Mt. Aso (阿蘇山）
Mt. Aso is home to the world’s largest active caldera and its easy access attracts the tourist crowds throughout the year. Luckily, only a small portion of those people actually venture past the souvenir shops to the high point of Taka-dake, making it a wonderful place to sit and contemplate nature’s power.
The hike: From the huge parking lot, you’ve got 2 options. You can either climb via Washimidaira (鷲見平) and Tengu-no-butai (天狗の舞台) or take the concrete trail that parallels the gondola to Kakou-higashi (かこうひがし). Whatever you do, don’t waste your money on the gondola – you’ve come here to go hiking after all, and with only a 400m elevation change, why bother? I took the concrete path because the other trail was closed, but if I were to do it again, I’d definitely opt for the first option, as it’s the most direct (and interesting) path to the top. Initially it’s a gentle climb to Washimidaira, and then the path shoots straight up the rocky spine of the peak, dumping you out just to the left of Taka-dake (高岳). The map says to allow about 90 minutes to reach the ridge line, but if you’re good at boulder hopping you should be able to do it in less time. Once you reach Tengu-no-butai, turn right and hike about 10 minutes to Taka-dake, the highest point of Mt. Aso. You’ll have awesome views down into the caldera, and if the weather is good then you should also be staring at Mt. Kuju and Mt. Sobo. Continue traversing over to Naka-dake (中岳), where a choice will have to be made. You can either continue straight and turn right to return to Sensuikyo, or turn left to descend to the caldera. I highly recommend the latter option, as the colorful rock formations and lunar-esque landscape are out-of-this-world! Once you drop down to Sunasenri-ga-hama (砂千里ヶ浜) you’ll be wondering where all the people and vegetation went. I swear if you wear red tinted sunglasses you’ll swear you’re on Mars! Continue on towards the crowds and souvenir stalls at Kakounishi (かこうにし), where you can either take a bus or hitch back to into town.
When to go: This hike can be done year round, but be prepared for snow during January and February. Click here to see the wonderful snow scenery.
Access: From Kumamoto (熊本) station, take a train on the JR Hohi Line (包皮線) to Miyaji (宮地) station. From there, either take a taxi (costing around 1500 yen) to Sensuikyo (仙酔峡). Alternatively, you could try hitching to the trailhead. I caught a ride with someone making milk deliveries! If you just want to see the active caldera or approach the peak through Sunasenri-ga-hama, then you can take a direct bus from Kumamoto station to the bottom of the chairlift at Aso San Nishi station (阿蘇山西駅). The bus takes about 2 hours one-way. Click here for the schedule.
Live web cam:Click here
Level of difficulty: 3 out of 5 (elevation change 692m).