Friday, May 29, 2015

Volcanoes on our Minds

The Mount Usu eruption, March 2000.  One of the risks of
all that hot water to bathe in.  Fortunately, Mt. Usu telegraphs
its eruptions allowing residents to evacuate.

Heat, Hot Water and Pyroclastics - Hokkaido
My mental image of Hokkaido had always been dominated by wide open spaces (true) and cows (true), but the landscape is dominated by volcanoes -- everywhere one turns there's another one against the horizon, and some are labeled "active" while others "dormant."  The tenuous meaning of dormant came alive yesterday off the southern island of Kyushu when a volcano blew "without warning" sending the 100+ residents off their island home.

The Japanese are painfully but realistically aware that their perch atop these achingly beautiful islands is precarious.  The Four Feared Things that they learn as growing up are Fire, Thunder, Earthquake and Father.  But, they've incorporated the seismic element into their culture with their obsession about sitting in hot water. The onsen - the hot water bath that is a main part of their daily lives - is one of the gifts of the hot, molten earth lurking just below their feet.

Noboribetsu - Our first overnight stop was in a lovely cluster of hotels tucked into the bottom of a gorge that is famous for its hotsprings.  The smell of sulphur announces your arrival long before you see the place, and hotels cluster around the springs that provide visitors with an impossible variety of hot water experiences.  Inside, open-air, you name it -- there's even a public one in a nearby national park that is dedicated to just your feet.  About a half mile from the hotel was the entrance to Jigokudani ("Hell Valley") a part of the Shikotsu-Toya National Park.

One of the many vents spewing hot water and noxious stuff along the trail
through Hell Valley.

"Hell Valley" - There's a sarcastic saying within the group that "A day without stairs isn't a day on this tour..."  "More Stairs Pleeeeease" - We've been doing a lot of stairs, and "Hell Valley" provided yet some more.  The trails in Japan's National Parks are remarkably developed - handrails, interpretive signs - many with an English section - overlooks -- and stairs.  We hiked about a mile or so to get to an overlook -- and then out to a lake before returning to the bus gathering area.

The busses from the cruise ship.

The Sounds of Mandarin - When we returned to the bus parking area we were astonished to see that the bus or two that had been there when we left had multiplied into dozens of busses -- and the quiet entryway turned into a blizzard of color -- bright reds and blues -- and people.  We learned that a cruise ship with 3,000 Chinese visitors had docked at the port city of Muroran, and 80 tours buses -- that's right - 80 -- had charged into the Hokkaido countryside, many of them to Noboribetsu for off-boat day trips.  The number of Chinese visitors to Japan has increased exponentially, and they soon will be the most numerous of foreign visitors to Japan.  As they already are in the US.  And, oh my goodness do they buy stuff!  We saw few of them on the trails in the outer part of the park -- they were in the visitor center buying stuff -- the sunglasses kiosk was being turned so fast it might have started smoking -- the vending machines were emptied out almost instantly.  Sadly, they fulfill all the negative stereotypes of Chinese tourists -- aggressive and loud.  But, in their defense, this is the first generation of Chinese tourists, and they will settle down once they learn the mores of their host countries.  (Don't forget our own first-generation travelers - the Ugly Americans...)  Plus, day-trippers off cruise ships tend to be single-minded and aggressive no matter their country of origin.

Chinese visitors working the sunglasses kiosk.

     For Ramon De la Cruz and others of us who have spent time in China, it was like old home week. The jostling was almost fun.    And this was the first exposure we had to any competing visitors on this entire trip.  As comforting as the sounds of Chinese may have been, I must admit that it was a relief to drive down the road to the more peaceful shores of Lake Toya - this time a crater lake.

Mount Usu and the Gift of Predictability -- Those of us who live in earthquake country and try to keep the memories of such events alive so that we might mobilize our neighbors into being prepared always wrestle with the issue of predictability.  It's difficult to organize people when the events that threaten them are random and unpredictable - and long passages of time - usually decades - allow memories to fade.  I've often wondered about the issues of forecasting earthquakes -- and would the populace respond any better if they KNEW an earthquake was coming?
    The tragedy of the Great Tohoku Tsunami noted below was that they had a warning - 40 minutes -- yet thousands died.  Why had so many died in the tsunami when no one --no one -- died in the huge eruptions of Mt. Usu in 1977 or 2000?  The answer seems to lie in the certainty of earthquake precursors in the area of Mt. Usu and the uncertainty of the tsunami.   In recorded history, earthquakes have ALWAYS been followed by an eruption of Mt. Usu.  No false alarms.  No crying "wolf."
    And even better, there's no way of knowing where the eruption will occur in the Mt. Usu area.  So, you know it's coming, but you're not sure where.  So you leave without hesitation.  You get the hell out of there.  Simple.  And no one dies.  Evacuation routes are indicated, refugee centers established. 
   No surprises.   I'm not wishing such disasters on Santa Cruz County in exchange for certainty.  But..wouldn't it be nice to know when St. Andrew was going to twitch?  Or would it?

The March 2000 eruption of Mt. Usu.  Despite being in a
densely populated area, no one was killed.  Photo taken from
a brochure produced by the Volcano Science Museum.