Thursday, April 10, 2014

Inside an erupting volcano

There is a reason why the village of Kurukawa is so full of hot springs and mineral water, that is because it is near a volcano. If you zoom out from the town of Aso on the island of Kyushu you'll notice a large circle of mountains. You don't notice the circle when you're there because of its size but if you travel to certain viewpoints, it appears as if a circular mountain chain had emerged. But why would a mountain chain run in circles?
It wouldn't. That is because near the town of Aso there is no mountain chain. It is a giant caldera, one of the largest in the world. In the middle of it stands mount Aso, one of the biggest volcanoes in Japan. It is rather well behaved by volcano standards which, by human standards still makes it terrifying.

I hitchhiked a car a long distance, to the city of Aso. There, I get another at least 1000 yen. At the tourist center I recharge my tablet and they let me borrow a bowl to cook some instant noodles. I prefer to be offered food than money because I decided not to spend anything, not even the donations so it's pretty much useless.

Then, I have a bit less luck, I am waiting in front of that hostel waving at cars and nobody stops. Two guys from the hostel are curious about what I am doing and they wish me good luck. I try to get the wifi password for the hostel because I want to check what kind of gases are coming out of that volcano, mainly the expected concentration of carbon monoxide but they only give it to residents.

It's past 4PM when a girl stops. She is an English teacher so I don't even to scare her with my Japanese. She tells me that Aso, the volcano erupted in 1993 and there was a bunch of lava everywhere burning the grass around. She says the top is sometimes closed depending on the fumes. I put on my American hero act and say: "I hope it is closed. Then nobody will bother me when I descend inside the caldera."
I do realize that if she was a fat ugly police officer, I would have spoken differently but because she is a young English-speaking Japanese beauty, I do feel comfortable playing an American hero. It always sparks such a funny overreaction from Japanese girls.

As we climb to the top following the sinuous road, I am discovering what is a volcano for the first time. A volcano is different from a mountain. It is plowed up with steep furrows full of crumbling stones and dust. It is obvious lava used to flow there. The ground is dead.
A volcanic landscape around Mt. Aso

My American hero act is a little bit shaken. We arrive at the end of the road. There is a tourist station, with a big supermarket. There are some tourists but not too many. There are many more Japanese vending machines. The volcano's top is closed because there is an unusual amount of smoke so she asks if I want a ride back to the city. I say because I am a hero.

There is only one road going to the top and some people are guarding it. That is why the most reasonable thing to do is try to go around that temple and climb through one of the lava canyons as far from the base as I can and then continue on my own. I don't want any official or non-official Japanese people rescuing me from looking into the volcano.
There is smoke, yes but it doesn't seem that bad. Nobody seems to care about me as I continue through my volcanic valley. Sometimes, the edges are steep, sometimes they are slowly climbing.

The ground is very dry, stony and dusty. The particularity of a volcano is how everything crumbles on the slightest touch. I can't climb a tenth of anything that I could climb on a normal mountain. Everything falls and disappears under my hand and feet. Thus, I must not underestimate the terrain so as not to get stuck.
There is a slight smell of sulfur but not much more than at the shop and it is not even an inconvenience. It is even possible that I am imagining it. As I ascend, the air is as pure as before. There is a bit of yellow dust which prevents me from seeing the horizon through the otherwise blue sky but that's not the volcano, that's Shanghai's fault.
The only thing that changes is that giant cylinder of smoke going up, high, so high in the sky. I don't know if it is becoming more massive because I am getting closer or because the volcano is becoming alive.

As I reach the top, even the wobbly rocks disappear and I am walking on very fine volcanic ash. It's very inefficient, I am sliding with every step. The smoke is giant, even the sound has been turned on a little bit. But it is only when I step at the border of the crater and take a direct look straight into the volcano that everything changes. The volcano roars! A enormous cloud of smoke rages towards the sky. I see lakes of sulfur evaporating in a deafening racket and I stare at the spectacle with an open mouth, unsure of even what I feel. The sulfur lakes are boiling, they are green and yellow and white and they hiss. I feel they hate me. I feel they hate everyone and with reason, because this is hell.
I used to have a smirk on my face when hearing about people believing in hell in ancient times. Heaven, I can understand, there was no knowledge of what is above us. But I couldn't understand who could come up and believe in the ridiculous idea that when you die, you can go underground and burn in eternal fire.
Now, when I look at those boiling sulfur lake who hate me, who hypnotize me, who call me with their horrid voices; when I feel their attraction, an eerie force seizes me and I am drawn to them, now I understand how people could believe in underground hell. In fact, if you were in the middle ages and you would be sitting here with me looking into the Aso crater, you would have to be either a scientific genius or a complete moron if you wouldn't believe in hell. I, for one, would.
A bang echoes in that mist of white vapor and an even greater cloud rushes to the sky. The sky is now white, white with smoke. It used to be blue, now it is white.
The sky used to be blue, now it is white

I step closer. I go around the crater. The smoke turns with the feeble wind. It is facing towards the other side but it is slowly turning towards me. If it goes there, will I be able to breathe?
I have no idea.
The most scary thing is that I am not scared; or not as much as I should be provided I know nothing about volcanoes and I am here alone looking into one. That is because I am hypnotized. I can't put my eyes off it. I have another constraint, the sun is approaching that mountain range and will soon set.
Should I go inside? The walls of the caldera are made of volcanic sand. And they are almost vertical and ready to fall. I continue to circle the volcano, trying to find a less steep spot. The hissing is so loud, my senses are out of touch with reality.
And then I see it. The volcano is breathing fire. One of the sulfur ponds have evaporated and now there are dry black holes in the ground and those dry black holes are spitting fire.
I realize this is nothing compared to what a real volcanic eruption could be but it is enough for me. I run away from that hell. I don't know what will happen there and frankly I don't need to know. But as I descend, the smoke doesn't get smaller as I would expect. In fact, it thickens. And the sun already set and light is coming out.

I get stuck in a few of these furrows for lava but I make my way safely to the middle camp. Everybody is gone and everything is closed and I have no tent. For psychological reasons, I don't feel comfortable sleeping all alone under open skies. That volcanoes that hates me could come and drag me to hell.
The only open thing in the area are toilets. Sleeping in toilets is hitting a new low, now I really am becoming homeless. On the other hand, I met a girl on the ferry in Wakayama who was told me she did this and she was much more civilized than me. Plus, any Japanese public toilets are much cleaner than any room or apartment I have lived in... ever.

With that in mind, I carefully make walls out of all my stuff between me and anything the rest of the stuff and I go to sleep.
I have a strange night. I hear the volcano hiss in the distance. And at one point, the ground shakes a bit and then everything goes quiet.
I wake up at 4AM, first sunlight and I am a hero again. The smoke is way smaller than yesterday, seems like the angry volcano shouted its fire. I am going to climb it again and this time, I am going into the crater, come what may.

It is too early for the security to man the posts at the roadblock so I pass through them undisturbed. But I am not the first. There is some Japanese couple leaving hastily in a red car and a white cabriolet is still parked there.

Much faster, in under an hour, I am at the top. Shit, there is someone. Some guy is leaning against the wooden fence. Here go my plans about descending into the crater undisturbed.

"Konichiwa, genki-deska?" (Hello, how are you, at least to my knowledge)
"Hi! How're you doing man?"
American accent and his name is Josh. He lives not too far from here, an expatriate on Kyushu and is a mine of information about Japan. He fell in love with one of the beautiful Japanese girls which is not hard to imagine and they live here since.
But that's not all of the interesting stuff Josh has to say. When he arrived at first lights, he saw something extremely unusual. Passing no judgement, this is the story as he recounted it to me. I have seen nothing of that sort, I was inside the public toilets at the time, the only element I could add is that the timing could or could not coincide with the ground slightly shaking for a short while. I could also confirm the red car leaving.

When I have arrived there was a cylindrical red object, like a giant toilet paper roll, hovering above the Aso volcanic crater. It was slowly advancing towards the center. There, it stopped and several smaller objects detached from it and descended into the crater. They fell slowly, not as if they were dropped. I tried to capture it with my phone but I couldn't get a clear picture.
There were two more witnesses, the other Japanese couple. They had a professional camera but they also couldn't get a picture. When they pressed the shutter, the object suddenly dissipated. The couple got very scared and left. 


But that's still not all, Josh has a quadcopter drone with a gopro camera mounted on it. And he is going inside the crater with it. He is a bit stressed about sending the poor machine into hell, god knows how it can behave, what turbulence lies in the sulfuric smoke.
According to his words, if the machine breaks, chances are his wife is going to kill him so in a way he can as well go there himself.
Josh says he has been here about a hundred times, taking footage of the scene.
"You've been here a hundred times and you haven't climbed in?"
"Nope." Seems that guy is a lot smarter than I am.
I ask him he has any objections of me descending into the crater and Josh decides to leave his drone behind and go with me. If I can find some extraterrestrial objects, that would be super-cool and maybe I could hitchhike a UFO to Kamchatka and that would be a first, for sure.
Josh and his drone, as sun rizes above mount Aso

The terrain is rough, there is ash, smoke and falling stones. You can't descend slowly, you would just slide uncontrollably. The sand slips under your shoes, and any part of your body and before you know it, you roll on the ground. Just like ABS brakes, the only way to come to a stop on this terrain is to maintain contact with the slippery surface and decrease your speed slowly until the terrain allows you to stop.

We descend to about two-thirds of the whole crater when I hear Josh scream in surprise. He stepped into boiling mud and he had a lot of it on his shoe. We are quite close to the hotbed now, that's the kind of stuff that can happen, I forgot to mention. The air is full of sulfur, it is hard to breathe.
"I am going up!" Says Josh.
Ma and Josh descend into the crater...
Since I still didn't step into boiling mud, I still feel like a hero and I continue climbing lower. The sulfur is getting really annoying now, I have to breathe through my t-shirt and I am not sure if that helps either. I feel it in my eyes. The sound is hellish as it was yesterday. And in this, I have to climb. I try to forget about Josh stepping in that mud and concentrate on my climbing holds.

The air does not get better but the view does. I am face to face with the sulfuric lake and god it is beautiful. This is the heart of the volcano and it has its own landscape. It is a volcano inside a volcano, there is a part which goes a little up, if only a meter, and then abruptly down, as if the whole thing was some kind of hellish fractal.
A miniature stream of hot liquid flows from the sulfuric lake and everything screams like crazy. My eyes start to hurt and my breath is not at its best. I need enough energy to climb back.
I am face to face with a sulfuric lake
It was a good thing I backtracked at this point because I barely made it. Climbing up is hard in that smoke and I can't catch my breath as much as I would. Every now and then I slip and slide. And the more I climb, the steeper it is. It didn't seem so steep when I went in.

Josh signals it to hide, there is a new guy, law-abiding Japanese this time. I am incredibly tired and I hardly care about this but I somehow manage to climb using another route. The law-abiding Japanese person looks at me as I emerge, his look saying: "stupid young gaijin..."

After flying the drone several times over the crater we are on our way back. Josh tells me many stories about interacting with exasperatingly law-abiding Japanese such as that guy who cleans the toilets and who discovered a charger charging Josh's drone battery.
He unplugs it because a battery charging in toilets is strange.
Josh plugs it in and after a while it's unplugged again because toilets are not for charging batteries.
The third time he is about to unplug it, he finds Josh it that toilets are not for charging batteries.
"I'm very sorry sir but in the current state of charge, the battery is very unstable and if unplugged, it could explode and destroy the toilets." And that it how the battery charged.

My last ride to Aso is in Josh's Ferrari which actually isn't a Ferrari but seems to be the Japanese expression for cabriolet.
Where now? Yakushima hopefully, if fate agrees.