Volcano Pilgrim
Five months in Japan as a wandering poet

Miyakejima, 2

You had not expected this to be so easy. In less than an hour you have found the road that circles the base of the volcano. All that remains is to walk around to the south face where, judging by the map, another road squiggles its way up the crater. You could be to the top and back down to the port long before the boat departs for Tokyo at two-thirty, with time for lunch.

When you round the bend of the road and catch your first glimpse of the summit, you see your mistake. It is as if you have wandered into some post-apocalyptic science fiction movie. There is the husk of what must have been the visitor’s center. There is a backhoe, resting on its side, yellow paint pitted with rust. Whatever road once went to the summit is now under a lot of dirt and rockfall and dark gray ash.

 

       Stubs of dead tree-trunks

             standing around a crater –

                   ashtray at last call

 

And something is beeping, loud and piercing, on the minute, a pair of beeps, short-long, dit-dah. Is it an alarm of some sort? A warning? Is it the movie soundtrack telling you that you are about to be attacked by a ragtag band of inbred knuckle-dragging mutants?

No, but the danger is real, if not quite so melodramatic. Since the eruption nine years ago, Oyama has been venting vast quantities of sulfur dioxide gas, a tall white plume that – if you had landed in daylight – you would have seen from miles away. Now it is hard to miss, indeed it is practically in your face. And, right on cue, the wind changes, bearing the column of sulfurous death straight down toward you.

This seems like an opportune moment to reconsider your plans for the morning. Luckily there is another road down, and you take it. The metal guardrails have been eaten half-away, and they twist off easily in your hand.

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