In which we don't fall into a volcano or get poisoned by noxious gases even once

We retraced our steps from Ibusuki toward Kumamoto, then diverged to the east at Shinyatsushiro. Two hours on a neat switchback train took us up into the hills. Sheryl, who hates riding backwards, drove me something just short of crazy by spinning the seats every time the train reversed direction. My still-battered posterior was happy that the small train was nothing like the clattery bone-shaking ride of the small train from Ibusuki, which I unaffectionately named the Worst Train in Japan). It was new, with nice wooded fittings - a Boutique Train, if you like. Every passenger aboard was a tourist - about half of them goggling Westerners and the other half chattering Japanese. The landscape that rolled past the windows, alternately backward and forward, grew more ad more rugged, the rocks shading into volcanic black and the acidic green of rice-paddies giving way to darker, tougher grasses.

We arrived in the little town of Aso and headed straight to the tourist office to ask about the main thing on our minds. We’d come to see the volcano. The town is in the middle of an ancient, gigantic volcanic caldera. Inside the dead caldera there are four dead mountain peaks and one active volcano, Mt. Naka, with its own crater at the top. Mt. Naka is the reason we were there. But the volcano, well, it’s a volcano, see, and sometimes it’s not a happy volcano and it belches out great clouds of poisonous hydrogen sulfide, and that’s something you just don’t want inside you. So sometimes, when the wind blows wrong, you can’t see the volcano. Sheryl wanted to go up to the crater that very afternoon, and she was crushed when we were told that all the observation platforms had been closed all afternoon. The wind could change any second, they said - nobody could predict that. But hanging around at the tourist office or at the bottom of he volcano didn’t sound that interesting and we decided to try again the next day. Sheryl wasn’t happy but I felt sorrier for the daytrippers who were leaving on the next train.

We’d decided to save some money by camping while we were in Aso. I’d been breaking my back carrying my little tent, after all, and feeling like an idiot because we hadn’t used it once since South Africa six months before. I never expected to be able to use it in Japan, of all places. The was Japan, though, so we weren’t saving a lot of money. The place cost us ¥300 per person plus 300 for each tent, per night, so ¥1500 or CAD$16. Of course, we never paid for the second tent, but it’s the principle of the thing. Campgrounds drive me crazy when the charge per person. ¥1200 per night bought us a patch of field ringed with cedar trees, and a toilet. No showers and no cooking facilities. But it was good enough.

It was about 7 kilometres by bus to the campground from town, but taking the forest paths cut that down to 3. It was a wet, slippery walk along the paved paths covered in moss, and we were obviously the first ones to do it that day - the path was clotted with sticky spider webs. Big spider webs. It was gloomy and dark under the thick trees even in the afternoon and I couldn’t help constantly walking into the webs. Spiders reduce Sheryl to gibbering incontinent panic, and Sayaka isn’t so wild about them either, so I went ahead to break the path and was soon covered head to foot in webs and spiders reluctantly hitching a ride. Some of the webs were so huge and intricate that I couldn’t bring myself to break them and made the girls duck under them instead. Spiders are our allies in the eternal war against the mosquitoes and they need all the help they can get.

The only reason to walk into town was to go to the supermarket so that we could eat for the next two days. The supermarket was huge, shiny, new and expensive, but the rest of the town was quietly, thoughtfully crumbling. We had a picnic dinner of sushi and chicken and then walked back to the station along the single line of tracks in the slanting golden afternoon light of late summer. Along the way we paused to explore the rice paddies, waist-high and so bright green they hurt the eyes. The sound of frogs and cicadas was a constant swelling pulse and the air was thick with jewelled dragonflies. A little old lady parked her bicycle on the dyke between paddies and let us take pictures while she puttered around in the rice. I couldn’t, at that moment, imagine anything sweeter or more pastorally charming. This is what city people yearn for, when they talk about leaving the city.

It’s not proper camping without a good campfire. It’s part of the archetypal Canadian summer experience, and I hadn’t realized how much I was missing it. Here in Japan, obsessed as it is with safety and public order, it had never occurred to me that it would be possible to have one without applying for a permit months in advance. Even if we could have one, I reasoned, where would be get firewood? Firewood in Japan is probably sold the same way as vegetables: two or three slender, aesthetically perfect sticks would come elegantly packaged and astronomically priced. Imagine my surprise when we saw bundles of thin strips of wood stacked up for sale at the campground. I wasn’t too far off in my sarcasm - I wouldn’t call it cheap and I reckoned each bundle would last ten or fifteen minutes at most. But we managed to surreptitiously scavenge some old logs from a half-rotten pile of stumps to make it go further, and nearly everyone at the campground turned up and brought wood to contribute. It turned into a regular little bush party in the end, with some fireworks that the girls had bought in town to close the night. Try doing that in a provincial park in Ontario in tinder-dry late July.

In the morning it was Mt. Naka or bust. We didn’t bother trying to find out if it was open or not - we decided to just go, and if it was closed we’d figure it out when we got there. It was a long walk to the volcano along the winding road. There was supposed to be a shortcut through the fields and over the hills, but we couldn’t find it. We looked everywhere, even far past where it ought to have been, but with no luck. The best candidate was closed with a gate plastered with signs warning aout a ¥10,000 fine. I would have like to see them try to collect it, whoever they were! But still, we all thought that the signs meant it couldn’t be the right way anyway. Sayaka asked an old farmer with a seamed, gnarled face like a tree root and a few missing fingers. She couldn’t understand his thick country accent, though, so we were no further ahead. It reminded me of the time a year before in northern Hungary when an old man was rattling on at our uncomprehending friends Gábor and Fruzsina, and when I asked Gábor if he had had trouble understanding the man because he had a thick accent, Gábor said no, it was because he didn’t have any teeth.

We convinced Sayaka to hitch a ride to the volcano. Hitching is just not done in Japan, she told us, and she was flustered and nervous. But it took less than five minutes and three or four cars before we got a lift - a nice older couple in a rattly old minivan with the back seats ripped out to make room for their crops. It seems hitching is a lot more common in the rural areas of the country. We sat in the back with the vegetables and hung on for dear life as the van swerved around the road’s hairpin turns and up in to the mountains. It was a good twenty-minute ride, so I was glad we didn’t have to walk.

There are five mountain peaks in the small range south of Aso town. None of them are high but they’re all barren, bleak and craggy. The active peak is Mt. Naka. There’s a cable-car to take people up to the crater, and little blinking lights with a five-colour warning code for each observation area. We were happy to see that the wind was cooperating that day and all the little lights were glowing green. We wasted no time in hustling up to the caldera. The air was heavy with the harsh rotten-egg stench of sulfur as we stepped off the cable-car. It wasn’t hard to know where to go - we’d seen the plume of blue-grey smoke rising from the top of the mountain from kilometres away, and followed it now to where it issued from the ground. We peered over the edge and down to a cauldron of boiling white and grey gas. Gusts of wind parted the curtains of curling steam and sent them scudding across the surface of the boiling lake below. The water was a poisonous jade colour. Crusts of sulfur-yellow froth clotted and broke apart with the roiling of the surface. Hanging over the railing and looking down the bore of the volcano, past rock walls all striated reds, browns and yellows and veined and spattered with hardened lava, the acrid reek bit my throat and made my eyes sting. It was beautiful, though, the way a snake is beautiful, or a forest fire, or any bright and destructive thing. The swirling of the smoke and the water was hypnotic and it was a long time before I could look away.

We spent ages walking around the crater and viewing it from different angles, and then set out to explore The area around the crater was studded with squat concrete bunkers for shelter in case of an eruption - it’s only four years since the last time Naka-san belched forth a great cloud of ash, debris and deadly gases, and people died here in 1997. It occurred to me to doubt the effectiveness of the shelters, but I suppose some protection’s better than none at all.

All along the observation walkways were vendors selling big rectangular blocks of pure, bright yellow sulfur, gathered on the spot, they claimed. It was beyond me what anyone would do with a big stinky block of sulfur, though. Out in the pyroclastic wasteland beyond the crater, amid the mudslides of ash-coloured sediments and the huge sprayed fields of pumice and porous volcanic rock, we did find a toxic, crusted lake of sulfur shading from nauseous yellow to eye-searing green. Gas vents in the steep slopes were caked with sulfur deposits as well, so the claims of the vendors may have been true.

A couple of hours after we arrived, the wind shifted and the poisonous gases began to billow toward the viewing terraces, which began to close one after another with much flashing of warning lights and blaring of sirens. Our throats and lungs were raw and our heads were spinning by that time anyway and we weren’t inclined to regret going back down. Sayaka had an invitation from her friend Eri for the three of us to spend the night at Eri’s family home in Kumamoto. Eri’s a sweetheart and Sayaka had already accepted the invitation, so it was time to make our way back to our campsite and leave town. The mysterious shortcut, so hard to find from the other end, was well signposted on the way back. After following the winding path down through the hills for a couple of hours we emerged - to my complete lack of surprise - from behind the ¥10,000-fine warning sign that had scared us away in the first place. There were a bunch of farmers eating lunch just past the gate, and I wondered if they’d hassle us for trespassing. They called out to us a few times but we just smiled and brazened it out. Sayaka pretended no to understand Japanese - something she’s taken to doing with increasing regularity since hanging around with us. It’s almost an honour to be so embarrassing that someone would renounce their entire nationality from the shame of associating with us. I’m almost proud, really I am.

The journey back to Kumamoto was uneventful except for an annoying older man of uncertain European extraction who decided that he knew how we should be travelling and how we ought to e packing, and told us so with great puffed-up acidity. I’m so very tired of this particular conversation, I really am. You meet these people depressingly often - idiots who think they know best how to travel based on their little six-week backpacking holiday to Spain or their gap year back in the Sixties or whatever. They’ll go on and on with smug superiority about how they travelled for three months with nothing but one sock and a piece of string, and presume to look down on you because your pack is big and heavy - something they see a the mark of a novice traveller. They’re always so confrontational about it, too. When I gently try to explain that we’re on a long-term, open-ended trip and are carrying clothes and equipment for a lot of different climates and situations, they invariably put their noses in the air and sniff “Just buy it when you get there and throw it away afterwards”. Stupid skin-bags. I tried with the first half-dozen to explain my reasons - that even if I didn’t have to save every penny, it’s completely unrealistic to buy and discard whole sets of clothing and equipment every time we change climates, and that I don’t want to encourage the sheer waste of that kind of bulimic binge-and-purge consumerism. Explaining yourself to these idiots just gives them more angles to tell you how they think you’re doing it wrong, though, and I’ve realized it’s just not worth my time.

We were filthy, smelly and sunburnt when we arrived at Eri’s family’s house. We felt like barbarians and were happy that Sayaka was just as gross as we were. Eri lost little time in cheerfully and almost casually suggesting showers for all. She and her family are lovely people and made us feel very informally at home. Eri is an excellent cook and her dinner was even more appreciated after two days of cold food. She even made fresh bread - no, really, fresh bread, my hand to God. It was the bread that made me declare privately to the others that I was going to marry her. I didn’t want to embarrass her, though, so she still doesn’t know.


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Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
This travelogue comprises 16,426 photographs and 402,515 words in 307 dispatches written from 335 places in 52 countries on 6 continents around the world.
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