Over an early breakfast, we watched as the clouds lifted to reveal the hills leading up to caldera of five volcanoes, collectively known as Mt. Aso. Into the blue sky we could see the steaming crater of Mt. Naka, the largest active volcano in Japan, and among the largest in the world. And it was a perfect day to see it.
Leaving from Aso Base Backpackers we started pedalling up through a dense forest. The morning sunshine filtered through the trees, but not enough to warm our bodies. Once above the tree line, the full beauty of Aso crater became apparent and in the sunshine we soon warmed up. Although the grass was still a dreary brown colour, the views were breathtaking.
Our friends from the hostel waved at us from the bus and we kept on pedalling. In beautiful countryside, I believe cycling is a perfect speed to travel at, fast enough to cover a fair distance but slow enough to enjoy the scenery as you pass by it.
About two hours later, we arrived at Kusasenri-ga-hama, a grassy area with a large pond, where you can ride horses on one side of the road, and try a horse steak kebab on the other! I wondered what the connection was between the riding horses and the horse kebabs, but didn’t really want to know.
We cycled as far as we could to the crater, but the road and cable car was closed, so we took some photos and had lunch.
As this photo shows, I was tired and ready to head back down the mountain. Yet from our advantage point, we saw that the road up to the crater had been opened and buses, cars and pedestrians were making their way to the top.
Dad and I looked at each other. “We’re going to have to cycle up there, aren’t we?”, I said. Of course he replied, “Well it’s not every day you get to see into a crater of a volcano.” I sighed, my tired legs sighed, my whole body sighed. But I agreed, we’d have to do it.
The cycle to the crater of Mt. Naka was steep, but we were cheered on by groups of Singaporean tourists heading down, so we kept pedalling inching closer to the top. Nearing the crater, I found myself in flumes of rotten-eggs smelling steam. I also noticed lots of buses descending with their passengers wearing masks and holding scarves over their faces. I wished I had a mask to wear!
We pulled up about 50 meters away from the crater and were engulfed in clouds of the white gas. It wasn’t pleasant, but I was keen to look into the crater from the other side, after the huge effort we’d made to reach the top. Yet, a man wearing a protective suit and full on gas mask, pointing that we had to go down the mountain. Then, they turned the announcement from Japanese to English.
ATTENTION PLEASE. THE SULPHUROUS GAS LEVELS HAS SIGNIFICANTLY INCREASED TO THE EFFECT IT IS HARMFUL FOR THE HUMAN BODY. PLEASE EVACUATE.
We couldn’t believe it! We’d just reached the crater and we were being evacuated off the volcano! But I was happy to get out of the eggy-smelling sulphur, especially as I’d heard that three people had died from poisonous gases on Mt. Aso in the 90s. Since then gas measurements are constantly taken and tourists are only allowed to the top when the sulphur dioxide level are very low. So, it was just bad luck that the caldera area had been opened for a period of about 30 minutes, just enough time for us to reach the top and take this photo, before it got to dangerous, and we had to go down.
So in true Walter Mitty style we raced down from the smouldering volcano. We didn’t stop until we were far enough away not to smell the fumes, and spent the next hour winding our way down the volcano back to Base. That was a pretty exhilarating day!