“ Country: Japan / World Region: Asia „
I feel that I am somewhat fortunate in that I have been to one of Japan's National Parks, the one situated on the southern island of Kyushu.
This is the Aso-Kuju National Park and is centrally situated on the island, between the major towns of Beppo and Kumamoto.
The highlight for me was to see Mount Aso, where there is an active volcano. We left Kumamoto, where we were staying, in hot sunshine and drove through some beautiful countryside.
This was mostly farmland where rice and bamboo seemed to be the major crops, but I am told they also grow tobacco and wheat but I am not sure I remember seeing those. It is interesting to see how the rice is grown and if you visit at different seasons you can see how it develops. In the spring it is planted and irrigation channels flood the fields after the rainy season in June, then it is harvested in October. On my last visit it was October and the rice plants had been draped over tent like structures to dry in the sun.
Another interesting feature of the National Park is the fields where cattle graze. These are branded with a kanji mark and it certainly seemed strange to see a cow with Japanese writing on its side!
Anyway, back to the volcano. When we approached the top of the mountains a mist descended and the volcanic crater was barely visible! It was also very cold and I was glad I had taken a jacket in the car!
A cable car operates to take visitors to the rim of the volcanic crater and on a clear day you can see a lake at the bottom. Of course because it was misty we saw very little of this! The smell of sulphur was strong too and although we were not certain, we heard noises which we were told could be the volcano rumbling.
Worth noting is that if the volcano is too active the cable car does not operate and the surrounding roads may even be closed. The Tourist office advised this does not happen too regularly, but it is worth checking with them before you set off on a long trip.
If you are feeling energetic it is possible to walk along the path which runs from the rim of the volcano up to the highest point of the mountain. You can then go on to a volcanic gorge at Sensui-kyo. The route is arduous and takes around five hours to complete, but apparently the views are breathtaking.
Disappointed by our visit to the volcano, we left the area of Mount Aso and continued our journey through the countryside. We passed through small villages, where there are traditional Japanese houses and some hot springs. Some of these places can be very crowded in peak season, but when we visited it was very pleasant and we could wander around at leisure.
Another point of interest might be the ancient baths in Beppu, which were built in the late 1800s. This is the Takegawa bathhouse and is well known for its sand baths. Here clients are buried up to their necks in hot black sand and left for several minutes to absorb the heat and minerals from the sand. It may not seem a good experience and I did not try it, but I understand it is very good for the skin and circulation and of course, you have a hot showere afterwards to get rid of the sand!
Onsen, or hot springs, are very popular in Japan and in the area around Beppu there are several. To my mind, a good way of relaxing after a day sightseeing in the national park!
The men and women bathe separately but do bear in mind these are communal baths and you go into them naked! Of course the Japanese are very discreet and avert their eyes, but even so, us Westerners are a lot larger than the dainty Japanese women and I felt like a hippo wallowing in the water compared with most of them!!!
Transport links to the national park are good, with regular trains linking Kumamoto with the station in the town of Aso, where you can take a bus to the cable car.
If you do go to Japan, take time to explore the national park on Kyushu. This is a very green island, with lots of mountainous scenery and forests of pine trees, along with the farmlands.
You will be impressed by the countryside, its customs, but most of all its people.