Mount Aso: Armchair Travel, Art, and Memories

“Aso is a good-natured, even-tempered volcano, and it is not often that the steady cloud of smoke and steam which it emits varies in volume…”  These words are from In Lotus-land Japan, a 1910 travelogue by Herbert G. Ponting.

In these days when actual travel is not possible, I am enjoying reading (and in some cases re-reading) some of the early accounts of Western visitors to the land of the rising sun. The perspectives of these early travelers is always interesting; at times heavily influenced by attitudes of the period yet sometimes insightful and still relevant more than a century later. And many of these old travelogues are out of copyright and available as e-books for free or very cheaply.In Lotus Land Japan

I had not heard of Ponting’s book until recently.  Of course he covers the major tourist sites that remain on today’s beaten tourist track:  Tokyo, Kyoto, Nara, Nikko, Hakone.  But much more interesting to me are his descriptions of places those early tourists rarely visited.  Indeed, his is the earliest account I have read of a Meiji Period (1868-1912) visitor to Kyushu.  Among the places he visited in Kyushu was Mt. Aso, Kyushu’s dominant volcano even today (and since Kyushu has nine active volcano systems, that’s saying a lot!).

Mt. Aso is a fascinating area that I visited frequently when I lived in Kumamoto in the early 1980s.  As an active volcano system, it is a place that is constantly changing.  The volcano’s level of activity is different each time I visit. Nonetheless, many aspects of the area are unchanged since Ponting’s time.  I enjoyed reading his account and comparing it to my own experiences of the area.

One distinctive feature of Aso is its expansive caldera:  25 kilometers (15.5 miles) north to south and 18 kilometers (11.2 miles) east to west–a total of 350 square kilometers (135 square miles). Ponting claims in his book that it is the largest in the world.  That may have been the belief in his day; now we know better.  But it is certainly among the largest in the world.

The caldera is believed to have been formed when the volcano collapsed in on itself in a particularly violent eruption approximately 90,000 years ago.  For a time, the inside of the caldera was a massive crater lake, but the southwest rim of the caldera ruptured some 6,000 to 10,000 years ago and the lake drained away, leaving relatively flat, fertile land that is still farmed today.  As Ponting relates: “We passed many farms and rice-fields, for the ground is very rich, and wherever water can be obtained abundant crops are grown. It is said there are over twenty thousand people living in the villages within the outer crater walls.”


Since the formation of the caldera, the original vent at its center has continued to be active and five separate peaks have formed over it, roughly in an east-west line. These are now collectively referred to as Mt. Aso, although each, of course, bears its own name. Ponting and his companions set out to ascend the then-active peak–presumably Nakadake, which is still active today–to have a closer look.

“Miles of black ash-hills, which reflected the 90°-in-the-shade heat into our faces with scorching power, now had to be traversed… When we reached the summit of the ash-hills which form the second lip, we rested and restored our wasted tissues with lunch, whilst enjoying the grand spectacle of the crater, only three miles away, pouring volumes of smoke and steam into the cloudless skies.”

“Fortified by food and rest, we soon disposed of the remaining distance, passed the temples at the foot of the cone, and were plodding up to the crater’s brink. It behoved us to be very careful how we stepped, for the ash deposited is of so soluble a nature that the recent storm had turned it into slippery mud, and we had more than one fall and long slide in the mud before reaching the edge. It is a most dangerous spot, as the bank dips towards the edge in places, and a fall there might easily precipitate one into the crater.”

Years ago I stood on the edge of Nakadake’s crater and had similar thoughts.  When I looked into that abyss, it was a boiling pot of green mud.

Ponting’s experience was a bit different:  “Aso’s crater is a truly direful place. The walls are not coloured like those of lava mountains, but are black precipices of accumulated ashes, with only streaks, here and there, of the more solid matter within them. Occasionally the clouds of vapour that floated up from the great pit parted, and we could see the crater bottom, with its thousand cracks and fissures, from which the steam hissed and roared… Once the wind veered for a few moments and we were quickly enveloped in the steam, which sent us running, sliding, and tumbling to get away from the suffocating fumes that gripped us in the throat and set up paroxysms of coughing; yet I saw butterflies flying across the abyss and emerging from the noxious vapours unharmed.”

Currently Nakadake is sufficiently active that no one is permitted within one kilometer of the crater’s edge.  The Aso Volcano Museum, just over three kilometers from Nakadake’s crater, also serves as a visitor center.  At the entrance to the visitor center, those who want to attempt to hike to the edge of the no-go zone can borrow a hardhat (just in case the volcano should belch out a few tephra bombs).  In addition to interesting exhibits about the geology of the area, the museum also has a live camera feed so that visitors can see what’s happening inside the crater without taking their lives into their own hands.

As Ponting observed, the Aso caldera is home to farmers growing crops, as well as farmers raising cattle. The abundant grasslands on the flanks of the volcanic peaks are particularly good for raising cattle (although the animals have been known to come down off the mountain before major eruptions). Aso’s beef is a particularly well-regarded local delicacy. One night last December while dining at a local izakaya (pub) in Uchinomaki, a well-known Aso onsen town, I enjoyed a long conversation with a local cattleman who had recently taken over the family farm from his father. He filled me in on the differences between red and black beef (two different breeds of cattle) and explained how the meat of animals raised on grass but finished with grain doesn’t contain as much fat as that of animals that are completely grain fed.  (I would have thought the difference in the amount of exercise the animals get would also help explain the phenomenon.)

Since Ponting’s day, the area’s popularity as a tourist destination has grown substantially. Aso is home to at least 150 known hot springs, where thermally-heated mineral water can be tapped for soothing baths, long popular with Japanese tourists and hopefully growing in popularity among foreign tourists as well. The area has so much to offer geologically that it has been declared a UNESCO Geopark. Visitors can enjoy hiking, horseback riding, golfing and various other outdoor activities.

The geology of Aso also makes for some beautiful landscapes and many visitors love the area for its scenery, as much as for anything else.  In his book, The Art of Travel, Alain de Botton observed that artist’s depictions of places are often what instill in us the desire to visit. Perhaps one of the greatest visual ambassadors for Aso is the award-winning dye artist Akemi Takatsu, some of whose work I’ve shared in this post.

Born in Kumamoto in 1947, Akemi-san particularly loves the Aso area and often takes its peaks as her subject.  She says she’s long been fascinated with Nekodake, the saw-toothed oldest of the five peaks in the center of the caldera.  She even climbed it in her youth.

Most of Akemi-san’s work is batik-style dyeing–designs drawn on cloth in wax before dyeing the cloth.  In a career spanning five decades, she has produced designs on kimono and obi, as well as hang-able art and everyday items like Western-style clothing and furoshiki.  She has also produced drawings that have been converted to ceramic tiles, including tiles used for a mural installed at the Kumamoto airport in 2012.  Entitled “Mountain God on Clouds”, the mural depicts a number of the Aso peaks, an appropriate symbol of Kumamoto. (Have you noticed how most regional airports in Japan have displays introducing the most distinctive features of the locality?)

In “Mountain God on Clouds” (above), Akemi-san has also beautifully captured one of the most intriguing volcanic “bumps” in the caldera, a circular mound known as Komezuka that vaguely resembles an upturned rice bowl. Her depiction is looking south over Komezuka toward Nakadake, while my photos are taken from the south side of Komezuka looking north toward the rim of the caldera more than 10 kilometers away.

In these days, armchair travel, art appreciation and memories are what we have to fall back on.  It would be worse if we didn’t at least have those.

© 2020 and Vicki L. Beyer
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