More than 30 bodies were found yesterday after a volcano in central Japan erupted without warning, engulfing hundreds of weekend hikers in smoke and ash.

The rescue effort had to be suspended after a strong smell of sulphur hinted at further possible eruptions on Mount Ontake in the Japan Alps.

The eruption began on a fine late summer weekend when hundreds of climbers were on Mt Ontake, a 3,067m high mountain on the border of Gifu and Nagano prefectures.

More than 200 people escaped from the mountain alive, 40 of them injured.

Nineteen people were taken off by military helicopters.

Some of the survivors described sheltering in mountain huts and a Shinto shrine, as volcanic rocks rained down, and fleeing past bodies partially buried in ash, The Times reported.

Preliminary work by 550 soldiers and rescue workers suggests that this was the most deadly eruption in 23 years.

A cable car carries visitors two thirds of the way up and a range of relatively easy trails makes it popular with casual hikers.