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Published: December 22nd 2006
Crater of death and rotten eggs. The LARGEST caldera in the world!
For the three-day weekend in early November I went on a road trip to Kyushu to hike and camp around Mt. Aso. In addition to hiking, we found ourselves onsening ALL the time. I had attempted to go to Mt. Aso and hike (I have a minor obsession with hiking) when I first got to Japan, yet came to a dead end because it is very hard to reach without a car. Don't worry to those that know me, I have no desire in my entire life to drive in Japan- I hate doing it in America! Since last year I was still trying to find a way to get to Aso. Fortunately my friend Nikki was as eager as I was to get to Aso, and alas, can drive a car- next thing I knew we were planning a road trip to Aso.
We had 8 hikers ready to go- two carloads with Hannah and Nikki behind the wheels. Our cars were new with the latest Japanese GPS Locaters. Great idea, especially with my sense of direction. The only minor problem was that it was ALL in Japanese! Throughout our trip we had our GPS Locator, which
Nikki, our fearless, halfblind driver
we named "Sachi" leading us in the WRONG direction. Good think we followed the map instead of Sachi. Getting to Aso was an adventure because we took some back roads so we could see some of the countryside. It was very beautiful. Japanese roads, as I have mentioned in other blogs, aren't too advanced. For such a small country it takes a long time to get anywhere. We left around 10:30 and did not get down to Aso until around 6 pm. We arrived just in time to see the sun setting along the ridge bordering Aso City. As we stopped for a photo-op, the next problem surfaced. I had booked our bungalows, yet really had no idea where they were! We got to the area where they were located called Kurokawa. We thought, okay, now we are lost, let's just go to a police station and ask them if THEY know where to go. Nikki and Lisa wandered in. 10 minutes went by.....then 20......then I went in to see what the hell was going on. This place couldn't be that hard to find! Turns out the police station was taking this a little too far- we may have been
The Japanese version of the popular US Whole Foods...I think they got it a little wrong.
the only people they have seen all day. Crime is VERY unusual in Japan, and we were in a resort onsen town so it must be even less, these guys must have been bored. In addition, we were a group of foreigners. It was like Christmas for them! They ended up giving us 5 different maps, called the place 3 different times to make sure it was the right place and that we did in fact have a reservation there. To top things off, we had a police escort! Absolutely hysterical, and very Japanese.
The best part of our campsite/bungalow was the name: Aso Fantasy Forest. Sounds like we are going to a Love Hotel! When we pulled up I was a little skeptical of the place and was thinking "what did I get everyone into?" Yet once we moved in, set up the bungalow, and started to check out the little campsite, I started to fall in love with it. I loved being in the mountains and in the woods! It truly is my Heaven! Having spent 2 summers at a summer camp with no electricity and spending my weekends hiking through Yosemite, coming to Aso was
Stopping at random lookouts to see the beautiful inaka around us
like I was returning there. We went to the outdoor sento which was so soothing and warm, which was our "bath" for the whole weekend.
The next day we were up early en route to find Nakedake, one of the five mountains that makes up Mt Aso. Nakedake is the tallest of them, and in the center of the mountains is a huge caldera- the LARGEST IN THE WORLD to be exact! One of the largest problems we ran into the whole trip was lack of information in English. We went in search of a tourist office, but that was unsuccessful. A lot of our trip was guessing where to go next. We ended up following the signs to Aso, and low and behold, soon found ourselves at the base of the caldera. You can actually drive to the caldera, or take an absolutely pointless tram. It is literally 1 km slight slope from the entrance of Aso to the caldera. Trying to get in as much hiking as we could, we did what most Japanese don't do and walked that whole 1 km to the crater. The crater is definitely a Japanese tourist destination, selling sulfur and
The ridge around the main city, Aso City
large Japanese tour groups all over. The caldera is still active today, and can be very dangerous because of its toxic emissions. If the wind blows a certain way, then they actually have to close the caldera to visitors. That would have sucked- thank God it did not happen to us! After gazing at the ice blue sulfur and getting our fair share of rotten eggs, we went in search of the peak. Again, not really having too much direction, we just wandered. Luckily we wandered in the right direction and soon found ourselves hiking up the side of the mountain- this is what I came to Aso for! We got to the ridge and it was an incredible view of the entire crater and surrounding area. We did not get to cmplete the whole hike because we were running out of daylight. Still it was definitely worthwhile and amazing. I couldn't have been any happier.
That night we headed back to Kurokawa. To our luck, this is a very famous and special little area in Kumamoto Prefecture. "Kurokawa" means "black river." The river is famous for its natural hot springs. Onsens have been built along the river
to take advantage of the special water. Japanese people wander the streets in yukata with a special pass, allowing them to choose 3 of the 40 or so onsens to dip into. For those unfamiliar with onsens, they are natural hot spring baths. When at an onsen you strip down to your birthday suit and bathe in a shower outside the hot spring before entering. Once clean, you submerge your body into the piping hot water and sooth your aching muscles. Once you get over the whole getting naked thing, they are wonderful. The guidebooks did tell us to be careful because many of the onsens in Kurokawa are coed. We randomly picked one, went in to make sure sexes were segregated, and proceeded onward. Somehow we chose the extra special onsen: inside the onsen it was all caves! It was called Shimmei-kan. That was absolutely crazy. We were told there was an outdoor pool that was coed. Lisa, Hannah, and I said what the hell, lets go for it- we only live once. We wrapped our towels around us and headed for the outdoor pool, and once at the door was told that this specific day it was for
Aso Fantasy Forest Bungalows
Gotta love the name. Home Sweet Home
boys only. What! We did go into the other indoor one which was coed. I went to a coed onsen! I think the Japanese boys were just as surprised to see us as we were to see them! It was crazy! Definitely an experience I won't forget!
That night for dinner Eric and Ahmed cooked us Nabe as the rest of us girls sat drinking and staying warm under our futons. Later that night we went into our little Fantasy sento with a few glasses of wine. Fantasy Forest was working out pretty well! Just like at summer camp, boys and girls camp decided to play some tricks on each other :-) Beppu
We woke up early and headed west to the coastal town Beppu, famous for its, you guessed it, onsens. It seems as if Kyushu itself is just one big onsen. Yet these onsens were a new experience for all of us. We went to the one recommended in the book called Takegawara. This onsen is famous for burying you in black sand that has been soaked in hot spring water. We all got decked out in our super cool yukatas, and entered the
Snuggling up...it was cold!
onsen chamber. They had body-length holes for us to lie in. Once positioned the ladies started to pile piping hot sand on us. We were so enthralled by this new procedure! Once buried up to our neck in sand, we were left to sleep and relax. The hot spring water is supposed to be good for your skin. What it actually does, I am not sure! It was an interesting feeling. I actually felt very secure when originally I thought I might get claustrophobic. I soon found myself dozing off. To think, I used to let my brother bury me in the sand for fun and for free. After 15 minutes we break free of the sand (we make it look so dramatic in the photos!) and were off to the showers. This was the 4th onsen of the weekend. Onsens and waters from below aka "Hell" were a constant theme of the weekend. Needless to say, my skin was a little dry and I was a bit onsened-out.
Post Beppu onsen, we headed back to Hiroshima. Sachi was much better on the way home. While driving along the cost of Kyushu, we entered the town Usa. They have
Us girls being silly along the side of the road
a huge sign when you enter staying "Welcome to USA." It was like I was coming home! Before I said anything Nikki was turning the car around so I could snap a photo. We arrived back in Hiroshima by 7 pm.
It was another incredible weekend, full of hiking, and a whole lot of hot springs. I highly recommend others make the trek to Beppu to Aso and Beppu to check it out.
And for fun, I have a list of my three favorite quotes from the weekend.
"We are going to Kyushu?" Ahmed, an hour into the trip
"It's kinda like Angelina Jolie's kids, you never know which country the next one is going to come from" -Larissa with respect to boys
"Uh oh Casey you aren't going to like these rock cakes- they are muffins with raisins!" Lisa and no you aren't supposed to get it!
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