After Hiroshima we’d deliberately left a few days free in our Japan itinerary in case inspiration struck. I’d envisaged we’d perhaps go back to Kyoto, or maybe another city such as Kobe. However, catching up with Matt and Sarah in Kanazawa had lead us on a different track entirely. They’d loved spending a few days in a small town called Aso in Kumamoto on Kyushu island – the southernmost of Japan’s four main islands. Spurred on by their tales of volcanoes and hiking at Mount Aso, we decided to check it out.
The train journey was a relatively long one but thankfully only involved one change. As I’ve mentioned before, travel on Japan’s trains is so comfortable and stress-free that the five hours flew by. We arrived in Aso under the cover of darkness and made our way down the deserted, dark streets to our guesthouse. The gardens, hedges and fields felt a long way from Hiroshima!
The town of Aso sits at the foot of Mount Aso (also known as Aso-san) – a collection of five peaks cutting jagged lines across a rugged, scrubby landscape. One of the peaks – Mount Nakadake – is a live volcano and currently one of the worlds most active!
Mount Nakadake was wide awake when we visited, and there was a 1km safety zone around the peak as it spewed out clouds of ash with a distinctive eggy smell of sulphur. The air was thick with dust and dank grey clouds, and as we stood on the granite-black sand we could feel grit between our teeth.
Unable to peer directly into the volcano, we decided to hike one of the other trails and opted for a 5km loop on the neighbouring peak. We set off up a steep staircase, cursing (we’re still a bit off stairs after our Mt Kinabalu climb…) until we reached the top. Thankfully, the view was worth the climb, and we could see Nakadake in action!
To the other side were some miniature hills – far more rolling and gentle than the ragged loop we’d been scrambling along.
By now the wind was getting up, so the rest of the hike was a rather bracing totter along a narrow ridge with steep drops on either side. That blew away a cobweb or two, I can tell you.
After finishing the trail we decided to keep going and hike the 10km back to town along a disused road. The scenery wasn’t dissimilar to the Yorkshire Moors back in the UK, complete with chilly drizzle which had inevitably closed in once we were a mile or so into the walk. My younger years spent being marched up rainy hills in Wales came in useful!
Chilled to the bone, we arrived back at our hostel and practically fell on the kettle for a hot cup of tea. We’d walked over 15km in twelve degree temperatures, and Lipton Yellow Label tea wasn’t quite cutting it. Groaning slightly, tugged our boots back on and headed back out into town for a well deserved onsen bath to soothe our aching feet and bones.
Our trip to Aso was an excellent demonstration of why leaving a bit of room for spontaneity is a Very Good Thing, even on short trips. Given we were on a relatively tight budget, I was nervous about being stung for last minute hotel costs or being unable to find accommodation in the place we would end up at but actually, the trip was surprisingly good value for money and meant we got to see a completely different side to Japan once again.
One of the great joys of travelling is meeting other people, hearing about where they have been and loved, and getting inspiration for your own trip. In this case, it worked a charm for us!
If you want to go hiking around Mount Aso
- Aso is a five hour trip from Hiroshima. If you time it right, you can make the journey with only one train change.Use Hyperdia to plan your route.
- We stayed at the Asora guesthouse – a perfect blend of a hostel (a snug kitchen with free tea and coffee) and Japanese tradition (tatami mat rooms and the COSIEST futon beds). We’d highly recommend it.
- Buses to Aso-san (Mount Aso) leave from outside the train station and cost Y650 (£3.75) each for a one-way trip.
- The tourist information building (to the left once you come out of the station) sells delicious snacks and bento boxes: perfect for a picnic if you plan on hiking.
- The restaurants around town are also excellent value – we picked up a steak dinner for £10 each. Beware though – this is also the land of horse sashimi so do check if you don’t fancy eating Dobbin…
- The town is small, and can be explored in one day. We spent two nights in Aso – arriving late the first night and leaving early afternoon on day three
- There are plenty of onsens around town – perfect for soothing aching muscles. Some segregate by sex and some offer “family” bathing with private rooms. We opted for a private room and paid Y1,100 (£7.40) for one hour