One of the most thrilling experiences of our recent vacation in Japan was definitely the helicopter ride in the Aso mountain range. We flew through the smoke billowing from an active volcano!
It is not the most obvious tourist destination, I guess, and we can’t quite recall what made us go there. It was absolutely worth it though.
When Titus and I first went to Japan together, we went to the places on the beaten track: Tokyo, Kyoto, Hiroshima… During that trip, the owner of a gyoza bar told us to go to Kyushu island next time, because the food is sublime there. We already thought food was pretty awesome everywhere we went, so to hear from a local that the food on Kyushu is good must mean that it is beyond excellent. So, our choice was made to discover Kyushu on a next Japanese holiday. Since we both love the country, it didn’t take us long to return. So, we find ourselves on Kyushu, going to Mount Aso.
All Dutch people chuckle when we talk to them about Aso. In Dutch, it’s short for anti-social (a-so) people or behavior. “Vet aso!”
How to get to Aso by public transport
To be honest, we don’t quite know how to get there. Since the Japanese are so kind and helpful, we trust that we will be able to get there somehow and ask for advice on the way. I know that part of the main train line to Aso was damaged and suspended due to heavy earthquakes a few years ago. We are coming from Yakushima island, via Kagoshima in the south, and first take a JR Kyushu Shinkansen to Kumamoto. From there, we hop on a local train eastbound to Higo-Ozu, the final stop on the Hohi line. We don’t even need any help finding this train. We are getting good at Japanese public transport! From Higo-Ozu: the exciting part. How to get to Aso from here?
We see there is a tourist information desk at the station. I go in and ask the lady how to get to Aso, and she gives me a bus schedule. In Japanese. I cast her a questioning look and she gestures me to follow her outside. There she talks to a few teenagers standing near what appears to be a bus stop, seemingly asking if anyone else needs to go to Aso. They don’t, but the lady tells me to wait here and also that we can use our JR Pass to ride the bus. Excellent! While it is challenging not to speak each other’s languages, we find that communication in Japan goes quite smoothly once you get the hang of some essential words and hand signs.
I wave at Titus, who was waiting with the suitcases while I was getting info, to join me. After about 45 minutes, a bus arrives. The lady emerges again from the tourist office, talks to the driver and tells us everything is ok and please get in. We feel a bit awkward, since the teenagers in front of us also ask us to get in first while they were there first, but they insist, so we get in the bus. Then we find out that a few dozen other people at the station were also waiting for this exact same bus and we are kind of mortified. Everyone is cool though. We leave with a bus full of high school students and one elderly lady.
It is soon getting dark and it is foggy in the mountains, so we can’t see anything of the surroundings. Titus is getting a bit nervous about this whole trip, worried we won’t arrive in Aso. I’m quite confident we will, but stop talking anyway. In a relationship, you need to know when to shut up. The bus stops a few times before we reach Aso station an hour and a half after departing from Higo-Ozu. Now we are in Aso, but not in our hotel yet. The tourist office at the station is closed, but I spot a ticket officer and he gives us directions on how to walk to our hotel after I show him the address in Japanese I saved on my tablet. You might be able to tell I’m the planner and information-gatherer of us two.
We stay in the Aso Villa Park Hotel and Spa Resort (Aso No Tsukasa) where we have a lovely fusion room: on one side we have two Western-style beds, and on the other a ryokan-style sitting area with tatamis and a low table and chairs. The hotel has a yakiniku restaurant, a Korean-style barbecue which lets you grill at your own table. After the long trip, we are very happy to relax with a beer and barbecue some delicious meat and fish!
Seeing the sights
Staff at the hotel helps us get our bearings and tells us we can go with a bus up the mountain to the Aso Volcano Museum. It is the final stop of the bus route. Due to volcanic activity, it is not possible to get any closer to the crater of Mount Nakadake and the ropeway is suspended. Get up-to-date info about the current status here: http://www.explore-kumamoto.com/aso-volcano-current-status/ From the museum, it is said there’s a good view of the crater, but that is very weather-dependent. When we go up the mountain, it looks like this:
If you look carefully, you can see the letters of ‘Aso Volcano Museum’. It is so foggy, we can barely see the bus approaching. The museum is good for information about the area, to learn how the Aso caldera originated and about the workings of volcanos in general.
Another option to get a nice view is to take a helicopter ride. The weather is not good enough to do that today, so we go back to the hotel to relax in the spa and have another sumptuous yakiniku meal.
On the day of our departure from Aso, we awake to a bright and sunny day. We are beyond thrilled that we can take the helicopter ride now! The hotel staff helps us with instructions. We need to buy a ticket to Cuddly Dominion first, and then go to the helicopter ticket office. Cuddly Dominion is a theme park where you can cuddle bear cubs, dogs, cats and even capybaras. We love cuddling animals, but now we have other priorities and can’t wait to get in that helicopter! We choose the ten-minute flight which takes us close to the crater of Mount Nakadake (total price around €75/US$93), from where we can see the crater lake and the smoke billowing out. For both of us, it is the first time to fly in a helicopter. We are slightly nervous and very giddy. Off we go!
The scenery from up in the sky is absolutely breathtaking. From this bird’s eye view, it is clear to see how lava streams affected the landscape. Then we arrive near the top of Mount Nakadake, and the pilot tells us we are going to FLY OVER the crater. Before we know it, we are flying through the sulfurous smoke and we have an amazing view of the crater lake underneath the smoke. This is incredible. We are so happy the weather cleared up and we got to experience this. A real once-in-a-lifetime experience!