From majestic Mount Fuji to an underwater volcano that formed a new island just last year, Japan’s 109 active volcanoes account for around 10 percent of all of the active volcanoes in the world. The reason why Japan has so many volcanic peaks is because its 6,800 or so islands are strung across the Pacific Ring of Fire – a zone of significant seismic activity. As a consequence, Japan is very prone to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.
All of this has had a profound impact on Japanese culture, as well as the development of its densely-populated coastal cities. While the smouldering volcanoes have often been revered and worshiped by locals and represented in countless artworks and haikus, they also make for some fabulous hiking and mountaineering. Of its many mountains and volcanoes, it is the illustrious Mount Fuji that is the nation’s most important and iconic symbol.
Located in the west of Hokkaido – Japan’s second-largest island – Mount Usu can be found amid some stunning scenery in Shikotsu-Toya National park. Although it only reaches 733 meters high, the stratovolcano’s hulking presence looms over the surrounding forests and countryside. From its summit, which can be reached by a scenic ropeway, visitors can enjoy panoramic views out over the park and the glimmering waters of Lake Toya, which lie in a caldera beside it. In addition to this, the park also boasts the distinctive lava dome of Showa-shinzan, as well as soothing hot springs and numerous craters that were formed when Mount Usu last erupted in 2000.
The third tallest volcano in the whole of Japan, Mount Norikura towers to a colossal 3,025 meters. Part of the Hida Mountains, the snow-capped stratovolcano can be found in Chubu-Sangaku National Park, with gorgeous valleys, ravines, and rivers all around it. Hidden away on its slopes are numerous crater lakes and alpine meadows, while hardened lava flows can be found nearer its peak. Meaning ‘riding saddle’ in Japanese due to its long ridge and plateau, Mount Norikura is a very popular place to go hiking and climbing because of its majestic scenery and lovely views.
Lying within the mountainous Nagano Prefecture in the center of Japan, Mount Yake is one of the most active volcanoes in the Hida Mountains. As such, lots of hardened lava fields can be spied upon its slopes, while steam and gas is still emitted from a fumarole near its peak. Overlooking the reflective waters of Lake Taisho, Mount Yake’s two peaks make for a stupendous sight, and a delightful little crater lake can be found nestled between them. Reaching 2,455 meters at its highest point, Mount Yake is rightfully included among the 100 Famous Japanese Mountains – a list of the nation’s most celebrated mounts.
Rising dramatically from amid the shimmering waters of the East China Sea, Suwanosejima is the second-largest of the serene and secluded Tokara archipelago’s islands. At its heart is the 796-meter high cone of one of Japan’s, and indeed the world’s, most active volcanoes. Due to its frequent and violent eruptions, only around 50 people live on the island. Numerous times in its history, it has had to be abandoned when things got too dangerous. The stratovolcano does look impressive though; its barren slopes stand out in stark contrast to the sparkling sea around it. Located around a nine-hour boat journey from mainland Japan, the subtropical Suwanosejima and its smoking volcano certainly take some getting to.
Boasting a beautiful crater, Shinmoedake makes up part of the Mount Kirishima group of volcanoes that is clustered together on Kyushu, Japan’s third-largest island. Its huge crater is actually its most famous and fetching feature: the evil villain Blofeld used the caldera as his base in the 1967 James Bond film You Only Live Twice. While this once housed a glorious crater lake, it is now sadly covered up by a lava dome following the volcano’s latest eruption in 2018. Shinmoedake makes for some fabulous hiking. From its 1,421 meter high rim, you can enjoy wonderful panoramas out over the many mountains of Kirishima-Yaku National Park.
Towering above the onsen town of Kusatsu in Gunma Prefecture, Mount Kusatsu-Shirane is a very popular destination due to its superb scenery, lofty peak, and wealth of well-marked hiking trails. Consisting of a series of overlapping volcanic cones, its summit reaches 2,171 meters, with three sparkling crater lakes tucked away among its higher realms. Of these, Yugama – the largest lake – is the mount’s stand out feature as its colorful waters contrast so starkly with the desolate landscapes around it. In summer and spring, Mount Kusatsu-Shirane’s many hiking trails attract lots of visitors, while some great skiing can be enjoyed in the winter months. In addition to this, the bubbling springs at the volcano’s base are always a popular draw, regardless of the season.
The second-highest volcano in Japan after the iconic Mount Fuji, Mount Ontake dominates its surroundings with its 3,067-metre high summit. Dotted about the hulking volcano are five shining crater lakes for visitors to check out, with Nino at 2,905 meters being the highest altitude lake in the country. Long considered to be sacred, Mount Ontake attracts lots of pilgrims and worshipers, who come to hike its age-old pilgrimage route. This takes you through some breathtaking nature, with beautiful views to be enjoyed from its towering summit. Besides its outstanding beauty, the mystical mount also has a number of magnificent hot springs and fantastic ski resorts on offer. While Mount Ontake is generally considered to be very safe, the volcano erupted unexpectedly in 2014, tragically killing 63 people in the process.
Located in the center of Japan’s main island of Honshu, Mount Asama stands 2,568 meters (8,425 feet) above sea level, towering over the resort town of Karuizawa. Mount Asama is best known for an eruption that occurred in 1783, which killed 1,500 people. The mountain is Honshu’s most active volcano, erupting as recently as 2009 and sending ash as far away as Tokyo. Despite the potential danger of another eruption, Mount Asama remains a popular holiday destination. Visitors come to ski on the peak’s adjacent slopes and soak in the region’s natural hot springs.
Overlooking the historical city of Kagoshima on Kyushu Island are the three volcanoes that make up the stratovolcano Sakurajima. Of these, Minami-dake is the most recently active. It regularly dumps ash on the city below. Adventurous travelers who want an up-close experience with a live volcano are rarely disappointed. While visitors are not permitted to climb up to the edge of the dangerous crater, there are excellent views to be enjoyed from Yunohira Lookout, which can be reached in around two hours on foot or in minutes by car.
Near the city of Shimabara on the island of Kyushu lies the group of volcanoes known as Mount Unzen. Eruptions from these volcanoes date back six million years, but until recently, they were thought to have become dormant. A national park was established in 1934 and a small village sprang up to accommodate visitors. In 1990, one of the volcanoes, Mount Fugen, began a series of eruptions. Today, the mountain lies dormant again, and visitors can climb the 1,359 meter (4,459 foot) peak to enjoy panoramic views. To shorten the trek, most hikers approach the climb from Mount Myoken, which is reached by a three-minute gondola ride from Nita Pass.
Mount Aso, or Aso-san, is actually five separate volcanic peaks. Located on Japan’s southern island of Kyushu near the city of Kumamoto, the Aso-san volcanic area is so massive that whole villages lie within its boundaries. One of the five volcanoes, Mount Nakadake, is still active and is the area’s main attraction, but when the volcano spews gases, the entire area is shut down. Other peaks are popular destinations as well. Treks around the region range from short walks to day-long hikes. Near the Mount Aso Museum is a heliport where visitors can arrange for breath-taking albeit expensive flyovers.
Located less than two hours from Tokyo, Mount Fuji is Japan’s most recognizable landmark, visited by millions and climbed by more than 300,000 people each year. Legend says that Mount Fuji was created in a single day; geologically, the current volcano is believed to have formed over the top of an older volcano around 10,000 years ago. The climb up Fuji is so popular there’s a post office at the top so that those who reach the summit can send a postcard back home from the crest of the 3,800 meter (12,400 foot) high peak. It’s a steep and arduous climb, however. Travelers looking for a less taxing experience can enjoy spectacular views of Fuji from nearby Tenjo-Yama Park where a cable car takes visitors 1,000 meter (3,000 feet) up to the Fuji Viewing Platform.