By OFANI EREMAE
LOCATED under a tree at the foot of the towering Sakurajima volcano in Japan’s south, this odd concrete structure bears little semblance to the rich history of the island it occupies.
Indeed, it looks quite desolate and inconspicuous, and may not attract a second glance from a passerby.
But behind the simple, spare lines lies a deep history that goes back 108 years, to 1914.
The story went like this:
This concrete structure was actually the gate, or torii, of a Shinto shrine.
Sakurajima volcano burst to life on 12 January 1914. It was a major eruption.
All the houses of Kurokama village below the volcano were covered with ash and pumice stone, with only their thatched roofs remaining visible.
The three-meter high shrine gate was also buried, with only the top exposed.
Days after the eruption, villagers tried to salvage the gate because of its cultural significance.
However, the head of the village at that time decided to keep it buried to remind future generations of the dreadful disaster that killed up to 58 people and destroyed more than 2,000 homes.
And, so, the buried gate remained as it is until today. This piece of history is one of many you come across when visiting Sakurajima.
No major eruptions have taken place since 1914, but Sakurajima remains one of the world’s most active volcanos to this day.
When a group of journalists from the Pacific and Caribbean visited on Thursday, they were told an eruption occurred that morning. To the island’s 600,000 residents, such a minor eruption is not unusual. They’ve gotten so used to it that it’s just part of their daily routine.
But this is not to say the people are unaware of the danger and risks the volcano poses. They are well aware and their level of preparedness is unprecedented.
In fact, their government – they are part of Kagoshima Prefecture – has invested so much over the years in the monitoring of the volcano and preparedness of the residents.
Sakurajima International Volcanic Sabo Center is one example.
The center is a world-class facility that manages information on debris flow, and on volcanic activities for possible evacuation warnings. Three high-tech observation tunnels worth S$22 million were als o built on the island to monitor the volcano.
Tomohiro Nakashima is the Chief of Crisis Management Division at Kagoshima City.
“We are the leading city in volcanic disaster preparedness,” Mr Nakashima told the visiting journalists.
“Sakurajima is the only volcano in the world with three observation tunnels. This fact indicates that the response to the large-scale eruption expected in the near future is an urgent issue,” he added.
Besides these high-tech facilities, Kagoshima City also built 13 roadside emergency shelters so that residents and visitors could take immediate cover in the event of an eruption.
Mr Nakashima said evacuation drills for residents are also conducted once a year as part of their disaster preparedness. The first recorded eruption of Sakurajima was in 708 and the volcano has been in almost constant activity since then.
One of the most interesting facts about Sakurajima, according to published reports, is that it was itself an island until 1914. Lava flows from a large eruption that year spread and hardened, connecting the island to Osumi Peninsula.
Since 1955, the volcano has erupted 100-200 times a year.
In 1994, there were 126 eruptions and on May 23, 1995, an explosive eruption sent ash 2,500 meters above the summit crater.
In 2013, another major eruption occurred, sending ash up to 5,000 meters and coating nearby Kagoshima. Ash falls up to 143 times per year, depositing an average of 100mm annually.
People can be seen walking around the town, or sometimes even in Kagoshima City, with umbrellas to protect their clothes and skin from falling ash.
Despite the constant risks island residents face from the volcano, relocation is not an option.
Residents seemed to love their island,and would rather live with the volcano there than elsewhere.