During my four years living in the small village of Izumizaki in the south of Fukushima, I had the privilege of introducing a large variety of visiting friends and family to the beauty of that vast and unfairly maligned prefecture. Piling into my red Toyota Passo, we’d head out on National Highway 4, past the urban sprawl of Koriyama City, then hook a turn westwards towards the mountainous and historical Aizu region. As my car would pull through the claustrophobically elongated tunnels that had been bored through the mountains that had for so long isolated Aizu from the rest of Fukushima, our eyes would catch the far-off glimmering surface of Lake Inawashiro, one of the largest in the country. Then, as we would race besides the wide lake, the Mountain would finally come into view.
Soaring above the landscape to the north of Lake Inawashiro sits the stratovolcano Mount Bandai, one of the most recognizable landmarks of Fukushima Prefecture. Approaching from the south, the volcano presents a smooth, elegant form, a few ordered peaks festooned in lush greenery, with one summit rising higher than the others. Below it sits gentle plains, organized rice fields, and stately ski slopes. But as our car would pull north, slowly passing beyond the south side of the mountain – known as Omote-Bandai (表磐梯, Face or Front Bandai), the scene would slowly, perceptibly begin to change.
As we emerged into the region in the northern shadow of the mountain, we found the landscape altered. Gone were the orderly plains around Lake Inawashiro; in their place were rugged forests, with hundreds of lakes, ponds, and tarns of various sizes scattered chaotically about the terrain. As our car pulled into the village of Kitoshiobara, with its numerous “pensions” – homey European-style inns, often with attached onsen hot springs – we would find ourselves able to look backwards towards Mt. Bandai. The silhouette of the mountain, too, would have seemingly transformed, the smooth lines of its south slope replaced by the shattered, broken form of its north. From this vantage point, the mountain appeared to be almost split in two, its peaks craggy and malformed. Even in summer, parts of its slopes remain bare, patchy, almost desolate.
This area to the north of Mount Bandai, which is known as Ura-Bandai (裏磐梯, Opposite Bandai, or Bandai Hidden From View) is a place of stark and sometimes strange beauty. Most famous are the forests and clustered ponds of Goshiki-numa (五色沼), a collection of five lakes of varying sizes, the waters of each bearing their own conspicuous, delicate, and enchanting colors: cobalt blue; sickly green with red fringes; turquoise; yellow and red tinges. North of Goshiki-numa sits long Lake Hibara, larger in size by far than any of the other surrounding bodies of water in Ura-Bandai. Ferries ply the lake, some bearing long swan necks and heads protruding from their bows, from which passengers can observe the shattered dome of Mt. Bandai with upmost clarity. From the lake itself emerge small, strangely shaped islands crowned with trees. Many of these appear as though they belong to recently submerged hills, the trees surfacing from them as though gasping for air. In a sense, this impression is surprisingly accurate.
And below Lake Hibara, unseen to the passengers on the boats sailing on its glimmering surface, lies the submerged village from whom to the lake takes its name. Once home to hundreds, nothing remains to visibly remind those who come to this lake of this village now lying at a depth of a hundred feet. Only a single, forlorn, and mostly submerged Torii gate from the village shrine remains to recall that once a village existed here.
In geologic terms, the events that brought all this about – the scarred form of Mount Bandai, the multi-hued shades of the waters of Goshiki-numa, the lakes and ponds that dot the area, and the submerging of the village of Hibara – happened only very recently. They are all the result of a single, cataclysmic day in 1888, when Mount Bandai – until then often referred to as the Mount Fuji of the North for its beautiful cone-shaped silhouette – ripped itself apart in an intensely violent eruption. The resulting volcanic disaster was one of the worst in modern Japanese history, and one that proved to be an unprecedented challenge for the young Meiji government of Japan.
Aizu’s Holy Mount Bandai
With its height of 1,816.29 meters, Mount Bandai (磐梯山) has towered above the plains of the Aizu region throughout the entire history of human habitation in the area now governed as Fukushima Prefecture. In older times it was known by other names, chief among them Iwahashi-yama, meaning “The Stone Ladder to the Heavens.”
Some forty-to-fifty thousand years ago, pyroclastic flows from the then-cone-shaped mountain dammed rivers that flowed through the depressed area to Bandai’s south, resulting in steady and permanent flooding of a large plain. This was the birth of Lake Inawashiro, which remains the fourth largest body of water in Japan. The image of Mount Bandai soaring above the placid waters of Inawashiro, where in winter migratory groups of white swans gather, has become fixed in the minds of those who have inhabited the region. Legend and folklore about the twinned mountain and lake remain to us today, with one specific tale somewhat presaging the disaster that would occur centuries later on Bandai’s north side.
The tale goes that a impoverished monk (sometimes described as having been Kukai, the legendary founder of the Shingon sect of Japanese Buddhism) was passing through the region. Taken by a great thirst, the monk began asking the people of the hamlets near Mount Bandai if they could spare him some water, but he was refused by all. Finally, when the monk had nearly given up hope, he was approached by a poor, elderly man, who handed the monk a bowl of water with which to slake his thirst.
After drinking his fill, the monk turned to the old man, saying “surely good fortune will come to one such as yourself, who bears a heart full of charity.” Having said this, the monk left the village. Three days later, Mount Bandai erupted in a fiery explosion, and devastating earthquakes wracked the villages, sinking them beneath the waves of Lake Inawashiro. Only the land upon which sat the charitable old man’s house was spared, becoming an island as the waters of the lake surged around it. The island in this tale remains to this day the only island on Lake Inawashiro, known by the name of Okinajima (翁島) — Island of the Old Man.
Mount Bandai was also the site of Shinto-based mountain worship, with the first major shrine devoted to its powerful kami (gods or spirits that inhabit objects within nature) having been built in 806, the year following a major eruption of the mountain. With shrines still dotting the area, the official Shinto worship of Mount Bandai thus dates back at least until the very early Heian era, although there was doubtless earlier worship of the mountain as well.
Bandai sits at the far northern reaches of the Aizu (会津) region, not far from the area’s principal city and famed castle town of Aizuwakamatsu. Bandai’s association with the region is such that it is often referred to locally as Aizu-Bandai-san, and a traditional Min’yō song of the same name about the mountain has been passed down.
Aizu has a long history of cultural independence, and its food, craftworks, and folklore all set it apart from surrounding areas. Ruled by various samurai clans throughout the long centuries of feudal governance, Aizu gained a reputation for traditionalist ways and for fielding soldiers who were uniquely skilled in the art of war. When the Meiji Restoration and the following Boshin War began in the mid-1800s, the lords of the Aizu domain – themselves part of a branch of the ruling Tokugawa family – chose to fight on the side of the Shogunate against the encroaching imperialists. The fields and valleys of Aizu were turned into a bloody battlefield, and the storied Tsuruga Castle (of which famed woman-warrior Yamamoto Yae was one defender) was put to siege.
When the smoke had cleared, the defenders of the Shogunal line and the feudal system had been defeated. Following the routing of the last Tokugawa loyalists in the far north, Japan was placed fully under a new, modernist system of government headed by the emperor. The samurai and their feudal system were outlawed, and a (still highly restrictive) form of universal male suffrage was set up. The Aizu domain was abolished, first becoming the province of Iwashiro (岩代国) in 1869, and then being joined to Iwaki Province, which had laid to the east across the long Abukuma River, finally agglomerating into the shape of the modern Fukushima Prefecture (福島県) in 1876.
For those villagers who lived around the base of Mount Bandai, all this may have meant very little, save for whom they paid their taxes and levies to. For many of the impoverished farmers of the region, life simply went on as it had for very many years, with their nominal freeing from the feudal system likely effecting their lives very little at that point.
And yet a far more dramatic event lurked in the very near future for the inhabitants of this area of Fukushima Prefecture – one which would be caused by the inexorable forces of nature rather than the whims of men.
As the sun dawned early on the morning of July 15th, 1888, there had been little in the way of the usual telltale signs that presage the coming of a major volcanic eruption. Some earthquakes of note had occurred throughout the previous weeks in the shadow of the four peaks of Mount Bandai – towering O-Bandai, slightly shorter Ko-Bandai, and the lower peaks of Kushigamine and Akahani. But in an area as geologically active as Fukushima, few imagined these would lead to anything like what would soon occur.
Farmers in the various hamlets around the mountain had already awoken, and some had set off for their daily work. Other villagers had gone into the forests to search for game, or had left for work and trade in the larger towns in the area. On the north face of the mountain, travelers were luxuriating in the three onsen hot spring inns that took advantage of the bubbling hot water that expelled from the smoking surface of the mountain.
Then, at 7AM, the ground at the foot of Mount Bandai suddenly began to shake violently, and a great rumbling could be heard.
The earthquakes continued, one after another, and by 7:30AM the shaking had grown noticeably worse. Then, as the earth gave off an almighty shudder, it happened.
Mount Bandai erupted, accompanied by the immense sounds of an unimaginably large explosion. The heated pyroclastic surge from the blast was enough to knock down huge trees, send people at the foot of the mountain flying into the air, and to rip clothing from peoples bodies.
An enormous column of dust and steam shot miles high into the air as huge quantities of earth and minerals were heaved toward the heavens, only to rain back down onto the land below in the form of volcanic ash and deadly missiles. Most of this was blown northeast by the prevailing winds, but large quantities of these deadly superheated rocks rained down on the three hot springs inns on the mountainside. Most of the guests at these lodges and the staff on site perished in this terrible hail.
A Mr. Tsurumaki, a monk hailing from Niigata Prefecture, was staying at the Nakanoyu Inn that fateful morning. Almost miraculously, he managed to survive, and his eye-witness account was recorded afterwards. While he noted the pleasant start of the day, the first major shaking from the mountain had sent him and the others at the hot springs running outside. There, they saw and felt the blast emerge from the peak of Ko-Bandai, and witnessed the huge plume of ash rise into the sky. Then, the smoke descended on them.
…Showers of large and small stones were falling all about us. To these horrors were added thundering sounds, and the tearing of mountains and forests presented a most unearthly sight, which I shall never forget while I live.
He and the others at the inn fled, but before they could move more than a few meters the convulsions of the earth sent them tumbling face-first to the ground.
It was pitch dark; the earth was still heaving beneath us; our mouths, noses, eyes, and ears were all stuffed with mud and ashes.
Tsurumaki would lie in this pitch black haze for an hour, pelted with volcanic missiles the entire time.
As Ko-Bandai erupted, a powerful landslide was sent careening down its slopes, smashing everything in its path. It soon reached some of the hamlets at the foot of the mountain, burying houses, farms, and people.
Some time later, Tsurumaki awoke. The rumbling had become somewhat quieter, and he could finally see enough through the eerie light that now penetrated the volcanic ash to enable him to flee further down the mountainside. As he stood up, he called out to his fellow refugees from the Nakanoyu Inn, encouraging them to escape with him, but all those who had been near him had disappeared.
Tsurumaki ran downhill, past smashed trees and the detritus of the volcanic explosion. He fled to the town of Odera, where he received medical attention. He had managed to escape a truly harrowing experience, and he had done so just in time. Little did he know that an even worse disaster had been just moments in the offing.
The Demise of Ko-Bandai
While the exact nature of what followed remains a subject of intense debate for volcanologists, the general story of the most dramatic event of the 1888 eruption of Mount Bandai can be explained convincingly by a “multiple collapse” hypothesis.
The hour and a half following the initial explosion and first landslide from Ko-Bandai had seen as many as twenty further eruptions, growing steadily weaker as they went on. Then, a period of relative tranquility had followed, convincing some that the worst may have been over. This could not have been further from the truth.
Deep, frenzied rumblings suddenly filled the air around Mount Bandai. And then, suddenly, the second highest peak of Mount Bandai – Ko-Bandai – ceased to exist.
Its entire mountain face collapsed, its entire gargantuan mass rushing downwards towards the north at incredible speeds. While the first landslide had been devastating, it was miniscule in comparison to this; a huge portion of a mountain simply crumbling outwards, reshaping the entire landscape below.
Nearly a cubic mile of Ko-Bandai flowed downwards, becoming an immense avalanche volley. Whole villages were completely swallowed up in its path; forests ceased to be; anything in its way was crushed beneath meters of rock and soil. The huge flow crashed forward out at a height of over 250 feet for nearly two miles northwards, and spread out in an area of about twenty-one miles square. As it did so, it dammed the flow of the major local river called the Nagase, as well as its tributaries, including the Ono, Nakatsu, and Okura rivers, as well as numerous smaller streams, spreading its sediment deep into the watershed. The farthest reaching parts of the immense avalanche reached as far as ten miles north of the mountain.
The form of Mount Bandai itself had been completely changed. Where once a somewhat uniform cone-shaped mountain had towered over the countryside, the northern side of the mountain now appeared to have hallowed out, the shattered ridges of its half-caldera reaching out in two points. The northern slopes of Bandai still bear this ragged, blasted appearance.
A Humanitarian Crisis
As the ash in the air slowly dissipated, it revealed a terrain to the north of Mount Bandai that had been irrevocably rearranged. The human cost was also massive. Three entire hamlets had simply been wiped from existence; there were tales of men who had gone to hunt for the day, and had returned to shattered lives, finding that their villages, homes, and families had simply disappeared. Unlike many disasters, the ratio of deceased to injured was lopsided – many in the position to be injured at all had no chance whatsoever to escape the mountainous avalanche. It’s estimated that less than one fourth of the remains of the victims of this disaster were ever found.
The current number estimated to have died in the 1888 eruption is 477 — the largest death toll associated with a volcanic eruption in modern Japanese history.
Many others were left homeless, including those of the main population center of Hibara Village some miles north of the mountain. The avalanche had already reached the village, causing massive damage and death, but parts of it still remained standing. However, the damming of the Nagase soon began to be a entirely new source of worry.
Lakes Emerge, Villages Submerge
Four major build-ups of water were soon visible in the area area north of Bandai. The main population of Hibara Village was soon in danger of sinking below encroaching waters from both the north and the south, their mass and depth seemed to grow by the day. Earlier still, a hamlet to the east on the Ogawa River was already put in massive danger. Within the course of less than two weeks, the growing lake there had already swallowed parts of the settlement, and the hamlet’s only road out of the area had already sunk beneath the waves. The people of the Onogawa hamlet had already decided that it needed to be transferred elsewhere before the month was up.
Most of the people of Onogawa fled to the Hibara village center, but by October it was clear that that village would soon be submerged. The people of Hibara, their lives already shattered by the avalanche, would need to move away. Those from Onogawa who had come to Hibara would now need to move a second time.
In the end, the two bodies of water to the North and South of Hibara converged, creating the long Lake Hibara upon which, well over a century later, I would so often view Mount Bandai from atop a local ferry. The town of Hibara was slowly inundated, and now lies submerged in the north of the lake, with only its single Torii gate sticking so slightly out of the water to announce that the town once existed. To the south, the lakebed of Hibara consists of the soil left by the landslide, which itself covers what was once another hamlet of the greater Hibara Village – thus, two separate settlements lie beneath the lake’s waves.
The undulating nature of the deposited sediment made for ample depressions that could be filled up by rain water or other water sources, resulting in the vast number of ponds and small lakes that dot Ura-Bandai, including the brilliantly hued lakes of Goshiki-numa.
Three large lakes now exist because of the 1888 eruption; Lake Hibara, Lake Onogawa, and Akimoto Lake. Hundreds of other ponds grace the landscape. In the end, of the six hamlets of Hibara Village, three were destroyed by landslides, two were submerged, and only one – Wasezawa – remained unscathed. Two other hamlets on the east of the mountain were forced to move because of the damage caused by the pyroclastic surge from the eruption.
A Heartening Response
1888 was a singular time in Japan for a natural disaster of this scale to have occurred. The fledgling Meiji Government had yet to have to deal with any major crises, and its responsive ability was as of yet untested. At the time, volcanology and ideas regarding modernized relief efforts were only just beginning to enter the country, transmitted in large part by the “hired foreigners” (お雇い外国人), a bevy of foreign specialists who had been hired by the central Meiji state and local municipalities to help modernize the country. A media apparatus that could quickly transmit photos of events from around the country was also fairly new, and many Japanese people still thought of their homelands in terms of their places in the old feudal domain system, as opposed to considering all of Japan as being a mutual homeland; consciousness towards others in distant parts of Japan was still limited. Mounting a meaningful response to the tragedy of July 15th, 1888 would be an unprecedented challenge.
Impressively, the people and government of Japan proved up to it.
First responders arrived on the very day of the disaster, July 15th, as the government of Fukushima Prefecture quickly let loose the hue and cry. Assisted by the implementation of electricity, newly installed railroad tracks, and a modern communication apparatus, policemen, government officials, firemen, and others from the four corners of Fukushima were able to set out to offer assistance immediately following the disaster. Within two days, the governor of Fukushima Prefecture, Orita Heinai, was on the scene, and a formalized disaster response had been organized by the officials of the prefecture.
On the same day, Emperor Meiji announced that he would bestow an imperial gift of 3000 yen towards the relief efforts – a vast sum at the time. This show of largess from the very emperor whom the lords of Aizu had so bitterly fought against only twenty years previous went a long way to show the people of Fukushima that they were, indeed, to be counted fully within the makeup of the new Meiji state. The Emperor also dispatched his chamberlain to asses the situation, and it was deemed that the imperial gift would be used towards the uplift of the victims of the disaster.
Soon, physicians from Tokyo Imperial University (modern Tokyo University) had arrived. They moved immediately to helping those injured in the disaster, treating a variety of lacerations, broken bones, and wounds created by the raining volcanic missiles, collapsing buildings, and the onrushing volcanic mud which had smashed against some of the hamlets to the east of the mountain.
Some time later, these physicians were joined by members of the fledgling Japanese Red Cross Society. This was the first time the Japanese Red Cross had been used for peacetime relief efforts, and served as an important precedent to allow them to carry out such missions in the future. This had only been able to come about because Governor Orita had telephoned Tokyo to complain of the insufficient number of physicians on site, and the problem had reached the ear of Empress Shōken, who had seen to it that the Red Cross be given leave to dispatch members to the stricken area.
Mass communication spread this tale across Japan, leading to a major increase in positive feelings towards the Red Cross and Empress Shōken. Soon requests to be able to leave for Fukushima for both humanitarian and research purposes were coming from around the country, serving as a forerunner of the sort of spirit relief volunteerism that exists throughout Japan up until today, and which can even be seen in the areas of northeastern Fukushima that were recently so affected by the 2011 Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami.
Temporary housing was set up for those who had been made homeless, and rice provisions to feed the hungry were gathered. Donations began to flow in from around the country. Near the lake, Inawashiro Town was seeing an unprecedented stream of volunteers, journalists, and even foreign onlookers arrive, and soon all the inns were filled to capacity. The local police patrolled the town vigilantly, making sure that no brawls broke out because of the lack of clean water in the area that had not been contaminated by the dust, mud, and lahar flows of the volcano.
The people of the submerged and destroyed villages were eventually resettled, and Hibara Village was born anew. Government and publically collected funds continued to assist the victims of the 1888 disaster for years to come.
The Revitalization of Bandai
While the people and government of Japan rallied around those suffering from the disaster, there remained another victim of the 1888 eruption. The landscape of Ura-Bandai had been turned into a formless, reddish-brown wasteland by the collapse of Ko-Bandai.
Since the affected lands of Ura-Bandai had been state-owned, Tokyo and the Fukushima Prefectural Government developed a generalized plan to allow private-sector entities to take on the challenges of revitalizing the ravaged region to the north of Mount Bandai, providing interest-free loans to those who would engage in afforestation efforts. If the private entities succeeded, the government promised to sell them the land cheaply.
Serious efforts to start restoring the boulder-strewn wasteland didn’t begin until some thirteen years after the disaster, when subsequent captains of industry threw their names (and purses) into the reforestation ring. Attempts in 1902 and 1903 both accrued huge costs and led to frustration and failure – the project was simply too difficult, the land too much in a state of ruination.
Finally, in 1910, a new man stepped forward to take up the mantle of restorer of Ura-Bandai. Endo Genmu (遠藤現夢), a native of nearby Aizuwakamatsu, had gotten his start in the forestation industry when he was tasked with finding and planting cherry trees in the parks around Tsuruga Castle by the old lords of Aizu, the Matsudaira family. Genmu himself had witnessed the siege of said castle by the Meiji imperialist forces in 1868 when he was still young, and had had the image of the devastation of his city burned into his heart. It is said that this is what had motivated Genmu to decide to devote himself to restoring the wasteland of Ura-Bandai to a state of beauty.
Genmu took over the afforestation rights to the area along with four other local investors. Once he had obtained the guidance of Nakamura Yaroku (中村弥六), the foremost expert on forestry in Japan, Genmu immediately set to work. They first carried in 130,000 Japanese red pines bought from Saitama Prefecture, planting them throughout the devastated lands. Next came in a series of Japanese cedar, lacquer, maple, and cherry trees brought in from Niigata Prefecture.
The trees were brought in by rail, and then carried by horse-and-cart into the Ura-Bandai region. The extreme difficulty of transporting the mass of trees through the muddy, boulder-strewn region, where all roads had been buried meters below the avalanche of soil, proved difficult enough that Genmu and his partners soon ended up needing to build a road in order to complete their work.
Throughout the first season of planting, as much as half of the planted trees withered and died, but Genmu noticed that those which had been planted near the many ponds and lakes that had been created by the landslide, such as those in Goshiki-numa, were much more likely to take root and survive. Genmu subsequently focused his attentions on the region around those five multi-hued ponds. Together with the slow natural return of the native plants that had been buried in the massive landslide, the trees Genmu had planted began to allow green to seep back into the wasteland. His trees remain to us today, over a hundred years later, as parts of the forests of Ura-Bandai.
In 1919, Genmu and his partners purchased land from the central government. Forming an association for the development of Bandai, Genmu led the charge in the first moves towards establishing tourist facilities to help revitalize the region. The fumes from the ruined caldera of Bandai were used to heat water to create artificial onsen hot springs water that could be pumped downstream to the first new hotel in the region. Genmu’s partner Miyamori built a cottage in Ura-Bandai, and filled it with decadent curios, turning it into a summer resort.
From Disaster Area to Tourist Destination
Genmu passed away in the 1930s, but the work he had started towards the revitalization of Ura-Bandai only strengthened as time went on, and a memorial to him now sits by the turquoise-green waters of the Aonuma pond in Goshiki-numa. In 1947, Fukushima Prefecture put together a council to oversee a push to get the Bandai highlands area recognized as a national park, which resulted in the creation of the Bandai-Asahi National Park. The large park is spread out across three prefectures, with the Bandai-Azuma-Inawashiro Area in Fukushima having the Mount Bandai at its heart.
More roads were built to make Lake Inawashiro, Mount Bandai, and Ura-Bandai more easily accessible, and as domestic tourists began to flock to the area, hotels and tourist facilities began to pop up throughout the region. Various scenic drives were developed in the 50s and 70s, and the rustic family-owned “pension” inns began to appear in the mid-70s.
Ski slopes were built on hills left by the 1888 avalanche, and other sporting facilities followed. Wakasagi fishing, a sort of ice-fishing (oh so dear to my Minnesotan heart) wherein small fishing rods are used to catch diminutive fish via holes in the ice, became a popular pastime for the people of Fukushima to engage in on the lakes of the Ura-Bandai region. Meanwhile, the waters of those same lakes, which fluctuated dangerously and caused unpredictable flooding in the years after their geologically tumultuous creation, have become the site of flow-controlling damming and hydroelectricity projects.
As part of a national park just distant enough from Tokyo to be worthy of more than a day trip, yet close enough to justify weekend travel, Ura-Bandai has become one of the predominant natural tourist sites in the northern Honshu region of Tohoku.
Tourists and nature-lovers continue to delight at the sight of the deep colors of the lakes at Goshiki-numa, whose various shades derive from the minerals deposited in the lake beds by the volcanic avalanche. From the boats on Lake Hibara, passengers breath in the fresh lake air, and take in views of the surrounding forests, the strange islands jutting up from the lake that once were hills on dry land, and most of all, the strangely beautiful form of the devastated caldera of Mount Bandai to the south.
While volcanologists warn that the same geological processes that caused the 1888 disaster are still very much active, and that such destruction could indeed happen again, for the time being the lands around Mount Bandai have more than bounced back, thanks in no small part to the hard work of the people of Fukushima and Japan as a whole. Despite the horror and pain suffered on that terrible day in 1888, the resulting events gave birth to many things of value and beauty – a greater sense of Japanese unity, a will towards volunteerism and charity, and the birth of the Japanese Red Cross Society as a organization for domestic good. A site of horrific destruction and loss, the Bandai region has emerged as one of the most alluring and surprisingly beautiful areas in Japan.
Yonechi, Fumio. A New Hypothesis on the Collapse of Bandai-san Volcano in 1888. The science reports of the Tohoku University. 7th series, Geography. December, 1987.