After a few train changes we arrived in Aso later in the afternoon. The scenery had become more mountainous, and the towns were smaller. The Aso Kuju National Park is home to the largest active volcano in Japan and has one of the biggest calderas in the world. We paid a visit to the tourist information centre to get advice about hiking, and were told that the volcano had recently been elevated to a grade 2, which meant you weren’t allowed within 1km of the crater. We had hoped to peer into it, but having seen the amount of brown smoke puffing out, we agreed that wasn’t going to be the best plan! The lady told us that there were 4 grades, 4 being the highest and most dangerous. We picked up some maps and headed up the road to check in to our hostel. We had been walking for a couple of minutes, when the lady ran after us, shouting, ‘Wait! Wait! No! Grade FIVE!’ For a moment, stood between the station and the smoking mountain, we thought she had come to tell us there had been a mistake and we were going to be imminently engulfed in lava. However, it soon transpired that she had come out merely to tell us that there were five grades in the warning system, not four! Relieved we wouldn’t have to try and outrun a lava flow, we thanked her, and continued on our way.
The hostel was really more of a luxury hotel with cooking facilities. It was beautifully furnished and spotlessly clean, there was a choice of five different types of free tea to try, a bookshelf full of Japanese Manga novels, a wood-burning stove and a Christmas tree! We went out to buy provisions for dinner and I bought some new and interesting vegetables – a bag full of mucky hairy potato like things (a type of yam?) and a giant white radish! We had heard a lot about giant radish on Sakurajima, as they are a speciality of the island, so when I saw it, I had to buy it. I cooked a massive gingery garlicky vegetable risotto, which turned out pretty tasty.
The next day we had planned to take the bus and go for a hike around the Mount Aso area. However, by the time we set out, the weather was looking decidedly dodgy. We equipped ourselves with waterproof trousers as well as our coats and walking shoes, and set out regardless. As the bus climbed, the rain started to patter down. The audio guide on the bus helpfully pointed out some of the sights as we passed them, ‘If you look to your left you will the Aso caldera spread out below you’ – we looked left. Rolling mist and stormy skies. ‘Now we are approaching a beautiful mountain, shaped like a pile of rice.’ More mist, with a taunting little crest of brown peeping out of the top. Nevertheless, we decided to press on. We had paid £3 to get up this mountain and we would have to pay £3 to get down, so we were damn well going to go for a walk! Well, there is a time to persevere, and there is a time to quit. Let’s just say we misjudged this time. The inclement weather worsened as we started our walk, trudging up paths shrouded in cloud, searching in vain for signs of the beautiful scenery we had promised ourselves and exciting views of the volcano. On another day, I may have been able to bear this in good spirits. Today was not one of those days. I was already feeling tired and as my clothes dampened, so did my mood. When the water began to slosh in my shoes and I started to have the sneaking suspicion that my prized waterproof jacket was not behaving as it should be, I began to gnash my teeth and clench my fists. After a brief episode of roaring into the wind in a childish outburst, I felt rather better (if a little foolish) and we decided it was best we admit defeat and head back to shelter. Luke of course bore all this with good humour!
We reached the canopy outside the café and stood for a while unsure how to proceed, soaking wet as we were. I removed my shoes and wrung out my socks and we peeled off our sodden outer layers. We then took seats inside and dripped quietly on a bench by the door, and Luke bought me some hot milk to drink whilst we waited for the next bus. On the way back, the audio guide yet again mocked us, chattering about the sights we could not see through the lashing rain.
We spent the rest of the day desperately trying to dry our clothes, passports, rail passes and Luke’s sketchbook. I was mortified to see how soggy and wrinkled the pages were – all those beautiful pictures of our travels! Luke was quite philosophical about it, saying it added to the story behind the pictures, which is true I suppose. Luckily the ink hadn’t run, and a good blasting with the hair dryer made a big difference. We were provided with newspaper to stuff in our shoes and told we could put them behind the wood burning stove where they might stand a better chance of being wearable the next day. When you only have one pair of shoes, you value them more highly! We didn’t fancy having to wear our sandals quite yet. We were a bit irritated that we weren’t allowed to dry our wet coats and trousers indoors anywhere – the only place we were allowed to hang them was outside in the porch, which had some shelter, but had rain blowing through it. I managed to get my coat past the dripping wet stage and finished drying it off surreptitiously by the fire that evening, but Luke decided his would fare better left outside overnight. To his dismay when he got up the following morning, someone had simply dumped it in a sodden pile on a table, so it was just as wet as the day before. If it was my turn to rage the day before, it was Luke’s turn now! Thankfully it was nothing a good 20 minutes with a hair drier couldn’t sort out, and I fished out my now dry shoes from behind the stove and went out to buy a slap up breakfast. The man in the local bakery laughed when I told him about how wet we had got the day before, and it amused him still more when the notes I paid him with were still soggy!
The clouds still looked a little threatening, but it wasn’t actually raining, so we decided to brave our trip up the mountain one last time. We could see slightly more of the scenery on the way up, although much of it was still shrouded in mist. I think this would be a truly amazing place to visit in the spring or summer, and if we come back to Japan, it will definitely be on our list. Most of our knowledge of the appearance comes from photographs other people have taken, so perhaps look it up for yourselves! Thousands of years ago there had been a series of enormous eruptions that had led to the collapse of land above the magma chamber and formation of the massive Aso caldera, which is around 100km in circumference. We could see the edge of the caldera as the bus climbed; a wall of mountain surrounded the flat valley like the edge of a frying pan, and Mount Aso is still bubbling away in the centre. There are several other peaks of extinct volcanoes, some of them ridged with deep grooves from lava flows and others in appealing shapes, like the mount that resembles a pile of rice, with a dimpled top. In spring, the valley and the lower slopes are blanketed in pink flowers and in summer the area is vivid with lush green pastures grazed by cattle and horses. The town of Aso is located in the flat of the caldera, along with several other small rural towns. Pretty cool place to live eh? The volcano’s behaviour is closely monitored and warnings updated accordingly. If it reaches a grade 4, that means prepare to evacuate, 5 means evacuate immediately. So grade 2 is fairly tame really. Let’s hope it stays that way! (I am writing this whilst still in the vicinity of the volcano, so I don’t want to tempt fate! As the logs shift in the grate, I am getting a bit jumpy…).
We went for a short and windy, icy cold walk close to a couple of small volcanic lakes that drifted in and out of vision as the cloud blew around us. Driven back to shelter and a warm coffee by the weather and lack of a view (but still quite dry this time!), we waited again for the bus to take us to the 1km zone, the nearest point to the crater we were allowed to access. We had heard so much about the Aso Super Ring experience from the automated audio guide lady on the bus, that we felt it must be something really special, being the largest projection mapping facility in Japan (which meant nothing to me!). It was, let’s say, a little underwhelming, but I do like underwhelming things from time to time and it was rather fun! There was a 6m ring in the centre which contained a relief map of the Aso region, and four large cinema screens set around the room. There was an over the top countdown before the 8 minute long show started. Video footage was projected onto the relief map, so you could see how Aso changes throughout the seasons, then alongside some dramatic music and a voice over in Japanese that was sparsely subtitled in English, the screens showed a simulation of going inside a volcano, and the relief map was engulfed in mock flames. The voiceover lady made unconvincing terrified noises as if she was being swallowed by magma, then declared, ‘oh thank goodness! We have somehow been projected into outer space!’ and there, on the lumpy map of Aso, was a picture of Earth as seen from outer space. It was quite bizarre, but entertaining and didn’t cost that much. Luke said he could have done better himself!
We emerged from the Super Ring with time to kill before the final bus back. We finally managed to get hold of the South Korean ferry company we had been trying to contact for the past few days, so our time was not wasted! In a few days’ time, we plan to head to the island of Jeju, which is just south of South Korea, where we will spend around 2 weeks working on a farm in return for bed and board. It will be our first try out of WWOOFing; if it goes well, we may do more. We’re really looking forward to spending longer in one place, as moving around all the time gets exhausting after a while!
When we eventually got around to looking out of the window, the scenery had completely changed! It had snowed whilst we were inside and the ground was peppered with little white balls, making it look as if someone had punctured a giant bean bag. There was a small temple outside and several Buddhas dusted with snow. We still couldn’t see much mountain, but it was exciting to see our first white stuff of the year! That was probably the most astounding thing about the Super Ring experience! The bus driver fitted chains to the wheels and we were slowly driven back down to the town, feeling a little sad about missing out on the sights of Aso and views inside the crater, but well aware we would see plenty of other exciting things on our trip.