Day 14: Mount Aso

This morning we awoke on the tatami mat floors of the Tsuetate Kanko Hotel Hizenya in anticipation of our included breakfast!

We were also looking forward to today’s activities which were to feature a visit to the largest volcano in Japan, Mount Aso.

We planned to spend the whole day in the Aso area and had booked a night at a bed and breakfast type inn in the small town of South (Minami) Aso.

We wanted to get going as soon as we had finished eating so made sure to pack up and bathe before breakfast was due to open. Kate had really warmed to the onsen concept so decided to go and explore another one of the hotel’s five baths while I just had a quick shower in our room.

Unlike most other Ryokan we've experienced thus far, the Hizenya offered a "Viking" style breakfast. I have no idea where Vikings come in to the picture but it's basically just a buffet style, self serve all-you-can-eat type situation. Although I really liked the served breakfasts we've had before it was also nice to be able to pick and choose a large variety of different foods.

Some of the dishes on offer included champon, curry, a variety of vegetables, dumplings, eggs, soup, fish, white rice, many bread things as well as rice porridge. The eating hall was large and we were able to secure a seat next to the huge windows looking out over the vigorously flowing and pretty Tsuetate River.

After breakfast we grabbed our luggage and settled our debts (hot spring tax & bowling shoe hire) with reception.

Then we were off to Mt. Aso!

It was Kate's turn to drive and I made sure to help direct her back on the Yamanami Highway which we followed west towards Kumamoto. The scenery along this part of the route consisted of rolling hills with cows, which we enjoyed as we wound our way up to the volcanic rim of the Mt Aso volcano. 

Somewhere along the way we entered the Aso-Kujū national park area and after driving for about forty minutes we reached a small shop and lookout right before we'd begin our decent down the inside of the volcanic rim.

Mount Aso is a humongous volcano located in the middle of Japan's southern Kyūshū island and with a caldera circumference of around 120km it is the largest in Japan and one of the largest in the world. Located at the centre of the caldera are five volcanic cones, the highest of which is the 1592m tall Mount Taka.

The caldera was formed when a massive eruption emptied the magma chamber and covered half of Kyūshū in pyroclastic material that cooled to become a rock known as welded tuff. The emptied magma chamber subsequently collapsed to form the caldera and new vents sprouted up in the middle, creating what's known as a somma stratovolcano.

It had been quite a while since the mountain had this last major eruption, about 90,000 years, and the crater is now currently filled with roads, towns and rice fields. 

The water filled rice patties looked especially interesting and we stopped for a while to appreciate the view. 

Due to varying states of the crop the rectangular patties varied in colour from deep blue, sprouting green and harvest yellow. And dirt brown.

In the distance, at the centre of the caldera, we could see the cones of the currently or recently active volcanic vents. 

We could also see some more densely populated areas that indicated townships down below.

There were a couple of other people up here at the viewing area; one guy was taking a commemoration photo of his motorcycle in front of the view.

Before leaving we had a look in the shop for a drink but were unable to find any sugar free varieties.

The road down into the caldera was very steep and windy.

Along the way we stopped at some road works and I noticed that the barriers were cute monkeys! 

In other parts of Kyūshū we found the same sort of equipment but different animals featured such as dolphins or elephants. I couldn't imagine such cute items being used for road construction in Australia.
After another fifteen minute drive we reached the town of Aso and stopped in at Aso Shrine.

Although it is possible to approach and look down into the currently active crater of Mount Aso's Nakadake, due to the poisonous gas emissions (that have resulted in deaths) access is strictly regulated according to the air quality.

The crater area is separated into zones and if the gas levels get to high sections are closed and you are ordered to move to a safer area.

The top section containing the different zones is located at the end of toll road and ropeway and is often completely closed.

Openings and closings are dynamic throughout the day and you can check the current status on the Aso website.

When I had done so back in Tsuetate I found a message stating that all areas were currently open!

During the trip I had no mobile internet reception and I once was able to check again in Aso town I found that it was unfortunately now closed!

Which is why we decided to swing by the shrine and wait for conditions to improve.

Aso Shrine is actually quite significant itself as it is one the oldest shrines in all of Japan and was founded around 2000 years ago at the beginning of the Common Era.

The buildings are not quite that old (only about 10%) though the Rōmon Gate and a few of the halls are classified as Important Cultural Properties.
I added my omikuji to the fronds
 吉 (Kichi) or "Blessing" - ranked 9/12

The gate (pictured first above) is one of the biggest in Japan built using the impressive two tiered style.

The inner buildings enshrine a number of deities but it wasn't possible for us to go in and say hello so we just had to make do with the outer parts of the complex.

The buildings were quite large wooden structures and interesting to look at.
I also like looking at the ema (絵馬)

Also around the outside there were a few charms and things for sale and on a whim I purchased a fortune (Omikuji).

It’s fun to tie them up and I don't mind helping contribute to the upkeep of cultural properties.

Plus I got a little pin to keep as well.

At the shrine we happened to notice the same motorcycle guy we'd seen earlier up on the ridge!
A wild caterpillar appeared!!!

While we were looking around the shrine I was making sure to keep an eye on Mount Aso's status and once I noticed it was fully opened again we hurried back to the car to head up.

We had spent a good time at the shrine and were certainly ready to move on.

The drive up was another pleasant drive through the countryside, however as we neared the peak we found that the road became a little crowded.

We also noticed that there were a few big buses making the trip up, most were tour buses but I think we saw a public one as well.

Horse riding place seen on the way up the mountain

In hindsight it probably would been best to head straight to the crater initially as it takes around half an hour to drive to the top of the mountain and we probably would've made it there right as it opened.

What actually happened was that by the time we arrived it was completely closed!

We were at a little intermediate area that connected to the crater region via a ropeway or a short toll road.

When we arrived the toll road gate what shut and the ropeway was not moving.

There were lots of cars around and we had a bit of trouble getting park but managed to nab one before they were all taken. I think everyone had just driven back down from the mountain- plus there were new people continually arriving.
We were not actually sure if we wanted to drive up or get the cable car yet but we decided to have a look inside the cable car building while we waited for the top crater area to be declared safe again.

There wasn't too much to look at and people were mainly just milling around.

There was quite a bit of information about the health risks associated with the crater area and I noticed that those with asthma, bronchitis and heart conditions were absolutely prohibited from venturing up.

I actually have a pretty mild case of asthma but decided to risk it anyway as I only very rarely have issues.

After only a short period we heard an announcement  that the top section was to be partially re-opened!

Time to move!

Ropeway or Car?

We quickly decided upon the car as it was cheaper and darted over so we could be one of the first ones to line up at the gate.

We did fairly well with this and we only had to wait for about fifteen other cars to go through the gate and pay.

Once it was our turn we paid the 560 toll to the attendant and received a little slip of paper with some general instructions.

There are four main sections up at the top of the volcano and currently only the outermost C zone was open.

This meant we could see the area we'd be able to look down into the crater from, but were not actually allowed to enter.

In the distance there was a little fence at the edge of the rim behind which a large amount of steam and gas was rising and dispersing.

A bit closer we saw a number of low concrete bunkers that were designed to protect tourists from falling volcanic bombs (rocks) in case of a more violent eruption.

Just before the entrance to sections B1 and B2 we found a air quality meter that was currently lit up on the orange 2ppm (parts per million) level.

There was another sign here stating that those with asthma were prohibited!

It sucks because to my great surprise I found that I actually did have a fair amount of trouble breathing!

It was quite bad and although I was fine walking around it wasn't very comfortable and I'd be in trouble if I had to do any extended/intense physical activity.

I took some salbutamol but it unfortunately didn't help.

Kate reported that she wasn't encountering any breathing difficulties at all when I asked. I was really quite annoyed that my body had failed me.

Apart from the immediate crater area there were a number of other depressions and features we could visit on the way back down the road.

After having a quick look at those former vents we noted that people were walking up the road and then returned back to the main area to have a look inside the ropeway station.

As you can see- another bad day for my camera
There wasn't much to see in there though we did buy a packet of delicious chewy strawberry lollies.

Back outside we were shocked to see a few people smoking cigarettes!

As if the air quality wasn't bad enough!

I can't even imagine.

We also saw a lot of small kids and babies as well.

Across the crater far in the distance we could actually see a couple of sitting on the rim of the eastern side.

We had investigated checking out this side instead and it initially seemed that there was also a ropeway over there however it turned out to be an ex-ropeway as it had shut down a number of years ago.

It is still possible to walk up from the old east rope way car park and then continue all the way back over to the western side where we were.

I read that it was a fantastic walk but it's probably good we ultimately decided not to do this considering the gas levels and my breathing difficulties.

We were also not sure if we'd get views of the crater from up there, though it looked like those concerns were unfounded.

Back on our side people were still arriving by car and just as the walkers reached the top some sirens sounded as the poisonous gas level climbed into the danger zone of 5ppm.

Some staff members came out of the ropeway buildings and started to usher everyone back down to the lower area.

Once we had driven back down the lower area we decided to see what else was in the area and drove around somewhat aimlessly.

Eventually we stopped at a clearing where there was a little helicopter!

You could ride in the helechopter to get a view of the crater and surrounding area; we went over to investigate the price and route.

There were two options available, the first was 5000(*$50) for a three minute trip over and around the volcanic crater and the other was twice as expensive for a seven minute trip which also included a visit to a nearby lake.

"Helicopter Sightseeing Flights: Even possible during gas restrictions"
These were the sort of prices we were expecting- very expensive!!!

We thought very hard about it and our hard earned money and ultimately decided to go for it!

While three minutes isn’t very long, (about $3 every ten seconds), we'd never been in a helichopter before.

We'd also be able to get a spectacular view of the crater without having to worry about fussing around with the other method.

It would also cost us money each time we drove up (though not $100 to be sure).

It was a pretty small aircraft and looked extremely terriciting!

Although there was a slow trickle of people taking rides it was by no means crowded and there wasn't really a line, all we had to do was wait for the previous run to return.

There was a little table which had the options listed and there was a guy who came over to take our payment when we approached.  We chose the cheaper, quicker option at 5000 yen each.

While we were waiting, a lady come up to me and started interrogating me in Japanese.

She was with a group of people that also wanted to ride and she was trying to ask things like how many people would fit in. I replied that I didn't know but that it was probably at least two.

The helicopter was very small and the operation looked a little dodgy, nothing too bad but a vibe that they'd just kind shown up with their helicopter in a spare paddock.

I'm sure that wasn't the case as there was a permanent wind sock blowing about.

So seemed legit.

We were still nervous though!

The group ahead of us were on the long trip and just before they returned the money guy came back and asked us if it was ok to add another person to our trip

So at least three passengers per trip then.

Soon after the previous group landed we were ushered over to hop on.

While the other group had received what looked to be a pretty detailed safety lecture, all we got was a warning not to wander into the tail rotor.

Lest we have a bad day.

It turned out that the helicopter had spaces for four people, two in the front and two in the back. The pilot got one of the front seats and the extra dude got the other, which meant Kate and I were to take the back.

We didn't mind as it meant we could sit together.

We all had earmuffs and microphones to protect our ears and allow communication. The pilot asked if we spoke Japanese and I replied that I could understand a little though Kate couldn't and he asked me to translate for her. I certainly couldn't translate on the fly though plus what I said would go out to everyone else so I instead just gave occasional barely useful updates like "we're going to circle again" or "we're going back now".

We were pretty nervous as the engines powered up and we lifted up off the ground!

The ride was much smoother than we expected and once we were up it wasn't scary at all!

It was a lot of fun!
It didn't take us long to reach the crater and we got fantastic views down into the sulfurous bubbling lake.

It was emitting tons of gas and steam and we could see that the viewing area was still completely closed.

The cliffs surrounding the crater were also really impressive and we could see layers in the rocks which were deposited during past eruptions.

We flew directly over the volcano and circled around at an angle a number of times in both a clockwise and an anticlockwise direction so both sides of the aircraft were able to get excellent views.

Cameras were out at first though once I'd taken a few I made sure to put it away so I could properly experience the ride.

The guy at the front had two cameras for some reason and was recording video with both of them at the same time.

One in landscape orientation, the other in portrait.

Apart from the volcanic vent our height enabled us to enjoy amazing views of the distant country side and mountains.

Although we only had three minutes it actually felt like a lot of time and when it was time to return we were satisfied with what we had seen and were ready to go back.

On the way back down we noticed a few more volcanic bomb bunkers like we had seen at the top but they were located much further away.

The landing was reasonably soft and safe and once we had alighted I offered to take a photo of the other guy in front of the helicopter as he had quickly taken one of us before we were ushered aboard earlier.

He did a pretty funny pose!

Upon returning to the car we continued driving back down the road from the crater area and stopped at a bit of a lookout point behind some shops. I think we had wanted to park in front of the shops but you had to pay for parking?

At any rate we enjoyed the view from up here and I had a big chat with some old man selling lumps of sulfur, he said my pronunciation was good and after a while told us that the mountain was open again so we should hurry up and see it!

I said that we had already seen it though he persisted...
I wasn't sure what to do but we ended up wandering off a bit then sneaking back to walk down the hill to the shops.

We could see the bowl shaped Mount Komezuka in the distance from the lookout area and had wanted to climb to the top of another cool looking mountain but had to concede that we didn't have time.

Like yesterday we had to make sure we were at our accommodation at a certain time or risk missing dinner.

I have no idea why but our booking information stated that we had to be there as early as 1600. I thought that might not be the case however we didn't want to risk it.

Across the road from the shops we saw some horses you could ride and inside we found an Aso volcano museum, and a bit of a cafe/souvenir shop.

The museum was really expensive so we didn't go in but I did get some milk and a banana muffin from the shop for lunch.

We also got a bottle of Kumamoto Sake from the souvenir section.

As we still had some time left we decided to return to the helicopter area and walk as a far as possible along one of the tracks leading up one of the surrounding hills.

The idea was that we'd walk until a certain time and then turn back around.

I was feeling really exhausted today and Kate really had to exhort me up the hills.

On the way up we passed some people who commented that the flowers were pretty- and they were!

Kate had grand aspirations of climbing some big mountain in the distance though we only actually made it up to the top of a smaller, closer hill.

There was a still a good view from here which we enjoyed- we could see many more flowers in the distance!

We still had a bit of time up our sleeves but there was no point in walking halfway back down the hill we had just climbed and so we instead decided to return to our car and take a longer route to our accommodation past the cool bowl shaped mount Komezuka.

Mount Komezuka was pretty cool with its peculiar shape though we unfortunately could not climb it as it's not public land and happens to just belong to some farmers.

Mount Komezuka
A bit further down the road there are a few walks you can do and we stopped by to have a super quick look.

I think I also remember that the fairly major road we were travelling along had a really slow speed limit of around 30kmph. Craziness!

Once we reached the bottom of the mountain we headed for our hotel, which wasn't too far away in South Aso (Minami-Aso).

However we did have a little trouble locating it as the narrow and bushy road it was on wasn't marked in Google Maps.

The Auberge Mori No Atorie Minamiaso Luna Observatory was pretty small with parking for only a few guests and we were a bit nervous about going in.

There was no one to take our luggage when we arrived which meant we were thankfully able to leave them in the car and take our time filling our day bags with a few items for tonight.

We then wandered over to reception and made sure to take off our shoes after seeing the slippers at the entrance.

The place was basically a large house with an attached big domed observatory on one side.

I don't think we made much of an entrance as we waited for some time at the front desk before a young man noticed us and came over to check us in.

Otherwise we didn't have any problems and choose a time for baths and were told about dinner and the later observatory tour.

The reason we had to choose a time for a bath was that the hotel had a couple of private onsen on the property!

Which surprised us.

When we booked it looked like our room had a shower so we didn't worry about investigating any further. 

Once we had checked in a lady came to take us to our room and point out where the private onsen was.

The lady also indicated that there were additional baths inside the main building we could use at any time (and toilets).

Our room was two stories with the upper loft section connected to the lower via a long wooden ladder.

Each level had two beds, so a total four for the room- well the top two were actually futons.

It was extremely hot inside when we first went in, thankfully the air conditioning the lady turned on cooled things down before long.

At first it seemed like our room didn't have a shower or bathroom but it turned out we were just stupid. We didn't realise how to open the mysterious translucent door.

You have to push it in the middle

Apart from the Astronomy side of things there was a general sort of French theme to the place and I suspected that a husband and wife team might be behind it all with one side pushing for French and the other for Astronomy.

Okay, there were some chopsticks
Before dinner we went to reception to get the key which we used to unlock the private bath we had booked.

It was in a separate wooden building located next to the main house.

I'm not sure if it was natural onsen water but it was quite nice anyway and there was a big open window looking out over a rice paddy (with scenery in the distance).

I'm glad there were no farmers out tending their fields!

After our bath it was dinner time!!

In the dining room we found our names on one of the four tables. Apart from us the other guests included two other couples as well as a single lady- they were all Japanese.

Our dishes were brought out in courses and the cooking was French themed, we had a stack of different knives, forks and spoons instead of the usual chopsticks. I didn't know what cutlery to use for what!

The waiter who served us was quite young and was very shy though it was like the full service you'd expect at a fancy restaurant.

Unusually, we decided to order some red wine from the drink menu.

The first course was some appetisers such as various meats lightly cooked, next came chawanmuchi which Kate really liked followed by delicious pumpkin soup and wonderful bread.

The main course was some really delicious Aso steak and vegetables complimented by our red wine.

Finally we received a cute desert!

While we were eating the steak, the waiter came around to take our photos which appeared framed the next day at breakfast- which was a really nice touch.

After we finished we were offered extra bread- like rice in Japanese dinners this was to ensure we were full. We both took one extra roll, which took a bit of self-control as it was delicious.

The single lady I had mentioned earlier was a little weird- she looked really miserable and grumpy but made sure to take photos of her food and eat it in a really pompous manner.

Also- incredibly slowly. Everyone else was finished before she even started on the main meal.
This is the dining area

After dinner we thanked the waiter, returned to our room and became a little drunk thanks to the wine and the sake we had purchased at Mt. Aso.


The night was not done and we ventured out once more for the Astronomical tour.

I was actually an active amateur astronomer in a past life so I was quite interested in the setup but was unfortunately drunk enough to embarrass myself a little rambling about various things.

Sadly it was full moon tonight so viewing was a bit of a wash, though at least it wasn't cloudy.

Messier 92
We looked at the moon and Saturn before turning further afield to observe M92 (a globular cluster). I think we looked at another messier object as well but I can't remember which.

The guy was quite a showman and enthusiastically talked in a very dramatic manner: "This isn't a NHK documentary!!!", "It's the real thing!!"- Far different from the way I and other amateur astronomers behave in Australia. When we were shown the globular cluster he asked if I had seen Omega Centauri which is the brightest globular cluster in the sky, visible only to the southern hemisphere (more or less).

I replied that I had and also tried to mention 47 Tucanae (second brightest- also southern hemisphere), but I failed.

After our tour we returned back to our room and decided to sleep up the ladder on the futons.

Tomorrow we'll be leaving the Yamanami Highway to travel down from the Aso region to Takachiho which is the site of a lovely gorge located in the neighbouring Miyazaki Prefecture. After finishing our sightseeing we'd drive all the back and over to Kumamoto city to return our car, then catch a train up and around to Nagasaki.

Look forward to the next report!

If you enjoyed reading this post or found any of the information useful please consider leaving a comment. I really appreciate them and they give me encouragement to keep writing about the rest of our trip!

Or, are you considering visiting or have you recently travelled to Mount Aso?

If so, feel free to share your plans and experiences!

I'll be glad to answer any questions you may have!

Continue reading Day 15: Takachiho


  1. Hi! I am leaving a comment since you mention you appreciate them and posed a question. I was at Mt. Aso on New Year's Day of 2014. Unfortunately, the ropeway was closed due to the level 2 (if I am not mistaken) eruption warning. I recognize one of the photos of yours, except it was white instead of green (snow) when I was there. Had walked across the plains (opposite the museum & shops area) & scrambled up the little slope to get a better view of the volcano, recalled it was really really windy up there, could hardly stand straight at one point & my nose was hurting from the cold that I decided to seek warmth in the shops. We only went as far as the musuem area section of the volcano since the ropeway was closed, and we weren't sure if there was anything to do see or do at the ropeway station.

    I hadn't read your Sakurajima post, but was there during last winter. My down jacket was too warm to wear during the day, I had it hung on my arm most of the time. Took the bus up Sakurajima & it was kinda funny now that I think back, we were only given a few minutes at each stop, so the tourists would quickly get off the bus & snap as many photos of possible & hurry back on, the bus left on the dot. If not, the interval was an hour later at a place with pretty much nothing else to do but a view, you prob have come acrossed this in Japan. Anyway, it was interesting reading your post seeing what I had missed at Mt. Aso due to the eruption risk & how it looks like at a different season. Researching on Nagoya, that was how I found your page.

    Keep writing!

    1. Hello!

      Thank you very much for reading my report and for taking the time to leave me such a detailed comment, I definitely do appreciate it and I enjoyed reading about your experience!

      I'm sorry to hear that the ropeway was also closed for you as well!

      I'm actually surprised to hear that the area gets covered in snow! Such a contrast to when we were there.It never snows where I live though so the concept often takes me by surprise. Our first trip to Japan was in winter and we saw a fair bit of snow around the Takayama area then. Some warm milk from the shops would have been warming when you went in!

      That's interesting to hear about your Sakurajima trip, we actually drove around but I have seen bus timetables like that and stupid me never actually realised that you're not really expected to wait for the whole hour. Good to know now!

      Thank you very much once again for your message!

  2. Great trip report. We're going to be visiting Mt. Aso in November. Would you stay in minami Aso or is the trip worth it from Kumamoto or Beppu? We're not sure if it warrants an overnight for the area. We'll have under a week in Kyushu and want to make the most of it. Also, did you rent a car and was it expensive or are you using your own? Thanks for any insight!

    1. Hi Atomiton!

      Thank you very much for taking the time to leave a comment.

      If you're just going to have a look at Mt Aso I think making a trip from Kumamoto would be a good idea but it might be a bit far to do that from Bepp- but still possible. The drive itself from Beppu to Aso is quite nice, but not so much for Aso to Kumamoto (at least near the city).

      I think if you're just seeing Mount Aso, there probably wouldn't be a need to stay overnight.

      Takachiho is really nice, so it might be worth it to overnight in Aso and visit there the next day, perhaps on the way to Kamamoto or Beppu. I think it was one of our highlights of Kyushu. Depends on what other things you have planned though too.

      We rented a car and it's pretty cheap (compared to Australia), and really quite easy to do using tocoo: http://www2.tocoo.jp/en

      Just make sure to bring your licence, international licence and passport when you pick up the car and to fill up before drop off :).