Six years ago, Mount Ontake was the site of the worst volcanic disaster in Japan's postwar history. An eruption killed 58 people. Five people are still missing. Ichikawa's hut reopened one year later but it hasn't been until recently that climbers have returned in anything like their old numbers. And just as business was finally regaining some of its former vigor, the coronavirus struck.
Mount Ontake, which straddles Nagano and Gifu prefectures, was getting ready for a full-fledged climbing season when the effects of the outbreak reached its slopes. Ichikawa had hoped to reopen the hut in late May, one week earlier than usual. He was planning to install a new stove to provide better meals for his guests. But now, the prospects of this happening are dim.
On April 16, the Japanese government expanded its state of emergency to cover the entire country. Prime Minister Abe Shinzo called on the public to refrain from making non-essential excursions or traveling to their hometowns in an effort to slow the spread of infection
Mountain huts like Ichikawa's provide settings that are particularly well-suited for spreading the virus. The government says the risk of cluster infections is high in environments where the so-called "three Cs" overlap—closed spaces with poor ventilation, crowded conditions, and conversations in close proximity. Cottages fit all three categories.
Dr. Kamiya Kazuko is a member of the Japanese Society of Mountain Medicine. She says climbers should think about the situation in the country before they decide to embark on trips at this time.
"Some people show no symptoms even if they contract the virus," she says. "If climbers with no symptoms visit mountain huts, there is a high risk they will spread the virus."
Kamikochi in Nagano Prefecture is a resort area that serves as the gateway to Japan's Northern Alps. The road leading to the main town was reopened for climbing season on April 17. But tourists are few and far between. Most hotels and shops have closed.
The Japan Alpine Lodge Association comprises mountain hut operators across the Northern Alps. To fight the outbreak, members agreed not to accept guests until May 6.
Ichikawa is now weighing whether it will be feasible to reopen his hut on weekends in June. He says he is considering implementing various preventive measures, such as reducing the number of guests from 100 to 30.
"I've managed to overcome various challenges since the eruption six years ago," he says. "The coronavirus is just another hurdle. Now is the time to prepare so I can reopen as soon as the outbreak ends. I don't want to waste even one minute."