I’ve been to Aso before in 2005 and it made such a big impression on me that I knew I would be back. The time has come 11 years later. Now, in 2016, I’m definitely older, hopefully wiser, and I can drive – something I couldn’t do before, and driving your own car (or a rental car) is a skill essential to truly appreciating this region.
Aso is a huge caldera of an ancient supervolcano that, as a result of its massive past super-eruptions collapsed onto itself, leaving an area of indented ground with a mountain range at its center which now holds an active crater. The Five Peaks of Aso, as it is called, has also an alternative name: the sleeping Buddha. That’s what the silhouette is said to resemble from afar.
Aso has always been an active volcano, but the level of activity constantly changes, resulting in closures of certain areas. When I visited in 2005 everything was open – all the roads and hiking trails, the ropeway, the crater observatory. After 2016 earthquakes and eruption a 2 km no-entry zone was in effect at the time of my second visit. That means, no ropeway, and no crater close-up views, but even from 2 km distance it looked magnificent with all the rising smoke.
So, my road trip started in Kumamoto – I arrived from Saga, stayed overnight at a hotel close to the station and next morning, after picking up my rental car, headed out to Aso. It’s about 1 hour drive from the city center.
First, I drove to the north rim of the caldera, there are some good observation points there with splendid panoramic views. This is from here that the Five Peaks of Aso resemble the sleeping Buddha.
My next destination was Kokuzo shrine – an old, historically significant Shinto shrine nestled in the woods at the base of the steep northern caldera wall, which I first had to descend. The shrine is lovely, and all its buildings were intact – something that cannot be said of Aso shrine, where I headed next. Aso shrine, unfortunately, suffered heavy damage during the earthquake and was a rather pitiful sight. Repair works, though, were already underway (I made a video of that), so hopefully they will restore the buildings in the near future.
It was getting late in the afternoon when I left Aso shrine, and I still had some distance to cover to get to the Nakadake crater. On my way there I made a quick stop at Shimomiya, another small local shrine, and hurried to Nakadake – more precisely, the Kusasenri parking area (this is as far as anyone could go because of the road closures).
And there it was, the splendid Nakadake crater, covered with fresh grey ash after the recent eruption and fuming as I’ve never seen any volcano do before. Nicely lit up by the setting sun, too – I’m happy with my pictures. I almost didn’t want to leave, but I still had a long drive ahead of me – the hotel I booked was on the other side of the caldera. When I got there, it was already dark. Quick onsen soak, nice dinner – and I was settled for the night.
The morning greeted me with a wonderful view out of the window and the rotemburo bath (seriously, one of the best hotel and bath views in my life). I congratulated myself on my hotel choice.
I had breakfast, checked out and set out to explore a nearby attraction, Shirakawa Suigen – a place famous for its spring water abundantly flowing out of the ground and later turning into Shirakawa river that runs through central Kumamoto. Here at the springs my camera broke, so for the rest of my trip I had to make do with cellphone. Very unfortunate, because I saw some pretty interesting and unique sights later in Takachiho, Kuju, Beppu and Kurokawa, and I only have phone pictures of them now.
Anyways, my next destination, Takachiho, awaited me. I left Aso caldera and headed to the east.