we had been in so far; we’re sure we won’t find another one like it on our trip. The spotless building was made to feel like home, with beautiful furnishings and every amenity we could want. Thoughtful touches like a woodstove, a clean and well-organized kitchen, a library of manga and board games, and stuffed animals to sleep with allowed us to enjoy the rainy evenings that we spent inside.
We woke up the next morning to blue skies and we knew that we had to take advantage of the unexpected break in the weather to explore the volcano. We took a short bus ride up to the base station with a plan to hike around the crater and then back down to the town. When we got to the station, though, we were informed that the crater was closed due to noxious gas emissions. Aso is a caldera volcano, with an ever-broiling cauldron of sulphur dioxide formed after an eruption caused the mount to collapse in on itself. When we approached the base, we could see the fumes spewing out of the crater, and we could certainly smell the eggy sulphur. But we had read that Aso’s sulphur output was inconsistent and that access to the crater was often opened and closed by the hour, so we waited at the station hoping that we would be able to see the volcano we had travelled so far for.
After an hour without any sign of Aso letting up, we decided to take another hiking route and check back later. We began walking toward some extinct craters in the vicinity while the sulphur fumes climbed into the sky behind us.
On our way, we came across a man with a van on the side of the trail, selling helicopter rides over the volcano. At first we scoffed at the unofficial appearance of the set-up, but we had earlier seen a helicopter circling safely, and we realized that this might be our only chance to see the crater. Yann and Emilie could not be convinced, but Antonia talked James into taking this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and we signed up.
We are very glad that we did because this was one of the best experiences of our trip so far. Our first-ever helicopter ride was exhilarating not only because of the thrill of being so high, but because of the spectacular views that it afforded. We got the see the entire landscape of extinct craters, but most breathtaking, of course, was the view of the volcanic cauldron that turned out to be off-limits to pedestrians all day. We flew directly over it, and the sulphur fumes dissipated just enough for us to clearly see the green-blue sulphur lake spewing the noxious gas. It looked violent and hellish, but it was beautiful from the safety of our helicopter.
Yann and Emilie greeted us on the ground, and we continued on our hike to an extinct crater. A steep climb rewarded us with great views of the mountains and lakes surrounding us.
We got to walk around the edge of the now grassy extinct crater...
and got another perspective of the rocky one that was still very active.
That evening, we capped our lovely day with a feast of homemade tempura with beer in our beautiful hostel. We were the only guests there that night, allowing us to pretend that we lived in our own grand mansion.
Since we were a little sore from our hike, the next day was a great opportunity to take a day trip to nearby Kurokawa, a small town famous for being full of some of the loveliest onsen in the country - this part of the archipelago being perfectly suited for the hot springs that come from volcanic sources. The town boasts dozens of onsen and ryokan – traditional Japanese lodging, usually very fancy – that see Japanese tourists wandering the streets between onsen in only their robes and slippers. Staying at a ryokan was a bit expensive, but we bought a pass to visit three onsen for only 1,200 yen – about $15. All of the onsen were ridiculously beautiful. We don’t have pictures to show you because of the tradition that onsen bathing should only be done in the nude, but just imagine the most idyllic natural springs that you can, and you will be halfway there. Some were outdoors, with steaming water in a stone pool overlooking a waterfall in a glade. Some were indoors, with large picture windows giving a view of bamboo, streams, and more waterfalls. The first one was nearly empty except for us, so we got to revel in our own secluded paradise. The second had some baths separated by sex, as we were used to, and some that were mixed; the Japanese don’t have the same shyness about nudity in front of the opposite sex as we North Americans. We weren’t yet ready to do as the locals do, though, and we bathed separately again. At first we were confused about where the changing rooms were, though, and thought we were supposed to undress in the washrooms and walk the halls of the fancy hotel in our birthday suits. We realized just in time that the changing rooms were directly beside each individual bath, and we laughed for the rest of the afternoon at the thought of the faux pas that we nearly committed. The baths here were in a bamboo grove with stone Buddhas adding to the relaxed atmosphere. One bath had a deep area with a bamboo swing to help hold you up. The third onsen was the fanciest we visited, but it was also exclusively mixed. We hid behind small ‘modesty towels,’ but they have to go in a sort of less-than-stylish turban on your head once you’re in the clear water. We enjoyed one outdoor bath beside a huge waterfall, and one inside a cave. It was all very relaxing and indulgent, and we reflected on how lucky we were to spend a day in such fantastical surroundings.