Ebino Kogen and Kirishima えびの高原と霧島

In late January of 2011, after some minor rumblings in previous years, an upstart volcano in Kyushu’s Kirishima range vented its spleen in spectacular fashion. The earth shuddered; lava and smoke belched forth; streaks of bright lightning forked skyward through the ash. Shinmoedake (新燃岳), best known to Westerners as the rocket base lair of villainous Ernst Blofeld in the 1967 James Bond film “You Only Live Twice”, continued to erupt in fits and starts until mid-March, shattering car and home windows more than 6km away, temporarily shutting down highways, train lines, and flights, and prompting the evacuation of hundreds of nearby residents.

A year and a half later, Shinmoedake seems mostly mollified, and many (if not all) of the hiking trails in the area have been reopened as of July 15. Local authorities warn that a healthy dose of caution remains necessary, and the staff at the visitor centers will hand you a cheery illustrated guide to all the volcanic phenomena that can do you harm– ash, gas, pyroclastic flows, lava, avalanches, and “fist-sized volcanic cinders”– should Shinmoedake decide to blow its top again. But for those who don’t mind a little sulfuric steam mixed with their fresh alpine air, the 23 mountains and ten crater lakes of Kirishima National Park (Japan’s first!) are a day-hiker’s dreamland.

The easiest points of entry are the trailheads at Ebino-kogen in Kagoshima prefecture. (The highlands are so named because the swaths of pinkish pampas grass in autumn resemble fields of gently-waving shrimp. When we visited in the late spring, the hillsides were peppered with pink and purple sprays of wild azaleas.) Many visitors choose to follow the leisurely amble past the three nearby volcanic ponds, Rokannonmi-ike, Byakushi-ike, and Fudo-ike (a 2-3 hour walk, depending on your pace). Braver souls can huff and puff their way up Mt. Karakunidake (boasting the area’s highest summit at 1700m) for beautiful panoramas of the surrounding peaks. Either way, warm your heels afterward at the hot spring foot bath back at the visitor center.

Unfortunately, the 12km main ridge trail from Ebino Kogen to the Takachiho-gawara Visitor Center, which passes the Shinmoedake crater, remains closed, and there are no plans to reopen it in the near future. But the Kirishima area offers up an abundance of alternative sights and sites: hot springs, streams and waterfalls (the roadside Maruo-no-taki is especially lovely), wild bird forests, and the oft-rebuilt Kirishima Jingu, which has the misfortune of having been repeatedly destroyed by volcanic eruptions.

The bright vermilion shrine buildings honor Ninigi-no-Mikoto, grandson of the sun-goddess Amaterasu. According to legend, Ninigi-no-Mikoto descended from heaven, plunged a sword into the summit of nearby Takachiho-no-mine (1574m), and went on to establish the Japanese imperial family line. Visit Kirishima Jingu on the last Saturday of August for the Minami Kyushu Kagura Festival, in which Japan’s mythic creation is recreated in traditional dance form.


Rent a car. There are public transportation options available, but bus/shuttle service is very limited and you’ll want to be relaxing during your time in the mountains, not eyeing your watch to make sure you catch the last ride home.








by Daniel Simmons

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