During spring vacation, my friends Dirk and Nichole came to visit, and we decided to take the train down to Kyushu to visit Aso-san (Mt. Aso), one of Japan’s most famous active volcanoes. Mt. Aso is made up of five volcanic cones that together make up the “world’s largest caldera, with a circumference of 130 km (80 miles)” (Eyewitness Travel Guide). Nakadake is Aso-san’s still active crater — so active that a woman on honeymoon was killed by an eruption in 1979 — and that’s what we had come to see. If you look at numerous photos of the Nakadake plume, you can see that the smoke from the crater varies in intensity from huge roiling masses of gray ash thrown high into the air, to the milder, almost cloudlike white smoke that we encountered on our visit.
One of the reasons that Aso-san is such a popular area for tourism in Japan is that the landscape around the caldera is completely unlike the landscape of most of Japan, which tends to be either forested or farmland, without the kind of ranging vistas that you can find so easily in the U.S. Aso-san, however, has been denuded of most trees (presumably because of volcanic activity), and the dark soil is apparently the perfect composition to promote the growth of thriving grasslands. Of course, we arrived on the tail-end of winter, so the grass was brown, rather than green, and even though the sky was clear there was a bone-chilling frostwind at altitude.
The photo above is a view of the Kusasenri meadow, which cradles a lake in its arms. During the spring, the grass is green and the lake is larger, but I kind of like the way the winter-shrunken lake reveals the stark black earth. On the bus ride up we passed the Komezuka, a cinder cone that is bright green during the spring and summer, but bare and black during the winter. If you want to, you can rent horses and ride them around the lake area of the Kusasenri meadow.
We decided to walk from the Kusasenri meadow up to the gondola lift that would take us the rest of the way to Nakadake. Everyone else, apparently, stayed on the bus or drove to the gondola lift because the three of us were the only people walking the path — only a mile and half or so — up to the lift station. This is a shame because walking through the landscape really gives a better sense of the place — especially in terms of the geological history, which is obviously quite interesting (and some of it quite recent). Our path essentially led up to a large outflow from the crater itself, and we passed through numerous types of terrain, including prairie, fields of rock, different flow patterns and types of earth, and even a few patches of ice crystals, here and there, that emerged in the shadows of overhangs. Plus we got to walk past the (defunct?) ski lift pictured above. I somehow like the idea of taking the lift up to the hilltop and skiing down in white snow while the volcano slowly belches forth smoke in the distance.
Because Nakadake has had fairly major eruptions as recently as 1993, a series of concrete bunkers have been built around the rim of the crater. These serve as viewing platforms, but in the event of unexpected volcanic activity they are also supposed to act as emergency shelters. I have no idea how effective these bunkers would be in the event of a major eruption, but they are nice to walk around in.
Although the fact that Nakadake is an active volcano makes for a good deal of excitement and unpredictability, this unpredictability can have its downside as well. Because of dangerous levels of sulfur gasses emitted by the crater, we were only able to go as far as the first viewing platform, and not to the actual rim of the crater where you can look down inside for a view of the toothpaste blue water that pools there.
Once we had gotten our view of as much of the crater as we could possibly see, we walked past the man selling his bright yellow bags of sulfur at a fold-up card table and into the comparative warmth of the cable lift waiting room. It was nice to get out of the freezing wind and warm up for awhile near the kerosene heater, throwing out its heatwaves at full volume.
Here’s the gondola parking at the bottom of the lift. I love cable lifts, gondola lifts, ski lifts — anything that gets you into the air, above the usual groundbound view. Even from the height of the gondola, however, I couldn’t see the shape of the reclining Buddha that the mountains at Aso-san are supposed to form. I think that this shape is visible from outside the caldera, and not from within the center of the caldera where Nakadake is found. Next time I come to Aso-san I think I’d like to stay a few days in the area and hike around. And at night, take in some of the natural hot springs that can be found all along the base of the caldera. I imagine that it’s the kind of hot water that can melt the weary right off.
Filed under: Japan, nature, travel | 4 Comments
Tags: alpine meadow, Aso-san, cable lift, cinder cone, concrete bunkers, 熊本県, emergency shelter, 阿蘇山, gas mask, geological history, geology, gondola lift, Komezuka, Kumamoto, Kusasenri meadow, Kyushu, Mount Aso, Nakadake, poison gas, ski lift, sulfur gas, volcano, world's largest caldera, 九州