Island of Volcanoes
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At the far south western tip of the Japanese mainland lies the city of Kagoshima - Japan technically extends nearly all the way to Taiwan, however, after Kyushu the islands are all small are far between. This part of the world is very volcanically active, and few places embody this more than the volcano of Sakurajima, just off the shore from Kagoshima. This volcano is in an almost constant state of eruption and in 1914 the island erupted in such a massive way that some 3 billion tones of lava connected it to the main land.
Often the city of Kagoshima is covered in dust or smoke from Sakurajima, however, during my 2 day visit there was no evidence of an activity, although the summit was continuously shrouded in cloud (with possible some smoke too) so I can't be sure. On my first afternoon, after a long bus ride from Fukuoka, I took the sightseeing bus to the peak behind Kagoshima, for a view over to the Volcano - from Kagoshima it still looks like an island. I dined at a local Ramen shop that evening - Ramen is a specialty of the area, and it was very good.
On the second day I caught a ferry over to the island itself. Just as I disembarked from the ferry the skies opened and we were covered by torrential rain that continued for about half an hour. I was visiting during the monsoon season, but was lucky that I was only caught by the tails of a few typhoons far out at sea, so only experienced a few heavy rain storms.
After the rain passed through it quickly became very hot and humid but I decided to head out on a short walk around the edge of the island. The path weaved its way through the old lava fields left from the 1914 eruption, and with the tropical climate and hardy vegetation it felt much like stepping back to Jurassic times. The people in this part of the world also seem very friendly, and while I was hiding from the sun in one of the shelters an old man on a scooter stopped and we chatted for a while about the island and what I was up to and he offered me a lift on his scooter up to the lookout point further up the volcano. I decline the offer as at the time I still wanted to finish the lava trail, although this was a shame as in ever made it up to the lookout.
At the end of the trail was another shelter where a young Japanese guy was half asleep with his guitar.
When he saw me having a look around he got
up and again we chatted a while, although I think I offended him slightly when I asked if he lived here, meaning Sakurajima, but he took it to mean this shelter - exposure to quite a bit of hot sun meant I wasn't thinking too fast and so was finding it a little difficult to follow his Japanese.
On the Kagoshima side of Sakurajima there is not so much in the way of buildings and so I had lunch in a rather nice restaurant in the hotel - there is lots of other stuff further away but the busses are rather infrequent it seems as I didn't see any. I had planed to head to the lookout after lunch but the weather looked like turning again so I headed back to Kagoshima and amused myself around the town, then had an excellent shabushabu meal in a local restaurant that evening.
From Kagoshima I had hoped to head out into a national park for some walking, but it turned out that busses only ran at the weekend so I found myself on a train heading for Kumamoto. There was a surprise here too as the a new bullet train line had been built, and the trains were brand new as well - I had to check twice that the carriage I was in was standard class as it seemed better than a normal first class with large combatable seated, wooden fold out tables and lots of leg room. The other surprise as I settled down was that the line is not as yet complete, so we had to change back onto the normal train network halfway.
The main attractions in Kumamoto are the castle, which is very large, and a nice sculpted garden towards the edge of town. The problem was that by this time I had been in Japan over 2 years and been travelling for the over two week, concentrating on the big tourist areas, so had already seen many great castles, temples and gardens, and so I could not bring much excitement from Kumamoto, however grand the castle or precise the gardens. The most famous food of the area was raw horse meat, but again it was nothing I hadn't tried several times before so couldn't get overly excited. What I really wanted was a few days out in the wilds for some walking and nature so the next day caught the train out the largest active volcano in the world, Aso san.
After several hours of heaving itself into the mountains the local train finally pulled into Aso-station and a few people dismount into the bright sunshine. Aso is a town near the centre of the largest volcanic crater on earth and from the town this appears as a mountain ridge following the whole length of the horizon. Within this large crater are a number of towns and right at its heart is a new volcano that has more recently been pushed up and is currently the only active part of this impressive site.
On my way up the road to the youth hostel a woman stopped her car to give me a lift and it was only when we arrived that I realised she was the owner. My plan had been to wander around the town for the day then go up to the volcano the following day for a longer day of walking, however after some discussion the owner found the local
weather report with said the following day would bring rain so I grabbed my day bag and ran to catch one of the infrequent busses heading for the summit.
From the bus park a cable car takes you straight to the crater summit which looks very much like a war zone with large concrete shelters as well as maps indicating the toxicity of various regions around the crater. The reason for this is that the crater is very active and over the years quite a few people have lost their lives in and around the area to sudden explosions. The plumes of toxic smoke rising from the sulphurous lake at the crater bottom are also dangerous if the wind is in the wrong direction, but fortunate all was calm the day I visited, so I was able to look around the whole area. After this I was a little bored and had masses of energy due to the significant drop in both temperature and humidity suddenly allowing the body to move easily, and so I headed out
over the lava fields trying to follow a path that would take me over the peak and down to the town on the far side.
As I walked the wind must have changed direction as the air became noticeable more sulphurous until I made it further up the ridge and into cleaner skies. It was at the top of the ridge that I met up with a couple of Italian student who I had met at the crater as well as a Spanish girl and a Belgian guy. As we sat there the conditions deteriorated quickly and we had been told that the path become very exposed further up. It also became apparent that while we where now 5 foreigner (the largest number I met anywhere in Japan I think) there were no Japanese, which would seem like a bad sign. And so after some consideration we headed back down and walked around to the rather good volcano museum then caught a bus back. As soon as the bus dropped below the peak it came out of the cloud and what had seemed like a cold foggy and windy evening turned back into a walk summer afternoon. With nothing to do at the hostel and no food I wandered back into Aso.
Surprisingly much of the town has old houses and a nice rustic feel, so I had a long wander in the fading light before finding the only place open for what turned out to be an excellent meal of local beef with rice. The following day I took the train back to Kumamoto and then back to Fukuoka.
Fukuoka, or technically Hakata (the two cities merged a while back but the station area is Hakata) has the most amazing capsule hotel I have ever stayed in. It is incredibly cheap and is located next to the main station, but has the facilities of what I imagine to be a 5 star hotel. There is a good restaurant, a large lounge area with flat screen TVs for every easy chair, and a general air of opulence and style. However it is the baths that I like the most. In the first area there are the usual hot and cold baths but also 2 mineral ones as well as the special water jet massage chairs and saunas, then there is also an upstairs roof garden with another hot pool and lounging area. I know I will deeply miss the Japanese onsen when I leave, but I got my monies worth over the time I stayed here.
I liked Fukuoka as a city as well, as it has a nice relaxed air about it, with a central area split by rivers and canals. In the heart of the town there are some old temples and a number of precincts selling interesting things. I came here on my last two days in Japan so after a days sightseeing I spent the remainder trying to learn some Korean phrase as well as pick up the basics of the writing system before I headed over there. Then early the next morning I found my way to the high speed ferry terminal to leave the country I had called home for the past two years in some style on my way to South Korea