Volcano Worlds | Kyushu-Okinawa

Aso crater. Photo: © Steven West

In the late 1960s, the American artist Robert Smithson coined the term “land art”. Works are not simply placed outdoors, but created as part of nature and the landscape. One of the proponents of this movement, James Turrell, even turned an entire volcano in Arizona into an art installation. which brings us to the southern island of Kyushu with its 30 active and inactive volcanoes. They are part of a fascinating landscape, where nature has created its own version of land art that visitors to Japan should not miss. It is the awareness of powerful forces designing nature that is so inspiring when hiking along crater rims, especially for architects or artists.

Sakurajima – the “cherry blossom island”. Photo: © Steven West

Our tour begins in Kagoshima, a city with 600,000 inhabitants and a picturesque bay facing Sakurajima – the “cherry blossom island” that is also an active volcano. Around here, the fruit hanging from the trees is wrapped in white paper to protect it, graves in a cemeteries have their own roofs, and people carry umbrellas despite the sunshine, all in case it suddenly starts raining ash. And when it does, there’s a slight tingling on your skin as if you were being bombarded by tiny insects, and your lower arms are soon covered in grey powder the consistency of finely ground pepper. It’s a bizarre sensation. Often the powdery precipitation stops after a few minutes, but if it doesn’t and the rain comes, it’s like India ink dripping from the sky.

From there, the tour continues in the direction of Kirishima-Kinkowan National Park. Where there are volcanos in Japan, hot springs are rarely far away, and with them ryokan, traditional Japanese inns – many with their own spring water supply. And that’s another thing that sets volcano walkers apart from ordinary mountain hikers: after the rigors of the day, you can take a leisurely soak in a sulfurous hot tub beneath the stars, sake bottle within comfortable reach. One example is Myoken Ishiharaso, which was partly created by Japan’s renowned interior designer Takashi Sugimoto of Super Potato. Here he playfully unites postmodern elements with traditional Japanese features – double glass walls, for example, filled to the ceiling with colored bottles. Some have walls made of stacked-up driftwood, or a polished granite rock weighing a ton; perfect for setting your cocktail glass upon.

On to Kirishima-Kinkowan National Park, which features dozens of craters scattered across the landscape, some of them filled with turquoise lakes. At Mt. Io, the sulfur mountain, heat hits you in the face, and stones crumble underfoot to reveal their yellow innards. After that, it’s back again to fragrant meadows and woods, and on across the water. To get from Amakusa to the Unzen volcano massif, the ferryboat has to churn through wind and waves for 40 minutes, pursued by gulls who dive-bomb you to snatch potato chips from your outstretched hands. After mooring, it’s another hour’s drive to Unzen, “the cloud mountain”. It’s currently rated as “safe”, but it wasn’t always that way.

An eruption around 200 years ago sparked a chain of events which led to 15,000 deaths. From another blast 26 years ago, bizarre remnants stand every few hundred meters like an outdoor installation of a sculpture park. This is where you’ll find roadside barriers wrapped around trees like the curled lid of an open sardine can, or a light-blue washing machine half-mired in petrified volcanic dust. To get a better view of Unzen you had better take to the skies in a helicopter from Nagasaki. After 20 minutes, you can circumnavigate the awe-inspiring volcano at an altitude of 2,000 meters.

Mt. Aso; Concrete Shelter. Photos: © Roland Hagenberg

There’s also no ignoring Mt. Aso, Japan’s largest active volcano with a sizable, bowl-shaped caldera that’s not only estimated to be 380km², but is home to a population of 50,000 living directly on top of it. The most popular of Aso’s peaks, Nakadake, can be reached by cable car and looks like a barren moonscape, with a crater rim lined with concrete shelters in case of an unexpected eruption. Together with the majestic surroundings, they might as well go for land art as well. – Roland Hagenberg

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