Fire, ash and a bicycle ride around the volcanic Sakurajima Island

by Stephen Mansfield

Contributing Writer

“The top of the column,” Shusaku Endo wrote in his novel, “Volcano,” “expanded into a shape like the round head on a sprig of cauliflower.” Alluded to in the book as “Akadake,” the landscape described by the author is widely understood to represent Sakurajima, a volcanic island located in the bay of Kagoshima, at the southern tip of Kyushu. In order to complete his research, Endo is said to have hired a helicopter to lower him into the island’s periodically toxic crater-peak.

My first glimpse of Sakurajima — its outline shimmering in the heat — is from the relatively safe distance of Sengan-en, an Edo Period (1603-1868) circuit garden, and one of Kagoshima’s main draws. An elevation in one corner of the garden affords fine views of the island across an expansive bay that has given rise to the city of Kagoshima’s self-branded epithet, the “Naples of Japan.”

It’s a forgivable exaggeration for a marine-scape that is, in fact, rather impressive, but struck the writer, Will Ferguson, as not a little ironic, commenting in his travelogue, “Hokkaido Highway Blues: Hitchhiking in Japan,” that the sister-city relationship between Kagoshima and Naples was akin to a “suicide pact,” both spots “primarily known for the imminent annihilation facing their people.”

As I walk through Sengan-en, ash is being brushed away from the paths winding through the garden. The Shimazu family built a detached villa here, the main residence constructed in 1658 and a nearby gazebo was a gift from Okinawa, used to receive visiting officials. Decorated with colorful Chinese tiles, the dark, stained wood structure is known as the Bogakuro Ryukyuan Pavilion. Another distinctive visual feature of the garden are its stone lanterns. The famous Lion Stone Lantern is to the right of the entrance to the inner garden. This huge piece was designed by head gardener, Oda Kisanji, in 1884.

In the early 18th century, Kyokusui garden was added to Sengan-en to host poetry writing parties. Guests would sit along the garden’s winding stream as a cup of sake was floated down on a wooden board. They were expected to complete their verse, and then to drink from the vessel. The garden is said to have been commissioned in 1702 by the 21st lord of the Shimazu, Lord Yoshitaka, and was for a while lost beneath ash until it was excavated and restored (poetry parties and all) in 1959. The style of garden derives, like so many court inspired designs and customs, from ancient China.

The temperature the next morning is 37 degrees Celsius, when my son and I board a Sakurajima Ferry boat for the 15-minute passage to the island. It’s a blistering hot day that suits me just fine though I may be counted odd for enjoying Japan’s steamier months. But down in Kagoshima, there is the altogether appealing sense of entering the country’s torrid zone, one that intensifies as the traveler, moving in a southerly direction, enters the subtropics.

The natural beauty of the bay, where the Imperial Japanese Navy engaged in secret training exercises prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, is also the passage to an island whose appearance and impact strongly divides visitors. Nancy Phelan, in her 1969 travel narrative, “Pillow of Grass,” wrote, “At close quarters, Sakurajima is perfectly vile.” Appalled by an excess of lava, “fields of it, miles of it, black, sterile, hideous,” she concluded that the island did not belong to this planet. Beautiful from a safe distance, a self-destructive natural calamity close-up, the fission between its imposing outline and the reality of stepping foot on its fragile, ill-tempered crust, induces conflicting emotions.

We rent bicycles from the rental shop conveniently located opposite the ferry terminal. After checking tire pressures and basket capacity, we are issued with a map of the island, shown evacuation points, and warned off prohibited areas. Sensing that convenience stores might be thin on the ground, we stock up on onigiri (rice balls), fruit, and 2 kilogram bottles of mineral water for the 36-kilometer circuit of the island.

Once on the road, it soon becomes apparent that we are inhabiting a very different world, a starkly oppositional landscape of supra-fertile soil — that produces among other things, komikan oranges and giant Sakurajima daikon of up to 45 kilograms — and vast dead zones.

Sakurajima is a contrast of the barren and the supra-fertile with dead zones and large swaths of green.
Sakurajima is a contrast of the barren and the supra-fertile with dead zones and large swaths of green. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD

It’s obvious from the drifts of ash along the sides of the road that the island will never rid itself of the volcano. The vaporous clouds that billow from its sliced head carry ash that settles over the island like black snow. The eruptions are almost daily, and have been intensifying in recent years, requiring residents to take regular precautions to protect their cars, remove clothes from washing lines, and plan their work, chores and schedules accordingly. Family tombs on the island, we soon discover, are covered in corrugated tin roofs to protect them from deposits of ash.

The largest eruption of recent times was in 1914. Lava was heaped into the channel between the island and mainland, forming a rugged causeway between the two. A major eruption in 1946 reminded residents that the volcano was far from spent. Astonishingly, over 4,000 eruptions occurred between 2010 and 2013, with 1,252 recorded in 2015. Little wonder locals call Sakurajima the Island of Fire, and the concentration of eruptions may well account for the cluster of closed hotels we were to see further along the road.

Refuge from the intense sunlight soon appeared in the form of a tunnel of overhanging branches, stemming from lush trees with complex root networks and hanging tendrils that are uncommon to Japan’s temperate zones. Someone had mentioned the existence of a banyan tree on the island, though we were not able to find it. The tree, common to the chain of islands stretching from southern Kyushu to Okinawa, signals a transition from the temperate climate of northern Kyushu. Cyclists with extra time can digress from the circular, clockwise route we took and explore the interior of the island, where there is yet more flora, the Yunohira Observatory, and the Yogan-yaki Kiln, where coarse pottery is made from island’s lava.

Following the more barren, but compellingly beautiful south coast, we make a brief stop at Kurokami Shrine’s buried torii gate, a weird and ghostly sight. Submerged in ash and pumice after the 1914 eruption, only the upper crossbeams of the gate are visible.

Back on the road, our cycling legs now toughened after a series of slopes, we head for the Sakurajima International Volcanic Sabo Center, another observatory, but not before being stopped in our tracks by a thunderous, boom coming from the cone of the mountain.

Though alarming, it is clearly a commonplace occurrence, as there are no warnings going off. The rumble and roar from the volcano feels like being inside the cargo hold of a jet plane. When it emits gas, the mountain has a foul breath, something between raw soda and rotting animal carcass. Residents seasoned to its changing moods and temperament know what signs to heed in the event of a more serious eruption, among them the unnatural yellowing of tree leaves and the heating up of well water.

Enjoying the shade of a volcano shelter on Sakurajima Island.
Enjoying the shade of a volcano shelter on Sakurajima Island. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD

We soon stop counting the number of emergency shelters and escape piers seen on the road and turn our minds to the island’s finer offerings. The tension that stalks any visit to the island is vastly relieved with a soak in one of its hot springs. On an island where the volcano acts as a reliable boiler, you would expect to be parboiled, but the waters at Magma Onsen, a spa conveniently located back at the ferry terminal at the end of our circular route, are only moderately hot.

After a six-hour diet of snacks, we look forward to sampling Kagoshima cuisine that evening. I conjure up images of fried fish cakes known as Satsuma-age; kibinago, a tiny local fish that is served as tempura; Satsuma-jiru, a broth made from bean paste, pork and mountain potatoes; citrus-flavored tofu and a glass or two of imo shōchū, Kagoshima’s signature sweet potato based liquor.

In the meantime, I recline in the hot water, pondering how the good people of Sakurajima and Kagoshima manage to cope uncomplainingly in the face of adversity. Is it possible, I wonder, to become accustomed, immured to the imminent, ever-present threat of volcanic cataclysm?

When asked about damage from a recent eruption, a character in Holly Thompson’s novel, “Ash,” set in Kagoshima, replies, “Some solar hot water heaters hit by stones, power outages one day from ash and rain, train service disrupted. Explosions, volcanic lightning, nothing unusual.”

Just another day on Sakurajima.

Ferries to Sakurajima operate 24 hours a day, with departures every 10-15 minutes from Kagoshima Port. The ride takes 15 minutes. If a bicycle circuit under the Kagoshima sun is too daunting, join one of the daily bus tours of the island that depart from Kagoshima-Chuo Station. There is a tourist information office in the ferry terminal on the island.

A history of activity

1914: Strongest eruption of 20th-century Japan. Killed 58 and followed by a magnitude-7.1 earthquake and minor tsunami. The outpour of lava connected the island of Sakurajima to mainland Kyushu.

1946: The Showa crater erupted from January until November. Lava reached the Kagoshima coastline and severe crop damage ensued.

1971: Joint lowest number of eruptions during a calendar year, with only 10 recorded.

1983-86: Over 1,400 eruptions across this four-year period. Numerous injuries, as well as property damage.

2002-08: A period of relative calm, with annual eruptions in low double digits.

2009: Frequent eruptions resume, with 545 recorded across the year.

2015-17: Close to 2,000 eruptions recorded, with over 1,000 in 2015. For a short period, visiting the island is prohibited.