Most of the volcanoes in Gunma are extinct, or at least long dormant. They may erupt again, some day, but all signs point to a nice peaceful slumber for the present. However, in the far northern part of Gunma, near Nagano, there are a few mountains that are a little more awake. One of these is Mt. Shirane, an 7,123 foot volcano that last erupted in 1983.
Like Mt. Aso in Kyushu, the summit crater contains a milky blue acidic lake that reeks of sulfur. In fact, the entire mountain has a faint sulfur smell. The road to the top passes through an area of vents and springs that spew sulfur into the air. Foolishly I rolled down my window during that portion of the drive, and the smell stayed in the car for quite some time!
The locals put all that hot sulfur water to good use, the large and famous spa town of Kusatsu is nestled at the base of the mountain. The highway to Kusatsu is called the Japan Romantic Road, and on a segment right before the town there is a melody road. You know the grooves that are sometimes cut in the side of the road to wake you up if you go to far over? A melody road is like that, but the grooves cross the whole road, and the tones you hear make up a song.
I had known there was a melody road somewhere in Gunma, but never quite where it was, so I was pretty surprised when these weird noises enveloped the car!
The top of Shirane was a delight, far cooler and less muggy than the flats down below. The day before I had been in Tokyo, and difference in climate was very noticeable, and very welcome.There were a variety of hiking trails along the top, but Travis's leg was in a fair amount of pain from an old soccer injury, and he wasn't up to do much walking.
As we had been driving up, I was surprised to see highway buses negotiating the road to the top, direct from Shinjuku in Tokyo. The area is known to local tourists, but I don't think Shirane is very high on the list for people visiting Japan, which is a shame. There aren't many easily accesible active volcanoes in the world, and while Shirane may not have the cache and lava explosions of Kilauea it is still a great place to visit.