato", producing more sweet potatoes than anywhere else in Japan.
It was barely 7am but there were quite a few locals out and about doing their shopping for the day.
Japanese buffet breakfast at our hotel
The early start means we really can do the hotel buffet breakfast justice, a smorgasboard of rice, pickles, miso soup, meatballs, vegetables and shredded cabbage. The fresh butter in a sachet squeezes out perfectly onto the super thick slices of toast.
And yes, I can reassure you, there was no ill effect after the sashimi chicken. Would I do it again? Only in Japan.
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Kagomma Furusato Yataimura
6-4 Chuo-ku, Kagoshima City, Kagoshima, Japan
Tel: +81 (099) 255 1588
Shop 1 - Kurobuta Alley
Open daily 11.30am-2pm and 5.30pm-12am
Shop 20 - Tagiruba
Open daily 11.30am-2pm and 5pm-1am
Shop 24 - Satsuma Grill
Open daily 5pm-12am
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8/03/2015 01:12:00 a.m.