From the majestic Mount Fuji to an underwater volcano that formed a new island last year, Japan’s 109 active volcanoes make up about 10% of all active volcanoes in the world. The reason Japan has so many volcanic peaks is that its approximately 6,800 islands stretch across the Pacific Ring of Fire, an area of high seismic activity. This is why Japan is very prone to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.
All of this had a profound impact on Japanese culture, as well as the development of its densely populated coastal towns. Although steaming volcanoes have been revered and adored by locals and depicted in countless works of art and haikus, they also make for fabulous hiking and mountaineering. Of its many mountains and volcanoes, the illustrious Mount Fuji is the nation’s most important and iconic symbol.
1. Mount Fuji
Located less than two hours from Tokyo, Mount Fuji is Japan’s most recognizable monument, visited by millions of people and climbed by more than 300,000 each year. Legend has it that Mount Fuji was created in one day; Geologically, the current volcano is believed to have formed on top of an older volcano around 10,000 years ago. The climb to Fuji is so popular that there is a post office at the top for those who reach the top to send a postcard home from the peak of the 3,800-meter-high summit. However, it is a steep and arduous climb. Travelers looking for a less demanding experience can enjoy spectacular views of Fuji from nearby Tenjo-Yama Park, where a cable car takes visitors 1,000 meters to the Fuji Observation Deck .
2. Mount Unzen
Near the town of Shimabara on the island of Kyushu is the group of volcanoes known as Mount Unzen. The eruptions of these volcanoes date back six million years, but until recently they were believed to be dormant. In 1934, a national park was established and a small town emerged to welcome visitors. In 1990, one of the volcanoes, Mount Fugen, set off a series of eruptions. Today the mountain is dormant again and visitors can climb the 1,359-meter peak to enjoy panoramic views. To shorten the hike, most hikers approach the climb from Mount Myoken, which is a three-minute gondola ride from Nita Pass.
3. Mount Aso
Mount Aso, or Aso-san, is actually made up of five distinct volcanic peaks. Located on the island of Kyushu in southern Japan, near the city of Kumamoto, the Aso-san volcanic zone is so vast that there are entire villages within its boundaries. One of the five volcanoes, Mount Nakadake, is still active and is the main attraction in the area, but when the volcano expels gas, the whole area closes. Other peaks are also popular destinations. Excursions in the area range from short walks to day hikes. Near the Mount Aso Museum, there is a helipad where visitors can organize impressive, albeit expensive, overflights.
Above the historic city of Kagoshima on Kyushu Island are the three volcanoes that make up the Sakurajima stratovolcano. Of these, the Minami-dake is the most recent. He regularly pours ashes over the city. Adventurous travelers who want an up-close experience with a living volcano are rarely disappointed. Although visitors are not allowed to climb the edge of the dangerous crater, excellent views can be enjoyed from the Yunohira viewpoint, which can be reached in about two hours on foot or a few minutes by car.
Suwanosejima is the second largest island in the serene and isolated Tokara archipelago. At its heart is the 796-meter-high cone of one of the most active volcanoes in Japan, and indeed the world. Due to its frequent and violent eruptions, only about fifty people live on the island. Throughout its history it has had to be abandoned many times when the going gets too dangerous. However, the stratovolcano looks impressive; its arid slopes contrast with the sparkling sea that surrounds it. Located about a nine-hour boat ride from mainland Japan, subtropical Suwanosejima and its smoking volcano certainly takes some effort.
6. Mount Usu
Located in western Hokkaido, the second largest island in Japan, Mount Usu sits amidst breathtaking scenery in Shikotsu-Toya National Park. Although it only reaches 733 meters in height, the imposing presence of the stratovolcano looms over the surrounding forests and countryside. From its summit, accessible by scenic cable car, visitors can enjoy panoramic views of the park and the sparkling waters of Lake Toya, located in a caldera next to it. In addition, the park includes the characteristic lava dome of Showa-shinzan, as well as soothing hot springs and numerous craters that formed during the last eruption of Mount Usu in 2000.
With a magnificent crater, Shinmoedake is part of the Mount Kirishima group of volcanoes that cluster in Kyushu, the third largest island in Japan. Its massive crater is actually its most famous and appealing feature: Villainous villain Blofeld used the cauldron as a base in the 1967 James Bond film, You Only Live Twice. Although it once housed a glorious lake in the crater, it is now sadly covered with a lava dome after the volcano’s last eruption in 2018. The Shinmoedake is meant for fabulous excursions. From its 1,421-meter-high rim, you can enjoy a magnificent view of the many mountains of Kirishima-Yaku National Park.
8. Mount Asama
Located in the center of the main Japanese island of Honshu, Mount Asama rises 2,568 meters above sea level and dominates 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 in 2009 and sending ash as far as Tokyo. Despite the potential danger of another eruption, Mount Asama remains a popular vacation destination. Visitors come to ski the adjacent slopes of the summit and bathe in the area’s natural hot springs.
9. Fit the plug
Mount Ontake, the second highest volcano in Japan after the iconic Mount Fuji, dominates its surroundings at 3,067 meters above sea level. Around the imposing volcano are five sparkling crater lakes that visitors can visit, with Nino at 2,905 meters being the highest lake in the country. Mount Ontake, long considered sacred, attracts many pilgrims and devotees, who come to travel its ancient pilgrimage route. It takes you through impressive nature, with beautiful views that can be enjoyed from its imposing summit. In addition to its extraordinary beauty, the mystical mountain has magnificent hot springs and fantastic ski resorts. Although Mount Ontake is generally considered very safe, the volcano unexpectedly erupted in 2014, tragically killing 63 people in the process.
10. Mount Kusatsu-Shirane
Rising above the onsen town of Kusatsu in Gunma Prefecture, Mount Kusatsu-Shirane is a popular destination due to its stunning scenery, high peak, and abundance of well-marked hiking trails. Formed by a series of overlapping volcanic cones, its summit reaches 2,171 meters, with three sparkling crater lakes hidden among its highest realms. Of these, Yugama – the largest lake – is the most notable feature of the mountain, as its colorful waters contrast with the desolate landscapes that surround it. In summer and spring, the many hiking trails of Mount Kusatsu-Shirane attract many visitors, while in winter you can go skiing. Plus, the bubbling springs at the base of the volcano are always a popular attraction, regardless of the season.
11. Mount Norikura
The third highest volcano in all of Japan, Mount Norikura, rises to 3,025 meters. This snow-capped stratovolcano, which is part of the Hida Mountains, is located in Chubu-Sangaku National Park, surrounded by beautiful valleys, ravines and rivers. Many crater lakes and alpine meadows lurk on its slopes, while hardened lava flows lie near its summit. Mount Norikura, which means “saddle” in Japanese because of its long ridge and plateau, is a popular place for hiking and climbing for its majestic scenery and magnificent views.
12. Mount Yake
Located in the mountainous Nagano Prefecture in central Japan, Mount Yake is one of the most active volcanoes in the Hida Mountains. As such, numerous fields of hardened lava can be seen on its slopes, while steam and gas are still emitted from a fumarole near its top. Overlooking the reflective waters of Lake Taisho, the two peaks of Mount Yake offer magnificent views, and between them is a charming little crater lake. Rising 2,455 meters above sea level, Mount Yake is rightly listed as one of Japan’s 100 Famous Mountains, a list of the country’s most famous mountains.