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Burning Ice and Smoking Rocks: Mt. Esan Volcano


semi-overcast -4 °C

BGM: Fire Walk With Me by Angelo Badalamenti

It was the last day of 2001 and the final leg of a warm, laughter-filled home stay with Masaru's family in Minamikayabe. Since the weather had given us a well-needed break, Shiori and Masaru decided to feed my volcanic fetish and take me to somewhere far off the beaten tourist path: a drive through Esandoritsu National Park.

We took our time down the Esan National Park Highway, stopping every so often to investigate the occasional sleepy little fishing village. The storm front had finished harassing Hokkaido and was how heading out to sea, leaving the water choppy and violent, yet musically hypnotic.


Fishing boats, lovingly adorned with brightly colored flags for New Year's good luck, bobbed up and down rhythmically on the waves, small and vulnerable against the moody vastness of the sea. I imagined the men who sailed these boats, faces red and windblown, all resting warm in their homes, bellies full of seafood and sake, sleeping contentedly in front of their TVs while their wives chatted and chopped vegetables with their daughters. We saw racks of drying seaweed in cage-like structures sitting near the shore. (Minamikayabe is well-known in Hokkaido not only for its ancient Jomon archaeological site, but also for its sweet and springy seaweed). Seeing those racks made me hungry for the feast that awaited us that evening!

We wandered down the beach and near the side of the road, we noticed a frozen waterfall. Reaching out to touch the icicles that hung off the rock, our fingers burned from the cold!


We twisted and turned along with the scraggly coastline, zooming fast through tunnel after tunnel, blasting out again like a rocket into another section of completely stunning scenery. White seawater pushed and hissed up against the rocks as we skimmed the edge of the Pacific, driving farther out towards the end of the Kameda Peninsula.


"This is it!" Masaru suddenly said in Japanese. Shiori looked at me with that familiar excited "this-is-gonna-be-cool!" sparkle in her coffee eyes. There were no buildings, no boats, no nothing. Just a few signs and some stairs leading to what looked like tidal pools. Shiori told me to get my towel ready. We were gonna take a bath.

We were gonna WHAT?!!


The two ran giggling down the hill ahead of me to inspect the water situation. Masaru stuck one hand down in the pool and then suddenly yanked it out quickly again. "Muri!" (impossible!) he laughed! At 50C, Totohokke Mizunashi Rotenburo hot springs is supposed to be nice and toasty even in the dead of winter. But this time, the icy sea had won her battle against the fires of earth below. The bath was freezing cold! But Shiori didn't look too upset as she explained the situation to me. (We women tend to like amenities when we bathe, anyways). I was fine either way. The idea of bathing naked with my friends wasn't embarrassing to me, really. Shiori had already broken me in to Japan's endearing custom of nude communal bathing at Sapporo's Banya no Yu, my first onsen experience in this country. But no amenities? That was another issue altogether. Must have shampoo!

Needless to say, we womenfolk were very glad to continue on driving towards Plan B: Yuttarikan Todoppokuru Hot Springs at the foot of Mt. Esan. As we pulled into town, I couldn't believe my eyes! There in front of me was this massive pile of steaming, smoking rock! I kind of wanted to get closer to it, but then again, kind of didn't. Though Mt. Esan last erupted in 1874, it's still listed as an active stratovolcano. Yet all these buildings and facilities lay so close to it, as if it were just another mountain or hill. I couldn't believe the audacity of we humans to defy the forces of nature in this fashion- and found myself admiring our courage as a species as well. People hike the smoking lava domes every summer without incident. I decided that it was okay for me to take a quick bath near it.


To be honest, this was the absolute closest I'd ever been to a live volcano. During my childhood, I witnessed violent pyroclastic eruptions from across Cook Inlet and that was intensely thrilling, especially when the ash blanketed us and the earthquakes rocked us. But I'd never gotten this close to one, before and it was such an exciting rush! After warming up in the interior bath, Shiori and I walked out gingerly onto the deck of the open air bath and stepped carefully into the hot, salty water piped up fresh from the depths of the earth, all the while staring at this looming, hissing wall of hardened lava staring us right in the face, threatening to just roll over and squish us all to our fiery doom.

That was the point where I told myself to just simply shut up and capture the moment. So I tip-toed back to the locker room, grabbed my camera, hid it under my towel and returning cold and dripping back to the patio, I took a snapshot:


Something happened to me in that bath: I felt my fears dissolve into nothingness- black, empty, nurturing nothingness. It was if the heat of from the ground made all the negativity evaporate from my mind, replacing the void with brevity and eagerness to explore much more of this Ring of Fire. I emerged a renewed creature- a phoenix ready to rise from the flames. I smiled at that menacing wall of rock, no longer afraid, but grateful for the warmth, energy and inspiration I received in that instant of understanding.

On the drive back to Minamikayabe, the clouds parted and a drop-dead gorgeous full moon blazed over the glistening Pacific Ocean, lighting the road before us. "Deer!" Shiori whispered. Standing on the hillside, three elegant Ezo shika deer, a species native to Hokkaido, stood majestic in the shimmering moonlight, the true rulers of this ancient Ainu land. It was almost a holy moment.


Back at Masaru's house, it was time for the final New Year's preparations. This time dad gave us our orders. We would be doing o-soji (New Year's cleaning) to prepare the house for the arrival of the gods of good luck. We each had our own task. I helped polish the ancestral incense burners as the others swept, vacuumed and dusted. Some families go all out for o-soji but we were lucky: we only spent 30 minutes total. When dad was satisfied with our efforts, he thanked us all and began carefully placing moon-shaped cakes of pounded mochi rice flour on the family shrine, the tokonoma (a special section of the living room for seasonal decorations) and on the kitchen window sill. Mom then topped each stack of mochi with a perfect mikan orange, complete with leaf ("for beauty," she explained). Dad arrayed the food on the living room table after the tokonoma was decorated with a seasonally-appropriate ikebana flower arrangement. Then "clap! clap! clap!" - the whole family said prayers for luck to the pictures of Ebisu and Daikoku, the gods of fishing and fortune. Then it was time for feasting!


We stuffed ourselves silly with our bounty of culinary pleasures from field, mountain and sea while watching the annual NHK TV show Kohaku Utagassen, where female celebrities (the red team) compete against the males (the white team) to woo the audience the most with their musical hits. It was a fantastic way to wrap up a beautiful year. As the clock struck midnight in Japan, as the temple bells rang throughout Minamikayabe, I said a prayer for peace for my wounded nation, and a sincere thanks for beautiful, caring people all around this amazing planet.

Posted by GenkiLee 06:57 Archived in Japan Tagged hot_springs hakodate esan_national_park_highway yuttarikan_todoppokuru_onsen mt._esan stratovolcano lava_dome totohokkemizunashi_rotenburo

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