Saigo’s final moments under Sakurajima’s gaze

The Yomiuri Shimbun

People look at Sakurajima from the observation deck on Mt. Shiroyama.

By Ayumi Noha / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterKAGOSHIMA — It’s like a watercolor on a huge canvas. That was my first impression of the view from the observation deck atop Mt. Shiroyama near downtown Kagoshima.

Before my eyes stretched Sakurajima island, expelling a wisp of volcanic fumes. The surface of the mountain was obscured in the hazy sky.

Saigo Takamori, the leading figure of the Meiji Restoration, must have seen Sakurajima in many different guises. Mt. Shiroyama was the final fierce battleground in the Seinan War in 1877, where Satsuma troops led by Saigo rose up in rebellion in February of that year. After fighting against government forces in Kumamoto and Miyazaki, Saigo’s forces returned to Kagoshima and barricaded themselves on Mt. Shiroyama.

The Kagoshima Convention and Visitors Bureau provides 17 walking tour courses in Kagoshima. I took a two-hour course that tours around Mt. Shiroyama, starting at the observation deck and visiting locations related to Saigo, including the site of the Satsuma troops’ headquarters.

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  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

    A dolphin jumps in the waterway outside the Kagoshima City Aquarium.

  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

About a 15-minute walk down from the observation deck, there is an area with souvenir shops. Near here is the cave where Saigo spent the last five days of his life.

There are two openings, not very deep, in a rock with a tree stretching over it — each has room for only two or three adults to sit down. I felt forlorn in the dim cave.

I heard there were 11 holes during Saigo’s time, and all were a bit more spacious.

I found myself at a loss for words as I considered the life of Saigo. The man who achieved the bloodless surrender of Edo Castle, and served as a sangi state councillor and a general in the Imperial Japanese Army, spent the last morning of his life in such a place.

A pivotal member of the Meiji government, Saigo had a falling-out with his close friend Okubo Toshimichi over the dispatch of an envoy to Korea. Saigo resigned from his government post and went home to Kagoshima to establish a private school.

At that time, people from the former samurai hierarchy were rebelling against the Meiji government nationwide. The government monitored Saigo’s private school, sent emissaries and tried to secretly transport ammunition out of Kagoshima. Students from Saigo’s school were opposed to the government, and they attacked the arsenal, triggering the Seinan War.

Saigo must have known that the government forces had an overwhelming advantage, but he still commanded the Satsuma troops. The way he lived continues to inspire people, even today.

“He couldn’t hand his students over to the government as rebels. I think he made his decision after accepting their feelings,” said Kinuko Shiba, 70, a Kagoshima Volunteer Guide who took us on the tour.

On Sept. 24, 1877, about 50,000 government soldiers launched a full-scale attack on about 300 Satsuma troops. Saigo was shot in his right leg and other parts of his body about 300 meters from the cave.

Saigo said: “It’s enough. Here is good,” and asked for his head to be cut off by a senior member of his troops. Thus ended his life of 49 years.

The stone monument placed at the “Place of Saigo Takamori’s Death” stands quiet and alone in a quiet residential area. There’s no trace of what happened here in the past, but many Satsuma troops may have died in this place. Many teenagers also lost their lives in the Seinan War.

After looking at a stone wall that still contains bullet holes at the ruins of Tsurumaru Castle, I stood in front of the statue of Saigo nearby. He wears an army uniform, and carries an army cap in his right hand and a saber in his left.

Why were statues of Saigo erected in his hometown and in Ueno, Tokyo, in spite of his commanding the rebel army? Saigo got along with many people, regardless of their social status, and had great sympathy for others. I could see these qualities in the statue’s face.

After the tour, I took a bus to Nanshu Cemetaries northwest of Mt. Shiroyama, where Saigo and 2,023 soldiers of the Satsuma army are laid to rest. The gravestones sit silently, backed by a magnificent view of Sakurajima.

Dolphins swim freely

Outside the Kagoshima City Aquarium is the 275-meter Dolphin Waterway leading to Kinko Bay. Visitors can watch dolphins freely swimming out from their pool to the fenced-off waterway.

Dolphin shows are held at the waterway three times a day.

About 50 to 60 wild dolphins are said to inhabit Kinko Bay.

“I hope visitors will also become familiar with wild dolphins as well by watching them outside the aquarium,” said aquarium official Akihiko Yoshida, 52.


From Kagoshima Chuo Station, take the Kagoshima City View bus, which travels around tourist spots in the city. The bus ride from the station to the Mt. Shiroyama observation deck’s parking lot takes about 25 minutes.

For inquiries, call the Kagoshima Machiaruki Kanko Station at (099) 208-4701.

To find out more about Japan’s attractions, visit

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