Japan 2010: 10 - Where I Hang On for Dear Life

For the first time in three days, I could forget any problems about booking train tickets. I laid there in my upper bunk considering the day in front of me. I had just met Elizabeth, who managed to come out of nowhere and knock me for six, and today I was going to accompany her up a volcano.
Washed and dressed, I went out onto the first floor balcony. The air was clean, fresh and cool. One of the peaks of Mt. Aso was prominent in silhouette at the edge of town. It was a beautiful clear day.

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.
The views were beautiful. Pleasant though the town of Aso was it couldn't help but get in the way of the nature on show, and once the houses had fallen away into the distance, the views opened up and only got better as we gained altitude. Me and Elizabeth sat at the front of the bus and chatted, Luke pointing his sizeable camera out of the window behind us.
The maps aren't as clear as they could be to a non-Japanese speaker, and it took us a little while to work things out. The bus has three main stops; the railway station, the bus terminal at the Aso Volcano Museum, and a final one at the base of the main active volcano, which costs 540yen for the full trip. From there, a ropeway can cut out all that pesky walking and take you right to the top. From stepping out of the hostel to peering over the edge, you can get away with only walking a hundred yards or so, but that wouldn't be entering into the spirit of things now would it?

We got out at the last stop. A large car park sits at the bottom of the final leg of the journey, next to the visitors centre, a large circular building with a large souvenir shop on the ground floor and the ropeway station on the first. Next to the centre was a narrow road that headed up through a toll gate. Next to which was a large electronic sign that showed the current environment at the top. The Aso area was split into several zones, and depending on which direction the wind was blowing, and how much poisonous sulphur was being burped out of the volcano at the time, you were either allowed up there or not. Currently we were not.
We entered the visitors centre to see if we could get some idea of when it would be open. Luke knew a bit of Japanese and asked a pair of attendants in a hastily-erected booth, who said it could basically take a couple of hours, or the rest of the day for the wind to change direction. We could go up, but we could not hold them to blame if we died a bit.

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.
The road was pretty quiet save for the odd car and tourist bus, unfortunately the pavements were non-existent. The scenery was pleasant; the road sloped gently down into a valley and disappeared between some hills a little way off. Either side of the road were gently undulating scrub-land fields partitioned by stone walls and fences. A little way down was an out of service ropeway, boarded up and rusting, once taking travellers up a hill barely more cardiovascular than the one we had just walked down. No wonder it had closed. Just beyond, we spied a couple of men sat at a desk in one of the fields. Next to them was a helicopter.

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 put on our headsets and buckled in. The driver did his checks, and Elizabeth who had bagsey'd the front seat, turned round and mentioned this was her first time in a helicopter. It was mine too, I said. We shared an exited smile as the blades started to turn and pick up speed.
The journey was brief but well worth it. The pilot made a circular route that did a slingshot about the open crater. The helicopter banked nicely to allow us to get some seriously good shots. We both clicked away, remembering occasionally to look at the scene with our own eyes, something you can often forget to do with a camera and cheap, high-capacity storage. All the while, Elizabeth grinned a grin that covered half her face. This made me happy also.

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.
The road curved round a few bends, the occasional car parked on gravel verges off to the side.
Shortly after the scenery opened out to show the wide open space of the Kusansenri park. On the right was the imposing and slightly out of place car park for the Aso Volcano Museum, looking out to Mt Kijimidake on the left. Of the two, none of us liked the look of the museum, it seemed a bit superfluous; you might as well look at the thing itself, so we went on. The mountain was quite small - more of a hill really - so we decided to climb it.
The air was fresh and clean, and the views were beautiful. In the valley between the road and the peak, a large and shallow lake was host to various wildlife; a couple of cranes walking about between the more stationary of the horses - part of a group kept for tourist rides let of their leashes for a bit of a break and drinking quietly at the waters edge while the friskier ones cantered about in circles.
Towards the summit, the path became a bit random and in some places involved a bit of climbing, but it wasn't too bad and we made it to the top about half an hour later. To greet us at the summit were a dozen or so Japanese backpackers, many of whom looked quite old, who immediately took a liking to us, especially Elizabeth, who was a good head and shoulders in height over many of them. Obligingly, she posed for pictures with them while me and Luke looked on in bewilderment.
We headed back down a different way, and were soon back near where the helicopter was. We gave them a wave and retraced our steps back. At least if the main attraction was closed for the day we could say we had done one of the peaks. When we arrived, the red lights were still on, so we sat down a bit and raided our respective bags for sustenance. We took a look back inside the circular centre, and once we had been around the souvenirs and lavs, considered the cable car. Now my legs were a bit tired by now, it's fair to say, but I was voted down. Elizabeth sprung up and was eager to head out the door and up the pathway by foot, Luke following happily along. Sod it, I thought. I could do with losing some pounds, and she wasn't going to want to spend time with a creaky old man.
The steep and gently twisting road up was actually not so bad. You didn't need to pay
(unlike the smattering of car owners that decided to take their vehicles up there), so no queuing for tickets or the like. As the altitude increased, the plant life began to die out at the roadside; what was once healthy grassland was now a dry arid scene, dusted with volcanic rocks and debris of increasing size as it went on, only a few tufts of hardy grass eking out a living here and there. It was quite reassuring therefore to see signs of humanity in the desolation; every so often, people had taken time to balance rocks on top of each other, zen-like to see how high they could go. It made me feel that at least, there were those who had been here before. Of course, then there was the massive concrete pill-box which reminded us that if the volcano went mental, we would have to find one of them pretty sharpish and dive inside for dear life.
As we neared the top, the constant gush of sulphurous gas was visible from the crater, but the area was still screened off. However, at that point, we came across a raised wooden pathway off from the road into the hills that was apparently still open. The nearby map showed us that it led into a still more alien world.
Even though we were heading away from the (present) mouth of the volcano, the ground was still showing quite recent signs of activity. We were on the the plains of Sunasenrigahama. The pathway lifted us above the ground, which was almost like a sandy beach, except the sand was charcoal-covered, with dirty great rocks peppering the landscape. The air had a burned taste to it, and the wind carried an ominous whistle. We were on another planet.
Now and then, the charcoal sand had drifted, and covered the pathway. We left its safety and ventured onto the plains. A huge gash worn out of the side of a crater wall betrayed the flow of lava from the previous eruption some time ago. Heading through would take us effectively into the heart of the volcano, which is probably why a rather puny barricade stood in our way.
We carried on through the darkened sands until they abated; another channel carved into the ground separated us from the next big climb up Mt. Nakadake. A small trail was just about distinguishable up the side of the rocky hill. I say hill, as it looked more like a hill when you were looking at it from the bottom - somehow the steepness and height of it were camouflaged making it look much more innocent than it actually was. It started off quite flat, but quickly got difficult; the angles increased, and due to the nature of the surroundings, parts of it were covered in dry, collapsible gravel and sand - when you weren't scrabbling up sharp volcanic rock formations that slashed your shoes to bits, your feet were disappearing into the ground trying to get purchase.

'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..'.

Despite her allegedly wonky knee, Elizabeth was powering up the side of the mountain, leaving me and Luke in her wake. Even at the final section three quarters the way up, where the solid ground disappeared altogether and you basically crawled up a constantly shifting, 45-degree course sand dune, it posed no threat to her. We slowly passed a pair of English speaking hikers who had chosen a route and were getting nowhere, so after some helpful direction they worked their way over to us and followed on behind.
The top of the mountain was worth it just for the views. We were still some way from the mouth of the volcano whose sides were now some hundred feet lower than us. We took the trail along the top of the caldera where the air was still bitingly fresh, and found ourselves about as close to the steaming sulphurous lake as we were going to get.
The path dropped sharply downwards past this point, but we had all checked our watches and were mindful of the time. It was now 2.30, and had taken us some time to get to this point. The last bus left the stop at 5pm. With heavy hearts we decided that following it further would eventually get us back to civilization, but we didn't know where and when we would emerge. Reasoning that it would take less time to go back down the hill than it did to go up it, we took some pictures of us all at the summit (the other backpackers helped) and then retraced our steps.

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.
Just as we had given up on the idea and were heading back, we passed the entrance to the main area, and they were opening it up. We took the chance for 5 more minutes, and were at the front of the queue of a bustling crowd to get up there and see the sights. At last, and from the closest point possible, you could see up close the beating heart of the volcano. Enormous clouds of sulphur rose from the mouth, and at the base a bubbling, light green lake of raw natural energy sat fidgeting, waiting to pounce. We clicked as much as we dared, and then began heading back at a canter.

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.
The evening sun was touching the top of the mountans when we returned, and Elizabeth suggested we used the very helpful hostel map to choose an authentic restaurant for the evening meal. Unfortunately, I had spent my last chunk of yen on the bus fare back and was pretty much skint. 'I'll pay and you can pay me back tomorrow', said Elizabeth, but I knew she would be leaving at daybreak and so getting the cash for then would be impossible. No, the only way I could tag along would be to get to a cashpoint.

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.
Full up, we returned tired but happy to our respective beds. We all swapped emails and promised to share our pictures. Though I had a great time, it was with a little sadness because I somehow managed to connect with Elizabeth on the level I was attempting to; we were just friends who had met by chance, and I think that's the way she wanted it. I took Elizabeth to one side before we all headed to our beds and let her know how much I had enjoyed the time, and that I hope we meet again. It was a desire that I knew would not be fulfilled, but that didn't stop me wanting it.

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.

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