“A Breath of Mountain’s Sunset”: Day Four of Kat’s (not quite) Epic Christmas/New Years 2008 (and technically 2009) Trip (of wonderfulness)

I set off on December 27th only slightly disconcerted, being as I wasn’t actually sure how to get to Aso.  (It’s actually quite easy: take the train from Kumamoto Station on the Hohi line.  You have to get off at the end of the local run and switch to the one about five feet from the other.  Took about two hours total (I waited around for a bit) but only cost me 900 yen.  Which was nice.)  I’d seen pictures of Aso all green and gorgeous in guidebooks and decided it was a place I’d like to go.  (Future information on the formation of Aso in the next blog.) 

Fun fact for the day: the size of Aso’s caldera is approximately the same size of Iki–which means you could pick it up and stick it inside of this former volcano.  That is, if you were big enough.  And/or strong enough.  Or had magical powers.

In any case, I arrived in Aso Town around noon-ish.  Like the hostel in Kumamoto-shi, the accomodations were a bit bare (and very, very cold!), but the Obaa-chan’s who run it were the nicest old ladies ever.  They handed me a map (in English) and sat me down to a long discourse about how to hike around the mountain, get the best pictures, get the best time for my money, etc.  And, due to extensive pointing and body language as well as the occasional use of an English word, I actually understood everything.  Sadly, I encountered (next-to) no snow, which was part of what I’d hoped for in coming during the winter.  Still, like the gorgeousness of the Arizona desert, it was beautiful in its barrenness. 

Also learned that the last time the most active of the four (?) volcanoes exploded was in 1989.  The Obaa-chan was nice enough to show me some ash she collected from it.

A trail surrounded by volcanic soil.  It got all over my crocs.  It came off like magic, though.

A trail surrounded by volcanic soil. It got all over my crocs. It came off like magic, though.

So after my How-to-Hike chat with the Obaa-chan, I took the bus up to the top of the mountain.  Being the anti-exertion type of person, I decided that while hiking down wouldn’t be the biggest deal, hiking up would not treat me very well (a very good assumption, I learned later).  The bus was very obliging and stopped at a nice picture taking spot–good for Kusasenri, near two volcanic lakes and one of the volcanos, as well as offering a place to buy some sulfur.  I know I always need some extra sulfur.  Then, once at the last stop, I grabbed some takoyaki (less on the tako–octopus–more on the breading) and a very nice broiled sweet potato and then made my way by cable car to the “Mouth of Fire” (this is what it’s called in Japanese), otherwise known as the actual active part of the volcano. 

LOTS of sulfur.

LOTS of sulfur.

Had excellent clouds that day, too.  This is the view of Kusasenri.

Had excellent clouds that day, too. This is the view of Kusasenri.

A South Korean man was nice enough to offer to take my picture for me, the only one which does not look like one of those MySpace one where you can either see the camera in the mirror or it is obvious that I used my own hand to take it...

A South Korean man was nice enough to offer to take my picture for me, the only one which does not look like one of those MySpace one where you can either see the camera in the mirror or it is obvious that I used my own hand to take it...

At the top of the mountain, one is instantly bombarded with warnings.  Being as it is active, that means that sulfuric gases and other goodness is constantly billowing from the top.  As such, it’s not very good for folks with asthma, heart conditions, and other respiratory diseases, as a calm voice consistently reminded me in Japanese, Korean, Chinese, and English.  They also had highly entertaining Engrish signs and several more serious ones.  Depending on the whether, they might judge it too dangerous to ascend closer to the volcano and so shut down the cable car and the toll booth leading up.  I was lucky that on the day I arrived, not only were the clouds excellent, but little wind meant I was free to go where I would.

Just in case...

Just in case...

The above are cement “houses” at the top of the volcano.  They were built in case the volcano randomly decided to go off while either researchers (of which there were several) and tourists (of which there were over 100, even in the middle of winter) were enjoying the view.  I assume they’re not too concerned about molten hot lava, since the cement would let in lava very easily and probably do some meltage.  Instead, they probably wished to protect people from the ash until rescue services could come in.  But then, what do I know about volcanoes?

Before I post the money shot, I just want to emphasize how totally, utterly cool and beyond expectations the sight of the volcano was.  I’d seen some images online and was like, “Huh, that’s interesting,” but it’s so different in person.  First of all, you get a real idea of the size of the thing (four kilometer circumference) and the color is just so phenomenal.  If you ever get the chance, even if just for a few hours, I would really recommend you go.  Though I’ve decided two to three days is the best amount of time to enjoy all the goodness that Aso has to offer.  Keep in mind that I’m going back, too, it was that good.

But yeah. spectacular.

The Mouth of Fire.

The Mouth of Fire.

I *think* this is Buddhist... but do not quote me on that.  Or maybe it is to honor people who were affected by previous eruptions?  I dunno...

I *think* this is Buddhist... but do not quote me on that. Or maybe it is to honor people who were affected by previous eruptions? I dunno...

At the top, I also noticed an interesting bit of Japanese Culture, for anyone who was wondering.  It has long been lamented by the straight female foreigners that while Living in Japan it is very difficult to find a Japanese Boyfriend.  The mythical Japanese Boyfriend is such because, as a whole (though there are certainly exceptions), Japanese people are prone to shyness and humbleness.  Most also don’t speak English.  And they tend to be short.  All of these supposed deficiencies make it very unlikely for a Foreign Girl to be approached–even if she speaks fluent Japanese.  If she approaches him, things may turn out fine, but then again, they find the Foreign Girls intimidating and so it may also come to nothing.  And I also hear that they’re not very, uh, considerate, which may not help the relationship last.

HOWEVER, on the other side of the coin, you always hear of the Foreign Man having no problem finding himself a Japanese Girlfriend of Infinite Sweet/Cuteness.  They may or may not be able to speak English (as a whole, Japanese women will be much more likely to speak English than their male counterparts).  However, often this does not matter as either a) the Foreign Man can speak Japanese or, b) they don’t do much talking.  I understand the preference for Foreign Men, I guess, because they look so different and are generally taller and more considerate, but the Foreign Men preference for Japanese Women is quite intriguing. 

Since I’m usually on a pretty secluded island, I haven’t seen much of the Japanese/Foreigner relationships, but at Aso this usual pattern was all too obvious.  Every time you saw an Asian (usually Japanese, though not always) with a Foreigner, the Japanese person was always a woman, while the Foreigner always a man.  NEVER the other way around. 

I perhaps found this more entertaining than I should.

And also a little depressing.

Anyway…

My next step in the journey was to travel up the trail seen above, just for general curiosity purposes. 

Note the sulfur.  I bet they are making a big profit on those bags.

Note the sulfur. I bet they are making a big profit on those bags.

You can almost make out Aso Town in the misty distance.

You can almost make out Aso Town in the misty distance.

Some clever person had put together this handmade volcano in the perfect angle.

Some clever person had put together this handmade volcano in the perfect angle.

I turned around before going too far–the volcanic soil kept eating at my crocs and getting them dirty, and really, I wanted to get more hiking done elsewhere, which didn’t end up happening–and made my way by foot back down this particular volcano.  After much wandering and confusion, I ended up back on the road heading toward Kusasenri (about a two kilometer walk) and along the way spotted something that made my heart beat with delight.

That is my ride.  Oh yeah.

That is my ride. Oh yeah.

I’d been hearing the sounds of the chopper going on and off while I was up there and remembered a brief description in my guidebook back in America, “And, if you have the money and the inclination, you can view Aso from above.”  Well, I didn’t exactly have the money to spare but I did have the money and really, how can one pass up such an opportunity? 

Being as it’d gotten near the end of the day, I was the only one waiting, but they were nice enough to let me go by myself even though usually they only take two passengers!  It was 5000 yen (a little over 50 dollars) for only about three minutes, but seriously, it was exhilirating.  I would do it again in a heartbeat.  And I heard that somewhere else you can learn how to paraglide!  I will be doing that when I go again…

What you cannot see is my claps of excitement and happiness.

What you cannot see is my claps of excitement and happiness.

Aso by Air.

Aso by Air.

Didn’t get any good pictures of it, but the mouth of the volcano as well as misty mountains (you can see Shimabara from Aso!) in the distance from overhead was really far more breathtaking than I’d imagined.

Well, after my Helicopter Adventure, I walked back to Kusasenri, decided I didn’t have the time to go on the extra hike before the next bus arrived (in an hour–this was a very good decision on my part), hung out, and went back to the hostel for some Haruki Murakami reading and chatting with the other nice folks staying (a pair of Australians and a girl who lives in Amsterdam.  Later that night, a set of very nice Malaysian graduate students also joined us, but you’ll hear more about them in the next entry.)

So that is all–of Day Four.  Still have another day in Aso followed by my account of New Years in Fukuoka. 

I hope I gave you even a sliver of the true extent of Aso’s amazingness (random conjecturing on relationships aside).  When I go again, I think it’ll be even better.

Oh, and because I don’t think I’ve posted enough pictures of this portion of my adventure:

Kiss kiss!

Kiss kiss!

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