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To the volcano – Mount Aso

Tue 23 Jul – day 73 The Toyoko Inn hotel chain may have compact rooms and be the cheap(er) way to stay In Japan, but the beds were extremely comfortable and I slept very well after my train journeys yesterday.

 I arose early as I had a train to catch, but before I left the hotel I use the free computers in the foyer to go on-line and advise my sister where I was and that there was yet another package in the post.

Rather than try and wait for a taxi I caught the tram back to the station; it was fairly full of people on their way to work and lots of them were fast asleep!

Today I was following a suggestion from Inside Japan and going to Mount Aso in order to look into the crater of a very active volcano.

Kumamoto was located on the western side of Kyushu, about halfway down the island and as the largest city for miles around I stood on the platform and watched the commuter trains disgorging hordes of people travelling to their offices.

The stewardess arrived and while we were waiting for the train to arrive I asked whether I could take her photo, “Hai” a short bow and I then took some snaps.  All the stewardess that I had seen so far were always elegantly dressed and I had been told that these were highly prized jobs and it was only their lack of language skills that prevented them becoming air hostesses.  The service they provided was impeccable.

I was catching the Limited Express Trans-Kyushu 2 which ran from Kumamoto on the JR Hohi line right the island to Oita on the east coast, a station that I had passed through on my way to Kagoshima.  Although this was a normal scheduled service, the vast majority of the passengers were on their way to see the volcano, just like me.  The train had only two carriages, one reserved and one unreserved, so no Green (1st) class.  For the first time on my trip I had someone sitting next to me and I was glad that I had reserved a seat last night because it soon became clear that it was standing room only in the unreserved carriage.

We set off on time and as soon as the train left the mainline we were on a single track travelling in a very narrow gap between people’s houses.  It did not take long to leave the built-up area and the scenery became very picturesque as the train started its long climb upwards.  At Tateno station our train reversed as it went up a zig-zag in order to gain the necessary height in order to reach the top of the gorge as we really were in mountain goat country.  One can only imagine the effort the Japanese equivalent of the navvies must have put in to construct this line.  Tateno was also the junction station from where you could transfer on the scenic private Minami-Aso line which terminated at Takamori to the south of the Mount Aso complex.

During the trip the train conductor came around and gave everyone an information leaflet about the mountain and the stewardess then used an ink pad to put a stamp on it.  I had discovered that the Japanese were avid collectors and everywhere in the country businesses, stations, public parks, tourist attractions and many more places had beautifully designed ink stamps which depicted the location or enterprise.  I even started to follow the custom and stamped the pages in my notebook.

We then reached a wide open plain which is the Aso-san volcano caldera and at 128km in circumference the largest in the world.  It was so big that until you got high up on Mount Aso it was virtually impossible to take in.  This crater was formed by a massive eruption 90,000 years ago and was now home to farming communities, all of whom live in the shadow of the volcano which was now looming out of the clouds to our right.  The railway line runs right across the caldera on its way to the east coast.

Aso was a small town which served the local community as well as the tourist hordes that came to travel up the mountain.  As soon as the train stopped at the station it emptied as people rushed outside to join the queue for the bus (coach) that would take us up the mountain.  When it arrived it soon filled up and all the seats were taken, including the drop down ones in the aisle, it if had been in a crash no one would have been able to get to the front door as we were certainly jammed in.  And woe betide anyone who got caught short as they would not have been able to make a quick exit.

The trip up to the lower rope-way (cable car in European parlance) station took nearly an hour and the driver hardly ever got out of low gear as we made our way up a rather steep and twisting road.  As with all volcanic land this was extremely fertile with cows grazing in the lush pastures.

At one point the bus turned a corner and we had our first sight of the steam plume emanating from the volcano.  The view lasted just a few moments before the road dropped down and went behind one of the smaller peaks.    We stopped at the Aso Volcano Museum were no one got off, but there were a considerable number of coaches parked and I saw tour parties being shown inside by their guides.

When we reached the lower station there was yet again another rush to get off which quite frankly was a waste of time as the cable cars operated almost constantly.

There were actually five volcanoes within the Aso-san caldera, Eboshi-dake, Kijima-dake, Neko-dake, Naka-dake, and at 1592m the highest, Taka-dake.

Naka-dake, the active volcano, was the second highest peak and this was where the cable car went.  On some days the cable-car did not run and access to the peak would barred due to strong winds or the very high levels of toxic emissions; luckily today was not one of those occasions.

The queue for the cable car was very orderly (as you expect in Japan) and not long, so I was soon leaving the lower station and heading upwards; on the way there was a tannoy broadcast in both Japanese and English which gave a safety brief in case there was an eruption.  Basically run backwards away from the crater towards the concrete shelters so that you see where the boulders and lava was going; that was not something that I wanted to experience.  The last fatal eruption had been in 1979 when a sudden explosion killed three people and injured another eleven; it was after this incident that the concrete shelters were installed.

As soon as I got to the top station and exited the cable car the smell of sulphur was immediately apparent; as I exited and made my way past the blast walls that protected the top station, there was the steam plume in front of me.

In complete contrast to the barren lava field ahead of me, the view back down the mountain to the lower station and beyond was of a grass covered dotted with extinct volcanic peaks.

All the walks around the top station were on tarmac paths with wooden fences preventing people from stepping onto the fragile lava surface; the concrete shelters were located every few yards.


It was easy to look down into the crater and see the liquid mud bubbling away at a temperature of 1000° C; the colours of the surface were amazing, but you didn’t want to get too close as the barrier was not particularly high and any slip would probably be your last.  Boiled alive!!

Although there was only one active crater on Naka-dake, there was evidence of many more in the immediate vicinity and these varied in size and depth. The whole area was well sign posted and for once the translations were good.

I headed south on a boardwalk over an old lava flow, then across the lava field until I reached the end of the caldera and on the way I passed a boulder nearly three feet high; you would not stand much chance if that hit you.  From the high point I was able to look down to Takamori and see the edges of the various calderas within the overall massive Aso-san complex.

This was a very popular tourist attraction and there were a number of Europeans as well as crowds of Japanese.

A lot of the volcano shots for the 1967 James Bond film ‘You Only Live Twice’ were taken here including the gyrocopter scene.

Having seen all that I wanted to I made my way down in the cable car and while I waited for the bus I brought myself one of the delicious ice-creams.  The gift shop was full of very tacky souvenirs and this seemed to be the norm at all the places I had visited so far.  I purchased a batch of postcards and then started to write them until it was time to board the bus.

I sat on the back seat and two of the other seats were occupied by an American couple and we had a chat during the journey back to the station.

There was nearly three hours to go before the train on which I had reserved seats was due to arrive and rather than take an earlier train, I decided to find a seat in the shade and finish writing the cards.

Outside the station there was a concrete cow to remind people that this was an agricultural area.

Adjacent to the station was the local equivalent of a farmers market which sold the most delicious ice cream and strawberry cakes, so having bought some sat down at a bench to eat them before commencing my writing.

It was great to sit and watch the comings and goings – one gent even came at sat at my bench and said “Konnichiwa”.  This was amazing as most Japanese avoid sitting next to or even near a Gaijin (foreigner) as I saw on the coach when the two seats between myself and the Americans were the last to be filled; the lads who occupied them had looked everywhere else before (reluctantly) sitting down, as it was either that or wait an hour for the next bus.

Having finished my card writing, the delicious ice cream and most of the small strawberry cakes I wandered back to the station to wait for the Limited Express on which I had reserved a seat for the return journey and arrived just as a local train pulled in.  It was a good job I arrive when I did as the conductor and station staff were gesturing for everyone to get onboard.  One of the English speaking ladies from the tourist info desk came over and asked whether I was going to Kumamoto, when I showed her my reservation tickets, both she and the conductor then crossed their arms in front of their chest.  I was to learn that this gesture meant no and it would appear that for reasons that I was never able to ascertain the Limited Express was either cancelled, running late or had an accident.

So I climbed onboard the local train and we headed off to the west gathering speed as we sped down the side of the ancient caldera.   We were soon back at the zig-zag where the young boy who had been stood behind the driver followed him to the opposite end of the train and then back again as he moved to be facing the direction of travel.

At Higo-Ozu there was a long wait, then a member of the station staff approached me and said “Kumamoto”, I nodded and he said “Change” as it appeared that this train was terminating here.  There was a long wait for the commuter train back into the city and so the platform became packed with school children going home after a day in the classroom.

One of the special tourist trains named ‘Aso Boy’ that ply this route passed in the opposite direction; in the front carriage the driver’s position was above the passengers who then had an unrestricted view out of the front.

When the commuter train finally arrived crowds of people got off and it was then jammed solid for the journey back to the city; it was easy to ascertain that people were unhappy about the various delays.  I was offered a seat on three occasions but declined while schoolgirls fell asleep even when they were strap hanging.  What was about this country that made people so tired that they sleep when going to and from work or school?

When we arrive in Kumamoto the voice on the tannoy sounded very apologetic but it was all in Japanese as you would expect so I had no idea of what was being said, however the other passengers did not seem placated.

There was no copy of the Tokyo Times (the country’s English language newspaper) in the shops, so I caught a tram back to the hotel.  When I collected my key at reception I asked for an iron and board as I had some domestics to do.

After what had been a long, hot and sticky day the hot shower was most welcome, but the plumbing was weird as the water temperature and pressure rose and fell without warning.  Having done the ironing I updated my blog, then dressed and headed out to get something to eat and drink.

I came across an Irish Bar so had a couple of beers and some spaghetti while watching Manchester United lose to Yokohama Marinos 3 – 2; United’s defending was terrible while all the cameras were on a Japanese player in a United shirt.  He was made Man of The Match, so the publicity machine was obviously in action.

I bought an ice-cream on the way back to the hotel and once I had finished it, the bed was beckoning.