Volcanoes of Japan

View from Fujisan
View from Fujisan

Climbing Japan’s Active Volcanoes

Many people know already that mountains make up 72% of Japan’s landmass. It’s one reason we all live together in such crowded cities!

Less well known is the fact that 110 of those mountains are actually active volcanoes, including Mount Fujisan, the highest peak in Japan. Wikipedia offers a complete list of volcanoes in Japan on their webpage, appropriately named “List of volcanoes in Japan.” Turns out I’ve climbed a few of ’em in addition to Mount Fuji: Asahidake, Meakandake, Rishiridake, and, not on Wikipedia’s list but on the JMA’s, Tokachidake (I did a lot of climbing when I lived on Hokkaido). Also Oshimadake on Oshima-jima Island and Hakonedake in Hakone, near Fujisan.

Apparently, the Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA) maintains a “watch list” of 47 of the most active volcanoes, monitored 24 hours a day. Again, that includes Fujisan.

So what’s it like to climb on an active volcano?

In the case of Rishirdake, it’s not different than climbing a mountain. In fact, I didn’t know (or have forgotten) that Rishiri was a volcano, though now I think about it, it’s sudden, dramatic rise from the sea does kinda give it away.

Climbing Fujisan has been compared to trekking in an overflowing ashtray. There wasn’t anything in the way of volcanic activity when I climbed, but evidence of previous eruptions (the last time Mount Fuji erupted was in 1707-1708; some scientists speculate that Fujisan is actually overdue for an eruption).

In the cases of Hakonedake, and Asahidake in Hokkaido’s Daisetsuzan National Park, the setting is suitably dramatic, appropriately Dantean: fumeroles of hissing smoke give the place a Netherworld feel.

But Meakandake rises above the rest, so to speak, not in elevation gain but in drama: a blasted, grey and brown and sulphur-yellow landscape for miles around; toxic alpine ponds; poison gas filling the crater. We hopped a cordon fence and warning sign the day we climbed (along with many other climbers, mostly Japanese). My Buddy Derek was visiting from Canada, and we passed the time on the hike to the crater rim discussing the effects of pyroclastic flow.

I have some pictures from Owakudani. I’ll upload them. When I find ’em…

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