The train ride from Kumamoto to Miyaji was peaceful in the early morning light. Scores of schoolkids invaded the carriages with a surprisingly calm demeanor, productively feeding the data from their notebooks into available cranial space. I was preoccupied as well, drifting into a reverie about my impending assault on the world’s largest active volcanic crater. The main challenge as usual? How to get to the trailhead.
I walked out of Miyaji station, thumb outstretched on the quiet rural byway. Minutes later, a milk truck on a mission to deliver fresh dairy to local residents pulled alongside, whisking me to the base of the ropeway at Sensui-kyo. The mountain looked much worse for wear: I wondered who’d received permission to desecrate such breathtaking geological wonders with useless, man-made atrocities? Unperturbed, I marched up the concrete path running parallel to the chairlift, looking for the person in charge of this destruction only to find myself completely alone, thanks to the mid-week, mid-autumn timing.
The first target of the day, Naka-dake, was polished off in less than 30 minutes as I veered left towards the high point of Taka-dake. Well ahead of schedule, I settled down on a broad cairn holding up the signpost and visually recorded my surroundings in my sketchbook. Kijima-dake’s Fuji-esque figure towered over the plumes of stem from Aso’s smouldering active crater, a place worthy of further investigation.
Dropping back to the junction at Naka, I skirt the edge of the old crater, spotting the paint marks that offered safe passage down to the lunar landscape of Sunasenri-ga-hama, literally the beach of 1000 ri (1 ri being the equivalent of roughly 600m). It certainly felt like an eternity marching through the deserted plain, devoid of any sign of plant or animal life as far as the eye could see. It felt as if I were suddenly transplanted onto the set of a bizarre sci-fi movie, the sulfuric fumes adding to the surrealism.
I pushed on through the plateau, reaching a hard-surfaced road leading to the behemoth concrete structure housing the visitor’s center. Northerly winds pushed the steam and stench due south, smothering the tourists and swallowing the charter buses in the parking lot. Perhaps it was nature’s way of punishing the intruders, or a warning to me for trespassing on her hallowed ash. Either way, there’d be no chance to gaze at Aso’s majestic crater lake this time round.
I quickly retreated down the overbuilt highway, past an abandoned ski resort to the turnoff for Kijima-dake. Up through the grasslands I climbed, circumnavigating the crater rim while admiring the inverted rice bowl of Kome-zuka in the valley below. Once again, no other souls ventured up the peak despite the glorious weather. Back down to the highway I coasted, bypassing the grazing horses and cattle in favor of a safe hitch back to Aso station. With 1 volcano now safely behind me, I laid out a strategy for the following day’s attack on Mt. Kuju. What other obstacles did nature have in store for me?