I’ve always been intrigued by volcanoes.
In 1990, when I was 5 or 6 years old, my father and I drove from Townsville to Adelaide and I vividly remember passing Mt Warning, a long-extinct volcano in northern NSW that last erupted over 20 million years ago. Dad explained the concept of a volcano to me, but I didn’t quite grasp the severity of it until a few years later during a primary school science class. We’d been studying entry-level geology and the class had all participated in making a plasticine mountain with a deep hole in the top to represent a volcano crater. We spooned some bicarbonate soda inside the makeshift crater, and on top of it poured a few capfuls of cider vinegar, the result of which brought on a chemical reaction resembling an eruption strong enough to impress any 10 year old child. How was it possible for a volcanic outburst to occur naturally on a scale a thousand times greater than the science classroom, I wondered?
In the mid-2000’s I returned to Mt Warning a number of times and climbed to its summit, each time marvelling at the fiery activity that would have occurred many epochs prior. Then in Italy in 2009, I was fortunate enough to visit the remnants of Pompeii, the ancient Roman city barbarously buried by volcanic Vesuvius ash two millennia ago. It was extremely harrowing to walk the streets of a town brought to its demise from the destructive force of the Mt Vesuvius explosion, and the experience reiterated the wonder of nature’s flaming ferocity to me. A few months later I considered returning to Italy to visit Mt Etna, one of the largest and most active volcanoes in Europe, but a change of plans meant I had to push forward the chance to directly witness one of these colossal spewing mountains to another year.
This leads me to only six weeks ago when I spent ten days journeying through Japan, my mind about as far away as it could be from the prospect of volcanoes, teeming instead with images of Shinto temples, paper cranes, sushi and Shinkansen. A third of the way through my trip, I found myself in the extraordinary city of Nagasaki, on the island of Kyushu in Japan’s west, wondering where I should travel to next. My holiday was essentially an open book – I’d arranged accommodation for my first few nights only in Osaka and Kyoto, but the remainder of my days were to be decided upon spontaneously: if I felt like going somewhere in particular, then I would go there.
Browsing through some guidebooks in my hostel in Nagasaki, I chanced upon an article on the mysterious-sounding Mt Aso, just over 100km directly east of Nagasaki also on Kyushu island. I had heard of it before from a friend who had visited a few years previous, but it evaded my memory until now. Upon discovering that Mt Aso was the most active volcano in Japan (in fact, one of the most active in the world), I had no other choice but to make the journey the next day to the village of Aso, at the base of the majestic mountain of the same name. I announced this to the group of travellers sitting with me in the common room and was slightly taken aback by the response from a Kiwi who had been there only a few days earlier. He suggested not to bother, as he had attempted to reach the summit but was refused the opportunity due to poor weather conditions. The sulphuric wind had been blowing heavily towards the side of the mountain where the cablecar and walking tracks were positioned, putting a halt to all crater tourism for the entirety of his stay in the district.
I wasn’t going to let his bad luck get the better of me, so I went ahead with my plan and left Nagasaki the next day, Aso bound. The train journey was long but scenic. There was no direct route to Aso; instead, I opted for a northern exit out of Nagasaki, stopping briefly at the Dutch-inspired city of Huis Ten Bosch, continuing on to Shin-Tosu where I changed to the Shinkansen heading south to Kumamoto. From Kumamoto, there was another change to a local train, followed by yet another change an hour later in the small town of Higoozu, before finally reaching Aso village around six hours after my Nagasaki departure.
The Aso township
It was clear upon stepping off the train that Aso was a beautiful regional village, a far cry from the larger cities I’d experienced so far during my Japanese travels. I checked into my hostel, Aso Base Backpackers (in all honesty, the BEST hostel I’ve ever stayed at – refer to my 5 star review on TripAdvisor and note the abundance of other similar 5 star feedback), and set off for a walk through the quaint township:
Following my walk around the village, one thing that became quickly apparent was that the town comes to a dead close at night. Darkness had begun setting in at around 6:30pm, and I left my hostel not long afterwards with a map of the local area to try and find a decent feed for the night. I walked for nearly two kilometres along the Bungo Highway in pitch darkness, passing many of the restaurants listed on my map, albeit in a closed state. Eventually I turned back and found an open eatery where I was the lone diner served by an elderly couple who seemed entertained by my method of ordering: point to a random line on the menu and hope that whatever they bring out tastes ok and contains no seafood or mushrooms. Thankfully, as can be seen in the photo below, it was a very tasty soup that I believe contained beef. Although it may quite possibly have been horse…
Following my dinner I decided to stop by the local onsen (hot spring bath) close to the centre of the town. I purchased a discounted ticket from the hostel before I headed out for the night, and was admittedly rather nervous about my first onsen experience, especially after thoroughly studying the etiquette as advised by Lonely Planet. I paid my ¥300 entry to the lady at the front counter and hired a small hand towel before entering the male change room. With as much confidence as I could fathom considering the sheer awkwardness of the situation, I proceeded to strip down to nothing in front of four or five other men also in various states of undress in the change room. My clothes remained in a storage basket and I entered the bathing room with nought but the diminutive towel I had hired from reception.
Lonely Planet had thankfully taught me that walking straight into the bath without showering was a massive cultural wrongdoing. There were 20 or so open shower cubicles in a rectangular formation just up from the bath, so along with another 4 or 5 locals I sat on my little wooden chair and scrubbed/shampooed/filled-the-bucket-and-poured-water-over-my-head to my hearts content. Once satisfied with my cleanliness, I made the venture into the onsen.
Let me just say this: spending time in a foreign onsen with 15 other naked men is one of the most perplexingly liberating things a guy can do. I spent 10 minutes relaxing in the warm indoor water before briefly checking out the second outdoor bath within the complex, which was slightly more satisfying in terms of the temperature difference between the 8°C outside air and the 38°C H2O surrounding me.
I soon decided to call it a day, and headed home for some much-needed rest after drying off and reuniting with my dearly-missed clothes. I imagined that an onsen would be perfect to rest weary muscles after a hard day’s trekking around the mountain, and I made plans to return the next evening.
Cycling up the mountain
For those who don’t have their own means of transport, there are a few options when it comes to travelling up to the summit of Mt. Aso to see the famous Nakadake Crater. You can opt for one of the many buses that service the Mt Aso Geopark, a relatively inexpensive and hassle-free method that allows you to stop at various locations throughout the district. Another method is simply to hitchhike; many of the locals who drive up the mountain gladly accept tourists into their cars for the drive, with the hope of practicing English or another foreign language along the way. There are also plenty of hiking trails within Aso; if you’re feeling particularly adventurous you could use a combination of these trails to take you to the summit, but you’d be looking at a 4-5 hour one-way journey. Or you could do as I did and hire a bicycle.
Now, there were two things (no – make that three) that I didn’t prepare for prior to my cycle up the side of the mountain. Firstly, I had no cold-weather clothes. I wasn’t originally intending on spending time in the mountains of Kyushu and it didn’t cross my mind to bring a jumper or a jacket with me. The best I could manage was a long-sleeve shirt and a short-sleeve overcoat, considering the forecast for the day was 13°C (much, much colder in reality when you took the wind chill into account). Secondly, I didn’t study the topographic map of the mountain road as much as what I probably should have, and it didn’t sink in that I was embarking on a 17km uphill journey of epic proportions until after I spent an exhausting hour clearing my first major ascent with the chilly mountainous wind freezing my bare fingers senseless. I could taste the victory of reaching the summit and assumed I was almost there… when I passed a sign saying there was still 13km to go. Goddammit!
It took about 2.5 hours to reach the Aso Volcano Museum, where I was disappointingly advised they didn’t sell tebukuro (gloves), and then another 15 minutes of torture on my legs from there to the tourist centre near the summit of the mountain. The road was so steep that on about 20 occasions I had to get off the bike and push it uphill. Throw in the ever-decreasing temperature and increasing wind strength and it definitely made for an agonising journey. But believe it or not, it was worth every second!
I finally bought some tebukuro which gave my frostbitten fingers some much-needed relief, and was about to buy a ticket to the Asosan Ropeway that would lead me to the crater, when I took my SLR camera out of my bag in preparation for the many photos that would soon be taken. I’d only used my phone camera so far while cycling up the mountain, and it wasn’t until this point that I came to realise the third thing I hadn’t prepared for: I’d left the fucking camera battery sitting in the charger in my hostel room. I couldn’t believe it.
There was no way I would have lived with myself travelling all this way to the summit of a volcano without being able to use my camera, so I had no choice but to lock up my bike and board the bus back for the village. All that hard work on the bike felt completely redundant knowing I had to resort to public transport in the end! I collected my battery and got back to the bus depot just in time to catch the same bus on its return trip to the summit. It wasted a good two hours of my day, but gave me the chance to relax and regain some warmth.
Back at the tourist centre I boarded the Asosan Ropeway and took the 400m ride up to Nakadake crater. I considered saving some money by walking up instead, but I figured it’s not every day you get to glide over the majestic Aso landscape in a windowed cablecar so I opted for the more expensive option. It was worth the ¥.
In the early afternoon of November 1st 2012, at an altitude of 1,258m, I stood by the crater of an active volcano, watching the sulphuric steam rise from its core with everlasting fury. The landscape was dry and barren, barely a living organism to be seen aside from the few tourists who gathered around two of the four viewing zones that were currently open. A deep turquoise lake made up the acidic centre of the crater, adding some vibrance to the otherwise monochrome panorama. The fragrance in the air was reminiscent of rotten eggs; every now and then a strong gust of wind would waft the noxious gases a little too close for comfort. A few times I had to mask my mouth with my shirt in order to filter out the pungent vapour and get a breath in. It’s completely understandable how they don’t recommend people suffering from asthma or bronchitis to visit the crater.
I spent around 45 minutes exploring zones C and D, taking in as much of this eerie atmosphere as I possibly could. I stepped inside the concrete emergency shelters dotted around the complex, wondering if they really would offer any form of safety should an eruption occur. I made friends with some locals who struck a convincing pose against the bubbling lake in the background. I pondered the mountaintop shrine, presumably installed as spiritual protection from impending disaster. I laughed at the No Smoking sign that was ignored by the crater with all manner of blatancy. And I pinched myself at the realisation that a lifelong dream had been fulfilled.
Suna Senri Hike
I wasn’t ready to leave the Aso-san summit just yet, and decided to embark on the Suna Senri hiking trail that led south of the crater. I made out a rocky outcrop in the distance and wanted to see if I could climb to the top of it, as I guessed the views of the volcano would be nothing short of spectacular.
The hike began on a well-constructed boardwalk through the direct centre of a landscape that is about as close as I’ll ever get to being on the surface of the moon. The black volcanic soil, mixed with the harsh jagged edges of the surrounding crags blew me away as I edged deeper into this lunar jungle. At the height of the boardwalk, the scenario before me suddenly melded from flat and parched into one that could be best described as grassy, rocky and really freakin’ steep!
Yellow directional arrows were painted on the rocks to come as I slowly climbed my way to the point I’d spotted earlier. I noticed some white kanji characters next to one of the yellow arrows and assigned it my own definition: don’t give up, you’re nearly there! Similarly to my observations by the side of the crater, every now and then a gust of wind would blow a reminder of the toxic sulphur my way, which was quite unsettling considering my already-reduced oxygen intake from all this heavy hiking. I stopped to catch my breath every time I detected the scent of rotten eggs, eventually arriving at a ‘pre-summit’ at top of the rocky knoll, with superb views of the hills and valleys of greater Mt Aso to my rear.
I carried on another couple of hundred metres in order to reach the location I desired. The wind was howling beyond belief; I swear, if it wasn’t for the tebukuro I’d purchased earlier, my hands would easily have fallen off by now. As I edged toward the top, I had the distinct feeling that my hard work was about to pay off tenfold.
And indeed it was, my friends. This particular summit along the Suna Senri hiking trail lays claim to the most beautiful natural location I’ve ever had the joy of witnessing in my entire life so far:
Mt Aso was astounding. Simply astounding.
Cycling back down
I returned from my hike and spent another half hour at the crater where I soaked in what was left of the day, before descending from the summit once more via the Ropeway. The sun wasn’t far from setting; I estimated I had another hour of sunlight left until darkness began to make its sombre appearance. Thankfully, a downhill journey on my bicycle awaited.
Considering every uphill spin of the pedal… every gust of icy mountain wind… every aching step walking alongside the bike where it was too steep to cycle… the freefall on the way back down more than made up for the upward suffering. Granted it was even more freezing now than earlier and my hands were once again in hypothermic condition despite the tebukuro, but oh my god, the scenery, speed, adrenaline and sheer freedom experienced along that downhill ride was second to none.
I sped past a number of fellow cyclists as if I was chasing the yellow jersey in the Tour de France. It took me nearly 3 hours to cycle the 17km on the way up, but a mere 20 minutes to reach the base. I bade farewell to my bicycle and made my way back to the local onsen for that promised second dip, this time remaining for over an hour, every second within those heated spring waters perfectly soothing my chilled, brittle bones. I was in heaven.
It was the perfect volcanic end to a perfect volcanic day.
I would have to say that visiting Mt Aso is up there with the most amazing things I’ve done in my life. I think only my travel through various parts of Egypt so far matches the sense of awe-inspiring adventure I had on this day. I never even considered the possibility of visiting a real-life volcano while I was planning my Japanese holiday, so to make this discovery along the way and fulfil a childhood dream completely blew my mind. Not to mention the fact that it’s so easily accessible! Who would have thought it was possible to travel all the way to the summit of an active volcano and stand just a few hundred metres from the centre of the action?
One thing is for sure: it’s a far cry from the primary school science class plasticine mountain. It’s real, it’s nature, it’s ferocious, it’s Mt Aso.
If you ever happen to find yourself near the Kumamoto district of Japan on the island of Kyushu, I can’t recommend Mt. Aso highly enough. I only spent two nights there, but there are countless other attractions and hundreds of kilometres worth of hiking trails in the area that could potentially be explored over the course of a week or more. For more information on the area, have a browse through some of these handy references:
Mt Aso Ropeway – Official English website of the Mt Aso Ropeway
Gaijin Guide: Hiking Japan’s Largest Active Volcano – A personal account of a Mt Aso hike
Wikitravel: Mount Aso travel guide – A useful Wiki article on what to do and see around the Aso district