The Children of the Volcano

Posted by on Nov 27, 2011 in Kumamoto, Travel Volunteer Journey | No Comments
The Children of the Volcano

Approximately 92,800 years ago: homo sapiens and Neanderthals coexist; Mammoths walk the Earth; people still use CDs; and the island of Kyushu is being ripped asunder by the eruption of Mount Aso. It had already been exploding on and off for two hundred thousand years, but this was the big one: the mountain unleashed such a fury that it collapsed in on itself – but not before covering half of the island in ash and gas.

It’s the sort of apocalyptic scene that’s quite hard to imagine in today’s comparatively sedate, boring world. In fact, today when we went to visit Mount Aso’s caldera, the entire place was positively serene. It’s technically true that “50,000 people live inside the active volcano” but that’s a bit like claiming someone who slices a sandwich with a butter knife is risking amputation. Aso itself is classified as active, but it’s been well and truly dead since that prehistoric blast.

But while the risk of anything happening to the people who live in the town below is negligible, the violence of the past has provided some of the most unique scenery anywhere in Japan. The caldera is said to be the largest in the world, and the huge, flat expanse at its base provides the locals with some particularly fertile soil. Meanwhile, the enormous slopes which surround them on all sides, are covered in grass, providing drivers and motorcyclists – so many bikers! – a very unusual landscape to go touring. So much of Japan is engulfed with trees and sudden valleys that the golden, pampas-swathed expanses here offer something we’ve genuinely not seen before.

But while the main caldera is extinct, the same cannot be said for the five junior peaks that line run along its ancient volcanic rim. No, they are much younger, more lively beasts, especially Mount Naka. Here is where the last of Mount Aso’s anger simmers in the sunshine; this is one of the few active calderas in the world into which regular tourists like us can just walk up to the edge and stare into its smoky abyss.

Mount Aso from Travel Volunteer on Vimeo.

Katy and I are fortunate enough to have scaled a couple of volcanoes in the past year – one in Chile and one in Nicaragua. We thought they were breathtaking at the time, but we couldn’t look directly into the belly of either. But it’s not the smoking, pit that makes Naka/Aso so special, it’s the kilometre after kilometre of weird volcanic scenery that lies all around, a geological layer cake of minerals. Enough of my prattle – just look at these:

Our time in Kumamoto prefecture was made possible by:

Reiko Yoshimura our guide on the second day, who fed Jamie plenty of ice-cream, satsumas and soba, thereby making herself an instant friend. Not only that, but having been lived in Scotland for a year, she was able to understand all his tartan reveries – and even his accent. Also, a big thanks to her friend Mihoko who drove us around virtually all of Mount Aso’s colossal 120km circumference.