Sakurajima, Former Volcano-Island

[PART II]

 

January 2017

 

Today we are visiting the famous active volcano — Sakurajima — or ‘Cherry Blossom Island’. Well it used to be an island in the Kagoshima Bay until 1914, when a huge eruption spilled lots of lava down its eastern flank thus attaching it to the mainland of Kyushu. Henceforth it became a peninsula in the bay, but the name ‘island’ remains — so I’ll refer to this place as ‘island’.

 

At Kagoshima harbour, ferries routinely ply the 3.5 km route to the pier at the Sakurajima harbour. A ferry leaves at either end on the hour, and every 15 minutes after that, 24/7, with the crossing taking only 15 minutes. A pleasant boat ride, in good weather of course.

 

These are serious-looking ferries, with the lowest deck carrying vehicles, while the rest are for passengers. I see people with shopping bags full of stuff, so these ferries are a very important means of transport for the people living on Sakurajima, who routinely come over to Kagoshima for work, shopping, recreation and other things.

 

Next to the pier, we see the much-acclaimed Kagoshima Aquarium. And in the background a whiff of ‘smoke’ indicates that Sakurajima is very much alive. Active craters are just 9 km away from us.

 

Another ferry arrives as we prepare to leave for the short ride across Kagoshima Bay on this very beautiful day.

 

Sakurajima has been erupting non-stop since 1955 (first recorded eruption was in the 8th century), and that’s quite a record. It is the most active volcano in Japan and one of the most active and dangerous in the world, since the city of Kagoshima is less than 10 km away from the crater.

 

Kagoshima Bay by itself is a caldera (that’s just a huge crater), the remnant of a gigantic eruption some 22,000 years ago, which sort of demolished the ancient volcano itself. Then Sakurajima arose in this caldera to slowly form the island. It’s similar to what had happened to Krakatoa in 1883, and now we have a volcanic island — Anak Krakatoa — in its place.

 

Our ferry docks and soon cars exit the lower deck in single file. The best way to explore Sakurajima is by car, but we are not driving today, so we have to make do with the public buses to move around. From this small port we stroll over to the Visitor Center, just a km away.

 

Along the way we notice these cute little oranges in boxes selling for just ¥100 per plastic bag, which we assume is 1 kg. Nobody is tending to these oranges and you just place the money in the box and take your fruits (truly an honour system). It turns out that these are the famous ‘komikan’ of Sakurajima — the smallest orange in the world and it only grows here in the volcanic soil of Sakurajima. We duly drop a ¥100 coin and grab a bag of komikans.

 

We also notice volcanic rocks everywhere, which is testament to the origin of this island. They even use such (hard) rocks for construction.

 

At regular intervals, a safety notice like this appears — it basically tells us how far the dangerous craters are, and where (and how far) the evacuation shelter and the ferries are. Sounds ominous. right? Well, experts are expecting a truly big eruption coming in the next 30 years, and as always, the Japanese are well-prepared, especially when the whole of Kagoshima could get evacuated.

 

We arrive at the grounds of the Visitor Center, where there is a great view of Sakurajima and its three peaks — Northern, Central and Southern. There are 3 active craters at the Southern Peak including the dangerous Showa Crater. The white plume we see below is from the Southern Peak, most likely Showa’s.

 

Here they keep a tally of eruptions since 2008. The year 2011 was particularly lively. Nothing spectacular yet for 2017, and I am bit upset — been looking forward to the fireworks!

 

They provide a bus service for visitors to the volcano so we hop onto one. Apparently nobody is allowed to within 2 km of the volcano due to its ongoing activities (erupting since 1955, believe it or not!). So do not expect trails open for independent trekking — everything is controlled here.

 

While the bus stops at a viewpoint, the Southern Peak puffs away. It’s very regular, the plumes. Northern Peak (to the left) at 1,117 metres is the highest point of Sakurajima.

 

Mainly standing room inside this volcano bus, and it’s not too comfortable when it’s crowded — especially as the bus driver deftly negotiates the countless bends along the mountain roads.

 

The highest point visitors are allowed is this site, with ample car park and a nice observation building.

 

We are at the Yunohira Observation Point, a puny 373 metres above sea level — behind us the Northern Peak at 1,117 metres.

 

From here we have a nice view of Kagoshima City, just seven kilometres away. Imagine if there is a major eruption — they would have to evacuate the whole of Kagoshima with its 600,000 people, and the surrounding areas.

 

Just below the Northern Peak there seem to be a couple of barriers constructed to block volcanic debris from being washed down the slope. This is important — when it rains, the water would carry this volcanic debris with it, forming a running sludge that would flow down the slope to cause much destruction downstream. In Indonesia they call this ‘lahar dingin’.

 

A peek at the Northern Peak, immensely scarred from previous eruptions. The craters at this peak were last active about 5,000 years ago.

 

To the right of the Northern Peak, we can see the Middle Peak and the Southern Peak. The Southern Peak has three craters, and one of them, Showa, is the most active, with the latest major eruption occurring in July 2016, when ashes went up to 5,000 metres. This is the crater being closely monitored now, as it has the potential to cause the whole of Kagoshima to be evacuated. Unfortunately the crater is on the other side of of the peak and can’t be sighted from Yunohira.

 

After the bus trip (I’m a bit disappointed for not being able to get closer to the volcano), we return to the Visitor Center and find a 7-11 nearby for a wholesome lunch.

 

Hot springs are everywhere, and there’s one behind the Visitor Center, near the sea. So they thoughtfully built a ‘Foot Bath’ for tired visitors like us. The water comes out at this end, and it’s really hot.

 

It is a freezing day, but putting our tired feet in hot water is something else. It’s quite nice — cold day, blue sky, birds singing, gentle sound of surfs, and ever-smokey Sakurajima watching over us. If only we are having a big eruption as well, that would have been very memorable.

 

I can tell that sometimes the water comes in really hot waves, maybe 45°C or more, and I just have to lift my feet out for fear of being scalded. Of course it is not that bad, but my feet are red like a cooked lobster! Anyway, it’s a nice feeling — warm feet in cold weather.

 

Meanwhile the faithful ferries keep chugging along between Sakurajima and Kagoshima, leaving and arriving right on the dot, as only the Japanese could. All this sea water is filling up a gigantic 22,000-year-old crater, and it is very deep. Those cliffs over there go all the way down to 240 metres below sea level.

 

The shores are littered with black volcanic rocks. These are sharp and very hard rocks, like reefs. You don’t want your boat hitting them.

 

On the ground, we can see volcanic ashes from previous eruptions. The fine black ‘sand’ can be carried far and wide by the winds, and can disrupt human activities. It is indeed dangerous for flights too.

 

We stroll back to the port to catch the ferry back to Kagoshima, and I notice a white speck against the black rocks.

 

It’s a cold day, and the black rock absorbs the heat from the sun, and retains it. This is one smart feline.

 

Time to say goodbye to Sakurajima as it attempts another feeble eruption. I’m a tad disappointed because I have been looking forward to a more energetic volcano. But I guess an inactive active volcano is great for the people living around here, so I should not complain. By the way, Sakurajima is number eleven in my list of visited volcanoes — tally now reads: Batur, Agung, Marapi, Merapi, Bromo, Anak Krakatao, Sinabung, Sierra Negra, Cotopaxi, La Fournaise, Sakurajima. I hope to do more hills soon!  😀 

 

NEXT: NAGASAKI

 

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