With Japan’s volcanic activity rising, Mount Fuji climbers urged to wear helmets

Mount Fuji looks twice as tall and 10 times as big from Shizuoka as it does from Tokyo.


By AARON KIDD | STARS AND STRIPES Published: July 1, 2015

YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — Mount Fuji’s climbing season has arrived, and local governments surrounding the iconic volcano — spurred on by intensifying volcanic activity throughout the Japanese archipelago — are taking steps to protect climbers in case of an unexpected eruption.

Helmets, goggles and dust masks have been distributed by prefectural and city governments at the mountain’s stations and lodges. Supplies are limited, however, and climbers — which can number almost 9,000 on some days — are being urged to bring their own safety equipment. Maps showing evacuation routes will also be available.

“It is the first time for me to prepare helmets for climbers,” Yoshiko Yamamoto, who has operated Hakuunso lodge at the eighth station for 20 years, told the Asahi Shimbun newspaper. “If an emergency occurs, we will lend them to climbers and guide them quickly for evacuation.”

Helmets are not mandatory, but travel companies that organize trips to Mount Fuji have been asked to encourage guests to bring them and other safety equipment.

Yokota Air Base Outdoor Recreation, which organizes Mount Fuji climbing excursions for Status of Forces Agreement personnel, strongly urges participants to wear helmets but does not provide them for the trips. Climbers are responsible for their own safety equipment, which is available for sale or rental. July 1 is the official start of the climbing season.

Officials decided to take the precautions earlier this year after Mount Ontake, Japan’s second-highest volcano after Fuji, erupted unexpectedly in September, killing 57 people.

Volcanic activity has been on the rise across Japan. A small, unexpected eruption Tuesday at a hot springs resort on Mount Hakone, 30 miles from Fuji, prompted authorities to evacuate about 40 people and advise visitors to not approach the volcano. More than 100 residents of tiny southern island Kuchinoerabu were evacuated in May after Mount Shindake erupted without warning. Mount Asama, which covered Yokota Air Base with ash after an eruption in 2009, experienced a small flare-up last month.

Seismic data from 800 sensors around Mount Fuji suggest that pressure has increased under the volcano since 2011’s devastating magnitude-9.0 earthquake to the northeast, French and Japanese scientists said last year. However, it is difficult to scientifically prove that the quake has triggered volcanic activity, though “it is a fact that tectonic changes have occurred by the earthquake,” said Minoru Takeo, director of the Earthquake Research Institute at the University of Tokyo.

“It has caused tectonic deformation throughout the Japan archipelago, and seismic activity has increased in many areas in Japan,” he said. However, it is yet to be proven if it has something to do with the volcanic activity.”

Mount Fuji, which last erupted in 1707, could spew more than a cubic kilometer of ash up to 33,000 feet into the air. Winds could blow the ash over Tokyo and some U.S. military bases, Toshitsugu Fujii, a professor emeritus at the University of Tokyo and head of the Coordinating Committee for Prediction of Volcanic Eruptions, told a news conference last year. Areas near U.S. military bases within Mount Fuji’s vicinity could see 8-12 inches of ashfall, Fujii said.

Mount Fuji is at Level 1, the lowest volcanic alert status, according to the Japan Meteorological Agency. Level 2 advises against approaching a volcano’s crater, Level 3 warns against approaching the entire volcano, and Level 4 asks people to prepare for evacuation. The highest threat level — 5 — signals an evacuation.

Japan is located along the so-called Ring of Fire, a seismically active line around the Pacific Ocean where most of the world’s volcanic eruptions and earthquakes take place.

Stars and Stripes reporter Chiyomi Sumida contributed to this report.

Twitter: @kiddaaron

The descent from the summit of Mount Fuji is not as easy as it may seem. It may take much less time to return to the Fifth Station, but it's miles and miles of winding, steep, rock-and-gravel road. There are no inns and few bathroom stops. Dust and dirt from other hikers covers your hair, clothes and equipment.