For the second time (thought thankfully not consecutively), I spent a significant fraction of Christmas Day sitting on a train. My decision to use the Seishun 18 ticket (designed for travellers rich in time but not in money) meant that Japan’s high-speed rail system was denied to me, and I therefore had to go from place to place on the long-distance equivalent of the subway. However, what is lost in speed is more than made up for by gains in experience of small-town Japan and opportunities to practice travel phrases (e.g. “Excuse me, but does this train go to Aso?”).
My current place of writing is a large volcanic caldera right in the middle of Kyūshū – Aso-Kujū National Park. I arrived in the afternoon to intermittent rain and low cloud, and found a warm welcome at what I can confidently say is the best hostel I have ever stayed at in all my years of travelling. Should you ever come down to Aso (and by all accounts you should), I recommend you stay at Base Backpackers – it’s all pine floors, an open fire, squeaky-clean surfaces and an extensive library (including The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings – clearly volcano-inspired – and one of my favourite mangas, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind) when the weather forces people indoors. In fact, it’s so good I’m going to create accounts on hostel booking websites just so I can leave it a glowing review.
Although the rain which greeted me in Aso had stopped sometime overnight, a thick layer of low cloud still hung over the peaks and I began to worry that the higher areas would be completely obscured by impenetrable fog. As I began my walk, however, sections of blue sky gradually appeared through breaks in the cloud and by the time I reached the base of the mountain I was forced to stop and dig my sunglasses out of my pack. The ascent to the lower cable car station was a relatively uncomplicated, if tiring, affair – though steep in sections, there is an asphalt path the whole way and it would be very difficult to get lost. The path wound its way around the folded slopes of Mt. Naka (中岳), cutting through fields of golden grasses and patches of volcanic soil, and deposited me around two hours after I left the hostel just underneath the smoking crater.
I immediately set off on the steep path to the viewing area, keeping a eye on the plumes of smoke lest the wind should change and fumigate me with whatever the volcano was belching out that day. As soon as I set foot in the upper car park, officials in gas masks cleared everyone out due to worsening conditions and I had to return to the lower station to see if the poisonous gas levels would drop. Things were declared safe after about half an hour, and this time I paid for the cable car ride to the summit in case I spent half an hour walking up there only to be turned back again (though I was fortunate that the crater was open at all – presumably if the wind is blowing towards the approach road nobody can get up at all).
Only one section had been reopened as I stepped out of the gondola, and I walked up to get a look across the crater rim, the far side mostly obscured by the white clouds billowing up. The main viewing area was reopened shortly afterwards, and there was a small stampede as everybody who had been waiting around rushed up to get a good spot. This resulted in a mass coughing fit as they ran straight into the volcanic fumes, leaving the people who’d waltzed up at a more sedentary pace smirking in acclimatised satisfaction. While the wind was blowing away from us, we could see all the way down to an ill-looking pool of lurid green water, tendrils of white smoke constantly streaming from the surface. Yellow sulphur deposits lined the edges, and the constant smell of old eggs announced the presence of hydrogen sulphide (H2S) in the smoke, along with some steam (H2O), sulphuric acid (H2SO4) and sulphur oxides (SOx).
After a short while alternately freezing and choking, I turned back to see what other areas I could explore. One of the other viewing areas was still (and perhaps permanently) fenced off, but I was able to go along a boardwalk across a wasted area of volcanic sand (not unlike the Desolation of Smaug, to continue the Tolkien theme) before dropping back down to the lower area. I followed the bus-choked road between some of the other peaks, past an old ski slope (more on that later) and eventually to Kusasenri (草千里), one of the best-loved places in Japan if the tourist literature is to be believed. A small, almost symmetrical, cone stands in the midst of lakes and lush grasses (in summer, at least), overshadowed by the craggy might of Mt. Eboshi (烏帽子岳) and Mt. Naka a little farther off.
With the sun now a mere hand’s breadth above the horizon (the sheer walls of the caldera, around 10 km away), I couldn’t afford the time to check out the nearby crater lakes of Mt. Kijima, but did climb about halfway up to see Mt. Naka lit by the warmer late afternoon light. From this vantage point, I managed to find a shortcut back to the footpath along the old ski slope (now colonised by cattle), and walked down at an incredible rate to get back o the hostel just after dark.