Talk about mixed first impressions. On arriving in Kagoshima, I am torn between being smitten and feeling deeply uneasy. Smitten, because the southern Japanese city is effortlessly charming, big enough to be lively but not hectic and full of people who are friendly but not overbearing. A largely low-rise waterfront arcs gracefully into a sparkling bay. Trams, stubbier (and somehow more endearing) than the Hong Kong variety, trundle melodically down spotless, tree-lined streets and past stately bronze statues overlooking broad plazas, giving Kagoshima the air of a minor European metropolis without the budget problems. And uneasy because Kagoshima's defining feature - Sakurajima, or "Cherry Blossom Island", which, despite the cheery name, is a sizeable, active volcano separated from the city by a mere sliver of water. Visible from almost everywhere in town, the mountain's rocky contours blush pink with the dawn and, at dusk, form looming shadows wreathed in smoke. Although its last devastating eruption was a century ago, the volcano has been particularly active of late, and, in 2013, ejected its highest recorded plume of ash. This doesn't seem to trouble Kagoshima's residents, who stoically endure the fine black dust Sakurajima regularly sprinkles over the city, and have even constructed homes in its foothills. Ferries run to the island from Kagoshima's pretty harbour every few minutes, shuttling visitors to what has become a tourist attraction, with hiking trails, foot baths and a dinosaur theme park - although Sakurajima apparently wasn't formed until the dinosaurs were long gone. The local ambivalence to smouldering mountains may have to do with the fact that Sakurajima and its brethren have also bestowed a few blessings on the city and surrounding prefecture. Its abundant hot springs lure visitors with their supposedly therapeutic qualities. The region's rich volcanic soil and warm weather power the cultivation of some of the most renowned produce in Japan, including sweet oranges, gargantuan daikon radishes, green tea leaves and sweet potatoes. Volcanic ash also figures prominently in local crafts, including Sakurajima-yaki pottery, imbuing the muted colours and fluid designs of traditional tea and sake sets with a silvery sheen. Whether it's because of the quality of the raw materials or the urgency that comes with inhabiting a restless corner of the planet, Kagoshima is a place of proud and superbly executed traditions - culinary, artistic and otherwise. The city lacks truly big-ticket tourist attractions; guidebooks tout a handful of residences, parks and ruins associated with its role as a centre of early Christian missionary activity and exchanges (hostile and otherwise) with the West. But the narrow lanes of the decidedly retro-looking Tenmonkan shopping arcade - still the heart of town - throw up lots of discoveries. One of them is 216 Junction Store, a small emporium with a resident pug and exquisite selection of local lifestyle and speciality goods: hand-hewn wooden cups, woven baskets, canvas tote bags and jars of fiery home-grown ginger syrup that the versatile owners are happy to whip into a warming drink. And then there are the city's convivial pubs, or izakaya , many barely more than a bench plonked down in front of an open kitchen - but what wonders their kitchens create! Armed with little more than the word omakase ("whatever you recommend"), we while the night away at cosy Daidai (the Japanese word for "orange"), where we are treated to a range of Kagoshima delicacies; tender cuts of seared kuroge wagyu (black cattle) beef; fresh oysters simmered in a ginger broth; grilled leek drizzled with a yuzu citrus dressing. We brace ourselves as the bill is sent over, but it's barely more than 6,000 yen (HK$390). We give thanks with yet another glass of Kagoshima's most famed export - imo shochu , a clear spirit distilled from the prefecture's abundant sweet potatoes. There are more than 100 distilleries in the Kagoshima area, pumping out thousands of variants of the potent drink, which in its most neutral form tastes something like an earthier, more complex vodka. It can be consumed straight and makes a fine cocktail base, but in Kagoshima it isusually diluted to a wine-like strength with warm or cold water. Many of the prefecture's distilleries are set in picturesque countryside and welcome day-trippers. The original factory of one of the largest, Satsuma Shuzo, is both a working distillery and a museum. Visitors are walked through the ancient Middle East origins of the drink, the making of the rice-mould starter and the trimming of potatoes, to where current batches bubble away in massive, centuries-old pots, giving the air a yeasty tinge. There are, of course, ample opportunities to sample the end results: from a smoky, barley-based variety with whiskey-like characteristics to an undiluted version, the slightly floral taste of which masks a high alcohol content. The next day we head to the satellite town of Ichiki, to visit a distillery that's remained in the same family for well over a century and produces a mere 25,000 bottles per year, despite demand for far more. Yamatozakura's current head, Tekkan Wakamatsu, is a wiry man in his 30s who attends to virtually all aspects of production single-handedly, from feeding sweet potatoes into a giant washing tub to mixing rice and mould spores in a sauna-like steam room. He even applies the bold calligraphic labels to bottles. He works so hard, he says, because he sees the distillery as part of a "worldwide spirit movement" that emphasises natural ingredients, limited production and attention to detail - although he has no plans to start exporting his shochu , which is clean and crisp, with a delicate sweetness. The recipe and technique employed at the Yamatozakura distillery have remained virtually unchanged since the Edo-era crates that are still stacked in the warehouse were full. YAKUSHIMA IS ONE of the chain of islands that marks Kagoshima prefecture's southern boundary, and is three hours by hydrofoil from the city. Once almost impossibly remote, it is distinguished by its natural beauty and incredibly diverse flora and fauna, as it effectively straddles the temperate and subtropical climate zones. Rising abruptly from the sea, the island is a place of snow-capped mountains and sandy, coral-fringed beaches. Sunny warmth soon turns to chilly mist when you ascend one of Yakushima's many hiking trails. We stay in a wooden cottage ripe with the smell of fresh cedar; commune with towering, knotted, millennia-old sugi trees; and take in roaring waterfalls and the same shadowy, moss-covered glades that inspired the Studio Ghibli masterpiece Princess Mononoke . It is enchanting but the highlight just may be Kotobuki, a restaurant on an isolated stretch of the road that encircles the island. It is approached by an almost medieval walkway of rough-hewn stones. The sliding doors of the tile-roofed building open onto the very definition of modest comfort; tatami surfaces, rough and ready tables, cubbyholes stuffed with vintage cameras and hanging calligraphy scrolls. The entire place, it turns out, was built by hand, right down to the walkway outside - the owner is a stonemason. He and his wife also handle the cuisine, which draws heavily from the churning seas nearby. Thick cuts of hand-pressed sushi and grilled, flaky flying fish flavoured with soy sauce and brown sugar are served with glasses of Mitake shochu , brewed a few kilometres away. Kotobuki is a restaurant that manages to champion the local with a minimum of artifice or adornment - as perfect a distillation of Kagoshima prefecture as I've seen, and the reason so many visitors are eager to return. Getting there: Hong Kong Airlines operates two direct flights to Kagoshima per week, on Tuesdays and Sundays. The city is a two-hour bullet train ride from Fukuoka, with several trains departing each hour, and about eight hours by train from Tokyo.