“Huffing my way to the top”: Day Five of Kat’s (not quite) Epic Christmas/New Years 2008 (and technically 2009) Trip (of wonderfulness)

After a long hiatus while my former computer made the slow descent into death, I have bought myself something wonderful and shiny (read: 24″ iMac) and can now edit photos.  Which means you get to hear about my many adventures! Yay!

Anyway, continuing my time in Kumamoto… (For previous posts of this Epic adventure, click the “Kumamoto” tag above.)

Woke up quite early (and by that I mean 8:30-ish) on December 28th, slightly cold and stuffy, and sick and tired of the smell of kerosene.  Kyushu, in case you were wondering, solves the problem of no central heating by the inefficient use of space heaters.  As kerosene is cheap, a large majority of said space heaters are run by kerosene and let out a decidedly off-putting smell.  It was kind of frustrating to sleep in it, but then, maybe not everyone is as sensitive as me.  (However, I would still recommend Aso Youth Hostel to people, especially in late spring/summer when it wouldn’t be so cold.)

I chatted with the two Malaysian girls while waiting for the bus.  They were wonderful, warm ladies who spoke fluent Japanese (darn them…) and invited to show me around their town at some point in the future.  I’ll probably take advantage of it. 

For this last day in Aso, I’d decided to accomplish all the hiking I couldn’t do the day before.  That involved climbing up a hiking trail near Kusasenri to see the most famous Aso sight (well… aside from the volcano), and taking the long hike back to the hostel (about two and a half hours).  I managed to accomplish both of these things–it was a miracle, trust me–and I’m really glad I did.  I got to see most of what Aso had to offer while not killing myself doing it.

View from the top (though not from a helicopter... obviously).

View from the top (though not from a helicopter... obviously).

 So first on my journey was the bus to Kusasenri so I might trek up Kishima-dake to see “Kome Zuka,” which according to the adorable Youth Hostel Obaa-chan is the sight not to miss.  

According to the map, it should have been (total) a fifty minute trek.  

It took me two hours.

What can I say?  I am ridiculously out of shape, and those stairs were steep!  I nearly fell off the edge of Kishima-dake several times–crocs are not the shoes to wear while hiking–but it was totally worth it.  I can’t wait to see what it looks like when I go back in the Spring or Summer.


The view of Kusasenri from Kishima-dake.

The view of Kusasenri from Kishima-dake.


That little beige blob in the center of the photo is the most beautiful part of Aso... apparently.

That little beige blob in the center of the photo is the most beautiful part of Aso... apparently.

Me being surly at my inability to take a good picture of myself.

Me being surly at my inability to take a good picture of myself.

So, as you may be able to tell by the pictures, just like the day before, the weather was just wonderful.  Sunny, clear skies with some fluffy clouds (though not as good as the 27th, I’ll admit), and enough cold wind that as I exerted myself far more than my poor body was used to, it had air enough to calm back down.  A pretty good trade off, I’d say.

Though I still wish there’d been snow.

I sat at the top of Kishima-dake for a solid thirty minutes, first to catch my breath, and then to just admire the view.  In the distance I could make out the same misty Shimabara mountains I’d traveled through just days before, even bits and pieces of Kumamoto City, which is pretty dang cool if you think about it.  And then I spent a solid ten minutes struggling to take a picture of myself as Japanese tourists nearby laughed at me.  😦  Well, you win some, you lose some.

The way back down was much better than the way up, though I was afraid, again, that I’d plummet to my death.  Cameras make one very top heavy, and thems were some steep steps!  But what came with it was not only an excellent view, but an amazing sense of accomplishment.  I’d done it!  It may have taken me twice the average amount of time, but I friggin’ did it.  And that meant a great deal.

Anyway, I stomped my way back to Kusasenri to find some grub before the hike back down to the Hostel which, according to my map, could take anywhere from three to five hours depending on how lost I got.  (I ended up getting very lost, but only near the end.)  And what did I find but…


Horse meat!  On sticks!

Horse meat! On sticks!

To all my friends in America who are banned from eating horse meat, yes, I did have twinges of conscience affect me.  (Though not as much as I had when presented with whale, which I did not eat.  My rationalization was thus: whales are endangered species’.  Horses are not.)

However, oh my goodness gracious is cooked horse meat delicious.  As you may remember from my first trip to Shimabara, I’d previously eaten something called “basashi,” or raw horse meat.  But cooked, whoo boy.  Succulent and rich, more delicious than even Iki beef–which is saying something.  I did find it slightly ironic that the skewer stand was right across from what would normally be a place to ride horses but… hey, who am I to judge?  

In any case.  

Following that fun adventure, I trekked my way about two kilometers to the beginning of the trail that–according to my hand-drawn map–would take me back to the hostel.  I caught the Malaysian girls on their way back from riding in the helicopter (they agreed it was just as spectacular as I’d claimed), found the very paved, very large trail, and made my way down.

I am so very glad I did.

Though I knew my legs would protest the entirely downhill climb (in fact, it wasn’t so bad) the next day, it was great just humming my way through what probably was the old road up to Nakadake.  Rusted guardrails greeted me at certain turns, and rotting old signs lined the road, pointing this way or that.  I could have almost imagined Natsume Soseki seeing the same signs as he hiked his way through Kumamoto one-hundred years (-ish) previous… except the English on them made me pretty sure they’d been placed there after the fifties.

I didn’t see a soul the whole way down.  Grains grew taller than me, it had gotten so wild, though I did spot a very randomly placed solar panel.  (Really Japan?  Really?)  


The grains.

The grains.

Also for your still growing educations, a video on the creation of Aso Town and the volcanoes that surround it:

The trail stopped near the S curves of the main road, so I (carefully) skipped down the right side of them.  I really have no idea what side of the road you’re supposed to walk on in Japan.  In any case, some of my favorite views came from this part–the grass had actually begun to turn green!  Madness!  Plus, it was here that I also ran into yet another monument to Natsume Soseki–though it wasn’t statue-like, rather featured quotes from his books.  (Most from Three-cornered World/The Grass is my Pillow as I prefer to call it.  I’d assume, anyway.)


That's Nakadake in the background, which was on my right (behind the bush-covered hill) in the video.

That's Nakadake in the background, which was on my right (behind the bush-covered hill) in the video.

I love-love-loved this view. The clouds, the handmade fence, the smattering of green, everything.

I love-love-loved this view. The clouds, the handmade fence, the smattering of green, everything.


A bit of serendipitous Soseki.  (This is part of the monument.)

A bit of serendipitous Soseki. (This is part of the monument.)

So it was at this point that I got lost.

I’d done pretty well at following the map.  Really, the map was good overall.  But according to it there was supposed to be a trail leading from the campgrounds to the youth hostel.  I searched, got covered in all sorts of sticky foliage, danced my way through a very seedy, suspicious bamboo forest, but ended up right back where I started, by Soseki.  Tired, with the sun about ready to fall behind the mountains, I decided to give up.  I shuddered my way back to the main road, found the nearest bus stop, and waited.

And guess who should come before me, but the nice Malaysian girls!  I really wish I’d gotten their pictures now…

They were off to onsen, but I didn’t feel up to it so I just soaked in the miniature onsen available at the Hostel.  I could barely walk, in case you were wondering.  Seven straight hours of hiking (mostly downhill) will do that to a person.  

But oh, holy bejebus, was it worth it.

To anyone thinking of doing Aso, I would recommend two solid days just so you can hike the same (if not more, given most people are not as out of shape as me).  Start early, finish just as the sun sets, and then go for a soak in the onsen.  A perfect couple of days.  There are several more hikes that I didn’t get to which I may or may not try when I go back.  I’ll certainly also take a horse ride around Kusasenri.

Aso was a wonderful experience, hands down.  And hey, if it was this beautiful in winter–without snow–imagine how amazing it has to be in Spring!  I’m drooling just thinking about it!

So, as a parting shot, here’s my best image from the day: a beautiful tree, with the misty mountains of Unzen/Shimabara in the background.