Travelogue continued: searching for ground truth on Sakurajima and finding the meaning of Meizan
6 December: “Do you feel lucky, punk, well, do you?” There comes a point when every mountaineer should ask himself that question and I’d just reached it. Ahead, the ridge narrowed to a crumbling knife-edge of loose volcanic ash.
Suddenly I could see the whole diagram. The dense thickets of pine and razor grass that I’d fought my way through below were actually my allies. Their roots held the volcanic rubble together into a broad hog’s back.
Above the tree-line, however, erosion had honed the ridge to a lethal sharpness. One crumbling foothold here and the next stop would be the hard lava slabs of the gully below. Well, how lucky did I feel?
Sakurajima is not a famous mountain or ‘Meizan’. That is to say, Fukada Kyuya didn’t choose the volcano for his A-list of One Hundred Mountains of Japan. But that didn’t stop him climbing it. In fact, he set out the same day that he stepped off the night ferry from Yaku-shima, in December 1939. As I had just returned from the same island, it seemed reasonable to follow in his footsteps.
There was at least one defect in this plan. Since Fukada’s day, Sakurajima has stirred into life several times. On one occasion, it dropped a five-ton volcanic bomb on a nearby hotel. As a result, Fukada’s path to the volcano’s north summit has long since fallen into disuse. In fact, nobody could even tell me where it used to be, until volcanologist and fellow blogger Tom Bouquet gave me a steer.
So I’d crossed over from Kagoshima on the early-morning ferry and, thanks to help from a kindly farmer and a truck-driver, soon found the start of the ridge. Then I followed the trails of wild boar upwards, shouldering a way through dense brushwood, until I picked up the line of the old path. Somebody had marked part of the way with pink twine. Then I emerged above the treeline and the knife-edge ridge blocked the way. Well, punk …
Far to the north, snow squalls were sweeping over the Kirishima massif, home to another of Fukada Kyuya’s favourite volcanoes. Above, the narrow ridge led up to steep slopes of rubble and the tilted raft of Kita-dake’s summit block. Yesterday’s cold front had dusted it with snow.
The mountain was certainly showing another side to its personality. From afar, Sakurajima takes the form of a long, low ridge. Only the omnipresent smoke-plume distinguishes it as one of Japan’s most active volcanoes. Move closer, though, and those seemingly inoffensive slopes disintegrate into wild tangles of forest, gully, cliff and crest.
On balance, I was not feeling lucky enough. Yet it was frustrating to give up so close to a summit that is less than 1,200 metres high. By turning back, I would not top out on Kita-dake, the highest of Sakurajima’s three tops, and I would not look down into the old crater, where, in Fukada’s day, weekend trippers had spelled out their names in white stones.
Nor would I be able to follow Fukada and his companion as they climbed down into the old crater of Kita-dake and crossed its floor. When they climbed to the opposite rim, they were astonished by sight of the smoke churning into the sky from Minami-dake, the active summit. Drawn as if magnetically by this vision, they clambered down onto an eroded col, a relic of another old crater, then climbed a narrow ridge to the central summit. Finally, and with bated breath, they hauled themselves up a rocky slope onto the very edge of the active crater.
Below them was a declivity “like an iron tub” but more than 120 metres deep, according to the map. Steam jetted from the wall opposite them, the plume seeming to change its position from time to time. Vapour was also wafting up from below their vantage point. They took some photos and started down a chute of snow-covered rubble on the mountain’s western slopes. “An unpleasant descent,” Fukada records, “and hardly one to be recommended to beginners.”
I was scarcely looking forward to my own descent. For a start, mountaineers who turn back must deal with what might be called the John Ruskin Syndrome. As that all-terrain literary critic wrote from Chamonix to his father in 1863, “this I know and find practically, that if you come to a dangerous place, and turn back from it, though it may have been perfectly right and wise to do so, still your character has suffered some slight deterioration; you are to that extent weaker, more lifeless, more effeminate, more liable to passion and error in the future…”
I suggested that Ruskin kindly kept his observations to himself, and set off down the ridge. Immediately I fell liable to error, if not passion, and lost my way in the thicket. It took even longer to descend than it had to come up and I staggered out onto the road scratched, sweaty and out of sorts.
Then I remembered the two tangerines in my pack. Just after stepping off the ferry that morning, I had been consulting my map when a small van pulled up. A woman in field attire had jumped out, pressed the two mikan into my hand and asked me where I was going. Then she insisted on driving me partway up the hill. “When you get back,” she suggested, “just tell the tourist office to pass a message to the Nakamura who grows giant radishes and we’ll know you’re safe.”
Sakurajima’s farmers are justly proud of their daikon, which thrive in the same black ash that makes for such unsatisfactory ridge-climbing. There is even a Giant Radish festival. I peeled one of Mrs Nakamura’s tangerines: it was delicious too.
I hadn’t walked far when a turbo-diesel roar announced a heavy vehicle grinding up the road. From the purple metallic paint and chrome exhaust stacks, I recognised the truck that had stopped for me in the morning. The driver wound down his window, a grin creasing his face under the punch perm: “How did it go?” he asked. “I didn’t get far, but thanks for dropping me off at exactly the right spot. O-sewa ni narimashita…” I replied with a bow. This was becoming a remarkably sociable volcanic excursion.
I walked on down the road between tangerine plantations carved out of the tangled woods. The ripening fruit shone like constellations in the shadowy groves. Clouds of kites wheeled overhead and orange-breasted finches hopped through the bushes; birds seem to like it here.
The volcano is a good habitat for people too, I reflected. It gives them fertile orchards, hot springs (Fukada stayed at one after his climb), and limitless employment for the construction crews who build anti-erosion dams across its gullies. Acknowledging this bounty, the Koike school playground even has a miniature volcano for the children to scramble over.
Or is it a bomb shelter? Those who live on volcanoes have to reckon with the occasional conniption*. Just up the road from here, a sign advises construction workers to take cover “when you see stones come flying through the sky like a flock of crows”.
This blend of familiarity and respect reminded me of another island volcano. One winter afternoon, I’d admired the steam pluming from Etna’s summit craters while gaps in the clouds below revealed rich tracts of vineyards and olive groves. Sicilians call their volcano “’a muntagna”, as if there were no other. Sometimes they even speak of “la nostra signora”.
La nostra signora … the words could describe the gilded Kannon that I had just walked past. Standing on a strip of land between the coast road and the sea, the statue looked as if it belonged to a private shrine. Perhaps she was there to intercede with the mountain.
As the ferry drew away, Sakurajima seemed to rise into the sky while the port town at its foot dwindled into the distance. I realised that I’d misjudged this volcano. Even if it didn’t make Fukada Kyuya’s A-list, it has a presence and stature of its own. And it is most certainly The Mountain for all who live around it. Looking back over the wake of the ferry, I felt privileged to have made the acquaintance of this splendid Meizan.
*this may understate the violence that Sakurajima can sometimes be capable of. See this account of the Taisho eruption from the New York Times. (Incidentally, the NYT should be applauded for its generous and enlightened policy of free access to its archives.)
Photo of crater: Japan Meteorological Agency, report on Sakurajima
Tom Bouquet, Guide to Japanese Volcanoes: Sakurajima
Fukada Kyuya, essay on Sakurajima, in Hyakumeizan Igai no Meizan 50. As for Nihon Hyakumeizan, Sakurajima almost made the cut, but not quite. In his afterword to his most famous book, Fukada says, “I allocate six mountains to Kyūshū, to which one might add Yufu-zan, Ichifusa-yama, and the volcano of Sakurajima.”
The full quotation from John Ruskin’s often-quoted letter:
"That question of the moral effect of danger is a very curious one; but this I know and find practically, that if you come to a dangerous place, and turn back from it, though it may have been perfectly right and wise to do so, still your character has suffered some slight deterioration; you are to that extent weaker, more lifeless, more effeminate, more liable to passion and error in the future; whereas if you go through with the danger, though it may have been apparently wrong and foolish to encounter it, you come out of the encounter a stronger and better man, fitter for every sort of work and trial, and nothing but danger produces this effect."