Flying above what was later to become the Aso-Kuju National Park in Kyushu, writer James Kirkup, in his 1960s travel book “Japan Behind the Fan,” described an “afternoon sun shafting low” over a “golden and green landscape tinged with brown and yellow, all the colors of ripeness.” The description holds equally true today.
Home to an active volcano and the world’s largest caldera, measuring 18 kilometers by 24km, the Aso area is a vast grassland with mountain slopes deeply furrowed by trenches and grass-covered gutters.
After taking the switchback train from Kumamoto to the unassuming town of Aso, we opted to stay at Aso-no-Fumato, a boardinghouse that is part of a large, clean and well-run farmhouse, set in a yard and rock garden. Run by a cheerful matron, our immaculate lodgings were in a charming country locale and distant enough from Route 57 to be blissfully quiet.
Located within the national park, Aso is little more than a base for renting cars, finding accommodation and checking on bus times to the nearby caldera, although there are restaurants, a hot spring public bath or two, and pleasant private gardens. The local mountains and volcanoes dominate the life and livelihood of this area, blotting out almost every other feature.
The ideal way to explore the Aso area is by bicycle. A steep ride up has the advantage of a blissful one down. If time permits, hiking is another option. The undulating farmland that meets the southwestern slopes of Aso-zan is the least tourist-infested, and only requires a little extra effort and time to reach. Tracks lead to dark green gorges gleaming with cool shallow streams, horse-grazing pastures and dark, mossy slopes and hillocks that resemble giant mounds of spinach.
Inside the caldera walls, an ancient fence of curling volcanic rock, the land is greener and darker, the grass more luxuriant and the earth more fertile. The floor of the caldera is a patchwork of rice fields and other crops, attentively farmed by families, some of whom have lived in the area for generations.
Once in the caldera, the striking and beautiful profile of Komezuka, which means “inverted rice-bowl,” looms into view. The hill lives up to its name and could also be likened to an ancient burial mound.
Buses en route for Nakadake, the massive, highly active crater, stop a little further along at Kusasenri-ga-Hama, a circular plain that was originally a minor crater. A large pond at its center serves as a watering hole for cattle and horses. It is possible to hire one of these nags for a carefully escorted trot around the plain. But their eventual fate may be an unsavory one, as many of Aso’s horses are destined to end up served as basashi (raw horse meat), along with other Kyushu specialties such as salted squid fried in butter, broiled baby clams and grilled sparrow, in the nearby restaurants of Kumamoto.
The Aso Volcano Museum, with its 170-degree, multi-screen viewing room with images of the crater and its catchment area, is also located at Kusasenri-ga-Hama. This is not a must-see, given that superb views are everywhere, but two cameras attached to the crater wall relaying continuous images of the cone’s activity do provide some interest. The nearby Music Box Museum, however, is decidedly missable.
Signposts along the roads to Nakadake welcome visitors to Hi-no-Kuni, the “Land of Fire.” Mount Aso is actually a series of five volcanic cones, its massive caldera stretching to a circumference of 128km. Of the five peaks, the 936-meter Daikanbo is the highest. Nakadake, an active volcano that last erupted in 1979, emits sulfuric fumes and high-temperature gases, which occasionally bring hiking above the basin to an abrupt halt. The paths around and above Nakadake crater have domed futuristic shelters, covered with crater fallout from past eruptions. Plumes of smoke waft from the crater’s rumbling cracks and water bubbles from its coarse rock face.
All this subterranean activity means superb hot springs, most found in the caldera itself, although there are retreats tucked away in the nearby highlands as well. Futae Pass, a stone-paved route preserved in much the same state as when daimyos and their families made their mandatory travels from the region to Edo, also winds its way through the area. A statue of temporary Kumamoto resident Soseki Natsume also stands at Nakadake. The statue’s benign pose is more suited to a kindly Confucian elder than a brilliant but neurotic writer prone to bouts of depression.
A cable car takes visitors to the top of Nakadake, on clear days providing awesome views into the depths of the crater and its malodorous blue-green lake. Hikers who are up to the challenge can follow a path to the summit for a closer look.
One popular route starts at the cable car station, proceeds to Mount Takadake, and then goes around the crater rim before descending to Sensuikyo Gorge. Less popular, but equally dramatic, is Sunasenri, a caldera topped up with ash to form a sea of black volcanic sand that can be discovered a little east of Nakadake. Here, among the footprints of the odd visitor, Himalayan-style cairns and some striking gorges and overhangs, one expects to come across the bones and fossils of ancient sea creatures or a rusting lunar vehicle. In this dead zone’s fascinating landscape and geology, time can dissolve. The last bus back to town can leave earlier than one might expect, so be very aware of transport times. The three-hour walk to Aso Station is mostly downhill and has little traffic, but at night picking through the pitch-black pine forest and bush of a wildlife reserve is not recommended.
Aso’s caldera, and the spa towns that lie within it, such as Uchinomaki and Akamizu, as well as its striking grasslands and slopes, are reminiscent of some Arthurian setting. The tourist brochure avoids calling it “unique,” in favor of describing the region as “providing an experience not available elsewhere.” Unique, though, would do nicely.
The Kyushu Kokusai Kanko Bus leaves regularly from Beppu and Kumamoto. The JR Hohi Line switchback train takes 90 minutes from Kumamoto to Aso town and affords great views. On weekends a steam train does the same trip in two-and-a-half hours.
Aso-no-Fumato charges ¥4,500 without meals. The luxurious 180-room Aso Prince Hotel (tel: 0967-35-2111) at the base of Nakadake boasts a golf course designed by Arnold Palmer.
Aso is at its most lush and green from May through the summer months, though its big festival, the Hiburi-Shinji (Sacred Fire Ritual), falls on March 3.