Japan Travel

Hidden Japan: Fire and Flowers

Foreign tourists in this area? None.

Entering Hidden Japan. My group could not get over the fact that apart from a handful of westerners we had seen on the train the day before, there were zero other foreign tourists in Kumamoto City. I pointed out that this tour is in fact called Hidden Japan, hence not a lot of other people know about this amazing part of the world. As it turns out, we would not see another foreigner for the next four days when we arrived in Hiroshima.

We left behind the urban sprawl of Kumamoto City and headed into the countryside and up to the top of the crater of Mt Aso. This volcano has a circumference of 120km and a population of 80000 people living within its crater. Now, I’m no geologist and know nothing about rocks, volcanoes, plates and the like, so in layman’s terms Mt Aso erupted millions of years ago, blowing out the centre of the volcano. The middle of the caldera then sank, before finally erupting again and creating the form that we see today. In short – boom, sink, boom.

What remains are five distinct mountain peaks, never-ending hot springs and the active Nakadake crater. If the wind is right, you can access the top of Nakadake and look right down into the crater, filled with 60 degree mint-coloured water and spewing forth a mixture of steam and sulphur. The sulphur is poisonous so the conditions have to be just right for you to get to the viewing point. Luckily for us, the gods are definitely on our side on this trip and the wind was perfect for our ascent.

I did have a laugh at the concrete bunkers that they have constructed at the summit and running down the slope – a safety blanket in case Nakadake gets fiery and decides to go boom
again. I call it a safety blanket because I think a blanket would protect you as much good as these bunkers – 1000 degree molten lava rains down upon you, you are going to be toast regardless.

At the foot of Nakadake, there is a restaurant which serves the most wonderful Yogiyaki lunch – local Aso wagyu steak cooked on a hot stone. It’s incredible and a highlight of a visit to the area.

And let’s not forget the cherry blossoms either… because of the elevation of Mt Aso, the climate is cooler and that means that we have seen some of the most spectacular blossoms imaginable. The trees were at full bloom and the variety of cherry, peach and other flowers were simply incredible. Even our guides could not get over the perfection of these blossoms and our amazing luck to be able to see them. I’d love to take the credit for impeccable timing, but let’s be honest, even with the most detailed planning in the world some things still rely on an element of good fortune.

Our accommodation for the night was in Aso – located on the floor of the crater in a Japanese Inn called a ryokan. Many ryokan in more touristy areas of Japan (such as Kyoto, Tokyo and Takayama) cater towards Western tourists as well as Japanese. They often have some western-styled rooms, private bathrooms and western breakfast options while still giving guests an opportunity to have a taste of Japanese culture. However, in this part of the country where foreign tourists are rare, you are in for a true Japanese immersion experience. Public baths (divided into male and female), futon mattresses on the floors for sleeping, no chairs, fish and rice for breakfast, and Japanese gowns know as yukata to wear to dinner are all part and parcel of our stay in Aso. If you love authentic experiences, are willing to give anything a go (and are not afraid to bathe nude in the company of your tour companions and other random guests), then you will absolutely love this true Japanese Inn experience.

As a tour leader, I could not ask for a better group of like-minded, open-spirited and intrepid travellers. Everything that was thrown at them they took in their stride, and they laughed and loved their way deeper into this Hidden Japan. They are a joy to share this magical area with because they are all so interested and are like sponges soaking up each experience.

From fiery volcanic heights and floral delights we headed deeper into Kumamoto, to the natural wonder of Gokanosho – home of the last samurai.

Some photos from Mt Aso area:

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