There’s something intrinsically unnerving about gas masks, isn’t there? I can’t quite put my finger on what it is. Not only is their design somehow unusual and ‘wrong,’ but they’ve come to represent something truly frightening. It’s not what they are, as such, but what they protect us from. Toxic gases, whether natural or manmade.
Do you remember the Doctor Who episodes "The Empty Child" and "The Doctor Dances?" This two-parter focused on a child who had been genetically altered by alien technology, wearing a gas mask (which was actually flesh and bone) which was clearly empty behind the visor. There was something primal about that, and it was about as dark as the freshly-rebooted 2005 take on the show got.
Anyway, back here in the real world, street scenes featuring people clutching the masks have an otherworldly, uncomfortable sort of feeling to them. It’s that feeling you get at a museum, when you’re looking at something you’re vaguely familiar with but can’t see the real-world applications of it anymore. You can’t quite empathise with it, I suppose. It doesn’t belong.
With all of this in mind, it makes perfect sense that a place with the unsettling nickname of Gas-Mask Town isn’t going to be everybody’s first choice vacation spot. It sounds more like the setting for a Stephen King novel or a horror movie. Nevertheless, for the more adventurous travellers among you, this unusual place could be just what you’re looking for. If you’ve got nerves of the steeliest steel, join us for this rundown of everything you need to know about Miyake-Jima.
20 Well, THAT Doesn’t Sound Ominous At All
Now, before we get into the gas masks and such, there’s something super crucial that you need to know about Miyake-Jima. Before we get to the nitty-gritty, even the very location of the place is enough to warn you that it may not be your average glamourous vacation spot.
About 100km south of Tokyo, Japan, you’ll find a spot in the Pacific Ocean known as the Devil’s Sea. It’s notorious as a hotbed of disappearing vessels (hence the nickname Pacific Bermuda Triangle), Marine Insight reports. While the exact position of these waters is tough to pinpoint, there’s no doubt that Miyake-Jima is right there in the firing line.
19 A Volcano Too? Sure, Why Not
So, yes. Already, you can see how Miyake-Jima is giving off a kind of standoffish vibe. This isn’t a place you come to for 5-star luxury and super happy welcomes. This isn’t a dang Disney Cruise. Does the Gas-Mask Town sound like it’s playing around? That’s because it isn’t.
Miyake Island, as we’ve established, is found just off the coast of Japan. Foreboding as its name may be, it’s nothing compared to the little surprise that Mother Nature prepared for the place. The island is a stratovolcano (i.e. a conical one that consists of layers of pumice, ash and so forth).
18 Volcanoes: Rarely Good News
Before we go any further, I’ll have to point out that the whole stratovolcano thing defines everything about Miyake. It’s crucial to making the place what it is. Let’s pause for a quick look at what exactly is so foreboding about stratovolcanoes, then.
When it comes to volcanoes in general, there are probably two major ones that spring to everyone’s minds: Vesuvius and Krakatoa. Their infamous eruptions, in 79 AD and 1883 respectively, still serve to remind the world of the awesome and untameable power of nature. You guessed it, they’re both stratovolcanoes too. Living on the site of another, right there in the Devil’s Sea? That’s more than a little unsettling, I must admit.
17 Dormant Shmormant
Volcanoes, as we all know, are some of the most frightening, formidable and uncontrollable forces on Earth. On that scale, they’re second only to the super-bright outfits Elton John wore on stage in the sixties. The most worrying thing of all? You can never quite be sure when one of them is going to erupt.
Yet another worry about Miyake-Jima is that it certainly has a violent history. In June 2000, Earth Observatory reports, a powerful eruption blanketed the surrounding area in ash and earthquakes ravaged the island. It’s like living on a beautiful-yet-angry time bomb that isn’t sure whether it appreciates your presence or not.
16 Gas, Gas Everywhere, So Let’s All…
No, I’m not quite sure where that heading was going either. I liked the reference, but lost faith in it at the end there. Never mind all that, though. What’s important is that Miyake-Jima’s eruptions, like the Chernobyl tragedy, have consequences much further-reaching than the incidents themselves.
Quite apart from the lava, ash and other substances expelled, vast and deadly clouds of gas were also released. And continue to be released. Most pertinently, Mount Oyama has periodically released huge concentrations of sulphur dioxide gas over the years. This is not good news whichever way you slice it and has a huge bearing on life on Miyake-Jima.
15 Now, About Those Gas Masks
You guessed it, friends. It’s this volatile, gas-leaky environment that gives the island its sombre nickname of Gas-Mask Town. Following the eruption of 2000, a mandatory evacuation saw most of the island’s residents (about 3,600, according to Earth Observatory’s report) relocate to Tokyo. It was five years before this order started to relax, and the residents were able to gradually return.
As a result of this volatile environment, the residents of Miyake-Jima are required to carry gas masks with them at all times. Not to constantly be worn (that really would be beyond the pale), but to ensure that they are ready at a moment’s notice.
14 That Goes For Visitors, Too
So, from everything we’ve seen so far, you might think that this would be the sort of place that even the most intrepid travellers wouldn’t dare to venture to. Nevertheless, it’s quite an attractive tourist destination, considering (for reasons we’ll go into later).
Visitors, naturally, will have to protect themselves from the gases too. As Yabai reports, tourists have various options for purchasing gas masks on arrival on the island, such as the Takeshiba Terminal and the Miyakejima Tourist Association Store. It’s a legal requirement to carry one, you see, so this isn’t just a quaint ‘buy a haggis just because you’re in Scotland’ sort of deal.
13 Speaking Of Tourists…
So, yes. Here you are on Miyake-Jima. You’ve read up on the island’s various frightening foibles, you know your stuff, you’ve got your gas mask. Are you sure you’re ready, though? I mean really ready?
If you’re one of those travellers who love to visit the more exotic and remote regions of the wild, you’ll be familiar with the various jabs and such that are sometimes needed. There are some grisly diseases out there, after all, which we are totally not prepared for.
Here on Miyake-Jima, though, things go a little further. Even with a gas mask, the authorities on Miyake want to be really sure you’re ready for what you’re going to encounter.
12 Peak Fitness Or Nothing
Our experiences as travellers are all going to be entirely different, of course. That’s the beauty of the whole experience. You can watch the most beautiful cities in the world pass you buy from the deck of a luxurious cruise ship, or you can roam the wilds with just the contents of your backpack for company.
For some of us, then, the most ‘preparation’ our bodies have ever had to do for a trip is to take a travel sickness tablet or two. Not so for those wanting to see Miyake-Jima, though. According to The Plaid Zebra, the authorities recommend that those thinking of visiting have a respiratory medical exam prior to making the trip.
11 Early Warning System
But let’s say you’re totally unfazed by all of this. You’ve watched all the trashiest stuff that reality TV has to throw at us, and you’re totally immune to any and all frights the world has in store. You’re on the island, you’re all set, you’ve got your gas mask right there.
How do you know when you’ll need to use it? Of course, the Japanese authorities are monitoring the volcano and the island in general, through satellite imagery and other instruments. Should the gas levels reach a particular threshold, warning alarms will sound. At any time of the day or night.
10 Man, That’s A Busy Volcano
Now, of course, there are lots of people living on volcanic islands at this very moment. The beautiful island of Sicily, in Italy, is home to Mount Etna. Another stratovolcano, and one of the tallest and most active in Europe. Naples, meanwhile, is a large and beautiful city that lays in the shadow of the currently-dormant Vesuvius. Volcanoes are just a fact of life, and people become accustomed (as far as possible) to their dangers and foibles.
History shows, however, that Miyake-Jima’s volcano erupts approximately every 20 years. The island faces the same precarious situation that similar communities all over the world do: when next?
9 The Consequences
Back on the subject of the last big eruption of 2000 (I’ll try not to point out how close we’re coming to that next twenty-year interval), another surprising thing is just how long the area takes to recover. Even after the immediate danger has passed, the aftershock (as it were) is lengthy.
As we’ve already seen, the island was evacuated in the wake of the eruption, and the residents didn’t begin to return until 2005. That’s damning enough, but according to JPNInfo, the danger was so great that no flights to or from the island were permitted for eight years!
8 That Sneaking Sulphur
So, as we’ve firmly established, it’s the seismic activity and the resultant gas expulsion that is the key to Gas-Mask Town’s somber style.
Human beings are a resilient bunch, and a super stubborn one to boot. With this combination of traits, it’s no surprise that they’ll learn to adapt to continue living in the homes they love. However dangerous it may be.
It’s true that the levels of gas have fluctuated wildly over the course of the island’s history, but when it goes all out, it really goes all out. According to The Express, Mount Oyama has been recorded as spilling out 42,000 tons of sulphur dioxide in a single day!
7 But What Of The People?
And there lies the rub. It’s one thing for a people to be determined to carry on their lives, gas masks and all, but still. These are huge quantities of toxic gas. It must be having some adverse effects on the islanders’ bodies, right?
In May 2017, the Journal of Occupational Health (Japan Society For Occupation Health) published a study of the effects of the sulphur dioxide on the respiratory systems of resident adults. The conclusion?
“Adult residents of Miyakejima island showed no deterioration in pulmonary function at SO2 levels, but complained of respiratory/irritative symptoms in an SO2 concentration-dependent manner.”
Scratchy throats and irritated eyes are all that was really observed.
6 Just Making The Best Of It
I suppose, as with so many things today (cell phone use predominant among them), we just don’t quite know everything we can about the potential dangers. This isn’t going to stop people having their smartphones permanently grafted to their hands, and it’s not going to stop the residents of the island from living their everyday lives either.
As is common of the islands of Asia, fishing and farming remain big industries on Miyake-Jima. Life goes on, as they say, and there are certain things you’re just powerless to resist. Nature is an incredible force, and not one to mess with. The residents have come to accept the extraordinary as ordinary.
5 Just What Is Sulphur Dioxide?
At this point in the rundown, there’s one thing that you still may be wondering. What is this unique danger that the people of Miyake-Jima face? What exactly is sulphur dioxide? For some of us, after all, it’s a bit of a buzzword.
As an air pollutant, sulphur dioxide is relatively common. As industries become more and more centred around the rapid burning of fossil fuels, more and more of it is expelled. It’s also, of course, naturally expelled by volcanic eruptions.
According to The EPA, high concentrations can adversely affect the respiratory system (as we saw earlier), as well as a region’s plant life, stunting growth and serving as a precursor to acid rain.
4 It’s Truly Ground-Breaking
Or, I suppose, earth-shattering. There’s not really much to choose between these cheap puns.
Anyway, never mind all of that. We’ve already seen that the Miyake-Jima region is incredibly volatile, with its frequent eruptions and high concentration of toxic gases. What’s most fascinating, though, is the sheer amount of earthquakes that hit the region.
Seismic events tend to come hand in hand with volcanic eruptions, but on this scale? Amazingly, since the time of the fateful June 2000 eruption hit, over 17,500 earthquakes rocked the island! Now that’s taking volatile to a whole new level.
3 Just Can’t Stay Away
So, by this stage, you’ve probably heard all you need to know about the intriguing, dangerous, enigmatic Miyake-Jima. Maybe you’re totally pumped to plan a trip there, or maybe you’re completely committed to never coming anywhere near the place. You do you, friends, you do you.
Here’s something interesting, though. Something that really does say a lot about the resilience of the human spirit. When the island was evacuated after the most recent eruption, it had around 3,600 residents. Despite everything that they’d gone through, and the new homes they’d have five years to make for themselves in Tokyo, 2,800 of them returned. That’s a special kind of chutzpah.
2 Even The Bravest Dare Not Enter
Now, you can say what you will about the indomitable spirit of the residents. The unsettling nature of their way of life, which seems like an intriguing mystery to most of us. You can also take a look at the EPA’s warnings about sulphur dioxide, and the inconclusive evidence of medical studies on the citizens.
As dangerous as living in the Gas-Mask Town may seem, through a combination of stubbornness and as-safe-as-they-can-be-considering government policies, the locals are doing just fine.
Having said all of that, it’s important to point out that about one third of the island is completely out of bounds and uninhabitable. What kinds of effects have the volcano and resultant gases had on those regions, I wonder?
1 A Tragic Beauty
So, all in all, it can be tough to see how a visit to Miyake-Jima can appeal. For many of us, it’s right up there on the nope list. Even so, it remains a popular spot. For those of us who have seen the stunning likes of Rome, Paris and the like, this is just the sort of quirky, out there experience the doctor ordered (providing they’ve given you their okay to go there in the first place, of course).
Intrigue aside, The region is a place of great natural beauty. It’s also famed for its diving spots, a popular place to swim with dolphins. You’ve just got to be able to look past the island’s odd reputation to see that.
References: Marine Insight, Earth Observatory, Yabai, The Plaid Zebra, The Express, NCBI, EPA.