Japan Photo Hike: Aso-Kuju National Park

Koyo Autumn Leaves and Volcanic Landscapes

Kuju Renzan Mountain Range
Kuju Renzan Mountain Range

And so, once again autumn spreads a red and yellow kimono across Japan, from Hokkaido in September in the far north to main-island Kyoto and Tokyo in mid-November and December.

Every year, R. — my wife and travel companion — and I head to another part of Japan for some fresh air trekking and a little koyo autumn foliage photography before we nest in our winter love seat. Last year we doubled layers for the cold and scrambled around Senjojiki, a cirque scooped out of the Chuo Middle Alps. The year before, we bopped about Mount Yatsugatake in Yamanashi prefecture in the South Alps.

This year, memories of a springtime photo trip to southwest Iceland still fresh in our heads, we decided to head somewhere more… volcanic as a backdrop to our koyo photography. After all, Japan has something ridiculous like 110 active volcanoes, 7% of the world total, with many more, including  Mount Fujisan, just waiting to wake from a dormant state. In fact, R. and I have already visited a couple of volcanic “hot spots,” so to speak. But the koyo season has already come and gone at Asahidake in Daisetsuzan National Park on north-island Hokkaido. And, closer to Tokyo, some restrictions still remain on the approach to Owakudani, Hakone’s “valley of hell.”  

Instead, we settled on Aso-Kuju National Park in the centre of Kyushu island. Although Kyushu is a little too far south to get the dramatic changes in foliage of main-island Honshu and especially Hokkaido, the yellow xanthophylls, orange carotenoids, and red and purple anthocyanins should be just about hitting their peak in late October, when I have some time off. What’s more, of the active volcano ranges in the park, Asosan erupted in September of this year and as of early November remains at Alert Level 3 (do not approach the volcano), while Kujusan continues to smolder away but remains at Level 1 (“be mindful that the volcano is potentially active”).

Asosan, the largest active volcano in Japan and one of the largest on Earth, may only be 1592 metres (5223 feet) above sea level, but its caldera is about 120 kilometres (75 miles) around: big enough to host houses, gas stations, all 28,000 residents of the town of Aso… at least for now. The crater at Nakadake has been acting up since 2013. Last November, just two months after the fatal eruption of Ontakesan killed 56 trekkers, it entered a “new eruptive phase.” Then, on September 14, it erupted again, “sending a plume of thick black smoke and ash about 2.1 km (1.2 miles) into the air and disrupting flights.”

When our flight arrived at Matsumoto airport on Kyushu in late October, Asosan’s Alert Level remained at 3: the ropeway and hiking trails to the crater at Nakadake remained closed, though we could still get a hazy view from Daikanbo of the Asosan massif: five summits which, when seen from the right angle, are said to resemble the Buddha in repose. Or a reclining woman. Judge for yourself…

Mount Asosan 阿蘇山

Asosan
Asosan
Asosan
Asosan
Nakadake, Asosan
Nakadake, Asosan
Asosan
Asosan

Kuju Renzan Mountain Range 九重連山

Asosan only makes up one part of Aso-Kuju National Park. To the north, in the direction of the famous onsen hot spring resort of Beppu along the scenic Yamanami Highway, the Kuju Renzan mountain range dominates this part of central Kyushu. Kujusan, the titular peak of the range, is the highest on the island at 1791 meters (5876 feet). 

Kuju Renzan Mountain Range
Kuju Renzan Mountain Range

Ama-Ga-Ike Pond 雨が池

From the parking lot at Chojabaru Visitor Center, R. and I followed an easy trail a few hours to Ama-Ga-Ike Pond.

Boardwalk, Ama-ga-Ike Pond
Boardwalk, Ama-ga-Ike Pond
Autumn Colours, Ama-ga-ike-Pond
Autumn Colours, Ama-ga-ike-Pond
Kuju Renzan Mountain Range
Kuju Renzan Mountain Range
Susuki Pampas Grass
Susuki Pampas Grass
Kuju Renzan Mountain Range
Kuju Renzan Mountain Range

Bogatsuru 坊がつる

A couple hours’ easy hike brought us to the Bogatsuru susuki pampas grass highlands surrounded by the Obunesan and Kujusan mountains.

Bogatsuru, Kuju Renzan
Bogatsuru, Kuju Renzan
Bogatsuru, Kuju Renzan
Bogatsuru, Kuju Renzan
Bogatsuru, Kuju Renzan
Bogatsuru, Kuju Renzan
Bogatsuru, Kuju Renzan
Bogatsuru, Kuju Renzan
Bogatsuru, Kuju Renzan
Bogatsuru, Kuju Renzan

Hokkein

We stayed two nights at Hokke-in, a rustic and ramshackle mountain lodge on the edge of the Bogatsuru, beside a hot spring river the colour of skin milk. Most of the other trekkers were locals – older and fitter than us. And angrier, apparently, as they stamped through the outbuildings leaving doors ajar, slippers tossed akimbo, and jostled for the shower in the onsen bath.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Hokkein

Kuju Renzan Mountain Range 九重連山 — up close and personal!

R. and I spent a couple of days trekking about Taisenzan, Heijidake, and Mimatayama, neon-bright Gore-Tex bugs scrambling on some surprisingly steep, rocky trails – often following riverbeds dry in autumn.

Kuju Renzan
Kuju Renzan
Kuju Renzan
Kuju Renzan
Taisenzan
Taisenzan
Taisenzan
Taisenzan
Taisenzan
Taisenzan
Taisenzan
Taisenzan
Taisenzan
Taisenzan

We missed the peak of the koyo season by a few days, but at its best the gnarled, stunted highland forests of still held some of the maple-tinted honey light of autumn.

On some of these tougher trails and vertiginous slopes we witnessed the opposite of the boorishness at Hokkei-in, behavior that Professor Curtis W. Marean calls “hyperprosocial behavior:” “a genetically determined propensity for cooperation with unrelated individuals.” Trekkers, alone or in pairs or small groups, keenly read each other’s situation: ability, energy, fear, relative precariousness of position on trail or slope, and adjusted accordingly, passing or allowing to pass, stepping aside, warning or encouraging, accordingly. It encouraged me to see that, at least when the situation warrants it, people are in fact capable of empathy with complete strangers – even if we later drop that care and keep each other up half the night talking and slamming doors in a mountain hut in a grassy volcanic highland in the middle of an island in southwestern Japan…

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