Hotel Review: Aso Base Backpackers Hostel (2800 yen/night, 2 nights)
Absolutely the best hostel I have stayed in so far. The building is squeaky clean, has been purposely built for backpackers, and contains all the things a sweaty traveller might want at reasonable prices. It's situated close to the train and bus station and the owner speaks some English. He has also bent over backwards to make sure his guests have all the information they need. It has single bunk beds for budget travellers (and properly roomy attached to the wall rather than just a bunk bed from a shop), and a few rooms where a family can stay. It's also a fantastic place to meet people. If you can at all include a visit to Aso on your trip, stay here, it's brilliant. Internet: 100yen/30min, Washing/Drying: 200yen 9.5/10
Elizabeth passed me as I came downstairs, she was off to the shops to stock up on things but would be back shortly. I took the opportunity to grab a bit of internet. John had emailed to see how I was going on. Toshio was making some breakfast in the kitchen area, and teased my Yorkshire accent a bit. I headed out as well and got plenty of drinks and a couple of nibbles for the journey ahead. We got back together and headed off to the bus station (next to the railway) for the 9am bus to the base (timetable). When we got to the station, Luke was waiting for us, invited along by Elizabeth. My shoulders sank by a quarter inch, I must admit (I was hoping it would be just the two of us) but it would still be a good day so my smile did not go away.
We looked at each other and considered waiting, but it could be ages. We decided that maybe the best idea was to go for a walk, so we headed back down the road the bus had taken us on, by foot.
Elizabeth's face lit up and a broad grin crossed her face and her pace quickened. 'We have to do this!' she shouted. We neared the entrance to the field and the men got up. Behind them was a sign, it said 5000 yen for a 5 minute ride around the crater. Sounded pretty good, and we approached the desk.
'Five thousand, each', came the response. Ah. I looked inside my wallet. Counting a few hundred in shrapnel, I had about 5600yen remaining. I had forgotten to go to the cash point, dammit. But this was not the time to worry about getting home, so I nodded and paid. Luke decided to sit it out, but lined up his camera for a couple of good shots from the ground. Elizabeth had already handed over her folding and was now harassing the pilot to be let in.
We got out as the whine of the blades dropped in pitch and faded into the background and carried on. Luke showed us his pictures of us getting into the copter and taking off as we rejoined the road and headed on.
'You have to be kidding', I gasped at the beginning of the slog,
'we're going to need climbing equipment to get up here'.
'We'll be fine, stop being an old man', said Elizabeth deftly picking her route through the lower rocks and already relishing the challenge ahead.
'Old man...? Right..'.
As we emerged from the volcanic sands onto the road, we noticed that there were large crowds near the A-zone - where we had been told not to go earlier on. Since we had made good time and got back a half hour we were not expecting, we headed up in the hope of getting a proper look - long, high altitude shots were ok, but nothing would beat a bit of up-close snapping.
We arrived to see the people being herded out of the main area and into a smaller one out of the way. A wind had changed and people were being kept back, although a large concrete observation tower was still available up a slope to the side, so we headed up there for snaps. It turned out to be not much of a view (definitely not if you wanted to see the bubbly bits) so with a frown on our faces, we milled around a bit as the half-hour disappeared.
The visitors centre was closing up and by now largely empty of people, just one or two waiting like us for the bus. We headed round the gift shop once more, nearly but not quite buying anything, before the bus came and took us back to the centre of Aso.
At 6pm, the local post office was closed, so there was one other option - a 7-11. I scanned the local map but there didn't seem to be one, so in a bit of a panic, I left the others to it and went inside the hostel to find Yoshi. As I entered, Toshio turned up on his moped and said hello.
Fortunately he was in, and recalled seeing one on the outskirts of town, maybe an hours walk away. My face fell, but Yoshi had an idea when he saw Toshio enter. He explained the problem in Japanese and with some excited nodding, Toshio beckoned me outside.
Out of the seat of his bike, he produced a second helmet, and proceeded to redress himself for transport. I looked at the little bike. If it was just me on it, I'd be a bit gangly, but I was going to be the rear passenger here. Things did not improve when we both got on. My bum felt halfway off the back of the seat, and my legs were like a stick insect trying to balance on a ladybird, attempting to lock my feet onto the back axle bars. My only anchor point was behind me, a small handle at the back of the bike below my bum.
'Hang-on', he said, revving the bike and pointing to the road ahead. I was suddenly very scared.
The gravel moved quickly below my feet as I resisted the urge to jump off. The entrance to the road flashed with the occasional passing car. We headed out bumpily and without pausing into a line of traffic at the lights.
On the main road, the little moped moved up through its gears. Quite what made me film it is beyond me, as it required me to take one, and at one point, both, hands off the back handle. My desire to keep these once in a lifetime memories forever could be one reason, insanity would be the other. I put my camera hastily away as we approached a line of queued traffic, and with very little room between the cars on the right and the raised pavement on the left, squeezed down the narrow gap without losing speed.
With a great deal of relief, we arrived at the 7-11, and fortunately it was open. Just to be nasty, the ATM inside refused to serve me the first time, but accepted my request for 30,000 yen the second time, meaning I could relax for folding for a while. Toshio calmly paid for a couple of choccy bars, and then we turned back for the hostel, during which I decided to keep the camera in my pocket. I got off at the hostel a little shaken but thankfully still alive. Toshio laughed at my stagger to the door.
Inside, a few more people had arrived. Adenata from the Czech Republic was a large, burly woman, the sort who would wordlessly move a wardrobe for you if you asked her to. She sat reading in the corner of the communal area. I said hello and she nodded back, returning to her travel book. Rob was more talkative. He was from Cheshire (UK) and took an interest in my tales of catching insects in my teeth, and with Elizabeth and Luke shared a chuckle at the footage.
They had gotten together and were looking on the guide map for good places to eat. The choices were narrowed down to two - Sa-kura, which was a nice cafe transformed from an old Japanese storehouse, or Kojirobuchi, a traditional sit-on-the-floor style place. After being told that the former had atmosphere but the latter had better food, we went unanimously for the second, partly because it was dead close and the other was ages away. I think we all had aching feet by then.
Walking through the night, Elizabeth was in her element, having spent most of her trip negotiating the roads on her bike. We took the long route round a few back streets, during which only Elizabeth was sure where we were going, until by some miracle we found the restaurant, unassuming and barely lit from the outside in the darkness.
The restaurant was authentic and Japanesey, no sign that consumerism or the temptation to pander to the tourists had set in. Though unassuming outside, the place was busy, and we had to wait 10 minutes for a table. The eating room was split into several areas, separated by sliding paper partitions. It specialised in Yakiniku, a form of eating where you sit round a barbecue-style sunken grille, and are given a plate of raw meat and vegetables and sauces, and then cook them to your preference.
We got ourselves sorted out and they brought in a massive plate of meat. Beef from cows living on the Aso hills. The strips of meat, each attractively marbled looked almost good enough to eat raw. We got ourselves a set of chopsticks each and Rob took the tongs and played mother, sticking enough strips of meat on the grill to be going on with and replacing those that got swiped when they were ready. We all sat there stuffing our faces with the food (it was delicious and well worth it), sharing our stories about where we had all been.
Luke and I talked about where he was heading (he wanted to see Okinawa, so I mentioned the Sora house) and then we headed off to our bunks.