Mount Ontake (60 kilometers southwest of Matsumoto as the crow flies) is the second-highest active volcano (after Mount Fuji) and the 14th highest mountains in Japan. It is 3,067-meters 10,062 feet) tall and has long been revered as a sacred volcano and has been the object of shamanistic mountain worship. A composite volcano, Ontake It located the Southern Japanese Alps in central Honshu around 100 kilometers (62 miles) northeast of Nagoya and around 200 kilometers (120 miles) southwest of Tokyo.
Mt. Ontake is situated at the borders of Kiso and Ōtaki, Nagano Prefecture, and Gero, Gifu Prefecture. The volcano has five crater lakes, with Ni no Ike at 2,905 meters (9,531 feet) being the highest mountain lake in Japan. A number of actors and artists have gone to the mountain to put themselves into trances in order to get divine inspiration for their creative activities. [Source: Wikipedia]
Tom Fay wrote in the Japan Times: “For a millennia and more, mountain ascetics and pilgrims have traveled from far and wide to scale the peak, with shrines and teahouses popping up along the various approach routes. Even until the morning of the eruption, it wasn’t uncommon to see modern-day yamabushi (mountain ascetics) making their way to the summit, clad in traditional white garb and clutching a pilgrim’s stick and conch-shell trumpet. Since the hiking boom of the 1980s, Ontake has attracted another kind of devotee, the mountain climber. [Source: Tom Fay, Japan Times, September 28, 2018
Ontake’s last last major eruption, the first on record, was in 1979 when it sent 200,000 tons of ash into the sky. That major eruption was followed by minor explosions in 1991 and 2007. After the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011, Mount Ontake, which is located a short distance from a volcanic front, remained dormant. Other nearby volcanoes such as Mount Norikura and Mount Yaki, both of which straddle the border between Gifu and Nagano prefectures, experienced a series of earthquakes of magnitude 3 or 4. [Source: Japan Times, September 30, 2014]
“Masaaki Churei, a former official at the Japan Meteorological Agency who is familiar with the links between earthquakes and volcanoes, said: "When a huge earthquake occurs off the Sanriku coastline, volcanoes that have remained dormant tend to erupt two or three years after the earthquake. It’s possible the Great East Japan Earthquake instigated the eruption of Mount Ontake."
See Separate Articles MAJOR VOLCANOES AND ERUPTIONS IN JAPAN factsanddetails.com; VOLCANO COMPONENTS, STRUCTURE AND ACTIVITY factsanddetails.com ; TYPES OF VOLCANOES factsanddetails.com ; VOLCANIC ERUPTIONS: TYPES, PHASES AND CAUSES factsanddetails.com ; DESTRUCTIVE ERUPTIONS: LAHARS, PYROCLASTIC FLOWS AND GLACIAL BURSTS factsanddetails.com
Websites and Sources on Volcanoes: USGS Volcanoes volcanoes.usgs.gov ; Volcano World volcano.oregonstate.edu ; Volcanoes.com volcanoes.com ; Wikipedia Volcano article Wikipedia , Smithsonian Global Volcanism Program volcano.si.edu operated by the Smithsonian has descriptions of volcanoes around the globe and a catalog of over 8,000 eruptions in the last 10,000 years. Volcano Information in Japan: Volcano Research Center at Tokyo University eri.u-tokyo.ac.jp ; Wikipedia List of Volcanoes in Japan Wikipedia
Mt. Ontake Hikes
Ontake used to be a popular hiking destination. It was closed after the 2014 eruption but reopened in 2018. Tom Fay wrote in the Japan Times, “There are a number of hiking routes up the mountain, the most direct of which is the Otaki-guchi Trail starting from the top of the gondola at the Ta-no-Hara trailhead. However, the only trail with access to the summit is from the Ontake Ropeway (open late April to early November). There are a small number of daily buses to both trailheads from JR Kiso-Fukushima Station on the Chuo Main Line during the summer, and at weekends only from July to October. [Source: Tom Fay, Japan Times, September 28, 2018]
According to best-hike-japan.com, the Otaki-guchi route takes 4 hours 45 minutes and covers 6.6 kilometers. It ascends an elevation of 887 meters. It is of intermediate level difficulty during the best season. The season for hikers is July to October [Source: best-hike-japan.com
“This route is popular for hikers because it is the the shortest one to the peak. Steep slope begins after passing a worship space. The smell of sulfur hung in the air around Otaki-chojyo. From Otaki-chojyo, it becomes a flat trail. When visibility is low due to dense fog, be careful not to stray from the route. In sunny day, great view of North Alps is expected from the peak. The route is good in condition.
Estimated course time between the main parts: Tanohara (7th step, two hours); Kongo-doji (8th step, 40 minutes)’ Otaki-chojyo (20 minutes); Kengamine peak (Mt. Ontake, 15 minutes); Otaki-chojyo (20 minutes); Kongo-doji (1hour 10 minutes); Tanohara (4 hours 45 minutes) Getting There: Public transportation. Bus from Kiso-Fukushima station to Tanohara
Volcano Climbing Safety: 1) All volcanic peaks in Japan are carefully monitored by the authorities, but as was the case with Mount Ontake, even the experts can be taken by surprise by sudden eruptions. 2) Some of the most popular hikes in Japan are up the slopes of potentially active volcanoes (this includes Mount Fuji), so the risk of being caught out, while very small, is nonetheless a real one. 3) When climbing up or near volcanoes, always pay close attention to official warnings, signs and announcements. Carry a flashlight, and if possible, eye goggles and a small radio. 4) Always be aware of your surroundings and know your escape route if there were to be an eruption. If you are in the immediate vicinity of an eruption, leave immediately and seek cover. 5) Avoid gullies, rivers or anywhere downstream of the eruption. Look out for flying rocks and ash, and use a mask, bandana or damp cloth to cover your nose and mouth. [Source: Tom Fay, Japan Times, September 28, 2018]
Mt. Ontake Eruption in 2014
A volcanic eruption of Mount Ontake on September 27, 2014, killed 63 people. It filled skies with burning ash and hurtled large stone known as volcanic bombs. Hikers around the summit of the mountain ran for their lives as massive gray cloud of ash, smoke and gases billowed down the mountainside. Some managed to reach the relative safety of the mountain huts, with some putting on helmets they found there and calling for help. Many didn’t make it. The eruption was the worst volcanic disaster in Japan since 1924, when 144 people were killed on Mt. Tokachi. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, The Telegraph, BBC, Japan Times]
The volcano erupted without warning, happening at perhaps the worst possible time. It was a beautiful autumn day. The skies were clear and blue. Beautiful autumn foliage was on display.“The best season for the leaves just started, the weather was beautiful, it was the weekend, and it was lunchtime,” Masahito Ono, a Nagano prefecture tourism official, told the Guardian. After the eruption toxic gases lingered in the air and rescuers described an eerie moonscape with with a thick layer of grey ash, mixed stones, a couple meters deep in some places.
Around some 300 climbers, including children, were admiring the foliage and the summit crater when he eruption occurred at 11:52am local time, producing thunder-like booms and emitting a steady column of gas and ash skyward and over the surrounding area.. .Most of the victims are reported to have died from injuries due to flying volcanic material and inhalation of hot or toxic air. Rocks hurtled down from the sky; the ash was so thick it turned day into night.
Details of the 2014 Eruption of Mt. Ontake
Mount Ontake experienced a hydrovolcanic explosion, in which a blast of steam is generated when groundwater is heated to extremely high temperatures by magma. This phreatic eruption (ultravulcanian eruption) occurs when magma heats ground or surface water. The hydrothermal reaction results in an explosive ejection of steam, water, ash, rock, and volcanic bombs and debris. Lava flow is unusual in this type of eruption, but explosions can be accompanied by toxic gas emissions, such as carbon dioxide or hydrogen sulfite. [Source: Earthscope, Charles Mandeville, USGS Volcanic Hazards Program]
Dr Rebecca Williams, a lecturer in geology at the University of Hull, told The Telegraph said: "From the reports, and images, it seems that the eruption was phreatic – this means that water, such as groundwater, seeped into the volcano and got superheated by magma and flashed to steam.This caused a small eruption of ash; phreatic eruptions do not involve the eruption of fresh magma from within the volcano. The last time Mount Ontake had a volcanic eruption of fresh magma was in 1979-80; it had a phreatic eruption in 2007." [Source: Jessica Winch, The Telegraph, September 28, 2014]
"Phreatic eruptions typically don't have any warning signs. The Japan Meteorological Agency had instruments measuring volcanic tremor and changes in the ground – these signs show that magma might be moving under the surface and are the typical ways in which scientists monitor active volcanoes. However, phreatic eruptions might not be caused by the movement of magma underground, so monitoring these signals would not have forewarned this style of eruption. The eruption caused an eruption of ash causing an ash cloud and low-density, low-temperature pyroclastic density currents – these are the clouds of ash and gas that flow over the ground that have been captured in the videos of the hikers who were lucky enough to survive.”
Volcanic rocks rained down at up to 300 kph (185mph). The Yomiuri Shimbun reported:“Rocks spewed out by the eruption of Mt. Ontake likely reached maximum speeds of 300 kph, according to a survey by the University of Tokyo’s Earthquake Research Institute. Holes ranging from 10 centimeters to dozens of centimeters in diameter were concentrated within a roughly 500-meter range from the main vents, the survey also found. “Rocks fell densely at high speeds, which likely led to many casualties,” said Takayuki Kaneko, an assistant professor at the institute and a volcanic geology expert who led the survey. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, October 3, 2014]
“Kaneko took aerial photos of the mountain from a helicopter Sunday, the day after the eruption. Examination of the photos showed that the holes created by the rocks were mainly located about 500 meters northeast of the mountain’s major vents. There were more than 10 holes on average per 16 square meters, and the rocks were at least 10 centimeters in diameter. The professor calculated the rocks’ velocities based on such factors as the distances between the holes and the vents, and concluded that they likely reached top speeds of about 300 kph. Kaneko also discovered what appeared to be holes made by rocks measuring dozens of centimeters in diameter about a kilometer away from one of the volcano’s vents.”
Yasuyuki Miyake, professor of volcanology at Shinshu University who has studied Mount Ontake for many years, told the Asahi Shimbun: “I believe it is a phreatic eruption, given the absence of telltale signs beforehand.” “He said all the eruptions of Mount Ontakesan since 1979 were of this type. Takayuki Kaneko, assistant professor of volcanology at the University of Tokyo’s Earthquake Research Institute who inspected the site following the eruption, said the belching ejected plenty of moist ash. He said the deposit of ash was 2-3 millimeters high and the ashes were stuck together like sesame seeds.[Source: Asahi Shimbun, September 28, 2014]
Mt. Ontake Deaths and Injuries
Sixty-three people were killed by the Mt. Ontake eruption. Most of the victims were between 30 and 59-years-old. As of a week or so after the eruption, rescue workers had recovered 51 bodies — most at the summit — with at least a dozen people still missing. Among the dead dound at that time three were children, and five were aged 60 or older. A month after the eruption, 57 bodies had been recovered and seven people were missing. As of January 2017, 58 people were confrimed dead and five others who were missing and presumed dead. [Source: Roisin O'Connor, The Independent, October 5, 2014, Yomiuri Shimbun October 28, 2014, Kyodo, January 17, 2017]
Most of the victims from the Mt. Ontake eruption were reported to have died from injuries due to flying volcanic material and inhalation of hot or toxic air. Bodies were found buried in up to half a meter of debris, with visible impact trauma, poisoned by the gas, choking on ash, or with lungs scorched from inhaling hot air. Finding shelter was no guarantee of safety: bodies were found wedged in rock crevasses and kneeling in protective curls.[Source: Mika McKinnon, Space 109, October 3, 2014]
The BBC reported: “Rescue workers say the ash has been as thick as half a meter in some parts. Some of the dead have been found half-buried in the ash, while others were hit by rocks thrown out by the crater...Mountain huts played an important role as shelters. Helmets kept there turned out to be useful for the evacuees. The central and local governments should promote the building of such shelters in volcanic mountains. [Source: BBC, October 3, 2014]
The Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “Many people probably died after they were directly hit by volcanic rocks during Mt. Ontake’s eruption on Saturday, according to doctors. The doctors related stories of how climbers suffered serious back or head injuries as they tried to protect themselves from rocks that fell from the sky like rain. “Most of the victims died after being struck by volcanic rocks while they tried to escape, and then were covered in ash,” the doctor said, adding that the bones of some of the victims had been shattered whiles others had suffered from numerous bruises. Another doctor said the bodies had suffered severe injuries, but the victims were found in various situations — one seems to have just arrived at a mountain lodge when he was fatally injured, another was found dead with a mobile phone in hand and a third victim died while clutching a backpack. “It is a situation beyond our imagination,” the doctor said. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, October 2, 2014]
“A doctor who treated some severely injured climbers commented on how lethal the volcanic rocks are. “The rocks mainly struck the backs of the climbers as they descended the mountain. Many suffered more than one broken bone,” Kaneyuki Furihata, a Nagano Red Cross Hospital doctor who treated the injured, said at a press conference on Tuesday. Furihata and other doctors arrived Saturday night at Nagano Prefectural Kiso Hospital to treat the injured.
“Furihata said he saw five patients in their 30s and 40s, who suffered from bone fractures and internal bleeding after being struck in the back or head by rocks. One had suffered a broken rib, which had punctured a lung. “Many victims are believed to have suffered back injuries because they crouched down in an effort to protect themselves, Furihata said.
“Toshiaki Kano, 59, head of the Nagoya municipal fire department who joined the rescue operation Sunday, said many people were lying on their sides or face down, mostly covered with volcanic ash. “As the ash piled up to a few dozen centimeters, only a hand or leg of many of the victims could be seen.
Why Was Mt. Ontake Deaths So Deadly
Jessica Winch wrote in The Telegraph: “It’s not necessarily the size of the eruption that matters, but also the volcano’s proximity to people, Nagoya University volcanologist Koshun Yamaoka said at a news conference on Sunday. "Even small eruptions can cause major damage if people are around," he said. "And the problem is that catching signs of such small eruptions is difficult." “There was some increased seismic activity recorded at Mount Ontake but no indications of a major eruption, according to Japanese officials. Typical signs, such as increased seismic rattling or underground structural movement, were not detected. [Source: Jessica Winch, The Telegraph, September 28, 2014]
“David Rothery, professor of planetary geosciences at the Open University, said: “This was a monitored volcano and there was nothing that looked particularly out of the ordinary. There was no measurable ground deformation, for example. It is a surprise.” “He said it was likely that an explosion in the vent of the volcano sent material up into the air, which then cascaded downhill. It was not a particularly big eruption, he said, but the volcano’s proximity to climbers meant that the hot ash became a deadly threat. “This volcano hadn’t erupted since 1979, so it did not have a track history of erupting very often,” he said. “Hopefully analysis of the records may reveal information that officials will recognise as warning signs in future.”
“Dr Rebecca Williams, a lecturer in geology at the University of Hull, said: “"It is very common for active volcanoes to be places that tourists like to visit and many do so without a true appreciation of the risks involved. Its a tragedy that some of the tourists at the volcano did not survive. At this time, I wouldn't want to speculate on how they died, though ash inhalation seems likely. We also await analysis of the deposits to see whether this was a phreatic eruption or magmatic eruption. But at this time, it seems that this was a tragedy that couldn't have been expected or prevented."
Thin Line Between Surviving and Being Killed by the Mt. Ontake Eruption
While the number of death was high, a large number of people survived. Most of the survivors found shelter, huddling behind boulders or seeking refuge inside tourist lodges. Some moved quickly, descending down the mountains to distance themselves from the most deadly falling rocks. The most common injuries amon the survivors were bruises, cuts, and broken bones on their backs where they were struck by flying rocks, some also suffering internal bleeding and organ damage from the impacts. [Source: Mika McKinnon, Space 109, October 3, 2014]
In some cases, seconds decided fates of those who survived on Mt.Ontake and those who died. “It was a matter of one or two seconds,” a 73-year-old female climber who experienced the eruption, told the Yomiuri Shimbun. The woman said she was climbing Mt.Ontake near its summit with two friends when the mountain suddenly erupted around noon. They rushed to a nearby shrine for protection, but when they tried to enter a shrine building for shelter, they could not find its entrance. They were able only to partially get their heads and shoulders under its eaves. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun September 29, 2014]
The Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “More people ran to the shrine and tried to get under the eaves. Large and small stones fell from the sky, hit the roof, rebounded, and fell on some of the climbers there. A man near the Chiba climber finally broke a window to get inside. The woman followed him into the building after struggling to pull her legs out of volcanic ash. Only about a dozen people were able to get in As she watched, the woman said, some climbers who were within seconds of reaching the shrine fell and were buried under volcanic ash.
“While ash was still falling, the woman and other climbers tried to pull some of them into the building, but they found that three or four young women half buried under volcanic ash were motionless. One man they managed to bring into the building, kept crying, “It hurts, it hurts.” After a while, he stopped crying and became motionless. When the shower of volcanic cinders eased off, a staff member at a nearby mountain lodge guided the woman and other people to another lodge, where about 30 climbers spent the night. Although the woman was extremely exhausted, she said she could not sleep, worrying about another eruption every time she heard a sound. “I made it down, but I have mixed feelings,” she said. She said she could not stop thinking about the people she could not help.
“A 46-year-old company employee from Wako, Saitama Prefecture, who was rushing to a mountain lodge for shelter saw the woman struggling to dig her son out by hand. But he himself was struggling to breathe and was in no condition to help others, the man said. Shortly after the eruption, the man took shelter under the eaves of a building near the mountain peak. There, he said, he saw a boy who was crying: “It’s hot! It hurts!” He heard a man who sounded like the boy’s father trying to reassure him, saying, “You’ll be OK.”Then the ash suddenly brought total darkness.The man heard no more crying, he said, as rocks fell like rain and hot wind blew.
Mt. Ontake Survivor Stories
Hikers said there was no warning of the eruption on Ontake. Hundreds were trapped for hours before descent became possible later in the day. "I felt a hot wind blast against my back and crouched down to the ground," a man told NTV. "I was sure I was going to die."
According to the Yomiuri Shimbun “The eruption of Mt. Ontake instantly threw climbers enjoying autumn foliage into a fear of death. After narrowly descending the mountain to arrive at trailheads in Nagano and Gifu prefectures, mountain climbers recounted their horrifying experiences. These climbers include a 25-year-old company employee from Kota, Aichi Prefecture. “I thought I was going to die,” he said as he described the large number of rocks falling around him and a blast of hot air at the time of the eruption. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, September 29, 2014]
“When he arrived at the summit at around 11am and prepared to move on, he heard a loud shout from behind him. When he turned back, he saw volcanic smoke billowing fiercely before him. Rocks began to fall while he remained momentarily rooted to the spot at the sight. Then he heard a voice saying, “Escape, fast!” He rushed into a mountain cabin near the summit. Some people near him called out for friends they had become parted from.
“His terror continued even after entering the cabin. Rocks continued to thunder down, making many holes in the ceiling on the second floor. As it was dangerous to stand near the walls, he got together with about 40 climbers in the centre of the first floor. He wore a helmet that had been provided in the cabin. Some of the climbers put pans on their heads as there weren’t enough helmets. Whenever some rocks smashed through the first floor’s ceiling, people screamed.
“About 20 minutes after people had evacuated to the cabin, a hot wind and ashes blasted into the cabin through gaps in the walls and windows. The people were covered in ash. Some women trembled and cried, while others prayed for safety. The temperature in the cabin rose like a sauna. Prepared for the worst, the man sent a message to his family with his cell phone, “In case something happens, I’m sorry.”
“At around 2pm when the hot wind died down and the number of falling rocks became fewer, climbers in the cabin started to descend the mountain led by cabin employees. They reached foot of the mountain after about three hours, but smoke continue to rise from the volcano. “I thought it was a desperate gamble whether we would be able to descend the mountain safely,” he said.
“A man from Toyota, Aichi Prefecture, who climbed the mountain with a friend was resting near the summit, when other climbers near him began to stir. Black smoke was swirling around about 100 meters away, and an elderly man shouted, “Run!” The man rushed into a mountain hut nearby. However, as rocks quickly destroyed its roof, he escaped downstairs. Ash filled the dark hut and his throat became hot even though he covered his mouth with a towel. The man said he thought he would be burned or choked to death.
‘Thunder,' A Hot Wind, Then Darkness on Mount Ontake
CBS New reported: “It was 11:53 on a beautiful Saturday morning when Japan’s Mount Ontake erupted without warning...It was a clear day and the peak offered a relatively easy climb amid colourful fall foliage. The noise of the eruption was the first sign anything was wrong. “"It was like thunder," a woman told NHK. "I heard boom, boom, then everything went dark." “"I felt a hot wind blast against my back and crouched down to the ground," a man told the Nippon Television Network. "I was sure I was going to die." [Source: CBC News, Reuters, Associated Press, September 29, 2014]
“Shocked climbers scrambled for safety as the expanding plume of ash emerged above and then engulfed them, leaving many survivors in total darkness for several minutes. “"Massive ash suddenly fell and the entire area was totally covered in ash," reported Mikio Oguro, a journalist with NHK. Oguro told his network that his crew had to use headlamps to find a lodge. 'I couldn't stop him'
“Yuji Tsuno, a veteran mountain photographer, was near the summit. After taking pictures of the initial explosion as ash and debris rained down, he quickly took refuge in a nearby hut, he told the TBS TV network. About 20 minutes later, when the smoke partially subsided, he rushed out and began his descent. It was a gamble, but he believed it was his only chance, he said. "I almost thought it was the end of my life," he said. On his way down, he spotted a man heading up. "I told him to go down with me, but he said he had to check on his child up there. I couldn't stop him," Tsuno said.
“Survivors also told of being pelted by falling rocks. “"The volcanic rocks fell like hailstones," one man said, according to the BBC. "We couldn't breathe so we covered our mouths with towels. We couldn't open our eyes either." One woman said she covered her head with a knapsack, and later found a Thermos inside had been flattened. One man said he and others went into the basement of a lodge, fearing that the rocks would penetrate the roof. He covered himself with a thin mattress for protection.
“NHK footage showed windows in one mountain lodge darkening and people screaming as heavy objects pelted the roof. "There was billowing heat everywhere as huge falling rocks pierced the ceilings in the shacks we were taking refuge in," one man said, according to English-language Chinese broadcaster CCTV. "I thought I would die for sure — almost gave up on trying."
“Shuichi Mukai, who worked in a mountain lodge just below the peak, told Reuters that ash piled up so quickly that for a time they couldn't open the door. The building quickly filled with hikers. "We were really packed in, maybe 150 people. There were some children crying, but most people were calm. We waited there in hard hats until they told us it was safe to come down."
“Shinichi Shimohara, who works at a shrine at the foot of the mountain, said he was on his way up Saturday morning when he heard what sounded like strong winds followed by thunder. "For a while I heard thunder pounding a number of times," he said. "Soon after, some climbers started descending. They were all covered with ash, completely white. I thought to myself, 'This must be really serious.'"
Survivors Witness People Being Killed on Mt. Ontake
Hikers caught in the open on Mount Ontake were buried alive by ash or battered to death by falling rocks, survivors say. AFP reported: “Survivors told of seeing hikers die when tonnes of ash and rocks thundered from the sky. Heartbreaking stories began to emerge from survivors who made it down the mountain as rolling clouds of volcanic debris swept down its flanks, smothering everything in their path. “Some people were buried in ash up to their knees and the two in front of me seemed to be dead,” a woman hiker told the private Asahi network. Another told how she had heard the last moments of a victim battered by a cascade of rocks. “There was someone lying outside the hut after being hit in the back,” she said. “He was saying ‘It hurts, it hurts,’ but after about half an hour he went quiet.”[Source: AFP, September 29, 2014]
“Seiichi Sakurai, who had been working at one of the huts near the top of the volcano, told NHK he had tried his best to help people but could not save them all.“Ash was constantly falling ... some people were buried alive but I could do nothing but tell [rescuers] about them over the radio,” he said. “Another survivor told the Yomiuri newspaper he had seen a boy shouting “It’s hot” and “I can’t breathe!” near the peak, before the ash clouds turned everything black and silent.
“Anguished families waited for news. A tearful father sobbed as he clutched a photograph of his son and the young man’s girlfriend, who had not been heard from since the eruption. An elderly woman told the Asahi network her son had telephoned her just after gas, rocks and ash began spewing from the volcano. “He told me it erupted ... He said ‘It’s over. I’m dying now’ and then the line was cut off,” the woman said.
Hiker’s Final Moments Captured on Their Phones and Cameras
Roisin O'Connor wrote in The Independent: “The last moments of hikers who died during the eruption of Mount Ontake have been captured in poignant images found on phones and cameras. “Hideomi Takahashi, 41, was among nine climbers from a major Japanese insurance company, Sompo Japan Nipponkoa Holdings Inc. Only three survived. At Takahashi’s funeral, his family showed a close friend Takahashi’s phone, with photos from what would be the last few minutes of his life. The last photo, apparently shot by a colleague, pictures Takahashi standing next to the 'Mount Ontake summit' sign. “When I saw the iPhone still worked, I thought it’s like a miracle,” the friend Hiroyuki told the Guardian, adding that he has trouble accepting that his best friend died, leaving behind his wife and two children.[Source: Roisin O'Connor, The Independent, October 5, 2014]
“Yasuo Ito, 54, didn’t even have time to eat the lunch he packed. His wife, also named Hiromi, told NHK television that Mr Ito, a housing agency employee, was among six members from a nature conservation volunteer group caught by the eruption. Only three survived. “She identified his body on Thursday and received his ash-coated knapsack. She pulled out a lunchbox, which survived despite cracks on the side. His egg salad sandwiches were untouched.“Poor thing, he should have eaten this,” she said. “He must be getting hungry by now.”
Izumi Noguchi, 59, was climbing alone, as his wife, also called Hiromi, had to work, she told Japanese broadcaster NHK and other TV stations. His compact camera was damaged, but the memory chip inside still worked. A photo taken by Noguchi was offered to Kyodo News by his wife, Hiromi “This is an amazing photo. But I wish he had fled instead of taking pictures. I’d rather have him back,” Hiromi said. “I hope to hike up there someday, perhaps 10 years later. I want to see what my husband saw.” Hiromi printed all 100 photos. The last one is of an enormous plume of gas and ash churning out of the crater behind a mountain-top lodge.
Rescue Operations at Mt. Ontake
Over 1000 troops, police, fire fighters and volunteers were involved in rescue operations on Mt Ontake after the 2014 eruption. They combed the summit, ploughed through knee-deep ash and and searched through mountain lodges with holes punched in their roofs by rocks shot out of the volcano. Helicopters lifted stretchers loaded with bodies from the summit. At times the operations were called off the strong smell of sulphur heighten concerns about toxic gases.
AFP reported: “Japanese rescuers resumed a grim operation to recover bodies. More than 1,100 firefighters, police and troops returned to the ash-blanketed slopes of Mount Ontake in a bid to reach those they had to abandon when soaring levels of poisonous gas made the operation too dangerous. Soldiers managed to bring down eight more bodies by helicopter before toxic gases and ash forced them to again suspend the recovery effort in the early afternoon. [Source: AFP, September 29, 2014]
“At least 31 people were found near the summit...Four were confirmed dead, all men, aged between 23 and 61. Rescue workers were trying to bring down at least 27 people still on the volcano who were believed killed. Six were airlifted late in the morning, the public broadcaster NHK reported. They were technically listed as in “cardiac arrest” – a term applied before doctors can certify death. About 40 people were hurt by flying rocks and inhaling poisonous fumes.
The BBC reported: “Five days after the volcano erupted search and rescue operations have been hampered by bad weather in the past two days. Sixteen people are still missing following the deadly eruption. The search has been temporarily called off as a typhoon near the southwest coast made conditions hazardous. Officials have struggled to work out how many more people might still be on the volcano. They have now checked various reports and counted cars still at the base of the mountain to arrive at the first official figure of those still missing. [Source: BBC, October 3, 2014]
“Bottomless Swamp” of Ash on Mt. Ontake
Two weeks after the eruption on Mt. Ontake, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “Rescuers continue to search Mt. Ontake for the remaining missing hikers, but already difficult conditions could worsen as a typhoon and the snowy season approach. As of Friday, there were 55 confirmed deaths caused by the mountain’s eruption.Rescuers did not locate any of the missing on Friday, with one senior Metropolitan Police Department official describing the deep layer of volcanic ash as a “bottomless swamp.”
“On Tuesday, rescue squads began using a “roller strategy” in which rescuers spread out in a line. Previously they had focused on areas near the hiking trails. There were about 550 rescuers on the mountain on Friday, the largest number so far, using the roller technique to search a section that had not yet been explored. In a depression north of the summit called Ichinoike pond, rescuers formed a line about 500 meters long to search the area, including swampy places that had not been combed. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, October 11, 2014]
“Some personnel sank up to their chest or waist, so they tried using the duralumin shields used by riot police to disperse their weight. “We made a lot of preparations and gathered a lot of information, but we didn’t imagine the mud would be this bad,” said a 50-year-old vice chief of the MPD’s fourth riot police squad. “It’s like concrete or mortar beginning to solidify.”
“The air is thin and cold on top of the 3,000-meter mountain, and at least five rescuers are said to have developed hypothermia or altitude sickness. In some areas, the volcanic ash has hardened. A 35-year-old chief of the Matsumoto squad of the Kanto district riot police, worked near Ninoike, the mountain’s crater pond, and the Haccho-darumi trail. “It’s becoming more difficult to search by digging into areas with our hands or poles,” he said.
“Much of the site is steep and rocky, and areas such as around the crater are particularly dangerous, prompting Nagano Prefecture and other authorities to create no-entry zones. Friday’s search did not discover any bodies. Although the day’s efforts meant the entire area has been covered, places with deep ash or steep cliffs were difficult to search properly, so victims may have been overlooked. The plan for Saturday was to focus on an area within a one-kilometer radius of Kengamine, the mountain’s highest point. With typhoon No. 19 on the way, Hayashi said, “We want to search as much as we can before the weather, toxic gas or other conditions worsen.”
“According to authorities in Kiso, Nagano Prefecture, the first snow fell on Mt. Ontake on Oct. 6 last year. “When the temperature rises in winter, there could be flows of volcanic ash mixed with snow, or snow sitting on top of the ash could come down in avalanches,” said Hiroki Matsushita, head researcher at the Snow Avalanche and Landslide Research Center, an independent administrative agency based in Myoko, Niigata Prefecture.”
Warning of a Mt. Ontake Eruption?
Seismologists detected increased seismic and volcanic activity in the region prior to the 2014 Ontake eruption, but no preparations were made. Experts said it was hard to have predicted the eruption, despite tremors in the area in the month preceding the eruption. There were no other changes on the mountain. The steam-driven explosion that occurred on Ontake especially hard to forecast. Japan Meteorological Agency volcano expert Toshitsugu Fujii said. "They often occur quite suddenly and there is absolutely no guarantee that the earthquakes earlier this month were connected."There is no guarantee of total safety when you're dealing with nature." [Source: Earthscope, October 2nd, 2014]
Japan’s meteorological agency keeps a round-the-clock watch on 47 volcanos thought to be at risk of violent activity over the next century, including Mount Fuji. Fujii said steam explosions such as those on Ontake often occurred without warning, “People may say we failed to predict this [because there were earthquakes in September] but this is something that could not be helped, in a sense. That’s the reality of the limit of our knowledge,” he said. [Source: AFP, September 29, 2014]
Mika McKinnon wrote in Space 109: ““In the week before the eruption, the volcano was generating some minor seismic signals. However, they were easily attributable to an uneasy sleep, the type of seismic activity common to volcanoes worldwide up to nothing more sinister than a bit of subterranean magma shifting. It was certainly nothing that screamed out a clear warning of impending doom. No ground deformation was measured, which is one of the key signs of magma rising underground before an eruption. From all observations released so far, that’s entirely consistent with this being a phreatic eruption: an eruption triggered by water explosively flashing into steam. Unfortunately for us, phreatic eruptions produce very few warning signs that something bad is about to happen. The lakes and ponds on the volcano may have increased slightly in temperature, but that’s about it. The failure to warn wasn't a problem with the science, or human warning systems, or anything else we can control: it was a basic characteristic of the eruption.” [Source: Mika McKinnon, Space 109, October 3, 2014]
The Japan Times reported: “The Meteorological Agency has been watching Mount Ontake by using a system to measure changes in its shape as well as a clinometer, seismograph and a camera with a telescope. “Since mid-September, minor volcanic quakes had been detected repeatedly beneath the peak— including 52 times on Sept. 10 and 85 times on Sept. 11. These were the first two times that more than 50 volcanic tremors a day had been reported at Mount Ontake since the monitoring of such quakes began shortly before its last eruption in March 2007. [Source: Japan Times, September 30, 2014]
“Still, the agency was unable to predict Saturday’s eruption. It was not until 44 minutes after the eruption that it raised the level of caution from 1 (normal) to 3 (banning entry into the mountain area) — out of a scale of 5. The Coordinating Committee for the Prediction of Volcanic Eruption that the eruption was phreatic — an explosion of steam that occurs when magma heats ground water, causing instantaneous evaporation. In most cases, this type of eruption is not accompanied by geological deformations. It is, therefore, difficult to predict a phreatic eruption by observing changes in the mountain shape or by the readings on a clinometer. Geological data in fact had not indicated rising levels of magma. What happened on Mount Ontake strengthens the case for honing the capability to predict steam eruptions, which often shoot up ash and rocks.
“Although the Meteorological Agency was unable to predict Saturday’s explosion, it had issued “volcano observation information” three times from Sept. 11 through 16 to nearby local governments. The problem is that nobody cared about such information. In hindsight, the agency could have taken into account the increased number of climbers on the mountain this time of year, and provided the information not only to local authorities but also to mountain hut operators and the media. Mountain guides and tourist companies should be encouraged to check all sources of such information.
Mt. Ontake Risks Reported in 1979
The Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “In a report issued after Mt. Ontake’s first eruption in 1979, experts advised the implementation of safety measures for climbers, such as the construction of shelters, due to the risk of extensive damage if a disaster were to occur during the tourist season. Unfortunately, their recommendations have never been put in practice. A volcanic eruption occurred in October 1979 for the first time in recorded history southwest of Kengamine, the mountain’s highest point. Of the 30 climbers on Mt. Ontake at the time, one suffered a mild head injury due to falling volcanic ash. The climbing season had just ended so there were fewer climbers on the mountain when it erupted. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun/Asia News, October 28, 2014]
“The National Research Center for Disaster Prevention (currently the National Research Institute for Earth Science and Disaster Prevention) conducted an investigation afterward and filed the report. “The report said the eruption would have caused extensive damage and rescue operations on the mountain would have faced difficulties due to the high altitude if it had taken place during the height of the tourist season. Though the report accurately predicted what happened at Mt. Ontake last month, its warnings apparently went unheeded.
“In the late 1970s, a series of eruptions occurred at Mt. Uzu, Mt. Aso and Mt. Ontake, leading to greater public awareness of the hazards of volcanic ash and debris flow. The national research centre, which was mainly engaged in basic research on disaster prevention, dispatched four researchers to Mt. Ontake in November 1979, a week after the eruption. Following interviews with various individuals and analysis of documents, the report was compiled in March 1980.
“The report said the eruption injured only one person slightly as it occurred when the climbing season was over, but pointed out that the altitude of 3,000 meters creates safety concerns, as an increasing number of people visited summer resorts and ski slopes on the mountain. “"If the eruption had occurred during the climbing season, it could have resulted in a serious loss of life, and the rescue work would have faced extreme difficulties due to the alitude," it said.
“Regulations on development and land utilization, building codes and improvement of shelters and evacuation facilities were requested in the report. The volcanic area’s use and disaster prevention are in conflict, but it is important to develop the site with human lives as the top priority and improve safety precautions, the report said. However, the report’s contents were never conveyed to local municipalities in charge of disaster management. The current research institute considered the report to be an academic document and not aimed at advising munici-palities on proper measures. Though the findings were published at the time, a public relations official at the institute said the report apparently was not distributed.”
Families of Mount Ontake Eruption Victims to Sue Government
In January 2017, Kyodo reported: “A group of relatives of victims who died or went missing in the 2014 eruption of Mount Ontake plans to sue the central and prefectural governments for failing to alert hikers properly, the families said Tuesday. The families of five victims will demand ¥150 million in damages, arguing that the Meteorological Agency should have raised the alert level before the deadly eruption and that the Nagano Prefectural Government had failed to repair broken seismographs in the area. [Source: Kyodo, January 17, 2017]
“The eruption late on the morning of Sept. 27, 2014, on a volcano popular with hikers and tourists, particularly during the autumn foliage season, killed 58 people. Five others who were missing are presumed dead. Many deaths resulted from the impact of falling rocks. The lawsuit was filed with the Nagano District Court’s Matsumoto branch on Jan. 25, based on the national redress law, which stipulates that public organizations such as the central government are liable for damages caused by public servants.
“According to Jun Yamashita, a lawyer who will represent the plaintiffs, the Meteorological Agency left its eruption alert level unchanged at 1 even though it had recorded volcanic earthquakes 52 times on Sept. 10 and 85 times on Sept. 11. The families say the alert level should have been raised by Sept. 12 at the latest, according to the lawyer. They also say the prefectural government left untouched two seismographs located near the mountain peak despite knowing they were malfunctioning, negligence they say prevented precise recordings. The agency declined to comment as it has not seen the content of the planned complaint. An official said the agency takes into account volcanic tremors and crustal changes as well as volcanic quakes when it raises its eruption alert level.
Mount Ontake Reopens to Hikers in 2018
Mount Ontake reopened to hikers in September 2018, about four years the deadly eruption. Tom Fay wrote in the Japan Times: “A stone memorial has been built in the small village of Otaki near the foot of Ontake. At Kaida Kogen campsite to the east of the peak a local woman says that ryokan (Japanese-style inns), hot springs and other small businesses around the mountain have seen a vast downturn in visitors since the eruption, but there is hope that with the re-opening of the summit, things will eventually return to normal. For the people who lost loved ones, however, things will never be the same, with some families filing for damages against the Japan Meteorological Agency who, it is claimed, failed to issue adequate warnings despite an increase in earthquakes on the mountain prior to the eruption. [Source: Tom Fay, Japan Times, September 28, 2018]
“It is now four years since that fateful day, and early this summer I decided to climb Ontake to see how things had changed. When I visit, the 1-kilometer exclusion zone remains in place around the summit but most trails are open as normal. It is a perfect weekend for hiking, with blue skies, gentle winds and just the slightest hint of an early morning chill, much like on the day of the eruption, I imagine. However, it soon becomes apparent that things are now quite different.
“At the base of the Ontake ropeway, the huge parking lot is almost empty, with only a handful of vehicles lined up next to the building. A few staff mill about the complex, getting ready for the visitors who will likely never appear. Announcements echo down the corridors and the shutters of the souvenir shop squeak as they are rolled up, revealing a spacious interior full of Ontake-themed cakes, T-shirts and keychains. At the counter, a shop assistant rearranges the already perfectly aligned postcards that are on display. I buy a pin badge, half out of pity. There is another announcement to inform the half-dozen hikers that the ticket window is now open, and a short line forms as we wait to board the first ropeway cars of the day. That was as busy as it ever got.”
Hiking on Mount Ontake in 2018
Tom Fay wrote in the Japan Times: “The sky was a brilliant blue and the crisp air of early autumn filled the lungs of those stepping out of their vehicles that September morning. Conditions were perfect for mountain climbing. Inside the ropeway cars there was cheerful chitchat, some hikers carefully adjusted their kit while others stared out of the windows as Nagano Prefecture slowly spread out like a sea of green below them to the east.[Source: Tom Fay, Japan Times, September 28, 2018]
“Stepping out into the fresh air high up the mountain at 2,150 meters, there was only the sound of the wind and birdsong, the faint creaking of the ropeway soon left behind as hikers followed the trail that snakes through the trees up toward the barren summit plateau of Mount Ontake. Then, just before midday, the top of the mountain exploded with a searing fury, act one of what would become Japan’s deadliest postwar volcanic disaster.
“From the top ropeway station the path meanders through pristine woodland, and it is a steady climb beyond the tree line to the Nyonindo hut. Huddles of stone statues and wooden torii gates remind me of the mountain’s sacred stature, but even the yamabushi are nowhere to be seen today. I carry on climbing up the slopes over late-season snow patches as the bare and craggy summit draws nearer. A large stone torii gate lies forlorn on its side, presumably a victim of the eruption and broken in two by a direct hit from a huge boulder lying close by.
“At the Ishimuro hut, just short of the summit, the owner tells me that he sheltered people as they ran down the mountain that day, faces gray with shock and coated with ash. I’m surprised to see the hut is open for business at all this early in the season, and the cheerful owner admits that they rarely get more than a handful of guests at night, even on weekends.
“The last part of the hike up past the hut is steep and rocky, and the mountain finally begins to look and feel like a volcano. A rope blocks the trail leading to Ontake’s true summit, known as Kengamine and lying within the 1-kilometer exclusion zone, but hikers can freely explore the mountain’s other minor peaks which sit among a unique, stony landscape dotted with alpine flowers and milky blue-white crater lakes. The ash-stained summit area has an eerie and otherworldly yet devastating beauty, but the air is quiet and somber. It is at once both easy and difficult to imagine what happened here.”
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons,
Text Sources: JNTO (Japan National Tourist Organization), Japan.org, Japan News, Japan Times, Yomiuri Shimbun, UNESCO, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
Updated in July 2020