A long-lost eyewitness account of a volcanic eruption reveals the violent past behind Kami-kōchi's idyllic landscapes
As the bus comes out of the Kama tunnel between Shima-jima and Kami-kōchi, writes Fukada Kyuya in Nihon Hyakumeizan, Yake-dake suddenly confronts you, as if the volcano stands guard before the mighty host of peaks beyond. The scene is well known, yet every time I see it afresh, as if for the first time.
On this crisp November morning, though, we couldn’t see Yake-dake at all. The last night bus of the year arrived so early that the little volcano still lurked in the pre-dawn shadows of the higher mountains. As it was too dark to start walking, I joined the group of photographers lined up like militiamen by the banks of Taishō pond. In few minutes, a fusillade of camera shutters would greet the first rays of the sun as it gilded the tips of the Hodaka range.
Taishō Pond was created in 1915 (Taishō 4) when Yake-dake erupted and sent mudflows cascading down into the Azusa river. While shivering in the gloaming, I wondered how this cataclysm might have appeared to an eyewitness. Now, thanks to the assiduous researches of Iain Williams of the Toyohashi Alpine Club, my curiosity has been more than satisfied. He has discovered an account by J Merle Davis, a missionary and associate of the Mountain Goats of Kobe, who happened to be the only guest at a local onsen when the volcano exploded. Here is Davis’s story:-
Sunday morning, June 6, I was awakened at seven by a series of earthquake shocks, which grew in intensity until it seemed as if the house would fall to pieces before we could get out of it. As I reached the door, half dressed, with an ear-rending concussion the big mountain, whose base is only two miles from the hotel, begun to get busy. From its eastern slope, a mile below the old craters at the summit, it blew out a volume of rocks, mud, and steam, smoke and ashes in a vast column, while the roar of Vulcan's forge mingled with the smiting of his sledge upon the anvil, filled the whole valley with a pandemonium of sound as the granite cliffs hurled the echoes back and forth at one another.
A heavy cloud of smoke rolling in huge puffs and waves, spread over the whole valley, turning bright sunshine into twilight. Soon ashes began to fall, but I must confess I did not wait to measure them for I was already making good time up the river path toward Shima-shima. At the bridge, a mile above the hotel, by the way a splendid viewpoint, I began to get ashamed of myself, and as nothing worse than a shower of light ashes had happened and since breakfast was waiting down the river, I returned. All day long the mountain roared in heavy pulsations, as the wind brought the sound of the crashing rocks and trees and escaping steam.
Four new craters had opened on the volcano, about half way between base and summit. From one of these, a stream of mud and rock was pouring out and slipping down the slope to the river, a thousand feet below. Toward night, a heavy rain began to fall, and after a second day of torrential rain and constant volcanic activity, this morning dawned upon as strange a world as the imagination could possibly picture.
A glorious alpine valley, with splendid fir and beech forests as fine as grow anywhere in Japan, but a valley from mountain top to river bottom sprayed, dripping, and drowned with mud. An area of forest, mountain, and valley fully ten square miles in extent is covered with a coating of volcanic slime from half an inch to four feet in depth.
The hardy bamboo grass, the terror of the climber, is beaten prone in the mud, mile upon mile of magnificent timber, the pride of the Imperial Forestry Reserve, is groaning, bending and breaking under literally tons of mud to the tree. Sharp reports and rending crashes fairly filled the air all day, as the great firs one after another refused longer to bear the strain of their load.
We have all seen a great forest with tree limbs drooping to the very ground under a fresh fall of heavy wet snow, but in place of the spotless winter covering, picture if you can, a clinging, sticky, slate-coloured mud, a mud that covers everything and oozes off the tree limbs upon you as you slip and stumble in the slime. A mud world; and but two days ago the fairest valley in Japan!
Yet even in the wanton destruction of the volcano, a feature of real beauty has been added to Kami Kochi, for it now boasts a blue alpine lake, a mile and a half in extent, filling the lower end of the valley, a sheet of water in which the snowy crags and pinnacles of Hodaka yama are mirrored. The same mud that was blown over the landscape like escaping steam, flowed for twenty-four hours down the mountain side, carrying huge rocks and trees and, in an ever widening stream, stripped a clean path through the forest, a path a mile long and four hundred yards wide in its lower reaches.
Into the river bed, at its narrowest point, the very portal of the valley, slipped this stream of mud, building a dam of mighty forest trees and rocks and filling the interstices with sticky mud. The Azusagawa, the chief affluent of the Shinanogawa, the largest river of the main island, was squarely stopped by this stone and timber barrier which must be full 60 feet in height. The waters of the river backed up to form the lake and are now running over the top of the dam, down a spill-way in a wild cataract, a full quarter of a mile in extent …..
The musketry of camera shutters interrupted my reverie – the sun had touched the top of the Hodakas, and it was time to be moving. I crossed the river at Tashiro Bridge, where another battalion of photographers was straining to capture the frosted trees by a smaller pond. Behind their backs, Yake-dake’s reflection floated luminously in the still waters. One fine autumn day, wrote Fukada Kyuya, it seemed as if Yake-dake had donned a coat of many colours. And so it seemed to me too.
But today, continued the Hyakumeizan author (in 1964), Kami-kōchi is a seething hive of activity that centres more on tourism than alpinism. Such mountaineers as there are shoulder their packs and vanish swiftly in the direction of the mountains, leaving the environs of Kappa-bashi and Taishō Pond to the day-trippers with their raincoats and sports shoes. Above them looms Yake-dake, a simple, half-day climb. The tourists would gain much if they added it to their list of sights to see.
Taking Fukada’s advice, I headed uphill through stands of larch trees flaming in their autumn yellow. The path flirted with the edge of an erosion gully, then led me to the hut on the volcano’s northern shoulder. By now, my boots were crunching through the season’s first light snows. The hut warden had long since packed up and gone down. I wandered on up to the summit, which was occupied by a group of lively pensioners, fresh from the previous day's conquest of the highest peak in the Central Alps.
Yake is a convincing if compact volcano: steam vents from a large fumarole and sulphur encrusts the frozen earth around several other vents. In the centre of the crater, there is a straight-sided shaft, just large enough for an Empedoclean leap, that plummets to dark and unfathomable depths. As Fukada Kyuya observes, this is a summit that leaves you in no doubt that you are standing on top of an active volcano.
The mountain can be descended to the south, by a path down to Naka-no-yu, where an onsen used to ply its trade before the Abo tunnel was built. In 1995, a steam explosion killed four construction workers there, showing that titanic forces still lurk beneath the tranquil scenery. As I walked down through the beech woods, the autumn wind wrested the last leaves from the trees.
Eyewitness account of Yake-dake eruption by J Merle Davis, from “Inaka” (Vol II, 1915), the newsletter of the Mountain Goats of Kobe (see previous posting) - many thanks to Iain Williams of the Toyohashi Alpine Club for rediscovering "Inaka" and for generously sending me this extract!
Yake-dake chapter of Nihon Hyakumeizan by Fukada Kyūya in a forthcoming translation as One Hundred Mountains of Japan
Black-and-white photo of Yake-dake in 1925 by Hokari Misuo, a pioneer mountain photographer, from 人はなぜ山に登るか, volume 103 in the Taiyo Bessatsu: Nihon no Kokoro series (Heibonsha, 1998)