Yesterday afternoon we took a long series of trains, from the shinkansen down to a puttering diesel mountain train, to travel from Nagasaki to the central mountains of northern Kyushu. The way up was so steep that the put-put train had to zig-zag forward and upward to make the steep slope (a feat I had only seen before in the train ride between Cuzco and Machu Picchu in Peru). It was a jolly ride, however, and I split my time between watching the beautiful scenery and people-watching a family that was clearly coming back to their mountain town after a morning in the city: Mom on one end, boy, girl, girl, and Dad on the other end. The girls were all excited and prancing around, sometimes kidding with Mom, sometimes with Dad, sometimes with their brother, who was not much fun because he was lost in his iPod. Mom and Dad would talk to each other over the din, or try to read, or doze off, but the dynamic changed every 30 seconds so there was no chance for anyone to settle into a pattern. That is what I have in mind when I think about a couple with kids :)
At about 6 pm we arrived to the small hamlet of Aso, which was going to be our base of operations for the exploration of the central volcanic complex of the Aso caldera. Yes, Day 7 was planned to be a geologic day, devoted to visiting one of Japan's natural wonders. The caldera eruption reportedly took place 100,000 years ago, and from the train we saw the imposing caldera margin a few kilometers away. The hamlet of Aso is inside the caldera moat, however, between the wall and the post-caldera central volcanic complex.
Early in the morning I woke up Chris, we gathered our gear, and with steaming breath headed to the station to take the bus that carries mountaineers to the central volcanic complex. After what seemed an eternity we got back from the bus, at the mountain hut near the rim of the currently active crater. Clouds of sulphurous billowed from the crater, and to our great disappointment we learned that the path around the crater was closed due to suffocation danger. So we settled for the second best, and prepared to claw our way up the steep slopes of Kijimadake Peak, the tallest mountain in the central complex. A bitter blizzard was blowing, so we tightened the straps in our snow crampons, gripped our piolets, and very carefully and slowly trudged up the steep scarp. It took all the courage and stamina we could muster, but at last we made it to the summit, from which we had a breath-taking view of the whole of the Aso caldera, the Furonomike Craters at the foot of the 600 m face of Kijimadake Peak, the bellowing steam issuing from the bare rock walls of the active Nakadake Crater, and the endless grassy slopes of the 1,000 km Valley (a fancy name for the moat of the caldera). It was a glorious view, forever etched in our imagination.
Unfortunately it was an image only etched in our boundless imagination. Alas, the straps of the snow crampons were nothing else but the shoelaces of the Mickey Mouse shoes, the piolets were nothing else than the umbrellas we had borrowed from our friendly youth hostel (which we had to replace with store-bought ones because we left the originals behind), and the glorious sights were nothing else than a solid wall of fog that never let out while we were on the mountain. We bravely climbed Kijimadake Peak in total fog blindness, and Chris almost fell 600 m into the depths of the Furonomike Craters, and our throats rasped when breathing the sulfur issuing from Nakadake Crater, but we never saw past the tip of our noses. Oh well, you cannot win them all :(
To look for a silver lining, when we got back to town our excellent hosts recommended a relaxed visit to the local "onsen". OK, whatever an onsen might be it sounded like some relax would bring relief to our sorry, cold, and damp bones. "Onsen" is Japanese for hot spring, and as luck would have it we happen to have one about 100 m from the hostel. So we unloaded our crap, grabbed a towel, and enjoyed the best couple of hours in what is probably the national sport. Evan, you would love the onsen culture here (but alas, it is not unisex, so you could not share it with Normis), as towns vie with each other for the number and quality of their onsens. Aso is not in the run, but the nearby town of Mijagi boasts 23 different onsens within easy walking distance! Anyway, you get there, undress in a common dressing room (you bathe in the buff, but good manners require you to modestly cover your nether region with a towel when you move around), and enter a large hall that serves as distributor to the showers (it would be anathema not to shower before entering the hot spring), the sauna (where you can join the locals for a good sweat while you watch a match of sumo in the TV--sumo being a sport as exciting as American football, with 10 seconds of action squeezed between 10 minutes of boredom), hot or cold wading pools, and--at last--a beautifully landscaped hot spring. The atmosphere, the babbling brook, the waterfall of steaming water, the feng-shui of the rocks and shrubbery, all are carefully designed to give you--the master of this small natural empire--a bit of heaven.
Say yes to onsen!