JULY, 2007


Early Sunday morning, near on a hundred and twenty years ago, to that very month, I would have probably been standing under a million of tons of volcano – volcano in turmoil.  Like a maniac on the brink, the mountain had withheld its growing geological disquiet, hardly issuing a peep to the outside world.  Nothing but a few run of the mill tremors had hinted at what was to come.  At one of the hot springs dotting the mountainside pink arsed monkeys had been seen scampering about in an unusually frantic fashion but their commotion was, virtually to a man, ignored.  Nothing lead anyone to believe that the mountain named Bandai was on the brink of unleashing the ravages of hell upon the sleepy hamlets nestled below it’s northern flanks.

By breakfast time on July 15, 1888, all that had changed.  Violent tremors suddenly rocked the villages and farmland for miles around the mountain, emptying shelves of their contents and hurling people out of their seats and off their feet.  Ear splitting explosions rang out from high up on Bandai-san.  The tremendous forces released sent rock, ash and steam skyward, all of which then rained down on scattering village folk sent spilling out of their homes like drunkards, trying their best to flee on their hands and knees as the ground rippled like a bedsheet in the wind.  Amidst the cacophony and confusion of the hour, an eerie gloom swept over the land as ash and smoke, billowing from the rent apart mountain top, hit an invisible ceiling in the atmosphere.  The air was choked with the reek of sulphur.  Rivers, hurled out of their beds, washed away terrified, scurrying souls.  No lava flowed.  The cause of the explosions: the sudden expansion of heated gases long held deep inside the mountain.  A scalding rain began to fall and burning mudslides unleashed from high upon Bandai spilt down the mountainside and swept up those who fled across the flats, boiling them alive in a glutinous soup, before they could reach the sanctuary of higher ground.  So swift were these mudflows that many of the old and the young left behind in their homes survived.  All this, however, was just a hellacious prelude of what was yet to come.  At some time around ten o’clock that morning, the explosions reached their crescendo.  Broiling, turbulent gases still trapped deep inside the mountain could contain themselves no longer.  A rollicking blast, in stark contrast to those felt earlier in the day which had sent debris skyward, violently ripped the North-eastern face off the side of the mountain, instantly smothering the Nagase Valley, burying villages and damming up the rivers and streams that snaked through the district.  Valley instantly became plateau.

At Inawashiro a town on the Southern side of the mountain, miserable survivors emerged, spectre-like from the pall of falling ash, naked, scalded, broken and wailing.  By four that afternoon, all those years ago, the mountain had fallen relatively silent once again.  A smouldering, seething mass.  Utterly spent, its turmoil released.

In the aftermath of the eruption, a party of men, including a Times of London correspondent, scaled the remains of Bandai-san.  They climbed from the South and cresting the rim of the obliterated mountain, peered northward through a sinister smog, over what is now known as Ura-bandai.

“In front of the cliff everything had been blown away and scattered over the face of the country before it, in a roughly fan shaped deposit of for the most part unknown depth – deep enough, however, to erase every land-mark, and conceal every feature of the deluged area.  At the foot of the cliff, clouds of suffocating steam rose ceaselessly and angrily, and with loud roaring, from two great fissures in the crater bed, and now and then assailed us with their hellish odor.

“Down the slopes of Bandai-san, across the valley of the Nagase-gawa, choking up the river, and stretching beyond it to the foot-hills, five or six miles away swept a vast, billowy sheet of ash-covered earth or mud, obliterating every foot of the erstwhile smiling landscape. Here and there the eyes rested on huge, disordered heaps of rocky debris, in the distance resembling nothing so much as the giant, concrete, black substructure of some modern break-water. It was curious to see on the farther side the sharp line of demarkation between the brown sea of mud and the green forests on which it had encroached; or, again, the lakes formed in every tributary glen of the Nagase-gawa by the massive dams so suddenly raised against the passage of their stream waters. One lake was conspicuous among the rest. It was there that the Nagase-gawa itself had been arrested at its issue from a narrow pass by a monster barrier of disrupted matter thrown right across its course. Neither living thing nor any sign of life could be discerned over the whole expanse. All was dismally silent and solitary. Beneath it, however, lay half a score of hamlets, and hundreds of corpses of men, women and children, who had been overtaken by swift and painful deaths.”

I was standing in the shadow of this jagged crater wall, on the shores of Aka-numa, a shallow red and green tinged lake coloured by the elements leeching from the volcanic earth.  The remains of Bandai-san rose barren and rocky above the greenery that rimmed the lake into cloud that danced along its ridgelines. A whispy puff of gas rose from amongst the low scrub on the far side of the pond, a reminder to be wary as this mountain was indeed still alive.

Life had well and truly returned to the area over the course of the century since the disaster.  The landscape was smiling once more.  Rice fields were rejuvenated.  The torrents of mud that dammed the rivers had borne beautiful tree lined lakes dotted with tourist boats and pleasure craft.  Volcanic minerals coloured the streams that run through the emerald woods of Urabandai and emptied into ponds of iridescent blues and smoky greens and reds.  There are hotels and ski fields, museums and golf courses, hot springs and hiking trails.  The devastating eruption has been consigned to the history books.  Near the Urabandai Visitor Centre, there is a museum and memorial to the 144 lives lost that day.

I moved higher up into the forests and crossed a babbling watercourse clogged with rocks stained deep red and eventually joined a well trodden path that snaked in from the right and continued up the mountainside through sun drenched woods. Here I met a family out for a day in the hills, the kids dragging their puffing grandmother up the steepening path. A party of hikers from Osaka basking in the relative cool of Tohoku stopped to chat on their descent.  At the tea house below the summit, I teased a bunch of school kids all kitted out in blue and white as they munched on their bento box lunches.

Despite the sunshine lower down, cloud clung to the summit of the mountain making it impossible to see Bandai-san’s Hyakumeizan cousins Azuma and Adatara. A chilly northerly breeze had climbers huddling together on the rocks, but in contrast to the miserable Saturday on Zao the day before, Bandai-san had turned it on.  If the weather was to hold, I planned to head up Azuma and then knock off Adatara the following two days.  I could sense a hint of mountain momentum beginning to emerge.

Heading down a trio, two men and a lady, on their final summit haul whoaed me up and indiscriminately invited me to join them for a photo.  It was a great day to be up in the hills.  And then, I realised it was the first of July, hiking season had begun and I could expect more crowds like this in the mountains through to the end of August.  Later, as I rested atop a grass clogged ski run towards the end of my descent the genki hiking trio emerged from the forests surrounding Aka-numa.  The lady from that threesome came over to me and presented me with a Bandai-san key-ring purchased from the rickety souvenir stand on the summit of the mountain.  I wasn’t sure whether or not to accept it but she insisted.  What else could I do?  This was Japan after all, where unexpected acts of kindness, seemingly forgotten in other corners of the world, are prone to greet the unsuspecting traveller.


‘Eruption of MountBandai’ ukiyo-e by Tankei:


Times of London report:


New York Times report:



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