7 Japanese Volcanoes to Love and Fear
Volcanoes are nature’s expression of extremes. Catastrophically destructive when in action, but also mesmerizingly beautiful when at rest, volcanoes have long been feared and revered by humans worldwide. Today, they count among the world’s most bewitching natural landscapes.
As one of the world’s most seismically active areas, the entire Japanese archipelago is dotted with volcanoes. In fact, 10 percent of all volcanoes in the world are within Japan, with a handful of them still regularly displaying their fiery might. Here are seven Japanese volcanoes that are both majestic and fearsome to behold. Should you be venturing to the Land of the Rising Sun to admire them, fret not too much. Most of the time these volcanoes remain blissfully at rest. Sovereigns of their landscapes. Unmatched in beauty and grandeur.
1. Sakurajima (桜島)
Despite the many risks involved, humans have often settled near volcanoes. In Japan, nowhere is this phenomenon more evident than the southern Kyushu city of Kagoshima. Nicknamed the Naples of Japan, Kagoshima citizens live in constant awe and fear of their violent neighbour, the immense stratovolcano known as Sakurajima. Dominating the heart of Kagoshima Bay, Sakurajima is one of the most active volcanoes in Japan. Till today, it regularly spews ash and pumice. Its latest eruption was as recent as 2016.
In total, Sakurajima has three peaks, with the highest one, Kita-dake, rising up to 1,117 m above sea level. With it so near a large city, Sakurajima is considered a Decade Volcano by the International Association of Volcanology and Chemistry of the Earth's Interior, one of the only two Japanese volcanoes to be marked as such. Should you be planning a visit, be sure to check the latest updates on the condition of the volcano before leaving home. Scenic as the surrounding areas are, this is without a doubt, one of the most destructive natural engines in Japan.
2. Mount Aso (阿蘇山)
Simmering at the heart of Kyushu is Mount Aso, the largest of all Japanese volcanoes. With a caldera approximately 120 km in circumference, Mount Aso also ranks among the largest volcanoes in the world. The cities of Aso, Aso Takamori-cho and South Aso-mura are all located within this incredible caldera.
With five peaks in the central cone group and various landscapes of great beauty within its caldera, Mount Aso has long been a popular destination for both domestic and international travellers in Japan. Do not let the idyllic sceneries of grassy plains and windy peaks fool you, though. Mount Aso is still an active volcano, 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 volcano’s current state before planning any visit. Should you be able to visit, know that you are experiencing one of Southern Japan’s most spectacular natural features. One of its most fearsome 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 its brothers, Kirishima has also frequently erupted. There were two eruptions in 2011 alone.
In Shintoism, Kirishima was 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, imbue the entire area with a mythical ambiance. Of note, Kirishima literally means “fog island” in the Japanese Language. The name is said to be inspired by how the volcano often resembles a mysterious island on foggy days. An ethereal isle from which the first Japanese Emperor began his empire.
4. Mount Asama (浅間山)
You would be surprised. Japanese volcanic eruptions usually result in far fewer casualties than one would expect. The exceptions to this, on the other hand, 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 devastated agricultural lands and worsened the then ongoing Great Tenmei Famine. It is estimated 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 figure, lazily serenading surrounding forests while draped in silky, glittering white. Like the case of Mount Aso, do not be deceived by this faux serenity, Mount Asama is regarded as the most active Japanese volcano on Honshu. It threw a tantrum as recent as 2009. Ash rained as far away as Tokyo, some 145 km away.
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 also has five scenic lakes and has long been regarded as a sacred mountain. Assumed to be dormant, it surprised everyone with a phreatic eruption in October 1979, ejecting some 200,000 tons of ash into the air. In September 2014, it repeated the same surprise with another phreatic eruption. This time, the destruction was far more severe. A total of sixty-three persons died. Five bodies remain unrecovered till today.
As of this time of writing, Mount Ontake has long reopened for hikers and visitors. If you’re concerned about its unpredictable personality, though, you might prefer appreciating its presence in less direct ways. An example would be to relax in the nearby onsen town on Gero, 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, but it would be foolish to use elevation as a gauge of its prowess. Since 1900, Mount Usu has erupted four times, twice creating new “mountains” with two lava peaks rising dramatically in the vicinity. Today, 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. Most holiday-makers seem to notice only the more positive aspects of Mount Usu and its children, though. The Usuzan Ropeway 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 so many ways synonymous with the Land of the Rising Sun. Its symmetrical splendour and mesmerising majesty have captured the imagination of Japanese and foreigners alike for centuries.
Which makes it easy to forget that Mount Fuji is actually a stratovolcano, little different from Sakurajima or Europe’s Vesuvius. Many experts do not even consider Mount Fuji as dormant, it last erupted in 1707, and some geologists had warned 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 Mount Fuji is often the high point of any visit to Japan. It is also a spectacle many would remember for years to come.
© 2017 Kuan Leong Yong