The Sleepy Japanese Town Built Inside an Active Volcano

It’s been about 230 years since the last eruption killed half the population. But locals won’t let the volcano dictate their future

Aogashima (Charly W. Karl - Flickr/Creative Commons)
smithsonian.com

For the residents of Aogashima, an island about 200 miles due south of Tokyo, 1785 was an unforgettable year. Although they weren’t alive to witness the deadliest event in island history, they know what unfolded all too well—and what they know hasn't changed their mind about living atop a real-life volcano.

They’ve heard the stories about how, on May 18, the ground began to shake. Giant plumes of gas and smoke billowed out from the mouth of the island’s volcano, shooting rocks, mud and other debris into the sky. By June 4, the island’s 327 residents had no choice but to evacuate, but only about half succeeded and the rest perished. Those who live on the island that’s home to a volcano still registered as active by the Japanese Meteorological Agency, the governmental agency responsible for monitoring the nation’s 110 active volcanoes, know that there’s always the chance that history could repeat itself. But Aogashima’s inhabitants are willing to take that risk.

One such resident is Masanubu Yoshida, a government worker who has lived on the island for the past 15 years. He says that he tries not to spend too much time worrying about the possibility of another eruption. After all, it’s been more than 230 years since the last one—the odds (at least so far) are in his favor.

“No one can win over nature,” he tells Smithsonian.com. Rather than dwell on the possibilities, the 40-year-old focuses on the benefits of living in this lush paradise, which formed from the remnants of four overlapping calderas centuries ago. Much of the village is located inside the outer crater wall. 

Fishing is a popular pastime for many residents, as the island is situated in the middle of the Philippine Sea. Hiking, camping and swimming (although the island’s steep, rocky cliffs can make accessing the water a challenge anywhere outside the harbor) are also popular pursuits.

“We’re also blessed with hot springs and geothermal energy because of the volcano,” he adds. According to one tourist, who wrote about a visit to one of the island's natural saunas, you can bring food and cook it by placing it on top of one of the sauna’s steam vents. The sauna has a collection of pots and pans at the ready for boiling eggs and other snacks.

Though Yoshida does hold an office job, many of his neighbors are farmers and fishermen. Besides acres of expansive greenery, the island is home to a shochu distillery—a liquor that is similar to vodka and is the national spirit of Japan—a salt manufacturer, several general stores, a bed and breakfast and an automobile repair factory. Despite the island’s small size, most of its residents travel by car rather than biking or walking—and for good reason.

“People hesitate to travel by bike due to the strong winds and rainy climate,” he says. “If you can’t drive, you need to walk.”

Aogashima has several roadways, with the majority zigzagging throughout the island’s center. But besides the handful of more urbane diversions on the island, Aogashima stands in stark contrast to life on Japan’s mainland. Because of his work, Yoshida says that he makes multiple visits to Tokyo each year, utilizing a ferry that makes the 200-mile journey across the sea. Another option is traveling by helicopter. However, the crush he feels being just a speck amongst Tokyo’s some 13.4 million residents is enough for him to crave the solitude he experiences back home on the island.  

“I often travel to the mainland on business, but I’m intimidated by the congestion—there’s just too many people,” he says. “[On Aogashima] we can feel great nature that you cannot experience in big cities.”

Fortunately for Yoshida and his neighbors, so far the volcano remains quiet. The Japan Meteorological Agency, which began issuing alerts in 2007, tells Smithsonian.com that no volcanic warning has been issued for Aogashima in those nine years. Every new day is another one in paradise for islanders—at least for now.

About Jennifer Nalewicki

Jennifer Nalewicki is a Brooklyn-based journalist. Her articles have been published in The New York Times, Scientific American, Popular Mechanics, United Hemispheres and more. You can find more of her work at her website.

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