Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Japan! Part 3 - Mount Aso Volcano and Kumamoto

Our second day in Japan was also our first ever trip to an active volcano! Mount Aso is the world's largest active volcanic caldera at some 25 km across, unfortunately it is a pretty long journey from Fukuoka so we had to start early. We got up at 6:15am to catch the 7:07am express to Kumamoto and arrived there with just 13 minutes to connect with one of the four daily fast trains to Aso. The views from the train to Aso were quite literally breathtaking, mountains, rice paddies, bamboo forests, wind turbines all sorts! It was also one of the steepest train rides I've ever taken, the train track went through a series of switchbacks where it reversed direction to climb up the side of the caldera wall.

The drivers cab was open to the rest of the train so we could get right to the front and get pictures out of the front window (the driver was at the other end at this point, he hadn't left us to drive the train!).

End of the line! Luckily the train stopped here and changed direction on one of the many switchbacks we took.

One of the many jaw dropping views from the train window. In the distance you can just make out steam from a hot spring.

Rice paddies and mountains from the train window, again you can see steam from hot springs in the distance.

It is hard to get across just how massive the Aso caldera is, it has train stations, roads, a city and several villages all within it, luckily the eruptions which created the crater ended around 90 000 years ago and the current eruptions are limited to a few smaller cones in the centre including Naka Dake, the one we visited. I was stupidly excited about seeing an active volcano but also a little worried, in 1958 an unexpected eruption killed 12 onlookers and in 1979 a further 3 were killed by an eruption which destroyed a cable car system in an area that was supposed to be safe!

When we finally arrived at Aso train station around 11:30am we still had a 40 minute bus journey to the cable car station which led to the active crater, you see now why we set off so early? The coach delivered us to the bottom of the cable car and as soon as we got off we were hit by the stink of rotten eggs from the hydrogen sulfide coming out of the crater. We took the cable car to the the peak, which cost 1000 yen. It was a short ride up a not very steep few hundred meters and if we'd realised that there was a road which led on right up to the crater we would probably just have walked. By the time we arrived at the peak the stink of sulfur was overpowering and it wasn't exactly reassuring to discover the gas level warning was at the highest level, 5 ppm, which the sign told us were dangerous levels! People with asthma or heart conditions were not allowed up due to the high levels of corrosive gas in the air and there were signs advising people to hold wet cloths or towels over their mouths if they suffered any difficulties breathing while viewing the crater.

The view when we got off the coach, It had really started stinking by this point.

Cable cars taking people up the hill, we felt right at home in ours because it was full of pushy Korean tourists.

View back down the hill from the top cable car station, note the road on the left which also leads to the summit.

The gas level warning sign, you can't see clearly here but you'll have to take my word for it that the red light was flashing.

When we arrived at the summit the two closest observation areas were closed but the third one was open so we took a stroll up towards it while wondering if the massive clouds of gas blowing directly towards us we anything to worry about. We got about halfway up to the observation post when a siren sounded and an announcement ordered everyone to leave the viewing area immediately. Guides holding cloths over their faces came along hurrying everyone back towards the cable car, all very dramatic! We staggered away coughing and choking back to the cable car station and the gas levels were still safe there so we hung around for a while to see if the viewing area would open again. After waiting twenty minutes or so we decided to take a stroll around the still accessible area to the side of the crater.

The view from halfway to the observation post, just before the siren started sounding, note the gas coming straight towards us.

The shelters are provided to keep people safe in the event of an eruption, or at least to get them to gather together and make the body count easier.

Old guy selling sulfur from his van, I'm not really sure what you were supposed to do with it.

Smoke and gas rising from the crater.

Lava cliffs just to the side of the crater, they formed a valley which led down towards the crater, but we weren't allowed to go down there.

The view out over the lava flows to the side that was still open. The landscape was like I imagine the surface of Mars to be.

Sophie posing with the cairn that we made, I wonder how long it will stay there for.

A couple of tourists admire the magnificent views from the summit of Naka Dake.

The road from the summit that we would have walked up if we'd known it was there!

We walked around the side of the volcano for a little while then came back to see if the viewing area had opened again, it hadn't, if anything the eruption and wind had got worse. So we hopped on the cable car and headed back down the hill. As it was a while until the next bus we decided to walk down from the cable car to the volcano museum. That was a mistake as it was further than it seemed and by the time we got there the bus was just about to arrive at the museum. We decided to skip the museum having seen the real thing and hurry back so we would have time to look around Kumamoto on the way back to Fukuoka.

A small but perfectly formed side vent on the edge of Naka Dake.

We passed the old cable car system destroyed in the 1979 eruption on our way back down.

Near the volcano museum there were some beautiful meadows where you could go horse riding and a series of lakes.

We arrived in Kumamoto around 3:30 pm so plenty of time to have a look around, our main interest in Kumamoto was the castle which is supposed to be one of the best in Japan. It was easy to find our way to the castle once we'd caught a bus into the centre, it is huge and dominates much of Kumamoto. Admission to the castle cost 500 yen and included a map which you could stamp at various gates to prove you'd been round. The grounds included some incredible massive camphor trees and beautiful wells and turrets. The centrepiece of the castle itself was the huge central tower which really took it out of us climbing to the top, the combination of a very early start and volcanic fumes hadn't done us any good at all. We eventually reached the top and were rewarded with some beautiful views out across Kumamoto and the surrounding countryside.

The huge central tower of Kumamoto castle dominated much of the city centre and as you can see it looks pretty spectacular.

The walls at the base of the castle looked pretty near impregnable, I certainly wouldn't have wanted to be attacking them.

The view from the top of the central tower to one of the outer turrets.

Kumamoto developed a special style of samurai swimming involving swimming upright in a suit of amour whilst firing arrows. In more recent times it seems similar skills have been applied to the art of riding a bicycle while holding a parasol.

We saw a real live ninja on our way to the castle, he posed for a photo and even took a photo of us. I guess he can't have been a proper ninja though or we would never have seen him.

After the castle we we feeling pretty hungry and alongside the castle Kumamoto is also famous for something else which I'd been advised by a Japanese friend of mine to try and that is raw horse meat! We went to a restaurant near the castle called Izakaya Yokobachi which was recommended by the guide book as a good place to try basashi or raw horse meat in other words. We got a bit of a shock when we saw the menu in the restaurant and realised that is was all in Japanese with no pictures! Fortunately a friendly waiter was able to help us out and we ordered the horse and a bowl of delicious ramen as insurance in case the horse wasn't good. The whole meal was delicious, the horse meat was melt in the mouth tender and delicious and the ramen was spicy and full of sesame flavour.

The restaurant we ate in was really stylish and had a lovely little courtyard where we ate and it was surprisingly cheap too.

Basashi! This was the raw horse meat and it was delicious, I'm never going to look at a horse in a field in quite the same way. It came with minced ginger and garlic to mix with soy sauce and use as a dip.

Delicious spicy, sesame and spring onion ramen.

After the delicious meal we got on the train back to Fukuoka, on the way back Sophie experienced the excitement of a high tech Japanese toilet which played the sound of the sea while you were using it so no one can hear any noise you make then flushed with you having to touch anything, exciting stuff! We took a bit of a walk around Fukuoka when we got back, played some Time Crisis at the Nameco arcade, did some research about Beppu for the next day then collapsed into bed knackered, it had been a long day!

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