NAGANO – Families of those who died in the 2014 eruption of Mount Ontake entered the summit area on Wednesday for the first time since the nation’s deadliest postwar volcanic disaster.
A day before the fourth anniversary of the eruption, which claimed 58 lives and left five other people unaccounted for, entry restrictions on a path to the summit were lifted at 10:30 a.m.. A group of around 30 relatives ascended the 3,067-meter mountain in central Japan to mourn the loss of their loved ones.
They offered silent prayers in a memorial service, and erected a cenotaph bearing the inscription: “The memory of this tragedy should never fade away.”
“We’ve waited for this chance for four years,” said Hideko Sherlock, 59, secretariat head of a group of families. “Until now we had only been able to imagine (what the summit area was like) by looking at pictures, but it is very important for families of the victims to be able to go there,” she said.
Observing the mountain peak, where a destroyed stone statue remains, she added, “Standing on the summit, I felt how horrendous it must have been (at the time of the disaster).”
Families had been calling for the opportunity to visit the long-restricted summit area, where many victims were found. Visitors are now allowed to climb some 600 meters from the ninth station to the summit during the climbing season that runs through noon on Oct. 8.
Toshiaki Nomura, 58, whose 19-year-old son Ryota went missing in the eruption, said, “I could finally be close to Ryota. I want to tell him ‘Wait a little more. We can search for you soon.'”
Junichi Horiguchi, 72, whose 37-year-old son Hideki was killed in the eruption, said, “I did not have confidence in my physical strength but I came here to mourn for my son.”
“This is a beautiful mountain. Why didn’t he bring us here when he was alive?,” asked Horiguchi’s 69-year-old wife Hiroko.
After setting up an evacuation shelter that can accommodate around 90 people, and a loudspeaker to issue warnings, the local town of Kiso in Nagano Prefecture decided it could now allow climbers to enter the summit area of the mountain, which straddles Nagano and Gifu prefectures.
Restrictions are still in place for other mountain paths that lead to the summit from different locations.
The eruption occurred on Sept. 27, 2014, when the alert level for the volcano was set at 1 — the lowest on a scale of five. Some relatives filed a damages suit in 2017 against the central and Nagano governments for failing to raise the alert level despite an increase in volcanic activities before the disaster.
Following the disaster, Japan’s weather agency revised its standards and expressions on eruption alert levels. It also introduced new measures such as providing notifications of volcanic activity more swiftly.