The majestic volcanoes of Kyushu, Japan – Part I -Sakurajima and Kirishima

Kyushu, the third largest island in Japan, considered the cradle of the japanese culture, is also a natural treasure and most of the wonders you can find there are volcanic spots. Some of the most active volcanoes in Asia lie here, and the island is also famous for the wonderful thermal areas.

A trip around Kyushu allowed me to visit a good amount of amazing active volcanoes including Sakurajima, Aso caldera, Kirishima Volcanic Range and Unzen, all of them in my “must-do list” for years.

When approaching by flight to Kagoshima airport, the majestic silhouette of Sakurajima volcano appears towering the landscape over the southern area of Kyushu, often covered by thick clouds. I was finally lucky enough to arrive when the clouds were starting to leave, so Sakurajima summit cleared up showing all its beauty. Once an island, Sakurajima is now part of the Osumi Peninsula in the main island due to the piece of land added after the huge lava flow in 1914.

Sakurajima as seen from the airplane

Sakurajima is a composite volcano located inside Aira Caldera (formed around 22.000 years ago after a huge Plinian eruption) and now it’s considered one of the most active volcanoes on earth due to its constant activity based on strombolian and vulcanian activity as well as frequent ash emmisions. More than 500.000 people live in the Kagoshima Bay area near the volcano, with an elevated risk in case of a major eruption, and for that reason it was listed on the Decade Volcano Project which identifies the main volcanic hazards for the population.

Sakurajima Volcano Hazard Map – (Source: City of Kagoshima)

There are several observatories and lookouts around the island and a road trip is perfect to enjoy magnificent views of the volcano. If starting the route westward in a clockwise direction the first viewing point is the Arimura Lava Observatory located on top of a lava hill formed after the big eruption that took place in 1912. On a clear day the views of the whole volcanic complex are impressive. Here you can see andesite and rhyolite lavas surrounded by a dense and beautiful vegetation (mostly pines) and also the smoking Minamidake south crater.

Sakurajima as seen from Arimura Observatory

The pines growing on the lava fields

Following the road to the west we can find the Sakurajima International Volcanic Sabo Center, where the volcano is always monitorized by several devices including cameras and a wide range of sensors. There’s also an exhibition inside the building showing how the volcanic eruptions affect the human life and how to mitigate the disasters caused by the volcanic activity. Although the last destructive eruption was in 1946, the volcano is still affecting the life of the locals, being the ash falls and the mud flows some of the most negative consequences. In 1974, 8 people were killed by a huge lahar and more recently in 2006 several volcanic bombs destroyed roofs and buildings with 5 people injured. A good number of concrete shelters were built around the island and specific plans of evacuation were issued to prevent the population from being injured or even killed if a major eruption occurs, and the government decided to build channels to control the frequent mud-flows as they race down the slopes of Sakurajima volcano out to sea.

Debris-flow channels

Driving to the interior of the island we can find the Yunohira Observatory, the place where you can come closest to the vent of Sakurajima. From there you can obtain wonderful views of the inactive Kitadake crater summit, panoramic views of Kagoshima Bay and the city and on a clear day you can see as far as Satsuma Peninsula, where the perfect cone of Kaimondake volcano rises.

The impressive walls near Kitadake crater

In the eastern side of the island we find the best overlooking points of Showa crater, the most active one at Sakurajima, erupting almost daily. Although I was not lucky enough to witness an eruption, I was hypnotized by the degassing Showa crater and the breathtaking scenery in the surroundings…The eruptions at Showa crater are characterized by vulcanian explosions followed by ash falls, and its famous electrostatic charges, creating an amazing spectacles specially at night.

Degassing activity at Showa crater

Showa crater from the eastern road

Following the road to the southeast part of Sakurajima we find the iconic Kurokami Buried Torii. Once a 3-meter high shrine gate, it was covered by the lava flows right after the massive eruption in 1914 and nowadays only its top is visible. The locals decided to leave it buried as a reminder of Sakurajima’s enormous power.

Buried Torii at Kurokami

Not far from Sakurajima, heading up north, lies one of the most spectacular National Parks in Japan, Kirishima, formed by a huge Quarternary volcanic range consisting of cinder cones, stratovolcanoes and several maars, most of them andesite volcanoes. Hiking the Kirishima Ridge Trail is the perfect way to visit the highlights of the Park following the perfectly marked tracks between points.

Kirishima hiking map

I decided to start from the south, visiting first the wonderful Onami crater Lake, one of the largest maars at Kirishima, the highest lake in Japan and also one of the most spectacular places in the National Park. During the late-autumn the frosty landscapes make a fantastic contrast with the light-blue colored lake. Hiking around the lake gives the opportunity of enjoying magnificent views of almost the whole range with the giants surrounding you: Shinmoedake, Karakunidake and Takachiho no Mine volcanoes. At the beginning of March 2018, Shinmoedake volcano came back to life with several explosions after being calmed since the last eruption in 2011.

Onami-ike crater lake

The huge Shinmoedake crater

Takachiho no Mine volcano

From Onami Lake the route continues northbound to Ebino Kogen mountain village, and from there, shadowed by the mighty Karakuni-dake volcano (the highest point in Kirishima with its 1.700 m. high) the trail reaches the 3 ponds area: Byakushi, Rokkannon-Miike and Fudo. These 3 maars, surrounded by dense cedar and pine forests are also a wildlife refuge as several species find their habitat here, including deers, abundant birdlife and also rare sights as the japanese badger (I had a sudden encounter with this beautiful animal)

Karakuni-dake volcano, Kirishima’s highest peak

The crater of Karakuni-dake stratovolcano has a diameter of about 800 m. and a depth of 300 m. Hiking close the crater was restricted due to the unstable situation on the neighbour volcanoes, so unfortunately I couldn’t reach the summit. It is said that you can see the Korean Peninsula from up there.

Rokkannon-Miike Pond and Koshikidake volcano in the background

The next stop was Mount Ioyama (sulphur mountain in japanese). This small and unknown volcano is the youngest one of the Kirishima Range and recently erupted on 19th april 2018 after being dormant since 1768 (see video below).

What I found there was a strong fumarolic activity and a large field of sulphur deposits, creating an otherworldly landscape surrounded by snow. This area was mined till 1962 and it’s covered with andesite gravel and sulphur rocks. The volcano started to be monitorized in 2013 after an increase of the activity raising to level 2 the danger around the crater.

Sulphur deposits at Mount Ioyama

Ioyama (the sulphur mountain), the youngest volcano in Kirishima Range

Before leaving Kirishima, on the way to Maruo Falls the road trip provides with amazing views over Kagoshima Bay, with Sakurajima smoking on the distance and Kaimondake’s perfecto cone on the left side. The massive Aira Caldera can be clearly visible from this point.

Sakurajima as seen from Kirishima

And finally Maruo Falls, a really beautiful waterfalls surrounded by oblique basalt columns framed on spectacular autumn colors…

Maruo Falls

The basaltic beauty of Maruo Falls

NEXT POST TO COME: The majestic volcanoes of Kyushu, Japan – Part II – Aso – Unzen

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116 thoughts on “The majestic volcanoes of Kyushu, Japan – Part I -Sakurajima and Kirishima

  1. Looks like fresh output (vent) just outside the geothermal plant behind the green building on pg cam

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