Monday, April 14, 2014

Sakurajima, my little cherry monster

Compared to the magic mushroom guy, the ride was pretty uneventful until I reached the city of Kushima. There, a Japanese girl gets ou of her car with a big smile and perfect english. I tell her that I am going to Sakurajima and she says that it's a good idea but I might just as well spend the night home before I start such a difficult journey.
She explains to me that her husband is British. He is a scientist, a geologist to be exact which is not a bad job description when you live a few kilometers from a volcano. His specialiy is landslides and also river beds and we have interesting conversations about physics. It is very interesting but I notice something strange. This guy sees me as an engineer and that is not what I am anymore. I haven't been for a long time. I don't know what my job should be but I feel much more as a journalist.

He tells me that he has been on TV several times to talk about geology and every-time he is summoned, he is asked questions about a field which is not his and is expected to ramble random stuff. I am not too surprised, media can be fun but I am losing the little trust I had in it's informative power. My experiences on the air corroborate that line of thought and later, when I'll be on TV myself, I'll be convinced of how it is fake.

I have a shower, rest an they are both very nice. The house has two floors and I get the room on second floor. The view is beautiful on the green sunny countryside, I feel I am in the south. Without realizing it, I have reached the southernmost point of my journey, way more south than Tehran and the second southernmost point in my life.

In the evening, we are invited to their friends and we cross the beautiful fields to get there. Monkeys are shyly looking at us through the surrounding branches. These are Snow Monkeys, the most northern of Monkey species, the only ones living in a land that occasionally has snow. That is why they are so fond of hot springs!

The neighbors whom we went to see are very nice. They have prepared great Japanese food, as always and I try to communicate with my Japanese-English which makes everyone laugh. I use the opportunity to question my hosts about the state of Sakurajima.

Fox was right, Sakurajima is acting out. It is a very powerful and explosive volcano. It used to be on an island but in the beginning of the 20th century, it erupted with such a strength that the lava made a bridge to the land and it is now a peninsula.
It is one of the most dangerous and the most monitored volcano in Japan, mainly because a city of half a million inhabitant lies just under it.
Now, access to Sakurajima is restricted because of ongoing activity. My plan to climb it doesn't seem reasonable.
"I am not an expert on Sakurajima but if I could say something close to a professional opinion, I would say you might die there." I carefully note the concern coming from a geologist but I've always preferred giving up on the spot.
The next day the couple gives me an incredible amount of food and a copious breakfast. I can survive a few days without worrying about anything again. They also say they can drive me to Sakurajima because they haven't been there in a while.

We reach the volcano in early afternoon. It is smoking from the caldera but it seems to be of little concern to the Japanese people who are quietly fishing nearby. There is a foot onsen where people relax their feet. We should be a bit more careful to go to onsens when an eruption is near because the temperature can suddenly increase and we might get burned.

There is a sound and a while after that, the volcano gives out a puff of smoke. And then it calms down. And then it releases smoke again. It seems to be periodic.

Sakurajima smoking with UFO
I later notice something strange on the picture on the left. At first, I thought it was a helicopter, then a bird. It's probably a bird but since the story about Aso I like to think that it's a UFO.

They drive me closer, through the magma road just under the volcano base. There is a museum with more information about the chemical composition of different compounds emitted by the volcano and data from seismic sensors and webcams at the top.

Sometimes, the ground shakes just a little bit but maybe I am imagining everything. The couple leaves me with concerned looks on the other side of the volcano where there is a road. It is steep and empty because the warning level has been raised to orange. That's just under red, which means evacuation. Yellow is don't approach the crater and orange means don't approach the volcano which makes my ascension a bit harder.

I climb as high as I can using the paved road until I arrive to the gates. They are similar to those Fox showed me on a picture: with a warning sign and closed. And there is a car which seems to be patrolling nearby. I hide my bag in nearby trees and just take a bottle of water, a banana for the road. I am very stressed because I am going inside an explosive volcano and because of that patrolling car. Potassium has a protective effect on your heartbeat, it slows you down, puts off the stress. At least that is my hope.
For some reason, I am more stressed than I should be.

I am not far from that volcano. No more than 3 kilometers by straight line but the way is very steep. I have found a way which goes as close as possible to the crater by satellite imagery and after it will be a freestyle climb.
I planned my way to the crater
The way to the crater is still paved and empty and silent. When times are quiet, it must be used by workers to build these huge artificial concrete riverbeds to canalize the lava flows.
The weather is beautiful, the air is pure, the volcano is not smoking so much but for some reason I feel more exhausted than I should be. I don't know where this fatigue comes from. I had a good night's sleep, I've eaten enough and I have enough water.
This way must be used by workers to build lava canals
It takes quite a while until I arrive at the end of the road. It opens up on a huge gray flat and quiet are, like soccer field on the moon. The way stop and I step on the fine dust and make my way towards the top. I am very close, 1.6 kilometers from the crater according to my GPS but the terrain is so hard. My steps are tired, sometimes I have a little bit of trouble catching my breath. I don't understand why, it is very strange. I cannot go straight, it's impossible climb on steep sand but to my left is a rocky ridge. I climb on that, and for a while, everything is alright. The view is stunning, I can see the sea and the city of Kagoshima on the other side. There is an observatory for tourists on the other side of the island. I can see them in the distance, I wonder if they noticed me.
The ridge become more irregular and I have to climb. It is very hard for me because everything is falling apart, like at the Aso volcano. But unlike Aso, I feel my concentration diminishing, I lose my bearings and I fall. My tablet also falls on several occasions but luckily, it survives every fall.

From the volcano, I can see the city of Kagoshima
The little vegetation left disappears completely and I am just climbing on bare rock and dust. It is so hard to climb and my head is spinning. I can't understand a thing. I pick some nice rocks along the way. Sometimes, my climbing is a little bit reckless and I tell myself that I hope the earth will not tremble.
After several hours of climbing and nearly falling, I get scared of my own condition. I almost start imagining some irrational explanations for this. The bottom line is, I am smart enough to abandon the hike, a kilometer from the crater. I can see a mist of white smoke. I also notice a lot of strange blue stones with blue and white crystals.
The crater is behind that slope
.The descent is not so easy. My knees feel so weak. I get stuck in-between two small cliffs. I don't know what to do. I end up throwing my bag down and then using a rope to mercifully take down my tablet. After that, I just sit there, thinking how to get down without hurting myself too much. It's at least a 4 meter fall. However, it's not an open fall because there are stony and dusty walls from two sides of the void. I end up jumping between the walls, trying to slow me down as much as I can before I hit the ground.
After that I manage to make it back to the moon soccer field but I couldn't get to the road because there was a car checking it.

So I went through the vegetation which was very difficult and very reckless. Not only were there many holes and cliffs but they were also masked by the thick bushes. I was falling a lot and I got lost. I used my tablet's GPS to find a portion of the road again and I fell on in about mid-way. The car shouldn't be able to see me.

Unfortunately, as I was about 500 meters from the gate, I heared the car behind me. I just had the time to jump between trees and hide. The car stopped for a while and the driver was checking something. Was he looking for me? Anyway, he didn't see me and the car continued its way. I reached the gate and ran around it just seconds before there was another patrolling car passing by. But I was on legal grounds already so what could they say?

I found my bag and drank a lot of water. It was too late in the afternoon for another ascension, especially if I want to reach Yakushima.
I managed to hitchhike some mother and her daughter on the way to the harbor. The next city I have to reach, Kagoshima is just a kilometer away by boat and about 100 kilometers if you have to go by land because you have to cross back to the city of Turamizu through the magma road and then go all the way around the bay which contains the Sakurajima volcano.

Crossing by ferry is very straightforward and it costs about 100 yen, that's about a dollar. They say they can't give me a free ticket but the manager gladly pays my fee from his pocket so I don't break my rules.

On the boat, the hostess congratulates me and gives me a pin's as a souvenir. If my boat hitchhiking lucks keeps steady, I should have no problems getting the connection from Kagoshima to Yakushima.

I feel a little bit sad and a little bit scared when I leave Sakurajima behind because I still can't understand what happened to me there. Because right now, I feel completely fine.

Sakurajima, from the ferry