Continuing south along Kyushu’s western coast, lies the castle town of Kumamoto. But first, we would head inland. The gigantic Aso-san volcano caldera leaves its smoldering scar smack in the centre of Kyushu. Eruptions have been going on for the past 300,000 years, in fact, it’s still the largest active caldera in the world. The Aso-san area consists of several mountains. Today, we were headed for the main peak of Naka-dake (1506m).
The summit is frequently declared off limits due to toxic gas emissions. Unfortunately, during our visit the cable-car and walking path to the summit were closed off due to recent volcanic activity and the imminent risk of an eruption.
So, after a long and arduous bus trip to the tourist office station near the summit, we could merely watch the smoking caldera from a distance. But the area still reeked of disgusting sulphur, which is enough to make you gag if you don’t cover your mouth.
Feeling a little disappointed, we decided to stroll down to a lower bus station. Suddenly we heard the whop-whop of helicopter rotors bearing down. It was a small tourist helicopter offering 10 minute flights over and around the volcano for a very reasonable 1000 Yen (USD 50). Jackpot!
Our Mount Aso Volcano adventure had been a success afterall!
Back in Kumamoto, dominating the centre of town is Kumamoto-jo (jo meaning castle). Built between 1601 and 1607, it was once one of the great castles of feudal Japan, and today is one of the best reconstructed castles in Japan (since nearly all have been destroyed over the years).
It’s design was masterful, with some ingenious engineering, including slots for dropping stones and other missiles onto attackers. However, in 1877 during the tumultuous Satsuma Rebellion (one of the last incidents during the events marking the Meiji Restoration) the castle was besieged and burnt during a final stand by samurai warriors against the new order.
Nowadays, the castle grounds are a pleasant stroll with amazing views. The lower gardens were filled with ever-familiar cherry blossom trees against the backdrop of towering stone foundations.
A unique feature of Kumamoto castle is the large cavernous entrance under the structure itself. You can imagine the warriors of the day walking the gauntlet of the stone foundations leading up to the castle from the garden below.
The main castle building is a highlight, showcasing the very best in Japanese castle design and architecture. Several smaller buildings around it detail aspects of Japanese feudal life. Inside, the easy-on-the-eye tatami mat floors, paper screens and gold, painted walls add to the charm.
Visited 28th February and 1st March 2014.