Posts Tagged With: eruption

Aloha, Dammit

Having realized a year ago that winter in Hawaii is nicer than winter in Maryland — a shocker, I know — we have rented the same Kona house as last year and are currently enduring the rigors of the Big Island.

I can feel your skepticism. But there are rigors, or at least there were last weekend, as getting here was a first class pain in the okole (as the Hawaiians say, referring to a body part that is not “neck”). In brief, our journey here involved:

  • A canceled flight from Baltimore to Los Angeles;
  • A rebooked flight that left two hours late;
  • A fire alarm in our hotel in LA, resulting in a hotel evacuation; and
  • A canceled flight from LA to Honolulu.

There was more, but I’ll spare you the details since, being on vacation in Hawaii and all, I am not expecting an outrigger-canoe-load of sympathy. Anyway, we are here for nearly a month, accompanied for our first week by my BFF and former Evil Assistant Angie (she’s still evil, but since I’m retired she’s not my assistant anymore) and her (and our) friend Diana.

Remarkably, despite our tribulations we arrived in Kona only 90 minutes later than originally planned. The island is little changed from a year ago, with two notable exceptions: (1) there has been a lot more rain the past year than in the year before, meaning that many areas are much greener than a year ago, and there is much less haze in the air; and (2) the volcano is in eruption. More on both in a moment.

Our first stop was one of our favorite venues in town, the Kona Farmer’s Market. We even recognized some of the same vendors, and the assortment of tropical fruits and tourist tchotchkes was reassuringly familiar.

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Both we and our friends were anxious to see the volcano, and so we headed there straightaway on Day Two, pausing only in the town of Naalehu — the southernmost town in the US, at latitude 19°N — to gorge on malasadas, the beignet-like treat that is a Big Island specialty. (I wrote about both the town and the baked good in this post a year ago.)

We arrived at the 4000 ft summit of Kilauea in late afternoon, our plan being to stay until dark so that we could see the glow of the lava lake in Halema’uma’u crater. The summit was clear, much less hazy than a year ago, and so the view out over the caldera was striking:

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That’s Halema’uma’u in the middle of the scene. For reference, it’s about 1000 ft across and about a half mile away. The steam rising off it is from the lava lake below the rim; it is low at the moment, well below the crater rim and thus not directly in sight. But its glow illuminates the steam at night.

We spent a few hours exploring the park with our friends, walking around on the lava fields and, as ever, marveling at the tenacity with which plant life re-establishes itself after an eruption, like this:

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In addition to the lava fields there are a number of fumaroles around the park, and since it was late in the day we were able to enjoy the sight of the afternoon sunlight streaming through the outputs of the steam vents.

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By 6:30 PM the sky was darkening, and we were in full darkness by the time we returned to the caldera overlook, to be greeted by these scenes out of Dante:

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On Kilauea’s southern flank, about ten miles south of the summit, is the Pu’u O eruption site. This particular site became active 34 years ago and is gradually adding to the Big Island’s surface area: when it is in eruption, its lava stream flows miles downhill to the sea, where it makes a dramatic and steamy entrance. It is possible to get to that site and see the lava flow, but it isn’t easy: you either have to hike 8 miles (roundtrip) over lava, or pay big bucks to hire a boat or a helicopter. Neither seemed practical, so we contented ourselves with the entertainingly hellish view of Halema’uma’u and called it a day.

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Categories: Hawaii | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Fujiyama

It’s hard to think of a more iconic image of Japan than snow-capped Mt. Fuji. It’s also hard to actually ever see snow-capped Mt. Fuji: the mountain is only visible 30% of the time. However, we tend to have good weather karma when on travel, so our hopes were high. It seems that, perhaps only briefly, the rain and gloom that marked our first week has lifted, and by the time our bus reached the outskirts of  Tokyo the skies were clear and sunny.

It’s an hour or two drive from downtown Tokyo to the mountain, so our tour lead Mariko used the time to (a) give us a Japanese lesson (I can now ask a variety of questions whose answers I will not understand); (b) talk about Japan’s (poor) attitude towards women, about which more in a moment; and (c) sing us a traditional song about Mt. Fuji, a.k.a. Fujiyama. (The -yama suffix means “mountain”.) More about that song in a moment as well.

Cool electronic gadgets notwithstanding, Japan is decades behind the West in things like gay rights and treatment of women. Mariko herself is a prime example of the latter. She is an attractive 40 year old (though could easily pass for 30) who is educated, has lived abroad and traveled extensively; and who is articulate, energetic, and good-humored. In any Western country she would have guys knocking down her door. In Japan, she is basically poison. An independent, educated woman with a career is more or less synonymous with “spinster” in this country: the stereotype is real that Japanese men want a subservient wife with few interests of her own who will stay home with the children. This is why Mariko is 40 and unmarried, which is practically criminal: some guy is missing out on a really good bet. But that’s the mindset here.

The excitement level among our 15-person crew ramped up as we approached the mountain: the weather had stayed clear and we got a gorgeous view of Fujiyama from the bus. (No snowcap, though. The mountain is 12,400 ft tall and can get snow at any time of year, but the odds are much higher in the winter.) Fifteen minutes later we were at the visitor center….and a layer of clouds had moved in, completely obscuring the upper half of the mountain. Here are a couple shots of the visitor center that I took to sublimate my disappointment.

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Notice that in the visitor center signage the mountain is called “Fujisan”. The -san suffix is a general-purpose form of address applied to a person: you would call your friend John Doe either “John-san” or “Doe-san”. In calling the mountain Fujisan the Japanese are in effect anthropomorphizing it, which is not surprising considering that the mountain is itself a Shinto deity. It’s not a bad choice of deity, either: large, powerful, and unpredictable. Fujiyama is an active volcano whose last eruption was a little over 300 years ago and which is considered by geologists to be overdue for another one.

By the time we left the visitor center there appeared to be some optimism-inspiring motion of the clouds, and so Mariko directed the driver to take us to a vantage point at one of the five lakes that are adjacent to the mountain. (There is a lot of recreational boating on those lakes, and a fair number of condos on shore; it’s a popular resort area.) In any case it was a good move, because not long after we arrived at that venue, which had some nice gardens as a bonus, this was our view:

fujiyama-010In case you were wondering, that puff of white at the peak of the mountain is just a wisp of cloud in the background, not an impending eruption. In any case, working against a 70% probability that we would not get to see the peak at all, this was a big win and we were very excited.

We then set up the mountain. The way up is divided into 10 “stations”, and the road ends at station #5 at an elevation of a little below 8000 ft. Above that, there’s a foot trail to the summit that takes about 6 hours to complete. It’s a popular climb, as you’d suppose: during the ten week climbing season (July through mid-September), over 100,000 people trek to the summit. We were not going to be among them; most tourists stop at station 5 as we did. Very unusually, the weather at the station had stayed clear for us, allowing a view of the peak. So here we are, two-thirds of the way up Fujisan, with the peak in the background.

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Don’t erupt yet, please. Thank you.

Satisfied that we had beaten the odds, we headed back the mountain and straight into one of those experiences that make Japan… um… Japan. Remember that traditional song that I mentioned? (Oh, by the way, in addition to her other virtues Mariko has a very sweet singing voice.) As we headed down the highway out of the park we reached a stretch that had a musical note painted on the road surface. A few moments later the bus started to hum.

Yes, hum. The Japanese have engineered a quarter-mile stretch of road with thousands of little ridges built into it, like micro-speed bumps, whose spacing is such that they cause your vehicle to vibrate at a pre-planned pitch. Yes, as you drive down this stretch of road your car hums the traditional song about Mt. Fuji. I mean holy crap, how Japanese can you get? We were impressed.

We drove for another hour and a half to the resort town of Hakone, where we will be spending the next two nights. Hakone is a hot springs resort — Fuji is an active volcano, remember? — meaning that its specialty is geothermal mineral baths in all the hotels. Our hotel is a typical one and caters mostly to Japanese clientele; once checked in we were each issued sandals and a yakuta, which is the traditional house robe, kind of like a simple version of a kimono. We wear the yakuta and sandals around the hotel rather than street clothes. It’s kind of like being at a grand-scale pajama party. Here’s a picture of our whole group at a traditional Japanese dinner this evening (except for me, since I took the shot).

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You can see Alice, third from the right in the back row. Mariko is kneeling, second from the left. My robe is the same as the ones that the two guys on the ends are wearing.

It’s a pleasant hotel, and they even have free ice cream in the lobby (woo hoo!). Alice has already had a session in the hot springs pool. (This is done au naturel, men and women separated.) Tomorrow we will be exploring the area a little more.

 

Categories: Japan | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Comin’ Round the (Volcanic) Mountain

One of the enjoyments of the Big Island is the number of semi-rustic, idiosyncratic enclaves that harken, if not exactly “old Hawaii”, certainly off-the-beaten-path Hawaii. The small towns in Kohala are good examples of this, but another good place to experience it is in the southern reaches of the island. And those southern reaches are very southern indeed from an American geographical perspective: the southernmost point of the Big Island, accurately if unimaginatively named South Point, is at 18°55′ latitude the southernmost point in the U.S. (Key West, Florida also likes to boast this distinction, conveniently neglecting to include the important qualification that it is only the southernmost point in the continental U.S. It is in fact a good 5° further north than South Point.)

South Point is a pretty isolated, windswept point with little to recommend it except its geographical distinction. It is accessible by car by a road that branches south from the highway that circles the island. Not far from that branch point is the funky little town of Naalehu, which at 19°4′ latitude enjoys the distinction of being the southernmost town in the U.S. It is a sleepy, friendly village of 900 people that boasts the Hona Hau restaurant (“the southernmost restaurant in the US”), Shaka’s (“the southernmost bar in the U.S.”), and the Punalu’u Bakery (guess what). In fact, pretty much everything there — and there isn’t a lot — is the southernmost something in the U.S.

But it’s fun precisely because of its isolation. It enjoys its share of eccentric characters, like so many Hawaiian enclaves.

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This guy proudly informed me that he had suffered five traumatic head injuries.

The Punulu’u Bakery in particular is worth a visit, specializing as it does in one of the joys of Hawaiian cuisine: the malasada. Hawaii has a large ethnic Portuguese population, and the malasada is a traditional Portuguese treat whose description I will crib from Wikipedia for you:

A malasada (or malassada, from Portuguesemalassada” = “under-cooked”) (similar to filhós) is a Portuguese confection, made of egg-sized balls of yeast dough that are deep-fried in oil and coated with granulated sugar….  Traditional malasadas contain neither holes nor fillings, but some varieties of malasadas are filled with flavored cream or other fillings. Malasadas are eaten especially on Mardi Gras – the day before Ash Wednesday.

Punaluu-003It all sounds very exotic but I suppose that if I told you it was a jelly doughnut it would seem much less exciting. No matter. The Hawaiian version departs from the above description in two important ways: (1) the Hawaiians like them with fillings and icings, though the plain kind (just sugar) are also common. And (2) screw Mardi Gras, everybody eats them all the time, a genuine local tradition.

We pigged out on them: vanilla filling, chocolate filling, lilikoi (passion fruit) icing, etc., etc. Eight million empty calories and we loved every minute of it.

We continued our counterclockwise drive, rounding South Point and Naalehu and turning northeast towards Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. We’ll make another, more extensive trip there later that I will write about in due course, but our purpose yesterday had a narrow focus. As it happens, our son Gabriel is an atmospheric science postdoc at MIT and has been on the island for about three weeks with a research group, placing air sensors around the island to measure sulfur dioxide (SO2), and those sensors now needed to be picked up.

A number of the sensors were in a large lava field, many miles across, known as the Kau Desert. This lava has all been exuded by Kilauea Volcano, the centerpiece of the national park. It takes a number of forms depending on the temperature, gas content, and circumstances under which it was formed, but the two most common forms are a’a (pronounced ah-ah), which is sharp-edged, clinkery stuff, and pahoehoe (“pa-hoy-hoy”), which is ropy and relatively smooth and clearly evinces its original liquid form. The combination make for dramatic, seemingly extraterrestrial landscapes.

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But the desolation notwithstanding, life always finds a way. You can see some yellow flowers in the top picture, but the reigning champion of post-eruption hardiness is the ohi’a lehua plant, which is actually an evergreen related to the myrtle. Its bottlebrush-like red flowers are the first to gain a foothold in a new lava flow, hopeful little outposts of color in a sea of black and gray.

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O’hia flowers are very common sights on lava fields, especially at elevations above 1000′ (300 m) or so. They are only found in Hawaii, yet another reminder of the uniqueness of this place.

Categories: Hawaii | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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