Mount Aso is the largest active volcano in Japan. Our filled-to-the-brim 5 day Japan trip nearly meant we had to cut out Mount Aso, but after examining our list of things to see and checking train times and prices there was no feasible way to do everything without renting a car for 3 days.
We found a nice scenic route to get from Beppu to Aso Kuju National Park which also meant avoiding ridiculously expensive toll roads. The volcano is in the National Park and due to the volcanic soil there are no trees on the mountains. The smell of sulfur was quite prominent during the whole ride. The area is know for its hot springs. I’m really just not a fan of the rotten egg smell during my day at the spa.
As we entered the mountains the snow got “heavier” and the Japanese drivers pulled over one by one to put on their chains. The ones that didn’t got into fender benders with trees and other cars. We didn’t have chains in our trunk and, hell, we had summer tires on. Actually the man at the rental agency told us “Graciously refrain from snow driving.” Jonathan didn’t seem like he was worried and he was also on the different side of the car and the road. The Canadian did what he does best, passing other cars and laughing at an SUV that wiped out.
As we cleared the mountains we saw rolling hills and sunshine. We entered one the largest active calderas in the world, it stands at 25km north to south. The eruptions that would have caused this must have been colossal. Thankfully they occurred 300,000 years ago. In the distance we could see the only active volcano, Mount Naka, puffing. We passed the quiet village and slowly started to make the climb up the active volcano. The caldera actually contains quite a busy town with lots of farming.
When we trekked up to get to the crater we saw that a lot of it was closed off due to wind direction. Apparently Japanese tourist boards, or whoever is responsible, is really not into suffocating tourists. I’ll let these precautions slide as there have been a lot of deaths close to where we were standing. It was really cold and I was happy to see what I saw. Jonathan wasn’t satisfied. What else is new?
Jonathan’s thinking was if we can’t get close, we go up. Somehow he got away from me for enough time to realize there’s a hiking path. It was deserted and I could hardly see where to go because it was covered in snow. I was cold, angry and completely unimpressed with the crumbling volcanic rocks below my feet. I was also wearing a trench coat. I think the last person that climbed a mountain in a trench coat was probably a Napoleonic soldier. I don’t recommend it. No wonder Russian soldiers lined the inside of their coats in newspapers, the fabric just doesn’t stand a chance to a gust of cold wind. Whining aside, I was curious about the view at the top so I angrily climbed up the steep volcanic incline behind Jonathan.
The trail was sporadically marked with yellow spray paint. You really have to stop sometimes and assess your move 20-50 meters ahead. After about an hour of climbing we reached the top and were rewarded with an awesome view of Mt Naka’s active crater. When the wind blew a little stronger we could see just a little bit of the lake inside. The view was spectacular, even the climb felt like I was on another planet. All the discomfort and the anger that I experienced just moments ago was forgotten. I was enthralled by the beauty of Japan’s smelly Mount Aso. You haven’t smelled sulfur until you climbed up there. I’ll let the pictures do a bit of the talking.
After posing for a few pictures and throwing lava rocks down the mountain it was time to go. We raced down as safely as we could, the rocks kept dangerously falling away at my feet. During the climb up and down we only met one other hiker. There were a lot of tourists at the parking lot in the tourist area, but the trek was deserted. I’m sure when the weather is nicer that path is filled with hikers. I was really pleased to have it all to ourselves. It felt like Jon and I discovered a new planet all by ourselves. The lesson here, kids, climb mountains to get a better view. You might be well rewarded.
We drove away from Mount Aso in late afternoon and were elated. Our 5 day Japan trip didn’t feel like a trip until now. We really just used it as an opportunity to get away for a weekend to eat some sushi and weren’t expecting anything special. Climbing Mount Aso will be one of the best things I’ve done in my life. It’s funny to think that it was so spur of the moment, unplanned and how angry and against it I was when I was climbing. I look back at the pictures and I’m so glad that Jonathan forced me to climb it on a cold and windy day.
As the sun started to set we started to slowly make our way out of the caldera. We went over our list that we made before the trip that would make this Japan trip complete. The list as follows.
1. Eat good sushi
2. See Mount Aso
3. See Japanese Macaques
4. See the A-bomb sites
Even though Japanese Macaques are least concern they are still very hard to find in the wild in Kyushu. So Jonathan makes a turn on the road and we see 6 shapes in the middle of the road. HOLY CRAP, MONKEYS! We pulled over and spend about 40 minutes trying to get good shots but these monkeys prove to be too speedy. I don’t blame them, they don’t really want to end up like the Ikea Monkey. Apparently I’m trying to age this post prematurely, let’s see how it turns out. Anyway, judging by the way Japan treats marine life, I wouldn’t be surprised if Macaques are frequently grabbed from their groups to be placed in zoos or private residences. They were really skittish and we couldn’t get good pictures. Regardless, it was nice to walk around in nice weather and hear them yell at each other. Anyway, day complete, trip complete. Nothing we could do today to make this day any better.