Category Archives: volcanoes

Kamui Mintara – The Playground of the Gods: Part Four

M61 間宮岳

The crater rim with Asahidake in the far distance.

Fuujin, the Aeolus of these eastern islands, was out playing on our third and final day up on the plateau. The plan had been to hike to the summit of Asahidake, the highest point in Hokkaido, but the wind was so strong this morning. The guide warned that it wouldn’t be worth anything because we’d be fighting to keep from being blown off the summit. The director already had a back up plan: we would bypass the mountain and descend by the Nakadake hot spring route.

We set out with clouds gathered over the highest peaks and went once more over to the crater. There was no stopping for flowers this morning. As we began climbing above the crater, the wind became even stronger. When it blew crossways over the trail, I had to walk leaning sideways into the wind in order to keep balance. We looked back across the plateau and saw Kurodake in the distance. We climbed up slopes of snow stained red from the dust of red volcanic rocks. There were many colours in the stones up here: brick red, mustard yellow, near-black grey, purplish red, ash grey, rusty brown.

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Looking back to Kurodake. Ryoundake is on the left.

On our right was Hokuchindake, the second highest peak in Hokkaido. Here we turned left and followed the crater rim, the wind once more coming at us in force. Then the trail split and we turned right, descending below the southern slopes of Asahidake. An impressive cleft opened up in the rocks and below that, yellow and white mineral deposits in the stream told us that we had reached the hot spring. I always take notice of the rocks in hot spring areas because they look so different. Some look like concretions of volcanic particles while others look like corroded volcanic rocks. Bubbles emerged from a pool that someone had created by encircling part of the stream with rocks. Thick wrinkled mats of moss grew on the otherwise sparsely vegetated slope above the stream.

M64 中岳温泉

Milky waters below the Nakadake hot spring

M40 エゾノリュウキンカ

Marsh marigold bloom along the stream below the Nakadake hot spring.

Continuing further down the trail, we once more encountered broad meadows of wildflowers, and the cameras went into action yet again. The clouds were slowly lifting and patches of blue released searing beams of sunlight upon our necks. There were streams flowing through tunnels of snow and small ponds. Great monoliths of volcanic rock stood upended amidst the greenery in the distance. Then at last we came around to the northwest face of Asahidake where steaming fumaroles hissed and roared. This was near the gondola and with a well-built boardwalk going around ponds and offering views of the steaming holes and mountain reflections (on still days). Tourists flocked in the area, a good number of them Chinese and Korean. After a little more filming, our journey in the mountains came to an end here. Below we said farewell to Mr. Morishita and two of the porters but kept the young Yamada for our continuing adventures. Tomorrow we were going to seek out the Ezo brown bear we needed someone to carry the tripod!

M67 裾合平の花畑と旭岳

Yet even more flowers with Asahidake in the background.

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Steaming gases on Asahidake.

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Kamui Mintara – The Playground of the Gods: Part Three

M50 北鎮岳と凌雲岳Playground of the weather gods. The sky was clearing up overhead while the sun sank behind a thin explosion of clouds. Twice, a weak evening light crept across the northern volcanic landscape, spotlighting snow patches and lava rock, but there was no final climax, no stupendous finale of alpine light. Though I was inside my tent and sleeping around eleven o’clock, Mr. Tsujinaka stepped outside and saw the Milky Way stretching clearly across the heavens.

I didn’t need to go outside to know what the weather was like at 3 a.m., though. As the wind battered my tent, the sound of rain drops being flung against the fabric was familiar enough. At four, I stuck my head out into thick fog and handfuls of rain being tossed in the gusts like rice at a wedding. The morning plan to record the sunrise from the nearby Keigetsudake was unquestionably off, and word was that the morning shoot was on hold until the weather improved. The rain abated soon, however, and I set out alone to photograph along the trail not far from camp. The wildflowers had droplets clinging to them and, as I was to discover, there was a variety of volcanic ejecta to examine.

At last, bright patches began appearing in the sky and our crew set off to return to the summit of Kurodake. One porter joined us, carrying the large tripod, while the other two went down the mountain for supplies (beer and other things).

On Kurodake, the sun broke through the clouds again and once more we were bestowed with views across the landscape. Then we went from Kurodake back down and crossed the plateau to the edge of the great crater on the southwestern side of the complex. As we walked, Mr. Morishita explained about the flowers and plants. We passed more windswept scenery and places profuse with greenery and blossoms. Some plants had finished blossoming, others had yet to produce flowers, and then there were a couple of dozen that were in bloom.

Species like the komakusa (Dicentra peregrina), iwabukuro (Pennellianthus frutescens), and the Ezo tsutsuji (Therorhodian camtschaticum) grew in the sand and gravel of the windy areas. They grew low to ground because of the strong winds that persist year round, and many of the species had fine hairs for trapping moisture from fog. The komakusa has a single rhizome of 50 to 100 cm length and, according to Mr. Morishita, the plant can move its location up to 10 cm in a year.

M24 コマクサ

Dicentra peregrina – komakusa. The queen of alpine flora in Japan.

The creeping pine, a.k.a. the Siberian dwarf pine or Japanese stone pine, is called haimatsu in Japanese (Pinus pumila). It gets its English names from being both low-growing and its nature of slowly moving across the ground. Mr. Morishita pointed out how the shrubs were bare and dried with roots exposed on the windward side but produced green needles and cones on the leeward side. He explained that the plant continues to set down new roots from the front while its rear (windward side) becomes exposed and desiccated. Thus the plant slowly advances away from the wind. Creeping pine indeed!

For me, the most remarkable plant was the chishima tsugazakura (Bryanthus gmelini). What appeared as tiny white blossoms standing no more than three centimetres above a mat of pine-like needles was actually a shrub. Mr. Morishita drew our attention to the woody branches and roots that were exposed where the wind had removed the soil. Looking at it that way, I could see how a miniature tree was growing essentially underground and only the leaves and blossoms rose above the soil. As with other windy area species, this plant also produced new roots on the leeward side of the wind as the windward side became exposed. Several other species grew together in clumps of clay-like soil and made little islands of green that stood above the flat, grey volcanic sand and gravel. The landscape took on a whole new impression for me as I saw it now as a dynamically changing scene of hummocks that were eroded from one side while small plants gripped the soil and survived by perpetually moving as their roots were exposed.

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Bryanthus gmelini – chishima tsugazakura. Just pretty flowers…?


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…or a subterranean shrub?

In areas of deep snow, blossoms grew in broad hummocky swaths. Here the wind was less damaging and the soil was covered in vegetation. In places, small pools of water were surrounded by false-hellebore, low straw-like grasses, and various species of blossoming plants. The highest plant here was the Japanese rowan, nanakamado (Sorbus commixta), which grew in lush, green bushes. These too had a game plan of not growing too high as rabbits would seek out their twigs to nibble as the deep snows melted. By staying low, they assured themselves of un-nibbled twigs for producing buds once the snow was gone.

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Green meadows indicate places that receive deep snow in winter.

Before long, my head was swimming with thoughts about how these plants had each adapted to this harsh world high above the green hills beyond the slopes of the volcanoes. But soon we reached the crater and the clouds, which kept lifting and sinking, once again rose to reveal the landscape before us. The crater was wide and flat and a branch-work of streams in grey and yellow fed a central stream, the Akaishi River, which flowed out of the crater and through a gulley across the plateau. It eventually tumbled down over the cliffs of the Sounkyo Canyon. Mr. Morishita explained that there was once a lake in the crater but the waters had made a breach and the lake flowed out.

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The source of the Akaishi River: inside the main crater of the Taisetsu Volcano Group

The walk back to camp was quick-paced with only a few stops for further filming. The sun came out over Keigatsudake and the young Yamada and I made the quick climb to the summit. From here we looked out over green forest and some distant emerald fields. The only structures we could see were a couple of the hotels in Sounkyo. The wind was ferocious, however, and after a little we went back down. Yet again, there was no grand sunset, no alpine light. Nonetheless, a successful day of shooting had come to an end.

Kamui Mintara – The Playground of the Gods: Part One

Alpine wildflowers. I like them. I stop to photograph them. I know a few of their names. And now I was standing amidst the rugged rocky peaks of a volcano complex in the centre of Hokkaido for the purported reason of having come to see wildflowers. Not the volcano. Not the steaming fumaroles and the sulphureous deposits. Not the dozen or so varieties of volcanic rock. I said I was here to see the wildflowers and was told that my interest in geology was not important to the program. Well, okay then. Let’s check out the wildflowers.

Taisetsusan

Big Snow Mountain – Taisetsusan. That’s the Japanese name. The aboriginal Ainu people called it Kamui Mintara – the Playground of the Gods. Central Hokkaido is home to some volcanic mountain ranges, and the highest summit of them all is Asahidake – 2,291 metres – in the Taisetsusan Mountains. The whole area is a remarkable natural wonder: a volcanic plateau with soaring cliffs replete with cascading ribbons of white water, hot springs, volcanic cones and craters, noxious volcanic gases, and beautiful ponds. It is also host to vast alpine meadows, and from base to summit, there are approximately some 270 species of wildflowers.

I was asked to be there for an upcoming episode of Journeys in Japan, my fourth appearance on the program. Previously I had climbed mountains on Yakushima and scrambled up waterfalls in the Kita Alps. Adventure and new challenges had been the order in the past. This time I was going to explore alpine meadows and learn about flowers. I was excited about the trip! There was the possibility of climbing Asahidake, which would have been my 35th Hyakumeizan. There was also word of a species of flower that grew only near a bubbling mud pit and nowhere else in the world. Visions of a Japanese Rotorua came to mind. In addition, part of the itinerary included seeking out the Ezo brown bear, the higuma. For me, the wildflowers would be but a pleasant bonus.

Taisetsusan’s summer weather is a wreck. High peaks stand above the pastoral hills and fields where cows graze, and those peaks trap every current of moist air passing through, forcing them up into the cooler air and causing clouds and rain to frequently hold parties at the higher elevations. A playground indeed. For the weather Gods. Our director had been there three weeks earlier, running the course that he’d planned for the program. Running through fog and strong winds and not seeing a damn thing! “Why did I come here?” he reflected as he told us about his reconnaissance trip. “It was just training for running in the mountains.”

The weather Gods were there for the summer break. The first night it rained in the Sounkyo Canyon where we stayed in a hotel. But the sun came out in the morning and we rode the gondola and chair lift under blue skies. True to mountain weather form, however, as we made our way up the trail to Kurodake, clouds drifted in and erased the view.

The flowers were blooming. It was no surprise to see many varieties of blossoms or even to see large swaths of alpine flowers. But as the guide began pointing out species after species, I began to appreciate why Taisetsusan was known for its flora. 

A bush-like plant called ukon’utsugi was particularly interesting. A tube like blossom in pale yellow, it had a clever method of communicating to insects about its pollen. The inside bottom of the blossom was a golden orange colour, which is easily seen by visiting insects. This is like an open for business sign, saying, “Pollen here!” Once the pollen has been removed, the colour changes to a deep red – “Pollen sold out!” In this way, insects can soon find where to get pollen and the plant can ensure insects don’t waste time searching depleted pollen stores.

The clouds enveloped the mountain. At the summit, I smiled and shook hands with my guide in a grey shroud. To our surprise, another film crew was there. With two cameras and larger staff, the NHK Hyakumeizan TV program crew were also covering a story on Taisetsusan.

It was then that the clouds began to part and views across the highland between the peaks were revealed to us. Cameras were parked on tripods and the precious moment was captured. The clouds played a game of conceal-and-reveal a couple of times more before we began to move on, descending toward the Kurodake shelter and tent site. Now we were heading into the world of alpine vegetation. I did not anticipate how interesting it was going to be.

9M ウコンウツギ

Ukon’utsugi – Weigela middendorffiana

17M チシマキンバイソウ

Chishima kinbaisou – Trollius riederianus

19M チシメフウロウ

Chishima fuurou – Geranium erianthum

44M 黒岳より北鎮岳

View from the summit of Kurodake – Hokuchindake (centre) and Ryoundake (right)

On Location: Yakushima – The Jomon Sugi (Dating a Tree)

The Jomon sugi (縄文杉) is the name given to a Yakusugi tree, which is a sub-species of sugi, a Japanese cedar or Cryptomeria japonica. Standing 25.3 metres high and with a girth of 16.4 metres, it is the largest known specimen of its kind. Its age, however, is a mystery.

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During the feudal age in Japan, citizens of the country were expected to pay taxes usually in rice or some other produced goods. There was little farmland on Yakushima, so the locals endeavoured to pay their taxes in cedar wood. They climbed up the mountainsides where the largest of the cedar trees grew and using axes only, they cut down some of the great trees and chopped the wood into logs. It was during these days that a giant among giants of a tree was known to exist up the slopes of Miyanouradake, at about 1,300 metres elevation. However, as time went on, the tree became forgotten.

In 1914, Ernest Henry Wilson, an English botanist who spent much time in China, introduced to the world a massive tree stump on Yakushima. This stump (to be written about in detail later) became known as the Wilson Stump. Had Wilson continued his trek 300 metres up the mountainside he might have encountered the enormous Jomon sugi. But the re-discovery of the tree would not happen until 1966 when a Mr. Teiji Iwakawa found it after following rumours of an ancient giant of a tree said to exist beyond the Wilson Stump. His discovery was nationally publicized in 1968. At the time, the tree was called the Ohiwa sugi (Bigrock – Big because of its size and Rock from Iwakawa’s name, Rockriver). At the time, the tree was believed to be about 4,000 years old, and a contemporary newspaper article stated that the tree was a relic from the Jomon Period in Japan (about 10,500-ca. 300 B.C.). The sensation of the article gave rise to the new name of Jomon sugi.

In 1976, Kyushu University researchers examined the tree and based on the size and girth of the trunk and tree ring count from trees in the area, the tree’s age was estimated to be over 7,000 years old. The tree’s age was decided at 7,200 years. If this were the true age, the Jomon sugi would be even older than the bristlecone pines of the White Mountains of California. But was the tree really that old?

A drill sample was carbon dated and the age came out to be 2,700 years. That could not possibly be the accurate age though because the centre of the tree was hollow. All the old sugi rot from the centres as the trees continue to grow big and old outwards. The bigger and older the tree, the more of the old wood that has rotted away. There were possibly dozens of centuries of lost data, which meant that there was no reason to believe the Jomon sugi was not 7,200 years old.

Enter the Kikai Caldera. On Yakushima one can find a thick layer of red clay almost anywhere on the island, be it in the sub-alpine area or deep down in the valleys. The red layer of clay, known as the Akahoya, is anywhere from about 40 to 100 centimetres thick and in many places it contains chunks of pumice, some as large as a hand. If Yakushima is not a volcanic island, then where did this volcanic ejecta originate?

Looking north northwest of the island, two small island sit rather innocently among the waves. One island, Satsuma Iwojima (usually just called Iwojima but not to be confused with the famous one from WWII) bears a volcano that frequently sends up plumes of smoke. The other island, Takejima, is nothing remarkable except that there is a small settlement there. Near Iwojima’s east flank is a very small island composed entirely of lava rock. This is Showa Iwojima, so named because it emerged from the ocean during the early Showa Period days, between September 1934 and September 1935. The island grew from an undersea eruption, was destroyed by an eruption, and grew again before finally reaching its present size, minus the square metres lost to erosion in the intervening years.

These three small islands are all that remain of a great volcano that once occupied this corner of ocean. Now known as the Kikai Caldera, the great volcano collapsed with a cataclysmic explosion, originally believed to have occurred 6,300 years ago.  The evidence of the blast suggests that it was a 7 on the VEI – Volcanic Explosivity Index – making it one of the four most powerful and devastating eruptions in the last 10,000 years. The VEI grading system works like the magnitude scale for earthquakes with each number grade representing ten times more power than the previous number. The Mt. Saint Helens eruption of May 1980 was rated 5. That makes the Kikai eruption 100 times more powerful.

The blast sent out a pyroclastic flow, a moving current of hot gases, ash, and volcanic rock that can race along at up to 200 metres per second, and the more powerful ones can travel up to 200 kilometres from their source. Archaeological evidence in southern Kagoshima shows that human occupation ceased after the eruption and did not resume for some 700 years, an indication that the devastation from the blast may have annihilated life in the area.

How did Yakushima fare, being located so near? The Akahoya layer covers much of the island and a blast of that magnitude is believed to have taken a significant toll on the island’s biosphere. It is perhaps the mountainous terrain that saved a few pockets of life from complete obliteration. This was incredibly fortunate for Yakushima’s ecology since many of the species had migrated there during the ice ages and would not have been able to replenish their populations now that Yakushima was an island.

But if the island’s biosphere was devastated nearly but not quite to extinction 6,300 years ago, then is seems virtually improbable that the Jomon sugi could be 7,200 years old. Once again, updated research strolls onto centre stage: the eruption is now believed to have taken place 7,300 years ago. If that is the case, then the Jomon sugi may well be the last survivour of the earliest individuals to reclaim the island.

Still though, the tree’s true age cannot be stated with any certainty. It is surely over 3,000 years old, and very likely to be over 4,000 years old. It could be over 6,000 years old and may be as old as 7,200 years. We simply don’t know. But as my guide Kikuchi-san said, does it really matter? The tree is magnificent no many how many thousands of years we ascribe to it.

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The Climber Within

When I was 12 years old, I went to a week-long summer camp event – five days and one weekend overnight. On the first day I caught sight of a beautiful blonde girl about my age or a year older. Throughout the week, any chance I got I tried to get near her to interact with her. On the last day she sat in front of me on the bus and I managed to spark up an animated conversation with her. Her stop was one stop before mine and mine was the last stop. As we neared her stop I tried to sum up the courage to ask for her phone number. But I did not. And she disembarked and summarily went out of my life.

Twenty-nine years later I doubt that getting her phone number would have made any big difference in my life now. But from that experience I learned (in retrospect years later) that when the time is now you have to act. Otherwise you watch the pretty blonde walk away and out of your life.

Grass and shadows at Yunoko

February 11, 2012. My 41st birthday. My wife has begrudgingly agreed to let me out of the house, even though I say that if it were not a national holiday I would be at work until late anyway. There’s no climbing mountains or photographing landscapes when out with the family, only shooting pictures of the kids. Last year I went out only twice and this year I’d like visit the mountains at least three times. My wife complains that I am free while she is stuck minding the children. But I don’t feel free knowing there is great pressure for me to make the most out of this single day. The question that has nagged me since I realized I would get a three-day weekend was whether this should be a photography outing with the possibility of a climb or a climbing outing with some photography. Last year’s trips to Tateshinayama and Ryogamisan produced few usable images because I was on the move most of the time. My submissions to Yama-to-Keikoku calendars have produced no published winners in the last three years and I have run out of “fresh” material to submit. And I gave my stock agency all my work from 2008 to 2011 that they had not yet received. In short, I have next to nothing in fresh material, and a hike to the summit means making fewer photographs, therefore, I should choose the spend time photographing over climbing in order to have photographs to submit. That’s the logic, anyway.

My target terrain is the area known as Oku Nikko. Beyond Chuzenjiko (Lake Chuzenji) and between the mountains of Nantaisan and Nikko Shiranesan lies the wetland of Senjogahara and the steaming hot spring-fed lake of Yunoko. This was where I have decided to spend my day, keeping the possibility of climbing Nantaisan seriously up front. I left home at 3:30 and arrived at Senjogahara well before sunrise. The weather report said temperatures would be between -9 and -5 degrees in Nikko, but I am quite a bit above the city, at over 1,300 metres. The air is pretty chill and even with a few layers of clothing on and a woollen hat covered by a hood I feel the cold. I set up my 4×5 camera on the viewing deck and use a bench as a Stairmaster to keep myself warm inside while waiting for sunrise. When the light does appear, it is to either side of my composition. It seems the sun is rising behind Nantaisan which looms behind me. I manage a few shots in 35mm and one composition in 4×5 before packing it in. Now what? Climb Nantaisan or head over to Yunoko?

Winter beauty at Yunoko

It is not yet 8 A.M. and so I drive to Yunoko. In the background, a white mountaintop draws my attention. I feel the compulsion to get up there! Imagine the photographs to be captured with snowbound trees in the foreground and the rockier parts of the mountain coated in thick white. I approach the ski run with snowshoes in hand. Is there a way to go up the mountain from the ski run? A sign says that there is, but I imagine the slow climb in the snow and the time it will take and figure that I would be better off trying to shoot more photographs. Instead I decide to walk around Yunoko and shoot the sunlight in the steam coming off the lake. But the route around the lake is closed due to heavy snow.

I return to Senjogahara and seek out a good viewpoint of the mountains east and southeast. The snowshoes come on and I follow a cross country trail to a promising spot where I then leave the trail and began pushing deep holes into the soft snow.

Senjogahara with the trunk of Nantaisan on the right

I struggle with the scenery. It is beautiful but not coming together for me in the viewfinder. It’s hard work getting the right composition in 4×5. I tramp about in the snow, scouting for a better foreground, at last returning to the trail. Somewhere there is a great scene here but I can’t find it. By now it is nearing noon. I had said that if I were to attempt Nantaisan I would start at 10:00 o’clock at the latest. It is already too late and I am still not feeling that I have found that special place where I can easily lose myself and emerge with a heap of satisfactorily exposed film. At last I stomp down a depression in the snow just of the trail and shoot Nantaisan as seen from between two white birch trees.

Wind blowing through trees at Yunoko

Not sure what they were doing but they were carrying what looked like oxygen tanks and making holes in the ice

From Lake Chuzenji, Nantaisan looks like a neat conical heap of a mountain. It doesn’t look very high because the lake is at about half the elevation of the mountain. Simply, the mountain fails to inspire me to climb it. However, from this other view at Senjogahara, I can see how the volcanic crater had burst apart with a stream of lava on one side. From this view the mountain looks exciting. I am starting to feel a strong urge to get up on Nantaisan; the long arm of one side of the broken crater looks totally accessible. By now I have also learned to distinguish which peak is the summit of Oku Shiranesan. This mountain too, of which I knew nothing prior to coming, is looking very attractive in its mantle of white. But a winter mountain is not something one climbs as a quick jaunt up and down. It’s a project that takes hours. It takes three times longer to climb a route in winter than it does in summer. That much I know is sensible calculating. I am not going to get up very far on Shiranesan, and Nantaisan was said to be a short but gruelling climb. I have to remind myself that this is a photography outing by my own choosing and that climbing will have to wait for another day.

Ice at Ryuzu Falls

I go to visit Ryuzu Falls and shoot ice formations on the rocks. It is engaging photography and I experiment with multiple exposures while turning the focusing ring. Sunlight glittering off the ice formations becomes constellations of light in my viewfinder. But it is while running up the steps to the next terrace of the falls that it occurs to me that I am getting exercise for the first time today. As my heart pumps I feel the joy of physical exercise. I don’t like exercising for the purpose of exercising but getting a workout while climbing is a pleasure. Again I look back to Nantaisan.

Ice at Chuzenjiko

The last hour of my visit is spent around Lake Chuzenji just driving and exploring and looking back at the mountains. The wind here is viciously Hibernian. Water from the lake is freezing on the dock pilings. I look at the two mountains and consider how it would be to climb one on one day and the other the next day over a weekend. If I were a single man without a family I could come back the next week or later in the month. But these two mountains will have to wait longer for me.

Shiranesan from Chuzenjiko

Once down from the spaghetti noodle road of Irohazaka, I catch glimpses of Nantaisan in my mirror. Whenever I completed a hike in the past, I would always look back at the mountain whose summit I had just visited as much as possible while walking or driving away. But there is no sense of accomplishment when I looked at Nantaisan. I had not been to the summit and I was unable to content myself by thinking that I had chosen to make this a photo outing. I wonder what views I might have captured from the summit of Nantai. This was more than just photography. I needed to feel I had at least attempted to climb a mountain. But why was that so important? Twenty years ago it was all about getting the photographs. In the last few years, however, it has become more about reaching the top. The mountain is a challenge to climb. It does not care one way or another about who climbs it. But for someone like me, a mountain – a least one of these minor league proportions – offers me a chance to challenge myself, to climb over my own internal mountains. To reach the summit means that I have beaten any voices inside me that whined about physical strain, exerted muscles, a heavy pack, or cold wind. Life is not a beach. It is a mountain. And every time I reach a summit I feel satisfaction with myself. “I did it again!”

But I didn’t do it this time and more than ever I feel I have to get back to Nantaisan and Shiranesan. And so it has me thinking – though I have always maintained that I don’t need to climb all 100 Hyakumeizan, there’s nothing wrong with trying to climb more. Climbing them gives me an opportunity to visit mountains outside of the Alps upon which I focused nearly all my photographic efforts in the last few years. I have climbed 31 of the 100 by now. Could I reach 50 by the age of 50? That would mean 2 or 3 mountains a year over the next 9 years. Totally possible. I could make a list and begin planning. I could still expect to get lots of photographs. Hmm… The big question is what would the wife think? And is it fair for me to think of solely my own personal ambitions while she stays home minding the often difficult-to-handle children? At least with photography I can say I am working. But then again, the money earned from photography has until now gone towards paying for photography. Could I possibly get some good stories to write about as a climber? I sure think so.

It seems that somehow over the recent years, I have grown beyond just hiking and photographing. Now I really need to get up mountains. I can’t look at an attractive mountain without thinking how I would get to the summit. Somehow a climber has grown within. I don’t need to play in the big leagues. Even the little league summits can help me enjoy life more.

Nantaisan from Chuzenjiko

Out of Bounds – Trespassing on the Lips of a Live Volcano

Asamayama - Level 2, May 2006

On a clear day from Konosu City in Saitama, the active volcano Asamayama on the border between Gunma and Nagano can be seen, sometimes with a white plume of smoke billowing from the summit. Usually, Asamayama goes through periods of low activity, when only gases and thin smokes issue from the crater, and mild activity, when a continuous white stack of noxious cotton tumbles into the wind. Yet every few years, the volcano coughs and rumbles, and grey ash boils into the sky while glowing lava splatters around the summit of the mountain. And then, of course, there are the medium and large scale eruptions that set local communities into high alert in case there is a repeat of 1783.

The area around Asamayama has been volcanically active for millions of years. To the southeast and south are the extinct volcanoes of Harunasan, Akagiyama, and Myogisan. To the north is a chain of large and small volcanoes including the dormant Azumayasan, and the still potentially dangerous Kusatsu Shiranesan. In the distance, one can see Nantaisan near Nikko, Fujisan, Yatsugatake, and Japan’s second and third highest volcanoes Ontakesan and Norikuradake.

Asamayama is the name of the present day volcano situated partially in the crater of an older volcano, Kurofuyama. According to the pictures in an information book about Asama, the original stratovlcano was formed tens of thousands of years ago. The eastern side of the volcano was then destroyed in a major eruption some 20 thousand years ago, leaving behind the western rim, which is now Kurofuyama. From about 20 to 16 thousand years ago, the Hotakeiwa volcano grew out of the partially destroyed crater, but this volcano destroyed itself in another major lava eruption around 13 thousand years ago. Then from 10 thousand years ago, a new cone began to grow where Hotakeiwa was. The rim of this new cone is now Maekakeyama. Since then, yet another cone has built up in the crater of Maekake, forming an even higher new summit. For climbers, the summit of the Maekakeyama rim is the officially marked summit, at 2,524 metres. However, the newer crater rim reaches 2,568 metres on the east side. This area is out of bounds; signs and information everywhere state that there is no entry permitted to the area around the crater due to the hazards of noxious gases and potential eruptive activity.

As an active volcano, Asamayama has eruptive activity warning levels. Level Zero is for a mountain that has shown no activity for a long time. Asama is never at zero. At Level One, the volcano is quiet and the possibility of an eruption is low. The volcano is mildly active at Level Two and there is danger of ejecta and ash from the crater. At Level Three, the volcano is experiencing a small to medium sized eruption and one should keep a two to three kilometre distance from the crater. Lava may spray or flow from the crater and small-scale pyroclastic activity, such as pyroclastic surges and flows, may occur.

Even when the volcano is quiet, gases regularly issue through fractures and vents by advection. Inside the crater are fumaroles where sulphur and salts precipitate on sulphur chimneys. The most common volcanic gas is water vapour, however, carbon dioxide, sulphur dioxide, and hydrogen sulphide are the ones to be most wary of around Asamayama. In high concentrations, all three are lethal. Sulphur dioxide has that rotten egg smell familiar around hot springs. Hydrogen sulphide is similar but more difficult to detect because after continued exposure one doesn’t notice the smell anymore. The molecule forms a bond with iron, thereby blocking oxygen from binding with haemoglobin in the blood. At around 300 ppm, the concentration becomes lethal, however, people working in areas where hydrogen sulphide concentrations occur set personal safety detectors as low as 10 ppm.

Since records were kept, Asamayama has shown a very active history with every century producing some medium to large scale eruptions, earthquakes related to volcanic activity, and numerous minor eruptions. The most notable eruption was in July of 1783, when a huge volume of lava flowed north from the crater.

Ash, mud, fallen trees, and debris plugged the Tone River, causing flooding and forcing the river to find a new route. The river previously emptied into Tokyo Bay but currently empties farther north at Choshi City in Chiba, with Ibaraki on the north side of the river. Ash from the volcano spread around the world and, in conjunction with an Icelandic volcano, caused European sunsets to be exceptionally red. Since the 1900s, the volcano has experienced medium and small scale eruptions several times, most recently in the 1970s and 1980s. In September of 2004 a minor eruption period began and continued through November. Then in February of 2009, another minor eruption period began and continued through March. During both eruptions ash rained on local communities and lava could be seen spraying from the crater.

As an active volcano within sight of my city of residence, Asamayama has held my interest since I came to Japan. I went with a friend in May of 2006 to Kurofuyama where we viewed a steady cloud of smoke rising out of the crater of Asama. At that time the eruption warning was at Level Two and we couldn’t venture within 800 metres of the crater. I returned with some other friends in February of 2007, this armed with gas masks that would protect us from hydrogen sulphide. But there was too much ice climbing up the cone and we had to give up. At the time, the volcano was at Level One. One friend from that adventure and I planned to visit again in February of 2009, however our plans were thwarted by another eruption. Finally we were able to climb up to the crater on Sunday, June 6, 2010.

The Adventure

We started up the trail at 3:00 AM and reached the rest house below Kurofuyama just before sunrise. After a break and some photography, we set out for the cone. During the climb, we enjoyed views of Kurofuyama, as well as views of Azumayasan and Kusatsu Shiranesan, and Yatsugatake with some peaks of the South Alps behind, and the Central Alps. As we neared the top, we also saw the North Alps spread out on the western horizon. There is a gap between an arm of the old crater rim leading up to Maekakeyama and the new cone. Here are two shelters, refuges in case of sudden eruption activity. This is also where a rope and signs warn that entry beyond is not permitted. As it was early, there was only one person who had come here ahead of us and he had gone up Maekake. We stepped over the rope and followed an obvious path to the crater. Then at last, after so many years of dreaming about being here, I stood looking into the gapping mouth of Asamayama – an active volcano!

We were excited but extremely wary of the potential dangers. When we smelled the sulphurous odour emitted from the crater we hastily stepped back from the edge. My friend put a towel over his mouth. Then a sound like a propane stove turned on full blast came from within the crater. Was the mountain waking up? The longer we stayed up there, the less threatened we felt. The smell was no worse than an onsen and the gas stove sound subsided again. I paid my respects to Asama with a small prayer of thanks (something I have learned to do around volcanoes ever since giving blood to Pele in Hawaii) and then we headed back down to the saddle between the route to the Maekakeyama summit and the cone at the top. Along the way we met two other men who also had in mind to go up to the crater. As we were to discover, many people crossed the green rope and went up to look into one of the orifices of the planet.

There was a volcano shelter nearby – a refuge in case of volatiles being cast out of the crater – and we stopped here to have a snack and consider our next move. I wanted to go up to Maekakeyama but my friend was more interested in exploring below the cliffs of the Maekake crater rim and the new cone. We set out amidst an impressive collection of various volcanic rocks and boulders of all sizes and many colours. But once at the southern end of the Maekakeyama crater rim, my friend thought we should continue going around the cone and try to get up to the crater again at the highest point. I was not keen on the idea of having to impose on Asama again, particularly since it would mean crossing below where the smoke was coming out; however, we saw other people walking right through the smoke and so there was no real reason not to try.

It wasn’t all that long before we stood at the crater rim for the second time that day and not far from the true highest point on the mountain. After shooting views from here, we followed the crater rim around to the north, and at the lowest point the wind changed direction and we found ourselves engulfed in gases so strong that out throats and nostrils burned. It was a short shuffle up the rocks back to where we had first come up earlier in the morning.

From here we went back to the shelters and were surprised to see it was only 11:20 in the morning. We broke for lunch here before going all the way up to the summit marker on Maekakeyama. Finally satisfied we had done all we could, we headed back down the mountain. The route below the crater walls took us through such a beautiful spring forest. We had not seen it when we had climbed up in the dark. The trip ended with a soak in the iron-red waters of Tengu Onsen. We were tired and sleepy from the long day after not having had any sleep the night before. But we were also very satisfied with our visit to the crater rim of Asamayama.

Boom! – Off She Goes Again

Exciting news! The mountain my friend and I were planning to climb this month has experienced a minor eruption. Early Monday morning, Mt. Asama coughed up smoke and glowing rocks. The mountain has been quiet the last few months but swelling beneath the crater has been increasing. A medium-sized eruption can be expected soon. Ash from this weeks activity fell across several cities in the Kanto Area, including in Tokyo and over parts of Chiba Prefecture.

Asamayama, as it is known in Japanese, has a long eruption history and the current crater is actually set atop three older volcanoes. Kurofuyama is now just part of the crater rim of the original volcano. Later another cone built up in the crater of Kurofuyama, and that was in turn destroyed and replaced by Maekakeyama. Basically, the volcanic cone sitting in the old Kurofuyama crater is known as Maekakeyama, however, the whole volcano which has been coughing up smoke and lava over the centuries is known as Asamayama – currently 2,568 metres high.

Looking over the eruption history of Asama it seems to have erupted four to six times every century, including a very big eruption in 1108. During the 1700s the volcano erupted 21 times! Asama’s most famous eruption was in the summer of 1783. A great flow of lava emerged and oozed down the mountainside. Volcanic ejecta dammed the course of the Tone River – Japan’s second longest river – and many villages and hamlets were flooded. The river found a new course and went through the northern Kanto Plains causing more flooding. Where it used to empty into Tokyo Bay the Tone River changed course and now empties into the Pacific Ocean further north along the borders of Chiba and Ibaraki Prefectures. The lava flow is now a tourist attraction called “Onioshidashi” – basically Devil Push Out. I have been there two or three times.

In the last hundred years Asama has seen some major eruptions where great clouds of ash billowed from the crater. From 1899 to 1921 eruption activity was recorded almost every year and then several times a year in some years. From then until 1965 activity was recorded every two or three years. The next big bang came in 1973 and then it was quiet again until 1981 and 1982 when more great clouds of ash issued from the crater. I recall the medium-sized eruption of September 1, 2004 when a loud pop sent rocks hurtling over a kilometer from the crater. Though I didn’t see it for myself I saw photos of orange glowing clouds at night. One morning I went to get my bicycle and found a thin layer of fine ash.

My visits to Asama have mostly been from nearby although in May of 2006 I climbed up Kurofuyama with a friend and we got a clear view of the crater with white smoke billowing into the blue sky. Of all the several dozens of times I have seen Asamayama either from nearby or from far away only once have I ever not seen smoke. That was in February of 2007 when my co-worker and two friends attempted to climb to the crater. Though I had read about poisonous gases at the crater we had prepared ourselves and brought gas masks. We never needed them. First because the danger level was one, meaning it is safe to approach the crater (level 2 means you cannot approach the crater and level 3 means you must avoid entering a four-kilometre radius around the crater, which is the current danger level). The other reason was because the top of the mountain was too icy for our gear and we had to give up.

Since then my co-worker has been after me to take him back there. So just last week we were discussing the hike. Now it seems we’ll have to sneak up to Kurofuyama at night in order to hopefully get some glowing crater shots and then stay for the morning and hope to see some action. But we won’t be able to go until the 21st so we have to hope that Asamayama keeps up with the hot action but doesn’t go too wild. We don’t want to be kept out altogether if possible.