Ioyama In The Clouds

As the bus winds its way up the mountain towards Ebino Kogen, I am starting to question my decision to come here at all. From one moment to the next, we are entering dense fog and all around us the world of the Kirishima National Park dissolves into vague grey shapes.

I had probably not spent enough time planning this day and the complexities dawn on me on the way – first a local train from Kagoshima to Kirishima, followed by a public bus to┬áTakachiho-gawara, and then this smaller national park shuttle to Ebino Kogen, rising ever higher along the flanks of the various volcanoes in the park. The public bus was sparsely populated and now I’m the only passenger on this shuttle – late October on a weekday is obviously not peak travel season.

I had been looking forward to see the volcanoes in this park and the drive up the mountain had been promising, but it had become more and more overcast and now the bus has entered the clouds. The landscape has disappeared. All that is left is me, a lone foreigner with no Japanese skills, in an empty bus on top of a volcano that I can’t actually see.

We arrive at the stop and I get off, sending a last wistful look after the bus as it vanishes in the fog. There is no bus stop shelter, just a sign with departure times and a little container with folded maps of the area. The map is just a single sheet with a photocopied overview of the local hiking paths, but it’s much better than nothing. Before I leave, I take a look at the departure times and realize with some shock that the bus that brought me here was the last of two buses that would make it up here today.

I stare at the schedule for quite a while but there isn’t much else I can get out of it. It’s around 11 o’clock in the morning, and there is a bus at 9 and one at 11 and that’s it. I scan the area. There is a large parking lot, mostly empty with two tour buses parked next to a building that may or may not be a hotel or spa, and a few private cars of hardy souls that came up here today for hiking.

The fog drifts in dense clouds across the hillside with its sparse forest. It’s cold but there is not much wind. Very quiet, with only the odd call from a crow echoing across the parking lot. The road is deserted.

I could probably stay in the hotel – which might be quite expensive – or maybe I can hitchhike down the mountain to the train station later today. No matter. Now I’m here, might as well spend some time.

The small map is completely in Japanese, but there is a small lake nearby with promising clusters of Japanese characters around it signifying little shrines or points of interest. Doesn’t look too far.

I walk along a winding country road up towards the lake – assuming I’m not holding the map upside down, that is. To my right the mountainside spews steam and smells of sulphur, this should be the slope of Ioyama, one of the volcanoes around here. There are trails going up the slope, something to investigate later.

After about half an hour walking up the hill – and not seeing anybody at all along the way – I reach the little lake in a flat hollow surrounded by trees. The lake is almost circular and very small, maybe 200 meters across. Steam is rising in lazy swirls from the surface of the water, fusing with the fog into a white, wavy curtain. I walk down a small path that should take me around the lake, hemmed in by dense, gnarly trees and spiky undergrowth.

The trees have already lost most of their foliage and dark twisted branches rise in stark contrast against the fog. All I can hear is the calls of the crows up in the trees and the crunch of the rocks under my feet. The path is well prepared and easy to walk, winding its way through the forest with little gaps where it is possible to view the lake.

In a clearing I find a small shrine, overgrown with moss. The walls and roof look ancient with much of the grey wood the consistency of wet cardboard. The area around the shrine is swampy and waterlogged but I can’t tell if water is running into or out of the lake here.

I sit down on a little stone bench next to the shrine, in front of me the glassy surface of the lake barely visible in the thick fog. I had brought some lunch, sweet baked goods from a 7-11 in Kagoshima, a box of Pocky and a bottle of water.

After lunch I continue my little hike circling the lake. As the path rises back to the country road, there would probably be a very nice view of the lake behind me, but today there is a complete absence of substance. My universe has shrunk to a bubble of maybe 30 meters across.

As I get back to the road I see another one of those hiking paths leading up the slope towards the volcano on the other side. The difference in terrain is striking. Behind me the area around the lake has trees and grass, across the street the hillside is bare rock and rubble. It is not a steep mountain and the hiking paths look like they were prepared with excessive caution to prevent hikers from wandering astray.

I contemplate the path for a little while and I’m pretty sure it matches the path I see on the photocopied map. It leads up for a few hundred meters and then turns in an arc around the top of the mountain – I assume that would be the crater – and then back to the windy road I’m currently on.

I cross the street and ascend Ioyama.

The fog can’t very well get any denser, but there is now also live steam escaping from vents all around me. The smell of sulphur is getting stronger as I climb the path to the crater. Many of the rocks look like volcanic ejecta and they are very colorful – their strong reds, greens and yellows washed out into pastel hues by the ever-thickening atmosphere.

The path is marked on both sides by unbroken lines of little rocks and while I can’t see far it’s pretty much impossible to get lost. Many of the steam vents near the path look like serious death traps and I’m making sure to stay away from them. The vents sit in open pits and craters with jagged rocks covered in yellow sulphur deposited there by the steam. The air is now full of the hissing sound of steam escaping under pressure, superheated water surging up and away from the magma below.

As the path starts to descend I stop for a moment and turn in a circle, taking in the desolate moonscape around me. The sky is white, the rocks everywhere covered by light grey ash. Pure white steam escaping in dense jets here and there, surrounded by yellow rings of sulphur.

This is the crater of Ioyama.

Ioyama in the clouds.

I continue downhill and after a few hundred meters the path brings me back to the country road and I follow it down to the parking lot where my hike started. The bushes and grass near the road look now much more friendly and inviting after spending an hour in Ioyama’s death zone.

One of the tour buses is preparing to leave and a small number of elderly Japanese tourists are boarding. I approach the driver and ask where he is going. He doesn’t speak English, but after a few moments of my wild gesturing and broken Japanese phrases he understands.

“Kagoshima!”

More wild gestures. It’s now mid-afternoon and I really don’t want to get stuck up here – a direct bus to Kagoshima would be absolutely perfect.

Several thousand Yen change hands and I’m rolling down the mountain together with a group of extremely hardy octogenarians. Barely ten minutes later we break out of the clouds.

This is a little scrap of my travel memories of a trip to Japan in 1997. The little lake, the windy road and indeed all of the area around the crater of Ioyama is currently a no-entry zone due to heightened volcanic activity of Ioyama.

 

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