Fiction Fridays is a new online series from Stone Bridge Press devoted to bringing readers short stories from and about Japan. In this piece, Ian Rogers presents us with a rich vignette of one man's search to experience and understand the mysteries of Japan's natural world and the culture that sprung from it.
Just Before the Sakura-jima Eruption
by Ian Rogers
I want to see Sakura-jima erupt.
We don’t have volcanoes at all back home, but Japan does, and since Mount Aso closes when the poison gas grows too extreme, Sakura-jima means my last chance to see one erupt. Getting there means a long, quiet shinkansen trip to Kagoshima on Kyushu’s southern tip, riding the elevated rail line through long tunnels and above the lush forests surprisingly green for February, to a city where the streetcars run below suspended wires and the warm sea breeze hangs in the air. But Kagoshima is still a city—I want to see a volcano.
Sakura-jima’s been far from quiet since the 1914 Taisho Eruption sent chunks of rock and thick lava bursting from its peak, killing 58 people and connecting the volcanic island to mainland Kyushu through the Ōsumi Peninsula. It still seems right to call Sakura-jima an island, though, since it still looks like one and has -jima in its name. It stands towering mighty and silent across the harbor; the white trace of smoke billowing from its peak not really smoke at all, but a passing cloud. My guidebook says small eruptions happen on Sakura-jima all the time, that smoke and rocks and ash explode from its peak into the sky, that locals use their umbrellas to block falling ash like it’s nothing special. I’ve stowed my pocket umbrella for just this reason—the people can tell I’m not local, but will know that I understand this part of Japan when I pull out my kasa to block the ash on a sunny day.
An overbooked travel plan means I’m in Kagoshima for just over twenty-four hours—it’ll take some luck to catch an eruption, but there’s a chance. On day one I see the statue of the nineteen Satsuma students, the city museum, and the Kagoshima aquarium, though I spend almost as much time watching the volcanic peak behind the docked ships in the harbor, hoping the eruption will come soon.
On day two I make the ferry ride to the volcano with some Korean friends I’ve met; like me, they’re in Kyushu on a quick jaunt stirred by adventure and the cheap yen. We sit in the cool air of the upper deck and talk about Japan, a place we all see as full of wonder while also hiding secrets we as foreigners cannot know. One girl has spent a year working in Kanazawa, where her office was very busy and had a lot of rules that confused her. We agree that we can never really understand what goes on inside a Japanese office, a Japanese classroom, or a Japanese mind no matter how much we read or study or get to know the people, that some part of it will always elude us.
Sakura-jima’s base is quiet and not too touristy, with small, older houses and some signs for hot springs. We warm our feet in the running stream of an ashiyu that my companions call a foot onsen, a name I like because it merges Japanese with English.
Afterward we ride a tour bus around the island and take our pictures with Sakura-jima’s highest peaks quiet behind us. The stones on the rocky shoreline are black, not like glass but like charcoal, rough and burned with only a few plants hearty enough to take root. There’s a distinct smell to the island too—a mild burnt smell, unnoticeable at first, but clearly there if you stop along the seaside path and breathe in the ancient volcano air.
In a small museum I see a sign that stops me cold with disappointment. While Sakura-jima erupted 737 times in 2015, as of February 5th in 2016, it’s erupted zero times.
When I see the sign I know that through some twist of bad timing and luck the volcano won’t be erupting, that I’ll never get to pull out my umbrella like a local to block the ash as it falls and spins against the smoke-filled sky. I tell myself there’ll be other trips and other volcanoes, that Mount Aso still awaits, and that Japan hides other secrets waiting to be discovered.
Four hours after I catch the 2:40 shinkansen for Osaka, Sakura-jima explodes in a blast of fiery lava and smoke.
There are some things in Japan that foreigners cannot know.
Ian Rogers has worked as an English teacher in Japan's Yamanashi prefecture but has still never seen a volcano erupt. He blogs about the challenges faced by creative people with day jobs at http://butialsohaveadayjob.com, and you can follow him on Twitter @IantheRoge.
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