Asamayama, a Japanese Volcano
Ikao, Japan, August 30, 1886
Of Japan's numerous volcanic peaks, some active, some inactive, others apparently extinct for ever, one of the greatest and most famous is Mount Asama, in the province of Shinshiu.
While in height, grandeur, and grace of outline, and in the veneration with which it is regarded by the Japanese people, the lordly Fujisan stands a head and shoulders above every rival, there is a second order of eminences, comprising some half-dozen peaks of from 8,000 to 10,000 feet in altitude, among which Asamayama, though not the highest, holds perhaps the chief place, as being the loftiest of the 51 active volcanoes in the Empire.
The fires of Fuji are, for the time at least, virtually dead.
But in Asamayama's dark and cloud-capped ridge there is, as an old native account says, "a fire always burning;" and the records of its eruptions are among the most harrowing and terrible in the whole history of volcanoes.
An opportunity which was lately afforded me of visiting this celebrated mountain in the company of a chosen friend, and of returning hither by way of Kusatsu - the most unique watering place in all Japan, if not in all the world - was too tempting to be thrown away.
And certainly, among the varied experiences of a wandering life in many parts of the globe, I can recall no excursion that embraced so much of things wonderful, beautiful, and uncommon, within the short compass of four or five day's travel.
Our first afternoon's march lay over the lovely heights of Mount Haruna, and past the time-hallowed Shinto temple of the same name, which is situated in a sequestered and romantically beautiful glen on the southern slope of the mountain.
Noon of the second day found us toiling up the weary zigzag of the Shizuma Pass, the summit of which, 4,800 feet above the sea, commands in clear weather a magnificent view of Asamayama, and of the wooded and grassy uplands that spread around its base.
It had been dull since morning, with a steady drizzle, and long before reaching the top of the pass we had fairly entered the zone of cloud, and abandoned all hope of better weather.
Suddenly, however, while we were yet resting on the summit, there was a play of light below.
Then the fog began to lift, break, and roll away, and, one by one, the peaks, small and great, near and far, shed their garments of mist, until at length the whole glorious landscape of mountain and park-like dale, moor and forest, sharp-cut crags, and grassy plains bright with flowers lay before us, glowing in the brilliant light of the midday sun.
Asamayama alone was denied to us.
We were dead to leeward.
We could see far up on his brown and naked shoulders; but the crater-peak remained doggedly hidden behind the vapour-cloud of its own creation.
In front of us, five or six miles away, where the highest stretch of moorland meets the foot of the volcano, could be just descried the spot at which we were to pass the night.
A wretched place enough this afterwards proved to be - a mere barn, flea-ridden and smoke-begrimed, yet honoured by the high-sounding title of the Waka-sare-no chaya.
But what more of comfort could be fairly expected in a wild region some 5,000 feet above the sea, and in the ticklish neighbourhood of a live volcano, ready at the shortest notice to belch forth overwhelming ruin and destruction upon everything, animate and inanimate, within a radius of miles?
Growling, at any rate, was useless in such a place.
Then at sundown came rain to reconcile us to our rude quarters.
And while the Japanese "boy" who served in the triple capacity of dragoman, valet, and cook to the expedition was getting ready the supper we had brought with us, we were glad to turn once more to the interesting details that Professor Milne has collated about the Big Mountain, as the country folks of the district call it, which towers 4,000 feet above the Wakasare-no-chaya.
"It is not known," say the Japanese, "when Asamayama began to burn."
The earliest outburst mentioned in their annals took place just twelve centuries ago, since which date 21, or perhaps more correctly 20, eruptions have been recorded, down to the latest in 1870, which, however, was of trifling magnitude.
Of the whole series, four or five stand out conspicuously in the narratives that have been preserved.
The first of these, which is also the first of the series, happened in the year 683; and though the record is, as might be expected of that period, extremely bald, there is sufficient mention of its destructive effects to indicate an unusual degree of violence.
In 1532 there was a fearful outburst, during which large rocks and stones, one of the former having a diameter of 42 feet, were violently ejected to distances as great as five miles.
Ashes fell in places distant more than 70 miles, and lava-streams, mingling with heavy rain and lava-melted snow which lay on the ground to a depth of six or seven feet, wrought havoc that it took years to efface.
In 1708, and again in 1711, came eruptions of exceptional magnitude.
Parts of the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries were epochs of marked activity.
Especially during the last 20 years of the 18th century abnormal volcanic energy was displayed in many districts of Japan, as well as in other countries.
In 1783 occurred the remarkable lava-flow at Skaptar Yokul, in Iceland, and in the summer of the same year took place the last and most memorable of the great eruptions of Asamayama, than which there are few more terrible in seismological records.
On that occasion, after a period of unusual tranquility, active eruption began on the 25th of June, and only reached its climax during the first week in August, from which time it rapidly declined.
When at its height, says a Japanese historian, "the noise it made was like that of a thousand thunders. To the very foot the whole mountain seemed to be on fire, and from the midst of the smoke lightning flashed in every direction. The scene was fearful. The burning was furious and shook the earth, and screens in houses 25 miles distant were shaken and slipped out of their grooves."
Lava, stones, mud, and cinders devastated the surrounding region, covering the ground to a depth of from two to five feet.
In Tokio, 80 miles away, fine ashes fell to a depth of more than two inches.
Whole valleys were filled with ejectamenta, rivers diverted, and villages to the number of 58 buried or burnt; and pitchy darkness, even at noonday, with lightning and frightful thunder, prevailed in the leeward districts, so that in places as many as 40 miles distant "night and day were equally dark, and no one knew when it was daybreak."
Sudden and terrible death came to hundreds of the pesantry; and upon the ruined survivors fell soon afterwards the further horrors of starvation and riot.
On the north side of the mountain a prodigious lava-stream descended for a distance of 38 miles, the first 30 of which were accomplished in 16 hours.
Throes of earthquake constantly shook the land. Flights of huge stones, some of them from 50 feet to more than 100 feet in diameter, were shot into the air, and "dropped as abundantly as the leaves of trees."
In Tokio, besides great darkness, there were shaking and roaring, both of which were also experienced in provinces as many as 180 miles away.
Half Japan, in short, was more or less agitated by this terrible convulsion; and, in the words of a Japanese narrator, "the various events which happened at this time could not be described by the pen, nor could they be told with the tongue."
Smiling verdure now covers the erstwhile scorched and blackened landscape round Asamayama's base.
But the still steaming crater, the old lava-stream, which looks for all the world like a "huge black serpent" on the bare face of the mountain, and the enormous blocks and masses of lava and other ejectamenta that cover the whole country side serve, amid countless lesser signs, to remind the traveller of those terrible summer days and nights of 1783.
No one, indeed, can see the monster rocks, weighing tens of thousands of tons, which were ejected on that occasion and which now strew the plains on the southern slope, without a feeling of astonishment that Asamayama did not burst bodily and collapse in the mighty efforts that brought them forth.
We were up long before next morning, as full of energy as could be expected of men who had passsd a well-nigh sleepless night, tormented by legions of fleas, half suffocated by the smoke of a wood fire, and enlivened by the chatter of our host and hostess and certain pilgrims who had arrived late in the evening.
Sleep with these good people can have been no object.
For, after keeping up a brisk conversation till close on midnight, by 2 o'clock they were out of bed again and at it as hard as ever.
To these lonely folk in volcano-land gossip apparently had as great a charm as that of hot-water bathing to the visitors at Ikao, where it is no uncommon experience to find a Japanese who awakes in the dead of night suddenly arise, step over his sleeping household, and betake himself to the bath, to indulge for the next half-hour in a blissful simmering.
With the first streak of daylight we were under way, headed by a guide from the tea-house, who had hard enough work at first to make out the narrow overgrown trail, through high grass and brushwood, lava blocks and fallen timber, that led for a mile or so to the immediate foot of the volcano.
An hour's ascending carried us above the clouds and up to the uttermost limit of vegetation, just in time to see the sun's earliest rays salute the crown of Asamayama, faintly seen through light wisps of driving mist 3,000 feet above us.
Henceforward, progress, though not difficult, was laborious to a degree-up a naked brown saddle-back ridge, inclined at a slope which averages nearly one in two.
The path, marked out by small cairns, climbed in short zigzags over gritty cinders, for the most part fairly well packed, but here and there loose enough to add sensibly to the fatigue of the ascent, and test severly the heart and lungs.
At length, however, the summit was reached, two-and a-half hours after leaving the tea-house, and we were free to enjoy the full fruits of our toil.
For some time past a sharp struggle had been going on between sun and cloud, only to end - with nineteenth-century appropriateness - in a pretty equal compromise.
For, while the earth beneath us was now wholly unmasked to the west of the meridian, and bathed in the golden glory of the morning sun, the rest of the circle was occupied by a billowy ocean of soft silver clouds of extraordinary beauty, 3,000 feet below our standpoint, out of whose dense masses the highest peaks alone stood up here and there, as if to assure us of the presence of terra firma beneath that glittering, ever-shifting sea.
In the clear half, however, we looked down up a vast expanse of Central Japan, which, viewed from this eyry height, seemed little else but a sea of mountains.
Seventy miles off, in the south, rose the trifid peak of
"Great Fujiyama, tow'ring to the sky."
Northward, along the border of earth and cloudland, the live voclcano, Shirane-san, Asamayama's younger sister, a bare score of miles away, peered at us every now and then out of her veil of mist.
On the west, the not very distant Sea of Japan was shut from view by the giant granite range of Shinano Hida, the mightiest and wildest chain in the Empire.
All this was grand enough.
But do the bird's-eye prospects from great mountain tops fully come up to the expectations of even those travellers to whom such things are new?
This is very doubtful.
You get distance and vastness.
You get all the joyousness of spirits due to your lofty elevation.
You see spread out below and around you the giant vertebrae, ribs, and arteries of the land, snow and glaciers, lakes and rivers, and a host of lesser peaks sitting humbly at the feet of the monarch you have mastered.
Perhaps, also, you catch the glimmer of some far-off ocean.
You can lose most of the beauties of form, contrast, colour, and height which a less exalted standpoint commands; and you miss the details of cultivation, hamlets, wealth of verdure, rills, and waterfalls, which assuredly are needed to complete and gladden a landscape.
So, at least, we thought as, from our perch on the summit of Asamayama, 8,500 feet above the sea, we surveyed a group of the fairest provinces of this earthly Eden which is called Japan.
And, after all, the crater, not the view, was what we had come for.
So to the crater we very soon addressed ourselves.
While climbing the last steep cone of the ascent, we had heard, very faint at first, but gradually becoming more audible in the still morning air as we advanced, the roar or rumble of the volcano.
Arrived at the crater's edge, it was vastly louder and angrier, and at times almost alarming, not unlike the noise produced by a train's passage over a bridge under which you are standing.
There was none of the shaking, however, that some have spoken of; but loud hissing and bubbling constantly proceeded from numberless vapour-jets in the inner face of the crater-wall, from its rim downwards.
The circumference of the crater, which is a rough oval in shape, was approximately estimated at 1,056 yards, by walking round the windward half of it-it was impossible to pass through the vapours on the lee side - which was accomplished in six minutes, at the rate of about three miles an hour.
It is impossible, therefore to accept the estimate of a German explorer, who set down the diameter at 1,100 yards; or the yet wilder guess of the Japanese who pronouce the circumference to be nearly four miles; or, again, the under-estimate of the English mathematical professor who limited the diameter to 200 yards-divergencies that well illustrate the mental confusion to which some men are liable when in the presence of dread natural phenomena.
Whether regarded in plan or elevation, the crater-rim is irregular.
But it is everywhere well defined, the inner face breaking down sharply and with excessive steepness, particularly towards the north, where it is nearly vertical.
Vast clouds of the most pungent sulphurous steam rise swiftly out of this dismal and mighty caldron.
Its depth no man can tell.
All estimates hitherto made are the merest guesswork.
A recent visitor claims to have seen on a moonlight night to its bottom, which looked like "a furnace filled with glowing coals," and which he supposed to be only about 200 ft. below him.
But, not to speak of the extreme difficulty of accurate observation by night, or of the fact that neither this visitor nor any of his party were experts, other more skilled observers have declared to seeing down to considerably greater depths.
By us, certainly, glimpses of the crater-wall were occasionally obtained at depths which a very moderate estimate would place at 300 feet.
At the same time, the gradual convergence of the cavity which was there apparent would seem to forbid acceptance of the enormous profundity for which some visitors have contended, and to suggest that the depth can hardy much exceed 500 feet.
Crawling to the edge of the hideous abyss, peering into its depths, and occasionally catching a blast of the volcano's stifling breath, there is brought home to you, in some degree at least, a conception of the tremendous and hellish energies which from time to time furnish such convincing yet terrifying and disastrous proofs that this Earth of ours is "still in its vigour."
The churning and groaning far below, the masses of fetid vapour ever being hurled up wrathfully from the gloomy and awful depths, and the riven, scorched, and honeycombed walls, exhaling clouds of suffocating steam from a thousand crevices and holes, readily suggest latent possibitities well calculated to appal the stoutest heart.
Apparently the present crater is the youngest and innermost of three.
Farther down on the south-west side are to be seen, along with numerous fissures of unfathomable depth, remains which point to the existence of two former craters, concentric and of large dimensions, and separated from one another by a considerable interval.
Possibly the exisitng cone may have been formed during the great eruption in 1783.
Men who have reached the time of life which reminds them, that knees have joints are little better able to run down a mountain than up it, especially when the slopes consist of cinders piled at angles of from 30 to 35 deg. above the horizen.
Hence it happened that, though we had ascended to the crater in 150 minutes, we needed 100 minutes to accomplish our return to the Wakasaare-no-chaya.
Half an hour later we were in, or rather on, the saddle; for he who would travel on horseback in the wilds of Japan must at times submit for hours to the refined torture of being well-nigh split apart on the broad span of a Japanese pack-saddle.
By nightfall we reached Kusatsu, some 17 miles to the northward.
But a description of that extraordinary place must be reserved for another letter.
The Times - Oct.27th
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