The beautiful landscape shaped by volcanoes and the art of bathing in a onsen attracts many visitors to Japan and beautiful mountain towns like Aso. This small town is the prefect place to experience Japanese culture and see one of the countries largest active volcanoes even in the rainy season. If it is sunny – then it’s a day for hiking. If it’s raining then there’s always the option of taking a short bus ride to the spa town of Kurokawa.
The hikes here begin after passing through a small village, followed by a mountain shrine which then leads into a thick evergreen forest. The road wines its way up to an area of green rolling hills where horses and cattle graze just below the mountain peak. The serpentine trail continually ascends up until it ends at the observation point next to the open crater. The hiking trails travel through fields of red rock sand and boulders. The volcanic expanses receive a fresh coat of ash each time the active crater erupts which happens daily. The last large eruption took place in May 2011.
Mt. Naka-Dake or just Mt. Naka is the only remaining active crater in this area. The northerly wind, its’ speed and sulphur levels are high enough to warrant the closing of the highest viewing point. The sulfur from the volcano is pungent and sometimes overwhelming this morning causing some with sensitive noses to seek cover under protective scarves and surgical masks. The sulphuric gas can get to dangerous levels and warning signs are everywhere. We can either wait for the wind to change or just hike up a different direction. Today, the lower viewing point is still open, so we were able to get look at the open neon green crater and hike up to the other side of the mountain. Some areas being off-limits because of the current wind conditions but there is more enough to see for first timers.
Why hasn’t Aso been on my list?
It’s easy to miss because Japan has always been a pricey destination for budget travelers. Most travel the country by using the JR rail pass which needs to be purchased before arriving to Japan. Until now, it’s has been the most popular and convenient way to travel to most towns and cities inside Japan. The JR pass is expensive since the price is in Japanese Yen and goes up and down as it’s value against the USD fluctuates. This is one factor that deters perspective tourists until recently.
Japan now has a couple of budget airlines that offer domestic flights from Tokyo many cities giving the JR Rail some much-needed competition. Peach Airline offers flights from many including departures from Osaka to a few cities in Kyushu and AirAsia will soon be offering flights inside Japan as well. Visitors now have more options and can now see more of Japan in less time including towns like Aso.
Enough with castles for now and the cramped living style of the business hotel. Many parts of Kumamoto City are attractive enough for a short visit. The beauty and the history of the city can be seen in a few hours. Most of the major attractions are located in the center of the city and within the boundaries of the castle complex.
The Kumamoto castle depicted in lights
Views of rice fields and windmills along the way to Aso
It’s time to move on. We are both ready to get out of the crowded city and ready for some open air. The next stop is Mount Aso where we plan to hike up an active volcano and I will have my first visit to an outdoor public onsen. I have spent some time studying the property rules of conduct while bathing. I just hope I don’t unknowingly offend anyone.
The Aso Boy Train we passed along the way
We will grab a local train to Aso from the JR station in Kumamoto instead of riding the slightly cheaper and faster highway bus. As I mentioned before, we have had enough with the business hotel, so I booked a room at a hostel called Aso Backpacker Base Hostel. The hostel was built in 2009 by a gentleman named Yoshi and his wife Miyong. Yoshi’s hostel continuously receives positive reviews on the major travel sites and is located a few hundred meters from the train station…sold.
Room with a great view of Mount Aso and surrounding area
The ride on the fire engine red local limited express to Aso takes a little over an hour. From the views of young rice seedlings growing in stacked rice fields separated only by a few homes, some prized beef cattle and the grassy hills they feed on, it’s pretty obvious that this part of Kyushu is the agricultural heartland of Japan. I already knew that it’s going to be a place I will be sad to leave but happy to have visited.
The local treasure of Aso in front of the train station
I’m hoping that the weather holds so we are able to get at least one hike up to see the crater. It is the beginning of monsoon season and the viewing area of the crater does close literally ever time the wind shifts due to the dangerous sulfuric acid the volcano continuously pushes out. If it the authorities roped off the entrance due to the high levels of sulphuric acid then there’s always the alternative day in the Onsen.
It’s 7:15am on a monday morning (weekend after spring-back daylight savings to boot) and I’m be-gowned and getting conveyed into the tomb or otherwise known as an MRI machine. I know, what does a MRI have to do with any trip to the spa to relax? I guess it was a combination of what I was dressed in a cotton robe and quite ready to fall back asleep. It’s kind of how I felt when my husband and I got to the sand spa in a town called Beppu in southern Japan this past October.
Getting into a very tight space where I can’t move and try not to think of the fact that it’s like being buried alive is one of those things that I really don’t enjoy. We all have our cope mechanisms and mine is to use my imagination. I imagine myself in a relaxing place where I was wearing a robe while being buried alive in the hot sand. This place was the sand spa found in the village of Beppu, Japan. It was where I had visited months before while traveling around Japan for a month. It was hard to relax at first. Getting over the anxiety of being covered with the hot, steamy and heavy sand was difficult at first. After a fair amount of deep breathing and meditating, I was able to get to the point of total relaxation and I ended up enjoying the treatment. My skin felt great and I would do it again…really. My goal in the MRI was not necessarily enjoy myself but to relax and get through it. I didn’t want to have a do over. So, I forced myself to go back to Beppu and imagine I was again being buried in the hot salty sand. It worked and I didn’t have to go in a second time.
The fall visit to the Sand Spa or in Japanese Suna-yu on the Beppu shore in southern Japan is Japans answer to Las Vegas. It’s famous for its hot springs of various colors and mineral types and of course the sex, gabbling, African Safari Park, Rakutenchi Kid Park, Aquarium, a day of seeing monkeys at Mount Takasaki with all of this in a town that often smells of rotten egg or sulfer. We decided to spend our days here relaxing and enjoying as many of Beppus Japanese Spas as we could visit. It wasn’t possible to visit them all in 3 short days but it’s on the list of places to go back to in the future.
Beppu is a spa playground for everyone. There are so many choices that it’s hard to figure out which to not miss. I had already taken to the hot sand baths and was ready to find my next indulgence.
My husband and I were looking for a private onsen this time which had a great view and was affordable. We’re vegetarian and so we can cut out the options which include meals. The Hotel Seifu with its oceanfront location seemed to be an excellent choice. They have private two-person hot spring tub rooms which reserve in 45 minute increments and it cost us $30. We headed over to reserve and found that there were plenty of times open for that evening.
I recommend going before you eat. We timed it so we could go before the sun set and would be able to find something to eat right afterwards. All the hot spring water makes you very thirsty and hungry when you are done. Have a plan on where to go to eat and drink because it’s a town that closes early and there’s nothing more stressful than finding food when you are really hungry.
Let the spa begin
Our time was at 5:30 pm so we tried to get there around 5:15 pm. The Japanese are timely and we just couldn’t wait to get in. Here’s what happens:
The front desk of the hotel on the bottom floor checks you in and you proceed up the elevator to the top floor. There, you exchange your shoes for a pair of wooden japanese slip-on sandals. It’s hard to find ones that are over a size 9 US for men by the way. Next, you head up to the very top-level via stairs in your comfortable clogs and an attendant give you your towels and soap. You are welcome to bring your own shampoo etc.
There are few simple rules to follow to ensure while visiting a onsen:
Totally scrubbing yourself down with a shower is mandatory before getting into the hot bath. This ensures that the waters won’t get contaminated while you are enjoying it and the next visitor has no worries. The waters are continuously flowing but the tub is usually made of wood so things can still stick.
If you have a tattoo please consider just going to a private facility. The Japanese love tattoos but you will notice that most are not visible to the public eye since they are socially not acceptable.
Drinking plenty of water is a good idea. It was very tempting to pick up a bottle of cold sake before going but this would have been a bad idea. The water is salty and very hot. This only leads to dehydration and a very bad hangover. I highly suggest a liter of water instead.
Enjoy every moment and go back as much as you can. It’s hard to find the same thing back here in the states for those prices. More information on Japanese Onsens. Enjoy!