My memories of Kyushu flicker, somewhat. All memories do of course, still-frame images linked by erratic motion, frayed by semantic qualifications, by overlays of sentiment, by conflations, by mis-remembrances, by objects out of place, post-production edits, and all the other things that separate memory and event. But what I remember of Kyushu flickers in the way light does, each image bursting with a flashbulb's glare.
And perhaps this is because the landscape seethes with fire. It is an island of smoking volcanoes, subtropical fruit orchards, massive caldera craters filled with seawater, rich seams of coal.
Whereas most of the country produces sake, given the warm climate, the preferred tipple has always been shochu, a distilled drink sometimes made from barley, sometimes from rice, and most popularly and most deliciously from local sweet potatoes, I came to adore its warm flavor, its aroma of candied yams and burning leaves, the combination of a malty, Scotch-like complexity and a clean vodka finish. And the way it paired with the local specialties – tonkotsu ramen swimming with pork marrow, rich Saga ribeye, almost more like foie gras than beef, the heavy seafood and pork broth of Nagasaki champon noodles, muscular little Kumamoto oysters, and the spiced, briney strips of roasted cod roe.
It was here that the newly emboldened Japanese Empire's sun first rose, with Admiral Togo's defeat of the Czar's navy, crossing the T of their fleet at the Tsushima Straits, leading to the seizure of Russian territory throughout Asia.
And it was here that the same imperial urge ended 40 years later, with the citizens of Kitakyushu at the northern tip of the island burning coal tar and releasing steam from power plants through the night to prevent American planes from repeating their attack on Hiroshima a few days previous, forcing them to reroute to a misfortunate nearby shipbuilding city, where the B-29 Superfortress Bockscar would drop the Fat Man bomb, detonating 1500 meters over the roof of Urakami Cathedral in the northern suburbs of Nagasaki.
In Fukuoka, my first stop, there were of avenues of Washingtonia palms abutting narrow canals, persimmon trees heavy with vermilion fruit, brightly lit signs along the river advertising an “exciting adult club,” a Germanic beer festival I wandered into, Japanese men in Bavarian hunting caps and Japanese women in dirndl singing underneath fairy lights about liebe and ambrosia and Goethe's Erlkönig.
In Beppu, the surrounding hills were obscured by the heavy clouds of sulfurous steam that came out from underground, a product of the hundreds of hot springs that fill the city, along with the jigoku, the so-called “hells,” boiling hot azure-blue and burnt-orange pools guarded by statues of tusked demons and the Chinese goddess of mercy, one filled with burbling mud, one spraying boiling water a few meters into the air every half-hour, and one teeming with crocodiles.
In Nagasaki, the harbor is crowded with cranes and shipyards, and the streets lined with old Dutch warehouses that were once stocked with the exotic products of the outside world during the era of the hermit kingdom – clockworks, gin, cloves, and lenses passing through on their way to the shoguns' households. I walked up to the epicenter of the nuclear blast, to the last surviving fragment of the old cathedral, a section of an archway, a Chinese lion growling at the base and at the top, European saints with El Greco faces staring into the void.
And I took a boat across the harbor, guarded by a statue of the Virgin Mary, to commemorate St. Francis Xavier's death in the city, past little islands where Catholic fisherman guarded their virgins as Shinto goddesses, where their crucifixes were hidden within Buddhist iconography, to the island of Hashima, studded with concrete towers from the early years of the 20th Century, where countless men (including Korean slave laborers in the war, didn't mention that in the audio guide) worked to extract coal from beneath the East China Sea.
I had come to Kyushu looking for some insight into destruction. I'd known about Nagasaki, of course, and also the Tsushima Straits and Hashima, and the eruptions of Mount Unzen and Sakurajima, and also Kyushu's reputation as a breeding ground for yakuza. I'd read Shusaku Endo's Silence, with its themes of trials of faith and the ways in which we negotiate belief in the face of an unforgiving reality. But as I crossed the island, destruction seemed to be a tangential factor.
Of the classical elements, fire is the only one which cannot be called a substance as such, but rather a process, which is why Heraclitus – whose work, what little we have of it, seems to me to be the most far-reaching of any of the pre-Socratic philosophers – believed it to be the basis for all other elements.
And in Kyushu, the fieriness seems to be barely contained. I was at a point on the surface of the earth where the very soil barely suppressed magma flows, and where what had once been an isolated, inward-looking, insular kingdom first faced every process of the modern world, mercantile trade, missionary religion, imperialist desire, and ultimately nuclear war.