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.
At first, Kumamoto was just a place on map where the bus from Kagoshima stopped and we could transfer to the near by train station and move on to Mount Aso. It didn’t take long to find out that it is home to one of the finest castles in Japan next to Himeji outside of Osaka and the Nagoya Castle just north of Nara. The feudal lord and highly trained warrior Kiyomasa designed and constructed the Kumamoto Castle over 400 years ago. And yes, Kato Kiyomasa is the same samurai warrior featured in Koei’s PS2 Way of the Warrior video game.
The castle is the site were the final battle between the samurai and the Meiji empire. The Satsuma Battle ended with the defeat of the samurai and a partially destroyed castle. The battle has been romanticized and even inspired the film The Last Samurai starring Ken Watanabe and Tom Cruise. The restoration of the castle to was completed in 1970. Its well worth a visit. I’m sure its amazing in the spring when there are 800 Sakura trees are in bloom.
Statue of Kato Kiyamasa
Tom and Ken figures in front of the castle
None the less, Kumamoto is a great place to stop by and spend a little time visiting. Especially if you want to check out an area of Japan that has a significant place in Japan’s recent history. For us, the next stop is Mount Aso where we will spend some time hiking in the area, viewing my first active volcano and bath in many of the hot springs in onsen town Kumagawa.
One of the many Ginkgo Tree planted by General Kato when the Castle was built in 1600
Honmaru Goten Palace where the Emperor presided inside the Kumamoto Castle
Secure walls surrounding the buildings inside the Kumamoto Castle
The one thing to not miss while staying in Kagoshima is making a day trip to the volcanic island of Sakurajima. The last major devastating blast was almost 50 years ago and hopefully it won’t go off again anytime soon. One of the three peaks still gives the surrounding area a daily coat of grey ash which makes a sun umbrella really handy here. It’s an amazing site to see in person and biking is one of the best ways to see it from all angles. We bring along protective masks while we ride and hope we don’t inhale too much debris.
A trip to Sakurajima and a bike ride around the island pretty much takes up an entire day. The ferry takes 10 minutes, leaves often and costs just 150 Yen each way. What a deal. We rented bikes for 1500 Yen for the day and only knew that it was hilly and could take anywhere from 3-5 hours. The route is hilly and sidewalks and bike paths come and go. The hills did end up seeming longer and harder to conquer since the steel street bike frame is too small and it only has 3 gears. I’m used to my light bike back at home minus any gear.
The soba shop was a welcoming site at around the half way mark across from the buried Torii Gate on the eastern side of the island. This is where we got the best and closest view of the active crater. The road continued to be hilly but it ended up being a good workout and the scenery was gorgeous.
We ended our ride back at the ferry terminal, returned the dusty bikes and checked out the port area on foot. We were not on a schedule so we just watched the boats go by on one side and viewed the volcano let off steam in the other direction while relaxing and soaking our feet at the Sakurajima Nagisa Foot Bath Park. The days events reaffirmed my continuous love of Japan.
Our stay in Kyoto was only a few days but we’re without regrets and are looking forward to what’s ahead. Our plans on where we are going in the weeks ahead are still pretty undefined. They mostly will be dependent on the weather, if we can find an apartment in Tokyo for the month of June, and if we get totally killed by the weak dollar. For now, we are just careful and try to just enjoy our time whether it ends up being 4 weeks or 7.
We want to make sure we do something new at the beginning just in case we need to go back to China sooner for whatever reason. We are already in Kyoto for a wedding so we decided to head down south and see more of the Kyushu Prefecture. We have been to Nagasaki and Beppu but the rest of the island is new to us and a prices for hotel and transport are more inline with the budget.
We decided to try Japan’s first budget airline called Peach. Peach is an affiliate of with ANA, much faster and cheaper than the Shinkansen, and offers great rates to the few cities it currently services. I’m looking forward to it.
We land in Kagoshima and take a bus to the center town where we booked a room. Our list of things to see and do includes biking 37 km around Sakurajima’s volcanic Mount Ontake (working off the wedding food), touring a Shochu Factory, and relaxing an Onsen. Beyond that, I hopefully will get rid of this cold and have some time to figure out what’s next.
So goodbye to Kyoto for now…
While we were in Kyoto we did manage to get some touristy things in like:
Take a boat trip back up the Hozu River
and check out some of the temples of southern Kyoto