URABANDAI KOGEN, Japan — 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.
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.
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."
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
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.
"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.
"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."