#55 – ASAMA-YAMA
Asama-yama. The name strikes fear and dread into the hearts of any Hyakumeizan hunter worth their salt. 2500 metres of open wound festering upon the face of the planet. Like a scab picked too many times, it’s rotten to the core, unable to heal.
The mountain, the volcano, that consumed half my nightmares, fueled half my doubts as to whether this hundred mountain lark could ever be completed stared me fair in the face, daring me to venture closer, to scale its scalded heights and trip the light fantastic on the doorstep of Hell itself.
I sat perched in the rocks, high on Asama’s ancient Kurofu Crater rim and watched a curtain of cloud curl around the outside of the dark grey, second crater of Maekake. It was there, up on Maekake at 2524 metres, that most made do with their assault of Asama. Inside Maekake, the crater from which the volcano takes its name, Asama, rises to 2568 metres. That was where I was headed come Hell or high water and, I suspected, the former was the one I should be most concerned about, despite my recent episodes with the weather.
The sign at the trailhead across from the visitor centre up at Takamine Kogen was encouraging: “Asama-yama is now in a period of calm,” it claimed.
“No one can predict the next eruption. If rocks start falling, please take the Komoro road to safety,” it concluded.
Not so nice.
“If rocks start falling.” There was quite an air of nonchalance in that message. As though it happened every other week or so. Images of black, steaming, fiery, truck sized boulders plummeting out of the heavens from beyond the forests played in my mind’s eye and little Japanese, peering out of the windows of the visitor centre, supping on cans of hot coffee would say: “Oh dear, the rocks are falling again, I’ll get the car my dear, how about you pick up that pack of postcards and meet me out on the Komoro road.”
I preferred to dwell on the “period of calm” part of the message and wandered alone into the forests of Asama on another glum, grey, yet dry day.
Below me, there on Kurofu, I took in the vista, stretching out to the cloud bank sprawled a lost world of grassland and pine forest. Biting the bullet, I rose to my feet and with volcanic grit crunching underfoot wandered a short distance along Kurofu and located a rough little goat track dropping, near vertically, into the woods below.
Though probably not as famous as the clamouring forests below Fuji or as convenient as a local train station, Asama-yama sports a reputation as a suicide destination amongst the Japanese. Here sorry souls walk their last walk on Planet Earth. Up to the steaming, gas belching crater, off which they hurl themselves into space before being swallowed by the swirling gases of that volcanic pit.
As I descended below the eroded crags of Kurofu I met him. A potential escort perhaps? A hairy, horned, cloven footed beast he was, waiting for me in the tall, yellowing, autumn grasses. Was I there to sell my soul? Was I seeking passage to the cusp of Hades and beyond? We stared at each other for a few long, enthralling minutes before he wandered off unperturbed, sensing I wasn’t there, hell bent on ending it all.
Bugger that! I had another forty-six mountains to get up and down within in a month or two. There was no time to think about packing it all in! And anyway, some days I felt I could’ve been banging around Beelzebub’s neck of the woods already.
Actually, the sight of that fella, a kamoshika or Japanese serow, had me breathing a little more easily. Animals have that sixth sense, you know.
‘If this old girl, Asama was getting ready to blow her top, that scruffy little fella wasn’t going to hanging around here within spitting distance, chewing his cud and looking me up and down,’ or so my theory went anyway.
In the woodland deep inside the Kurofu crater I came to the second warning sign of the day.
I did what it said. What more could I do? I proceeded at my own risk.
Up onto the stony ground of Maekake or maybe the lower reaches of Asama that had spilled out of the busted second crater, I strode purposefully along a gently rising path of black and orange rock. Frosted, low lying vegetation dotted the scene. Another hiker walked out of the cloud ahead of me and into the light. We nodded a greeting as we passed and my spirits lifted knowing that some other idiot was out and about on the volcano.
Not long after that I came to the final warning sign:
There, at that said point, the trail I’d been following veered over to the ‘safe’ high ground on Maekake. I paused and staring that way I spied its steep, riven walls oozing wisps of volcanic gas. I’d been at that very closed summit crossroads twice before. Rishiri was a knee knocker and Kusatsu-shirane was a doddle. What did Asama have on offer?
‘If she gets the shits now,’ I surmised, ‘whether I’m standing here scratching my balls or buggerising around up on the crater lip I’ll end up more frazzled than a fraggle anyway.’
Although: ‘Skipping out here allows me to skip out on Daisen too.’ And Daisen was the nightmare I dared not let my thoughts wander to on any occasion, such was its reputation.
I took a couple of photos to waste time and eventually came to the conclusion I knew I would; that Maekake wasn’t going to do it for me. Somewhere, a hundred or so uphill metres away, hidden from view inside thick cloud and volcanic vapour was the crater rim of Asama. I took what was becoming the traditional closed course rope jump and stepped into no man’s land.
An indistinct trail over the grey and orange stony ground, marked occasionally by white rocks piled on one another, led me to the very edge of oblivion. The steep walls lining the inside of Asama held in a broiling concoction of cloud and poisonous fumes. What lay in those depths some couple of hundred metres below was hidden from view. I followed a straggly, indistinct trail running right, precariously paralleling the brink. I hung low. The world was silent save for the crunch of gravel underfoot and the soft breath of breeze in my ears. A breeze I feared would turn noxious at any moment. I grew leery traipsing up along the rim and slid down a metre or so below the track and trailblazed over softer, more crumbly, yet safer ground. I sucked in a lungful of wicked, evil tasting air, that stung the back of my throat as if I’d swallowed a sheet of the coarsest grade of sandpaper. Coughing and gagging and hacking and spluttering I forced my way onwards, eyes watering and breathing tentatively for fear of another dose of toxic vileness. The resplendent forests below seemed a world away. Few dared venture up there in that rarefied, yet alien, poison laced air. Dread and exhilaration pushed me forward until out of the gloom a mini excavator appeared, parked in a dug out trench just below the lip of the crater.
“What the hell is that doing up here?”
There was a murmuring from amongst the boulders as I approached, laced with concern and surprise. There were three of them. A trio of rough looking chaps huddled in the rocks sucking on cigarettes and mugs of steaming brew. They weren’t overly concerned as to my presence. One chap even got up warned me of the poisonous gases as cigarette smoke billowed out of his nostrils.
On a flat topped rock, a bulls-eye spray painted in red beside a little instrument affixed into its surface he happily took my proof shot. I let out a hoot of exhilaration and thanked him as he handed back my camera. I’d made the top of Asama. Bidding the chaps farewell I followed the excavator tracks down to safer ground and looped back to the final warning sign past a couple of weather or volcano blasted shelters.
By then the skies had cleared and I was tempted to head back up to the rim of Asama once more for a chance at a peep inside, but resisted and followed the trail back down into the woods below Kurofu, the world bathed in a brilliant afternoon light.