The island of Kyushu, like all the other regions of Japan, is host to its own particular brand of culture, from food and drink, to tourist destinations and ecology, and even the nuances of language. Some of the more famous cities, like Nagasaki, Fukuoka, Kagoshima, and Kumamoto seem embedded in the past even as the swirling hustle-and-bustle of the 21st century inundates their streets and high rises. Nevertheless, Kyushu has a lot to offer for those who want a little bit of adventure, and as one of the most volcanic places in Japan’s island chain, it is also the site of many hot springs and volcanoes: and none is more prominent than Mount Aso.
When I visited I got to Aso City and checked into one of the local hostels where there were a number of other Japanese and foreigners, but it was by then already too late to catch the bus that goes up to the actual volcano. Instead I decided to go for a walk and followed the winding road that switchbacks all the way up to the top of the caldera. Having the opportunity to stretch my legs, it was quite refreshing to pass by mist-enshrouded forests of sugi cedar and the higher I got the land turned into green pastures ? however, as a rain cloud began to descend I only had time to snap a few pictures of the sprawling landscape before heading down again.
The following morning we were all a little sad to hear that Aso was beset with volcanic gas, something that happens quite often. Nevertheless, we all bussed up to the main visitor center and after about an hour the wind changed and gave us the chance to hike up to the actual volcano. Many different paths crisscrossed the volcanic soil and led to a viewing area where you could look down at a massive hole in the ground where sulfurous gas jetted into the air. Nearby vendors sold huge yellow chunks of sulfur as well. Soon the people I was with wanted to head back, but I was still excited and wanted to see more.
I just so happened to see a Japanese couple taking another path that led up to one of the ridges above the caldera, even though it was still blanketed in fog, and I decided to follow after them. Very quickly it became clear that this was a full-on hiking path, and the trail turned into a very steep incline that required you to clamber on your hands and knees to get to the top. Breathing hard, I reached the rim of the caldera, but by that time the wind had started to change again and steam, gasses, and cloud completely blotted out anything. All I could see was the narrow ridge of stone and volcanic gravel in front of me, and it was so thick that one step in the wrong direction and you could lose the path ? or, worse, step off a cliff into mid-air.
Eventually I reached an area where the air was clearer and got a great glimpse of the actual geyser down below. Here the trail became much rougher and turned into a strange otherworldly landscape of prickly bushes created tunnels you had to crawl under. Somewhat exhausted I took a short break and then head back, hoping to retrace my steps. Unfortunately, I lost the path almost immediately ? a little taken aback and trying not to panic, I desperately looked for anything that looked familiar. At the same time more cloud was drifting down towards me, and I felt my eyes begin to sting. It didn’t take me long to realize that this was the result of sulphur dioxide ? the same gas that they warned us about back at the visitor center!
I quickly took off my scarf and covered my mouth as best as I could and sped up my pace, trying to get lower and out of the way of the gas. By sheer luck I happened upon another connecting path that was outlined with chalk symbols and stumbled upon a small cabin. And, with my luck still intact, discovered that the Japanese couple from earlier had already beat me here. They introduced themselves as Manami and Akiko and offered me some of their ramen which they were cooking on a small camping stove ? gratefully accepting their treat we waited out the gas cloud together in the cabin and passed the time by talking back and forth in Japanese and English. Thankfully, Manami was a flight attendant and had picked up some rudimentary English.
At last the air seemed to clear again and we all set out back to the visitor center, and by this time the clouds had finally peeled back to reveal sunlight and blue sky, and I was able to grasp just how big Mount Aso truly was. I could see clear across the caldera, nearly a hundred kilometers in every direction. Exhausted and still partially blinded by the sulfur dioxide it was a relief when I finally reached the parking lot again, but I still had some energy left and opted to walk down to Kusasenri.
Along the road, and just before the visitor center, is an extraordinarily beautiful grass land area, affectionately known as Kusasenri, and I reveled in the sunlight coming down across the plateau in the center. There was something very pastoral about the scene, and with the craggy bluffs of Aso in the distance it felt like something out of Lord of the Rings ? an illusion made all the more palpable by the horses that were on display, and which tourists could ride for a price.
*Note: if you plan to hike up Mount Aso, always check in with the offices first, both to let them know where you’re going and whether or not the conditions are dangerous. While I only got a small dose of sulfur dioxide, there have been numerous deaths reported on Aso due to the noxious gas. Also be sure to carry plenty of water and food, and extra layers for when you reach the top where it can be chilly.
In this Nov. 26, 2014 photo, volcanic smoke billows from Mount Aso, Kumamoto prefecture, on the southern Japanese main island of Kyushu. The volcano is blasting out chunks of magma in the first such eruption in 22 years, causing flight cancellations and prompting warnings to stay away from its crater. The Japan Meteorological Agency said Friday, Nov. 28 that Mount Aso had spewed out lava debris and smoke, shooting plumes of ash a kilometer (3,280 feet) into the sky. The observatory does not expect the eruption to increase in scale. (AP Photo/Kyodo News) JAPAN OUT, MANDATORY CREDIT