By Hannah Feerick
This mammoth story begins with us girls flicking through our guide books to Japan, searching for something to keep us out of trouble for the long weekend in November. Too exhausted from dancing the previous evening to read, we were all nonetheless struck by the pictures. In particular, the sparse beauty of The Aso National Park caught our eye and inspired us to embark on what turned out to be a mind-boggling trip.
Having set or sights on Kyushu, we got to work organising the adventure: hiring cars, booking accommodation, finding maps, digging out trainers, creating a rather eclectic music collection and filling the car with snacks for the journey. Eventually, two extremely excited car-loads headed south from Hiroshima station on a sunny autumnal day. Our destination was Aso-san, but with the convenience of our cars we were able to explore some other great places including the famous onsen village of Kurokawa, the Hells of Beppu and a variety of little mountain villages in between.
The mountains in central Kyushu that constitute Aso National Park are ancient formations, created by many years of volcanic activity. The Aso caldera is the world’s largest volcanic crater and contains five peaks, one of which is still active today. Grassy highlands and towering peaks make it a prime area for walking, whilst all that volcanic activity makes it ideal for hot-spring bathing.
Here are a few suggestions to ensure your own trip to Kyushu goes with a bang.
Drive along in your automobile.
Hiring cars and cruising around was agreat way to see the breathtaking viewsof Aso’s smouldering craters. Without the cars, getting to Aso-san is possible but much more difficult. Moreover, some of the roads in the Aso area are very famous – the Yamanami Highway, for example – and without your own car, they’re far harder to experience fully.
We embarked on the road that winds its way into the world’s largest volcanic crater, rather like coins circling into a charity donations machine. We caught a glimpse of the perfect cone of Komezuka (“mound of rice”) as we spiralled past, before finally coming to rest at the foot of Mount Nakadake, the fuming active crater.
Forming a group and hiring cars was great as not only did we have tremendous fun, but we also saw vistas unparalleled in any other region of Japan. Additionally, by filling the cars we did the whole trip on a remarkably small budget. If, like us, cruising in your car with friends while wearing your stylish sunglasses with the car stereo blasting floats your boat, then Aso is the place to set your compass to.
Marvel at the majestic mountains.
Catching a glimpse of Mt. Aso’s main crater with its milky green lake, humongous bubbles and jets of steam was my most vivid memory of the Kyushu road trip. Since good roads make the crater easily accessible by both tour bus and private car, there are Japanese tourists galore. Next to the crater there were many well-worn paths winding through the black martian landscape, heavy with visitors. But the most stupendous views glimpsed came when we took a chance and headed off-road on foot, following little-used tracks into the mountains. Whilst the climb was steep and the path unkept, the views into the active crater, framed by the magnificent mountains were absolutely beautiful.
Embrace the onsen craze.
Upon mentioning our Aso excursion to Japanese friends, the unequivocal response always involved onsen recommendations. The quaint beauty of Kurokawa persuaded me that this was something that had to be embraced. Kurokawa is the most famous onsen village in the Aso area, so a fitting place for my first dip. The village itself is extremely small; its sole purpose is for relaxation. The main reason Kurokawa exists is because of the natural hot water that comes from the river that runs through it. With the discovery of this natural phenomenon onsen popped up along its banks to use the hot water for their pools. The village was transformed into a resort destination and is now visited by those seeking a brief respite from their daily lives.
The onsen we chose was a labyrinth of tunnels and caves – a truly original onsen experience. In the evening the streets are all lit by lanterns and you’ll see yukata-clad visitors padding from one spa to the next. This town does come with a warning though: it smells! The hot springs are all completely natural so the eggy smell of sulphur lingers all around. Be warned!
Beppu: where people pay to be buried in hot volcanic sand
For my next onsen experience I found myself wearing a glorified dressing gown and having a little old Japanese lady use her spade to cover me in hot sand. It was probably one of the most bizarre experiences of my time in Japan. However, I can now confirm that lying up to the neck in warm sand is actually remarkably relaxing. It’s a great way to soothe those aching muscles from hiking and, at the very least, it’s a truly Japanese experience.
Beppu has the second largest volume of natural hot water after Yellowstone National Park in America. The whole town is like one big onsen below the surface. Aside from the hot sand and numerous regular onsen, Beppu has nine “hells” better known as jigoku. These different geothermal hot-springs spout out multi-coloured water and bubbling sulphuric mud. Onsen-lovers beware: due to the extreme temperature of these hot-springs taking a quick dip is not allowed.
Rough it Japanese-style.
Whilst there are many hotels in the Aso region, we opted for the budget option and all piled in a cabin at the Aso Fantasy Forest. Being a stone’s throw from both Kurokawa and the National Park made this the ideal place for us to use as a springboard for exploring the local area. Actually, the site was a little tricky to find and we had to be escorted there by the local policeman! Embarrassing as this grand arrival was, it definitely endeared us to the lovely couple running the site. The greatest thing about this campsite was the outdoor hot spring. It was the perfect way to warm up after having a barbeque in November. Brrr!
To get to Aso by train, take the shinkansen from Hiroshima to Hakata and then change to one of the lines bound for Kumamoto. Finally, take the Hohi line to Aso station.
If you are up for the challenge of driving in Japan then hire cars from Hiroshima. Fill a car and share costs – it’s the cheapest option. Most cars are automatic but you can request a manual if you reserve early enough. The small cars always book up first so plan ahead unless you want to be driving a van.
To reserve a car use one of the websites below, and then turn up with your international/Japanese driving license, passport and money. Also remember to always fill the car up with petrol just before you return it. They will charge you an arm and a leg for whatever they have to refill themselves – we learned the hard way.
By far the best way to see this region is to have your own transport. However, there are buses and trains linking all the tourist destinations like Aso-san’s crater and the onsens in Beppu. Check out the Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO) link below for times and fares.
Information on alternative transport to Kyushu:
Tourist information and maps on the local area:
Accomodation and campsites: