A real life, active, steam-emitting and – as recently as 2000 – erupting volcano made for a very welcome change from temples, shrines and cute tame deer.
The day started badly: trains to the the nearest “major” town, Toya, aren’t exactly frequent so there was no time for breakfast. Upon arrival in Toya (90 minutes on the slowest, hottest and bumpiest train I’ve encountered in Japan), the local bus to Toya-ko Onsen has left 5 minutes earlier and the next is 45 minutes away. Fine, I’ll get some food – but, and surely this a first for a Japanese town – there is not a single restaurant open. Definition of a one-horse town: Toya.
A taxi whisks me to Toya-ko Onsen, home to the caldera lake of Toya-ko and the tiny island of Oshima contained therein. It’s a pleasant little lake-side town and a necessary stop since it’s a short bus ride from the volcano. Right away I find a lovely restaurant serving enormously filling scallop curries with rice (for less than €5 – how on earth do these places survive?) and the bus to the volcano is just round the corner.
This is Showa Shin-zan. It’s not the volcano, however (Usu-zan, behind the camera, is the volcano); this is a 405m lava dome / mountain that was formed in 1943 over the course of just 18 months. Its presence was feared as a beacon to enemy bombers and its existence was covered up until after the war but a local vulcanologist chronicled its entire creation from start to end. This same vulcanologist later bought the land and refused to ever charge people to see it.
Today, Showa Shin-zan is a “Special Natural Treasure” of Japan and Mimatsu Masao has a rather nice memorial statue and museum in his honour.
At the end of the usual row of souvenier and ice-cream shops lies the entrance to a ropeway running to the top of Usu-zan, the volcano itself which last erupted only in 2000. The town of Toya-ko was evacuated for three months, at which time it re-opened with lower prices…this might explain the price of my scallops earlier.
Unlike the two workers above, I favour the conventional inside approach to ropeway journeying. At the top lies a viewing point with the volcano of Usu-zan behind and the Pacific Ocean ahead.
This viewing point also leads to a short hiking trail around a crater at the top of the volcano; I trekked a tiny bit of the way – just enough to see, well, a smoking hole in the ground…
All very impressive and kind-of-dangerous-albeit-in-a-very-safe-way but the real highlight for me remained Showa Shin-zan. There’s another viewing point for this but I found it looks better from the ground. I returned there simply to wander around admiring the lava dome before catching the bus back to Toya-ko for a quick look at the lake.