Posts Tagged ‘Kusatsu-shirane’

Conspiracy theory

The recent spike in volcanic activity throughout Japan could be attributable to a surprising culprit. In order to better understand these increased occurrences and their possible connections, further investigation is necessary.

The first sign of a seismic upheaval started earlier this year, when tremor activity increased around the active volcano Kusatsu-Shirane in central Gunma Prefecture. The activity centered around Okama lake, a blue-green crater lake of immense beauty. While volcanic activity on the 2171 meter-high peak is hardly an anomaly, the sudden spike in earthquakes directly under the mountain mass prompted the Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA) to raise the alert level, which prohibits visitors from encroaching within a 1 kilometer radius of the summit. The alert became effective on March 18, 2014 and has yet to be lifted.



The second round of thermal chaos occurred just 6 months later and rather unexpectedly at that,  catching even veteran volcanologists asleep at the wheel. Just before noon on a cloudless and stunningly beautiful morning on Saturday, September 27, Mt. Ontake, a 3000 meter-high volcano straddling the Nagano-Gifu border, suddenly sprang to life, sending hikers scurrying for shelter and taking the lives of over 50 people. While steam explosions are almost impossible to pin down, there is now evidence that there was a subtle warning beforehand. Reports from NHK indicate that geologists did observe a spike in tremors on the mountain just two weeks prior to the catastrophic eruption, but the alert level was not raised to level 2. This has prompted families of victims to blame JMA for failing to adequately inform visitors to the mountain of the increased seismic activity. Such finger pointing will not change the outcome of the events, but it will almost surely cause the JMA to implement a more conservative approach to their warning systems.

Courtesy NHK

Courtesy NHK

As if the first two signs weren’t enough evidence, in late September, increased seismic activity had been detected at the Okama crater lake at Mt. Zao, sending waves of fear through the Tohoku region that the picturesque mountain were about to awaken from its long slumber. Just yesterday, on the 9th of October, researchers found that the emerald green waters of the lake had begun to turn a milky white, a possible predilection of steamier things to come. While the JMA has yet to raise the alert level, one has to hope that geologists are on high alert to even sudden changes to the frequency and depth of the tremors.


Three significant volcanic events in a time span of only 8 months begs the question: Is there a connection between them? Geographically speaking, the verdict is a resounding not guilty, since all three mountains sit in different geographical regions, separated by kilometers of tall mountain ranges and narrow valleys. One might make the argument that Okama could be the culprit, since both Kusatsu-shirane and Zao share the same nomenclature for their scenic lakes. While Ontake is home to a duo of colorful lakes, it does not make use of the same label. Perhaps there’s an obscure mathematical connection. If we subtract the height of Mt. Fuji by the height of Mt. Ontake and double that figure, we come to the number 2127, which is only 44 less than the height of Kusatsu-shirane. See the connection? Dismissive.

One closer look at each volcano, however, reveals some striking similarities. Kusatsu-shirane and Zao both have parking lots alarmingly close to their perspective crater lakes. In fact, both peaks require a walk of less than five minutes to reach the viewpoints of their ponds. Both mountains have a resthouse serving food and both volcanoes are teeming with tourists during the busy summer months. What about Ontake? The peak is inaccessible by automobile and requires a hike of several hours to reach the crater lakes, so that rules out the connection. Yet, there is commonality between all three mountains in the form of a gondola system that whisks visitors up the steep slopes. In fact, all three mountains have renowned, world-class ski resorts, so are the gondola companies to blame for the volcanic awakenings? Surely the foundations of the concrete foundations do not go down deep enough to cause any shifts in magma movements, but perhaps the culprit lies in something much more sociological.

Could this increase in volcanic instability be caused by Mother Nature herself, exacting revenge on the developers for littering her slopes with concrete and¬†corrugated metal? Mother nature could not be reached for comment, but sources tell us that just after the New Year’s holiday she was in, for lack of a better term, ‘a thoroughly pissed-off mood.’ Perhaps the government’s plan to build a railway on the slopes of Japan’s most sacred peak was the straw that broke the camel’s back. The proposed railway is targeted for completion in time for the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. The railway could come in conjunction with a gondola system that would ferry visitors directly to the summit of the Japan’s tallest peak. See the connection?

The latest theory is that Mother Nature lit a smoke signal at Kusatsu-shirane, but officials didn’t take the hint, so she took a more direct approach by sending ash spewing at Ontake during the height of the autumn viewing season. The government is still on track to start construction of the railway, so another warning was ushered on Mt. Zao. Could this all be leading up to a final display of her fury, with a simultaneous eruptions of both Mt. Norikura and Mt. Fuji? Time will surely tell.


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If there’s ever a maxim for hiking in Japan, then it must go something like this:

“The peaks with the easiest access are best visited out-of-season”

Hence, our latest challenge: a snowshoe stroll around an impressive volcanic caldera otherwise known as Kusatsu-shirane.


Fumito and I rolled into town just before dusk, checking into the cheap minshuku before having a stroll around town. Kustatsu is one of the most famous hot spring towns in Japan, and this particular Saturday evening in mid-February was a testament to its gallantry. The very center of town consists of a massive open pit gushing with steaming lime-coloured volcanic water, a gift from the mountain deities. We ventured into a neighboring bathhouse, soaking in the scalding tub until turning bright pink, which took a little less than a minute. “Boy this stuff is hot!”, I exclaimed, immediately retreating to the cool confines of the changing area. Fumito concurred, adding: “I guess there’s a reason why these bathhouses are free.”

The next morning we awoke to a bright blue sky and very few clouds in sight. Scarfing down a quick breakfast, we drove up to the gondola entrance of the oldest ski resort in Japan to check on the gondola times. Our plan was simple: take the gondola up to the top of the mountain for an easy snowshoe stroll around the volcanic caldera, knocking off another Hyakumeizan in the process. In the summer, hoards of tacky tourists turn the place into a walking zoo, but we’d hope to avoid all that and explore the peak in its hibernatory bliss.


“The gondola’s closed today”, read the signpost. “High winds”. Augghhh! You’ve got to be kidding! We’d drove all this way, been blessed for the nicest weather in weeks, and now this? Apparently someone was trying to keep us off the mountain that day. What could we do? A climb through the ski fields would easily take 6 hours, leaving us with no time for exloration. We’d forgone the crampons in favor of snowshoes, so another peak was out of the question. Then, an idea came to us. If we couldn’t climb a mountain today, we could at least get some exercise!


Off we headed to a nearby golf course to ask the million dollar question. Fumito thought it best if I did the asking: they couldn’t possibly turn down a polite foreigner’s request, could they? I entered the clubhouse, explaining our predicament. “Sure, have fun out there,” said the kind superintendent, who’d just given us free reign of the entire golf course. “Just stay off the greens.” We strapped on our snowshoes and went to town.


Japanese golf courses are some of the hilliest on earth, providing us ample opportunities to shape up our calf muscles. Silver birch trees, shimmering against an azure backdrop. Silence. Peace. Three things we definitely hadn’t planned on. Although our target peak remained out of grasp, we still made the most of the fantastic weather before heading back to Shiojiri.


Kusatsu-shirane has eluded us, but revenge was in order. The only question remained was how to avoid the crowds. Another winter attempt? or perhaps a noctural mission? Stay tuned for the next chapter.

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