Aso San (via Beppu)

Aso-san is a huge, active volcano roughly in the middle of Kyushu – the biggest in Japan, and one of the biggest in the world. I visited in 2013, traveling there via the nearby onsen resort town of Beppu.

Beppu: All about the Onsen

I’ll be absolutely honest: if you don’t like onsen, you should skip Beppu entirely. The whole town is packed with them – including one maybe 200m from the station – and not much else. Compared to other onsen-powered towns, though (say, Kinosaki), Beppu isn’t particularly scenic – it’s just a perfectly nice town that happens to have dozens of springs, and many of them are inside private inns and hotels.
Armed with a map (get one in the station) I managed to find my way to Takegawara Onsen – a really venerable old bathhouse where, for a few hundred yen, I got to experience one of the hottest baths I’ve ever come across. It’s well worth a walk, even if you just stopped in town for an hour or two to do so.
To get to the other onsen north of the town, though, you’ll need a car or bus – it was getting late in the day, so I took a train across to Kamegawa station, just east of the main town. This area feels less busy, and generally more pleasant, than the city centre, and I took a dip at Hamada Onsen – a great back-to-basics place, filled with locals.
If I went through Beppu again, I’d probably stop for a few hours, take an onsen, then move on immediately. This time I stayed one night at the Sea Wave Hotel (right by the station, friendly business-y place, recommended for the price).

Up the Volcano

The reason I was headed around the northeast of Kyushu, though, was to get to Aso. This small town is served by occasional limited express trains as they pass across the island, and sits right inside the enormous caldera of the Aso-San group of volcanos. I’d been warned that visiting could be complicated if the volcanoes were emitting a particularly large amount of dangerous gas (yikes) – what I hadn’t bargained on was bad weather instead.
To get around in Aso you’ll need private either private transport or the time to hike it. There’s a car rental pickup right by the station (Ekiren), but to use it you have to book in advance – I had attempted to do so in Beppu, but apparently one day before arriving isn’t early enough.
Fortunately, there’s a trick. If you want to rent a car at Aso without booking, show up at Aso then take a local train to Akamizu – exit the station, look down the main road to the right, and there’s a Toyota Rent-a-Car. For more on renting cars in Japan, click here.
And so, armed with a rented Kei-car, I took on the volcano.
The photo above shows the stunning view from right up almost as far as you’re allowed to drive up the peaks of Aso. The weather down in the basin had been a bit iffy, but as I drove up it deteriorated from showers to torrents of rain and thick cloudy fog – drive at 10mph with your lights on full because you can’t see two metres in front kind of fog. It was certainly an experience, but not the sights I’d come to see.
Regardless, I sheltered for a while in the volcano museum, which is right up the mountain. This contains a projected live feed from inside the volcano (more cloud), and lots of ‘how a volcano works’ exhibits. Most impressive is the 1970s-tastic panoramic cinema, which shows a 15 minute film mostly consisting of helicopter flyovers of the volcano with amazingly naff music.
After descending warily back through the rain I drove around to Miyaji, and checked out the Aso Jinja – a beautiful old Shinto shrine, supposed to be one of the oldest in Japan, and with an amazing gatehouse.
I also wanted to check out some of the local onsen, but again this proved tricky – after driving over to what looked on the map to be a large one (this one, near Akamizu), I found a clearly deserted hotel – whether shut for the season, or just closed, wasn’t clear. With the evening setting in, and the rain still pouring down, I admitted defeat on my plan to go back up the volcano and returned the car.

Staying in Aso: Aso Base

Aso isn’t a big town, but there are a few places to stay. I spotted a few hotels, but I’d already booked a room at Aso Base – a backpackers’ hostel just a few hundred metres from Aso station. I don’t tend to stay in hostels anymore (I’m getting old..) but had heard this one was good – and it turned out even better.
The whole building is immaculate, with a huge, clean kitchen and lounge, several private rooms and two dorms – in fact, the general standard of the place is better than most hotels. The owners are helpful and spoke excellent English (as well as putting up with my poor Japanese). If you’re in Aso, there’s no reason to stay anywhere else.
Oh, and by the way: the hostel sells tickets for an onsen, found by heading back towards the station and then left. It’s really nice, with an outside bath – a great place to relax in the evening. For food there’s a small cafe in the station (closes early), a restaurant in the town (closed when I visited) and a Lawson Station.