Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Aso and Onsens

The first destination on our road trip was Mt. Aso, the largest active volcano in Japan, located in Kumamoto Prefecture. Mt. Aso is actually a series of five mountains, and the caldera they from is massive - the circumference is almost 80 miles long. One can hike around the entire caldera and most of the peaks, but the main highlight is the smoldering crater of Mt. Naka, which emits smoke almost 24/7 and whose lava can be seen from along its rim, which is accessible on most days depending on how the volcano is behaving.

When we arrived at the town of Aso, located at the base of the mountain, we unbelievably ran into our friend Allison, a fellow Texas native who came over with us to Japan from the Houston Consulate group back in July of last year. We hadn't seen her since arriving in Japan and had no prior communication about Aso beforehand, so we were both shocked when we literally bumped into her after coming around a corner in the hostel. It was a great surprise too, as we all got to travel together for the three days that we stayed in Kumamoto Prefecture.

At the hostel we stayed up until 2am hanging with other travelers, which made the following morning's 7am alarm painful. We tried to sort ourselves out with a coffee run, and then took off up the mountain in our tiny car. The drive was beautiful, and the nature and vegetation within the caldera stunning. We finally made it to the parking area and took the trolley up to the top of the mountain. There was a pretty high air quality alert, so only one viewing platform was open. As soon as we walked out of the trolley the thick sulphur in the air immediately caused breathing problems, and the sounds of everyone coughing was almost humorous. We got a quick glimpse of the crater and hightailed it out. On the way out we stopped at some of the other smoldering lakes that dot the caldera, and then returned to the hostel for lunch.

Crater at Mt. Naka

In the Caldera with Mt. Naka in the background

In the afternoon, we decided to drive up to the town of Kurokawa, a famous onsen (hot bath) village located about an hour north of Mt. Aso. The drive to Kurokawa was also beautiful (and terrifying - one lane mountain roads for most of the way there), and upon arriving we purchased the rotemburo meguri (bath tour pass), which allowed us to visit three of the twenty-four outdoor baths in the town. What makes the onsens so famous in Kurokawa is that they are all set in very natural surroundings outside. Some are even built into nearby rivers and waterfalls. The onsens were incredible - after spending four hours going between three of them it was a miracle that we all stayed awake enough to drive back to Aso that evening. 

One of the three onsens we visited in Kurokawa

Kurokawa at nightfall

We crashed at the hostel in Aso one more night, and then set out for the city of Kumamoto the following morning. Kumamoto is one of the larger cities on the island of Kyushu, and is actually the sister city of San Antonio. We were lucky because we hit Kumamoto right during the peak of the two week cherry blossom season. The cherry blossoms in full bloom around the castle and park that we visited were fantastic. After we bid farewell to our friend Allison, Michelle and I set off to try Kumamoto Ramen and 馬刺し (basashi). Basahi is actually raw horse meat, eaten in a very similar fashion to sashimi. Honestly I'm embarrassed to even admit that I ate basashi (and Michelle refused to even taste), but since it's a very special local delicacy, I thought I would partake just a little. The thought of it was disgusting, but it tasted very similar to beef.

Cherry Blossoms lining the road to the castle

Kumamoto Castle

Michelle's awesome pic of a cherry blossom at a park in Kumamoto

After a nice Mister Donut desert, we crashed back at the guesthouse. The next portion of the trip was what we were most excited about - Yakushima!!

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