Minami Aso, Kugino michi no eki
Waking in Minami Aso on a frosty, misty morning that promises a fine day, we walk around the large, flat area that comprises this michi no eki. We note the dog run and the large Christmas illuminations that are unilluminated at this time of the morning. There is also an artificial, rectangular pond. It reflects the mountains and a series of cartoon figures in silhouette so I conclude it is for Instagram purposes. Nevertheless, the soft morning light, the mist and the hazy blue mountains are an absolute delight.
From the road station we set off for Mt. Aso. As expected, when we arrive at the upper car park, access to the active mouth is not possible. The heightened volcanic activity and the amount of gas being emitted make it much too dangerous.
After descending to the main parking area at Kusasenri, we set off to climb the short, sharp peak Kijima-dake. By now the sky is a cloudless, deep blue and the mustard yellow of the dead susuki grass everywhere is a fine sight. Our climb is straight up, almost literally. First on a tarmac path that gets steeper and steeper until it succumbs to steps, about 950 of them.
Arriving at the summit, well out of breath, the view is adequate recompense. You look across the sea of susuki below to the active cone belching white, volcanic gasses and the occasional plume of grey ash. The area surrounding the crater freshly covered in this material.
The fissures and gullies of these rapidly eroding newer slopes and the sparse vegetation colonizing the more stable areas are plain to see. Beyond this, the susuki and patches of Sugi (cypress) trees and yet further afield numerous peaks and the fantastic rim of the whole Aso caldera. No matter how many times I visit this place I am hugely impressed. Of course, giraffes have the same effect on me.
We toy with the idea of hiking around the rim of the crater we are perched on but are unsure how far this will take us, and I am tired. The trip down is surprisingly quick and easy and we wander a little before having lunch by the pond at Kusasenri. In late December I am sitting in shirt sleeves, enjoying onigiri and gazing across the water at the gasses pouring out of the Mt. Aso cone.
Hourei no yu Onsen (Waita Onsen)
Lunch over, time for one last onsen before heading home. Our choice is Hourei no yu, in the Waita Onsen area. On arrival, we discover this place has only a small, outside bath. The washing facilities, also outside, are rudimentary. There is minimal provision of soap etc. and no mirror but more disturbingly, the water from taps and shower is tepid at best. Not good in a chill December breeze. The milky onsen water is hot, very hot and I am soon, with the bath to myself, enjoying a soak in the late afternoon sunshine.
And so home. The next day I feel no stiffness from the sharp Aso climb. The magic of onsen.
The author is a long term resident of Japan who has and continues to travel the country extensively. Avoiding highways where possible, the author has driven from Kagoshima in Kyushu to Wakanai in Hokkaido covering 20,000 plus kilometres and counting.