Tag Archives: Japanese volcanoes

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.


Bryanthus gmelini – chishima tsugazakura. Just pretty flowers…?


…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.


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.


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.


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)

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.