30,000 years ago, an enormous volcanic eruption occurred at Kagoshima and covered the site in a 60-metre-thick layer of magma and ashes.
A huge crater was created in the eruption, Aira Caldera. Over the millennia, there have been several significant eruptions – each time resulting in new formations in the landscape.
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Three peaks of the volcano have been active during its lifetime, and it is the southern one, Minamidake, that again erupted 4,500 ago and is still active today. It has had more or less constant eruptions since 1955.
The name Sakurajima includes the word ‘jima’, meaning island. Until 1914, Sakurajima was truly a volcanic island at Kagoshima on the southern tip of Japan, but in this last major eruption, a connection to the mainland was established by the solidified lava – and Sakurajima became a peninsula.
However, a major, disastrous eruption occurred in January 1914 (the Taisho eruption). The 23,000 island residents were shaken by four gigantic earthquakes and countless minor quakes. They had a premonition of disaster and used all available boats to evacuate to the mainland. The Imperial Navy also contributed with ships.
In the course of two days, a fissure opened, and gas, ash and pumice stone were ejected in an ear-splitting explosion. The roar could be heard all across Kyushu.
Within a few days, the ashfall reached most of Japan.
Yet another earthquake occurred, causing both houses to collapse, even in Kagoshima City, and producing a tsunami. A second, large 7.1 magnitude quake followed, in which lava poured out and buried houses, villages, and large areas of farmland.
Also, the citizens in Kagoshima had to evacuate from the disaster. Although some lives were lost, many people managed to rescue themselves.
The lava flow over the following weeks was so immense that it caused a permanent connection to the mainland. Another consequence of the eruption was that the island sank about 60 cm since the magma chamber of the Aira caldera was emptied.
The connection to the peninsula of Sakurajima Volcano (now also by car) has made Sakurajima a favourable place to live. The soil is fertile due to the volcanic material, and underground thermal resources provide ideal conditions for vegetation and the cultivation of crops.
From the summit and down to sea level, there is a changing vegetation, ending with black pine and bay trees along the coastline. Different lava flows have resulted in different kinds of vegetation.
The settlers at Sakurajima have always taken advantage of the benefits of the volcano – the fertile soil for cultivation, the ashes for various kinds of industrial products, the hot springs for relaxation and as an energy source, and in recent years, the volcanic area for tourism.
Despite the tragedies of the Taisho eruption and the risks people constantly live with, the advantages of living on the rim of the volcano seem to outweigh the disadvantages.
Over time, the volcano has become a focal point of exploration and adventures, such as biking, climbing, and hiking along the hillsides. Moreover, the hot underground is exploited as a source for onsen baths, including a popular footbath near the harbour!
Other tourist activities include pottery making, the use of volcanic ash, and cooking classes that use lava rock ovens.
So, what is it like living around Sakurajima today – does the volcano and its frequent activity impose restrictions on people? Without a doubt, the level of alertness is high, and the residents take the forecasts of eruptions into account daily and close their windows when there is ash in the air. Also, there are annual evacuation drills to prepare for the next large-scale eruption.
The island children wear helmets (and sometimes face masks) to protect themselves from debris – e.g. when they go to school in the morning and return in the afternoon. The locals regularly clean and sweep their properties and roads and find ways to live as normally as possible. They have adapted their way of life to the temperament of the volcano!
The people prepare themselves as well as they can for the next large eruption. It will likely happen within too long since the magma beneath the caldera has now reached the same level as before the Taisho eruption in 1914.
They are digging canals for likely mudslides down the slopes to try to control how the lava will flow when the anticipated eruption occurs.
The level of preparation is much higher today than a hundred years ago, with early warning mechanisms in place. Rumblings and other changes in the magma chambers are monitored, and evacuation plans are ready.
All data are thoroughly analysed, and predictions are made. Recently, there have been indications that the next eruption may be close. Volcanic thunderstorms and lightning in the rising ash clouds have been observed several times. A giant eruption at Sakurajima Volcano could happen at any time.
To visit the island (or rather the peninsula), there are frequent ferry connections from Kagoshima – and access by road from the southwestern access point. Many visitors arrive by ferry from Kagoshima since it is both fast and convenient when arriving at Kagoshima by Shinkansen.
Near the ferry terminal, there are several opportunities to experience the volcanic phenomena and learn about the peninsula’s culture and history.
There is the Sakurajima Visitor Centre where the story of the volcano is told. Visiting is an excellent opportunity to get an introduction to the geographical changes and learn about the transformation of the ecosystem, marine biology, and plant life, as well as the benefits the island residents derive from the volcanic soil.
A stone’s throw from the Visitor Centre, everyone is invited to try the thermal foot baths (Nagisa Park Foot Bath). Also, the adjacent Magma Onsen has hot springs you can try. By hiking along the short Nagisa Lava Trail, along the volcanic coast, you get a unique chance to see traces of Sakurajima’s volcanic history.
If you have time for it, you can also hike a little further up the volcano (as far as it is allowed – the Yunohira Observation Point is one of the options, located 2.5 km from the volcano crater) – or take one of the island buses further along the coast to experience more of the peninsula. The Sakurajima Island View Bus is a loop bus to the Yunohira Observation Point and back.
With Sakurajima International Volcanic Sabo Centre as an exhibit facility, visitors and locals will get a chance to learn about the volcanic activity on the island. It also serves as an evacuation facility in case of an emergency situation.
Other visitor attractions include Karasujima Observatory, Arimura Lava Observation Deck, Sakurajima Naval Base, Portrait of a Shout Monument, Saigo Rock, Takahama Year-End Stone Monument and various other landmarks, Koike View Park, Sakurajima Nature Dinosaur Park, the ruins of Takegorin-tou Buddhist pagoda, Kurokami Buried Shrine Gate, and fascinating lava fields.
Sakurajima Volcano – History & Culture
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Sakurajima Volcano – History & Culture:
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