Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Asama-Yama Erupts!

Thanks to typhoon #16, Akane's trip back from Hokkaido was delayed, but I did eventually get to travel out to Kita-Karuizawa with her. There I stayed with her parents and her at their summer house in the middle of some lovely deciduous forest. Her grandmother lived there until 2001 when she passed away. In true Japanese fashion, they replaced the old house with a brand new building, which is gorgeous, I'd have to say. It's almost as big as my parents' home in Petersham! Akane and her parents took good care of me while I was there. They sure can cook!

On the first evening there we were making dinner when there was suddenly a truly tremendous explosion outside. The ground shook and the windows rattled, but the small amount of movement in the ground seemed to rule out an earthquake right away. The next thing that came to my post-9/11, post-Japan-in-Iraq mind was an enormous terrorist bomb of some kind. In retrospect though, there is nothing worth attacking in that area (that I'm aware of anyway), and we were one hour from Tokyo by shinkansen so we wouldn't have heard it that loudly. The roaring gradually faded away and we ran outside to see if we could see anything. Akane's father took off for the nearest field to look at the nearby Asama-yama in the car. ("Yama" means mountain in Japanese)

They have no TV in their house, and the radio wasn't reporting anything yet, but then her mother pointed out that over the tops of the trees we could see thick smoke broiling out and covering up the stars. That was a pretty dramatic sight. By the time her father came back, about five minutes later, we had decided it must be an eruption from the mountain. He confirmed this by telling us that there were red spots on the sides of the mountain. We all went to look, but the smoke had covered it up. There are no trees to speak of on the sandy mountain, so the red spots must have been molten rock. The PA system (present everywhere in residential Japan) came on and told us that Asama-yama had erupted, they were looking into it, there was no immediate need to evacuate, and please stay inside. We obeyed and returned home. On the way, about fifteen minutes after the eruption, it began to rain ash. We could tell it was not rain by the way it failed to wet the windshield of the car as we drove through it. Once we got home we were able to look at it closer. It fell in sand-like particles that crushed into powder. This sounded like hail as it rained on the trees all around the house. A smell like fireworks filled the air. This ash-fall continued for about 1.5 hours and was followed by rain that made the rivers run gray.

I learned that the mountain had last had a sizeable eruption in 1982, and had since had several smaller ones. Since around 1982 it had been forbidden to climb the mountain, but Akane had done so anyways two years ago. At the top she and her friend had seen large amounts of sulphourous smoke emerging from the crater. She had decided that since it had been forbidden for twenty years, it was safe enough to climb. In 1793, the mountain had erupted with an actual lava flow that had killed many people in a nearby village. Here are someone else's recent pictures of the top. Here's a nice shot from the base of it.

Needless to say this event dominated my two nights there. There was even some concern that I might not be able to get back to the train station to get to work on Friday. Fortunately the Japanese highway crews, prepared for this sort of thing, were out cleaning the ash off the highway. It had brought traffic to a standstill following the eruption. I thought about all of the extensive infrastructure in place to deal with emergencies like this that I'd never seen in the US. Akane's family didn't seem to bothered, as much as excited by the whole thing. Still, though Kita-Karuizawa is a lovely spot, perhaps it wouldn't be the first place I'd want to buy land in Japan.

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