Mount Aso

Sign at the Mount Aso volcano museum

In October, I visited the island of Kyushu for the first time on a family trip. Specifically, we went to Kumamoto City in Kumamoto prefecture. I’ll write about the city another time, but here, I like to write about our day trip to Mount Aso.


Mount Aso is a volcano with 5 peaks and is famous for, according to a tourist website, its “ancient caldera [which] ranks among the world’s largest, with a diameter of up to 25 kilometers and a circumference of over 100 kilometers.” At the Aso volcano museum, I learned that a caldera is land that gets pushed down like a sinkhole when a volcano erupts, forming a sort of bowl shape in the landscape, with the volcano in the middle.

As you might recall, Kumamoto suffered multiple large earthquakes in April 2016. The recovery is ongoing, and several of the train and bus lines are still disrupted. To get to the mountains, we took a bus ride of 90ish minutes from Kumamoto City to Aso City station, and from there, a special mountain bus for another 30 minutes to the Mount Aso visitor centre and museum. The ropeway line that allows you to see the main active volcano crater was closed after an eruption in October 2016. It reopened in March 2018 (well after our trip), but of course it is occasionally closed for safety reasons depending on volcanic activity.

Although we couldn’t see the smoke-spewing crater up-close, we had a fantastic hike up one of the peaks. Rather than the type of switchback trails that I’m more used to, we climbed stairs pretty much straight up the side of the peak. From the top, we had an excellent view of the caldera, the other peaks, and the active crater.

Overall, it’s a very beautiful area, and much less-visited (that is to say, not overrun with tourists) than the main hotpots of Tokyo and Kyoto. Kumamoto City is a two-hour flight or six-hour (comfy!) Shinkansen ride from the Tokyo area, and is absolutely worth a visit. The area is still suffering from the earthquakes and resultant loss of income, so visitors are most welcome.

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Himeji

In early March last year, we visited Himeji Castle. Himeji is in Hyogo Prefecture, roughly 500 km / 300 miles west of Tokyo.

The castle is one of the very best in Japan and is registered as a UNESCO World Heritage site (one of Japan’s first). The current structure was completed in 1609, although it was a fortified stronghold from the 1300s. It has managed to survive earthquakes and bombings, with a restoration to the facade completed in 2015. The amazing white colour really sparkles in the sun, so I’m glad we got to see it post-restoration!

We were there before cherry blossom season, alas. Although it would be wonderful to see the castle surrounded by pink blossoms, it also becomes a crowded madhouse, so perhaps a more relaxed visit is better.

Even without being there at peak time, the queue to climb to the top of the keep was substantial. I didn’t take many pictures inside as we had to keep pace with the lines continuously trudging up the six stories. Despite the crowds, it was very cool to see the dark wood, weapons racks, and strategic windows for archery and dropping boiling oil / water on attackers.

The castle is alive with numerous legends from samurai feudal days, not to mention more recent historical dramas filmed there. There’s tons to read about the castle’s history on the interwebz, but this article in the Telegraph gives a nice short introduction, plus there’s a timeline on the castle’s website, and also wikipedia, of course.

Here’s what it would’ve looked like if we visited a few weeks later:

Photo By Seattleite7 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=49353388

We also visited Koko-en (好古園), a beautiful garden next to the castle.  Highly recommended!