A Japanophile who has survived 15 solo trips to Japan, Ced's visits focus on discovering the country’s lesser-known attractions.
Catastrophic, Destructive, Beautiful
Volcanoes are nature’s expression of extremities.
Catastrophically destructive when in action, they are also majestically beautiful when at rest. Since the beginning of history, these fiery geographical vents have been both feared and revered by humans worldwide. Today, they continue to count among the world’s most bewitching natural landscapes.
As one of the world’s most seismically active countries, the entire Japanese archipelago is dotted with volcanoes. In fact, 10 percent of all volcanoes in the world are within Japan, with a handful still regularly displaying their deadly might.
The following are seven famous Japanese volcanoes that are both majestic and fearsome to behold. Should you be venturing to the Land of the Rising Sun soon, fret not too much. Most of the time, they remain blissfully at rest. During such peaceful moments, these fiery lords are sovereigns of their landscapes, unmatched in beauty and grandeur.
7 Famous Volcanoes in Japan to Love and Fear
- Sakurajima (桜島)
- Mount Aso (阿蘇山)
- Mount Kirishima (霧島山)
- Mount Asama (浅間山)
- Mount Ontake (御嶽山)
- Mount Usu (有珠山)
- Mount Fuji (富士山)
1. Sakurajima (桜島)
Despite the many risks involved, humans have often settled near volcanoes.
In Japan, nowhere is this phenomenon more evident than in the southern Kyushu city of Kagoshima. Nicknamed the Naples of Japan, Kagoshima citizens live in constant awe and fear of their violent neighbor, the immense stratovolcano known as Sakurajima.
Dominating the heart of Kagoshima Bay, Sakurajima has long been one of the most active volcanoes in Japan. Today, it still regularly spews ash and pumice. Its latest eruption was as recent as October 2020.
In total, Sakurajima has three peaks, too, with the tallest one, Kita-dake, rising to 1,117 m above sea level. With the brooding furnace so near a large city, Sakurajima is considered a Decade Volcano by the International Association of Volcanology and Chemistry of the Earth's Interior. It is one of only two Japanese volcanoes to be marked as such.
As for travelers, should you plan a visit to Kagoshima, check the latest updates on the condition of Sakurajima before leaving home. The surrounding parks are incredibly scenic and enjoyable to visit. However, this is, without a doubt, still one of the most destructive natural engines in Japan. You don't want to be near this stratovolcano when it's in a bad mood.
2. Mount Aso (阿蘇山)
Mount Aso, the largest volcano in Japan is simmering at the heart of Kyushu. With a caldera approximately 120 km in circumference, Mount Aso is one of the largest volcanoes in the world too. The cities of Aso, Aso Takamori-cho, and South Aso-mura are all located within the incredible caldera of this giant.
With five peaks in the central cone group and various landscapes of great beauty within its caldera, Mount Aso has also long been a popular destination for both domestic and international travelers. Do not let the idyllic grass plains and windy peaks fool you, though. Mount Aso is still active, with the central crater often partially or completely closed off during periods of heightened volcanic activities.
As with the case of Sakurajima, one must always check the current situation before planning any visit to the vicinity. Should you be able to visit, know that you are experiencing one of Southern Japan’s most spectacular natural features. One of its mightiest too.
3. Mount Kirishima (霧島山)
Nestled between Sakurajima and Mount Aso, Mount Kirishima does not enjoy the same level of international fame as its Kyushu siblings. It is, however, no less majestic, with its highest peak soaring to 1700 m. Like other Japanese volcanoes in Kyushu, Kirishima has frequently erupted too. There were two eruptions in 2011 alone. The most recent eruption was in 2018.
In Shintoism, Kirishima was also where Ninigi no Mikoto, grandson of Sun Goddess Amaterasu, descended to Earth to establish the lineage of the Japanese Emperors. This belief, together with Kirishima’s often fog-concealed landscape, imbues the entire area with a mythical ambiance.
In fact, the name Kirishima means “fog island” in the Japanese Language, with the name said to be inspired by how the summit often resembles a mysterious island on foggy days. Religiously, this is also the ethereal isle from which the Japanese royal family supposedly began their empire. To visit the surrounding lands is thus a thrill for any lover of Japanese mythology.
4. Mount Asama (浅間山)
You would be surprised. Disasterous as they sound, Japanese volcanic eruptions usually result in far fewer casualties than one would expect. In modern times, there are practically no incidences of widespread destruction or death.
The exceptions to this, however, were the 1783 Mount Asama eruption and the 1792 Mount Unzen eruption. In the case of the former, Mount Asama’s explosive climax on August 4, 1783, killed even more people in subsequent years. The pyroclastic ash spewed devastated agricultural lands and worsened the then ongoing Great Tenmei Famine. It is estimated that more than 20,000 people died because of the famine.
Today, it’s hard to imagine Mount Asama as the culprit behind the Tenmei Famine tragedy. When viewed during colder months, the volcano resembles a reclining aristocrat lazily serenading surrounding forests. All the while draped in silky, glittering white.
But like the case of Mount Aso, do not be deceived by this faux serenity; Mount Asama is still widely feared as the most active Japanese volcano on Honshu. This cantankerous lord threw a tantrum as recently as August 2019. It is undoubtedly also one of the most scrutinized geographical features in the whole of Japan.
5. Mount Ontake (御嶽山)
Mount Ontake might not be as famous as Mount Fuji, but in other ways, it comes close.
The second tallest Japanese volcano at 3,067 m, it has five scenic lakes like Mount Fuji and has long been regarded as a Shinto sacred mountain. Assumed to be dormant, the volcano surprised Japan with a phreatic eruption in October 1979, ejecting some 200,000 tons of ash into the air.
In September 2014, Mount Ontake repeated the same surprise with another phreatic eruption. This time, the destruction was far more catastrophic. A total of sixty-three persons died. Five bodies remain unrecovered till today.
As of this time of writing, Mount Ontake has long been reopened for hikers and visitors. If you’re concerned about its capricious personality, you might prefer appreciating its presence in less direct ways.
One way would be to relax in the nearby onsen town of Gero. Gero is popularly considered to be one of Japan’s best hot spring towns.
6. Mount Usu (有珠山)
Hokkaido’s Mount Usu is the shorty on this list of famous Japanese volcanoes, but it would be foolish to use elevation to gauge its deadly prowess.
Since 1900, Mount Usu has erupted four times, twice creating new “mountains” with two lava peaks rising dramatically in the vicinity.
At the moment, the newer Showa Shinzan peak continues to smoke frequently, a constant reminder to holiday-makers at nearby Lake Toya that Mount Usu, as a whole, is far from asleep.
Despite that, holiday-makers pay little attention to the destructive capabilities of this smoldering menace; the Usuzan Ropeway nearby is one of the most popular attractions in Hokkaido. In a way, this is understandable. While Mount Usu itself is not particularly scenic, the dramatic way Showa Shinzan thrusts into the air is something right out of a fantasy manga.
7. Mount Fuji (富士山)
No list of Japanese volcanoes is complete without a mention of Mount Fuji. The most famous and beloved of all Japanese mountains, Mount Fuji, is in many ways synonymous with the Land of the Rising Sun. Its symmetrical splendor and mesmerizing majesty have also captured the imaginations of Japanese and foreigners alike for centuries.
This makes it easy to forget that Mount Fuji is actually a stratovolcano, a little different from Sakurajima or Italy’s Vesuvius. Many volcanologists do not even consider Mount Fuji dormant. It last erupted in 1707, and experts regularly warn that Mount Fuji is “overdue” for a major eruption.
At the moment, though, it seems that Japan’s tallest mountain and volcano is content in its rest. For tourists, a glimpse of Fuji is often the high point of any visit to Japan. It is a spectacle many would then savor for years.
- Fujita, E., Ueda, H., & Nakada, S. (1AD, January 1). A new Japan Volcanological Database. Frontiers. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/feart.2020.00205/full.
- Volcanoes. Volcanoes and Hell Valleys in Japan. (n.d.). https://www.japan-guide.com/e/e2327.html.
- Volcanoes of JAPAN: Facts & information / VolcanoDiscovery. Volcanoes of Japan: facts & information / VolcanoDiscovery. (n.d.). https://www.volcanodiscovery.com/japan.html.
- Kaneko, T., Maeno, F., & Nakada, S. (2016, May 3). 2014 mount ONTAKE eruption: Characteristics of the phreatic eruption as inferred from aerial observations. Earth, Planets and Space. https://earth-planets-space.springeropen.com/articles/10.1186/s40623-016-0452-y.
© 2017 Ced Yong