Urbex is a dangerous hobby – even more so in Japan, where wildlife can be nasty and deadly earthquakes are a constant threat that can strike anywhere at any time (most recently last weekend in Kumamoto). How to up the ante? By exploring near one of the country’s many active volcanoes…
I always wanted to travel to the mountains of central Japan – not just for urban exploration, but for sightseeing, too: Matsumoto, Nagano, Karuizawa. And while the area is easy to access from Kansai, it’s also a time-consuming endeavor of up to six hours each way (plus one for the bus to Mount Asama). With winter looming, I finally took last trains to Matsumoto on a Friday after work in early November of 2012, and from there I made my way through the valley of the Chikuma River to Karuizawa and Mount Asama, the most active volcano on Japan’s main island Honshu.
Luckily the weather played along on both days, so I had a really good time in the Chubu area, though I made a couple of mistakes that affected this article and some future ones: First of all, I forgot my trusty video camera, so I had to use the video mode of my D7000 – and I wasn’t familiar with it at all. The second, even worse mistake was that I thought it would be a good idea to shoot in NEF and only take some “safety shots” in JPG, despite me never doing any enhancing post-production – as a result it took me 3.5 years to write about this trip for the first time… and only because I took plenty of safety shots at Mount Asama. When will I write about the other half a dozen locations I visited during that weekend? It might take a while. Probably never, as I still have zero interest in photo editing! (Luckily I never repeated this lapse of judgment and from the following weekend on I started to shoot in NEF and JPG simultaneously, using the JPGs and archiving the NEFs just in case I ever need them…)
Arriving at Mount Asama I had a quick look at the new Asama Volcano Museum (opened in 1993 to replace the old Asama (Garden) Observatory and Volcano Museum), but only at the gift store and for a couple of minutes, because my time in the middle of nowhere was limited – I had to catch a certain bus back to Karuizawa to still be able to make it home the same day.
At first I was worried that it would take me a while to find the old, at that point abandoned museum as other people wrote they hiked for like an hour to get there… luckily the old museum was right next to the new one – and both of them were right next to the Onioshidashi Park. Oni-oshi-dashi means something like “demons pushing rocks” and is a huge area of Mount Asama’s northeastern slope covered by volcanic rocks as a result of the Tenmei Eruption in 1783, killing more than 1400 locals and intensifying a famine that lasted several years, causing nearby provinces to under-produce for half a decade. In 1958 a temple dedicated to Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy, was built – and in 1974 a wheelchair-friendly hiking trail with several routes was opened in the oni-oshi-dashi, creating Onioshidashi Park.
Between the temple and the hiking trail, an observatory and museum about the history of Mount Asama and volcanoes in general was built between 1965 and 1967 – and closed / abandoned in 1993, when the new museum opened in the shadow of the old one. Since Mount Asama is an active volcano (with most recent eruptions in 2004, 2008, and 2009) that causes up to +1000 earthquakes per month (!), you can imagine that the exposed concrete observatory / museum had a tough time being hit by rocks and standing on shaky ground. And though the abandoned old museum was easily accessible for many, many years, it wasn’t anymore upon my visit in November of 2012 – the whole damn thing was thoroughly boarded up on all possible levels of entry.
Given the extremely dilapidated condition of the building and its location right next to two (!) tourist attractions I couldn’t blame the people in charge, but I was nevertheless a little bit disappointed. Not for long though, because it was an incredibly beautiful autumn day and I was in a touristy mood anyway, so I enjoyed a wonderful stroll through the Onioshidashi Park… until I wanted to cross the suspension bridge at the end of the course, the one that would get me back to the parking lot / bus stop within 5 minutes. Unfortunately the thing was closed! Whether for maintenance or for good I wasn’t able to find out, but it didn’t matter, because either way I had to rush back to make it home on time…
Despite not being able to enter the old Asama Observatory & Volcano Museum I had a great time out there at Mount Asama. The weather was gorgeous and the area so stunningly beautiful in its very own way. And the old building… was just perfect the way it was, crumbling before my eyes. (It was actually demolished just months later, in June of 2013, and replaced by yet another observation platform.)
The Onioshidashi Park was a treat by itself and it’s definitely a stop you should include on your next off the beaten tracks tour of Japan. (Be aware though that the new museum and the hiking trails are closed between December and March, both included.) Having to pass concrete shelters every couple of dozen meters was a strange feeling! You know that the volcano can erupt at any time, but seeing those shelters makes it a lot more real than just having book knowledge. Having experienced time and again how unnerving earthquakes can be, I really don’t want to be near a volcano when it erupts…
(*Like Abandoned Kansai on Facebook* if you don’t want to miss the latest articles and exclusive content – and subscribe to the *video channel on Youtube* to receive a message right after a new video is online…)