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Urabandai, Volcanic Jewel of Japan

<i> Whipperman is a Berkeley, Calif., free-lance writer and photographer. </i>

Like Washington’s Mt. St. Helens, Tohoku’s Mt. Bandai once was a slumbering, fir-clad, volcanic giant tucked away in a remote northern corner, until July 15, 1888.

On that day, with no warning, Mt. Bandai shook, then blasted 10 great thunderclaps and belched a boiling black cloud and a mountain of boulders that rolled down the slopes and rained down on the countryside, damming creeks and burying forests. Within minutes it had devastated dozens of hamlets and killed nearly 500 people.

On July 25 and 26 of each year, in the shadow of the volcano, residents of the area hold a memorial service on the nearby lake shore for the souls of the victims of that catastrophe.

Later, the government anchored the southern half of its sprawling Bandai-Asahi National Park at Mt. Bandai and the Bandai Highlands (Urabandai Kogen), where a hundred eruption-formed lakes--some big, some small and some many-colored--decorate the volcanic plateau beneath Bandai’s yawning, steaming, sulfur-rimmed mouth.

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Samurai’s Last Stand

But there is much more, because historic Aizuwakamatsu nearby is the place where the samurai made their last stand.

In the 1860s Japan was about to boil over. Ten years earlier, Commodore Perry, in a persuasive show of American firepower, had pried open the door to Japan; European warships menaced the coasts at will, beyond the range of Japan’s antique shore batteries. Invasion seemed imminent, and the shogun and his repressive government of old men was powerless to stop it.

The Young Turks of Japan plotted rebellion, and won. They named their era Meiji, for “Enlightened Rule,” and on April 18, 1868, moved their young emperor to the new capital, Tokyo.

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But there were holdouts. The powerful Aizu clan of Tohoku, the northern frontier of old Japan, liked the old ways. The lord of Aizuwakamatsu looked down from his Tsuraga (Crane-white) Castle and viewed the upstart regime with alarm. He felt betrayed, and was spoiling for a fight.

Buoyed by victory, so was the Meiji government; it sent three armies to Tohoku and waged a full-scale civil war, the Boshin War.

The siege had lasted for a month, but on Nov. 6 the defense collapsed in a defeat so total that the field peasants didn’t even bother to watch when the soldiers took the vanquished lord away to Kyoto.

Today the gleaming white castle stands rebuilt in the center of Aizuwakamatsu, (pop. 115,000) the “City Without Smokestacks.”

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Seen from the castle’s uppermost eaves, the white city spreads to the foot of Mt. Bandai, which towers above the volcanic Aizu hinterland of mirror lakes, rushing streams and bubbling hot springs.

The region around the volcano, called Urabandai, draws summer campers and winter skiers. Well-known within the country, it’s one of Japan’s jewels that foreign travelers seldom visit.

Japan is the country where I find that everything works, where it’s nearly impossible for me to lose anything. More times than I care to admit, someone returns my passport, my cash or my camera before I even realize it’s missing; and in Japan at 7:34, the 7:34 arrives.

A Friendly Guy

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I can’t think of a better country lodging for American first-timers to plunk down in than the Shirakaba (White Birch) Pension in the Bandai Highlands. My friend and I had called ahead and spoken with owner-operator Shiro Nakamura, and found that he was a friendly, English-speaking guy who had a non-pricey room for us for a few days.

We were pleasantly surprised by the Swiss-chalet-like, family-run lodging. After dinner we joined other guests in singing and socializing around the piano. Besides supervising the pension and providing the music, the songs and half the evening’s jokes, Nakamura will help guests brush up on their Japanese (or Russian--he was a World War II Soviet prisoner), or show slides, or help them take better slides.

Late one night, after his long day was over, as we shared coffee in the study, he wrote for us, in brush strokes, then translated, ". . . even the soft touch of the sleeves of passers-by may make lifetime friends. . . .”

Before we turned in, Nakamura-san said he didn’t want us to miss sunrise at Lake Onagawa nearby.

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“I’ll loan you my alarm clock. The best viewpoint is a quarter mile down the road.”

The horizon was already rosy-orange as we joined a few fisherfolk on the little pier before dawn. The glassy water mirrored the rounded silhouettes of the peaks above the far, misty lake shore.

Below the spruce-lined bank at our right, Mt. Bandai imaged perfectly against the sky’s powder-blue, while on the other side, gnarled trees perched atop their reflections.

Back at Shirakaba Pension, Nakamura-san said the Goshikinuma are a must.

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“What’s that?”

“It means ‘five-colored ponds,” but they can take on any color between royal blue to forest green, depending on the light. Take plenty of film and get going. The light is best between 7 and 8.”

The first lake, Bishamon, became our favorite. An incredibly luminous baby-blue in the early morning sun, it mirrors picture-perfect images of the opposite forested shoreline. We passed artists set up with palette and easel, and photographers bending over expensive equipment.

Wild, Leafy Walk

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We continued the two-mile, wild, leafy walk, passing twisted pines, natural fern-rock gardens, rushing creeks, cascades and half a dozen more reed-lined, luminous blue to green, forested lakes. After an hour the winding forest trail comes out at the hotel, craft shops, boat pier, bus station cluster at Bandai Kogen on big, breezy Lake Hibara.

Later we explored the slopes of steaming Dandai crater. Half an hour later, over the crest, we saw the brilliant rust-colored Akanuma (Copper) Lake, which occupies the huge chasm that the mountain filled a hundred years ago. The steam that rose from the towering, 2,000-foot, yellow-orange lava wall above us said that the volcano still lives.

Yellow boulders in the middle of the lake must have splashed there during the earthquakes that the mountain still manages to muster now and then. Like Mt. St. Helens, a big chunk of Bandai exploded to dust and rocks, which settled for miles around. In clear weather, photo buffs stay late and get beautiful shots of the crater wall gleaming yellow-orange in the sunset.

A Hankering to Climb

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The weather was mild and sunny, so I got a hankering to climb to the top. It’s at about 3,000 feet, and maybe seven or eight miles round-trip, so it would take me four or five hours.

Mt. Bandai is an exhilarating challenge. I walked up along a winding, steadily rising trail through the dense, mostly broadleaf forest hillsides, past whimsical markers left by the recent crop of climbers.

The summit feels like the top of the world, and in this part of Tohoku it is. Huge, round Lake Inawashiro, far, far below, spreads to the dark hills on the southern horizon, while behind, the deep, yawning orange crater opens toward the dozens of lakes that dot the Bandai plateau.

At the ridge I peered over the caldera wall half a mile straight down. There’s a hut with a spring and snacks at the start of the final half-hour summit scramble.

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In bad weather, don’t attempt it; mountain storms can get awfully nasty in a hurry. Start very early; the summit is often cloud-covered by noon.

On our last day, Nakamura-san dropped us off at the bus stop at Bandai Kogen, where we took a special, summer-only bus over the Dandai-Azuma Skyline Drive all the way to the “bullet train” at Fukushima Station.

Magnificent Tour

Skyline Drive is a great escape, a three-hour, $12, magnificent guided tour that winds over the Roof of Tohoku. To start off, we got a scenic, breezy boat ride on Lake Hibara thrown into the deal. Then the bus climbs the lake-view ridge and drops down across foaming Nakasugawa gorge, through a little hot springs ( onsen ) village, and up, hairpinning along the ridge between the looming Azuma peaks.

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We paused at Jododaira (6,000 feet) long enough to hike uphill and join the vacationers who peer down into the still-warm ko-Fuji (Little Fuji) volcano.

Down the Fukushima side, the road edges along a sulfury hillside, then passes a pretty cascade at Tsubakuru Gorge.

After that, we enjoyed the half-hour drive through the vineyard and orchard villages before Fukushima, where the bus deposited us at the station in time to embark on our next adventure.

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The Bandai Highlands is sprinkled with pensions, which are Japanese-Western style, reasonably priced lodgings, connected by a network out of the Tokyo central booking office of the Pension System Development, 2-4-11 Saragakucho, Tokyo. Write directly for information, or contact Shiro Nakamura directly if you’re heading out for Bandai. (Shirakaba Pension, Urabandai Pension Village, Urabandai Kogen, Fukushima-ken 969-27, Japan.) He charges about $30 a night per person with two meals. If he’s booked, contact Urabandai Pension Assn. directly at Urabandai Kogen, Fukushima-ken 969-27.

For more information, contact the Japan National Tourist Organization, 624 S. Grand Ave., Suite 2640, Los Angeles 90017.


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