Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Kyushu Expedition II

I dined alone in a massive open room that could feed a couple hundred.  Then was swept away by a taxi and taken to the old tram station that used to run up the eastern flank of Mt. Aso. But poison gases tend to drift that way from the nearby crater and since killing tourists is never good for repeat business, it has been closed for what looks like a long while.  There is still an information center there, but it was still shuttered this side of eight a.m.  There was an easy route that climbed directly below the now defunct tramway, but I chose to take the harder Sensuikyo route that climbed an old lava flow, all jagged and steep.  As I approached the trail, there was a rope across the steps.  Nearby was a sign with a telephone number, which connected me to someone in the town office.  He told me that contrarily, the easy route is closed, but this tough route was open.  With these blessings, and those of a handful of Jizo standing quietly nearby, I started to make my way up. 

The map showed a 90 minute ascent, which the posted signs contradicted with 120.  It was as steep as it looked.  As the flow of water finds the most direct route down, so apparently does lava.  The rocks looked like they had been set in concrete, not an unusual sight in Japan, but they were actually hardened into what had once been liquid.  Looking out at Kuju which I'd climbed yesterday, and the grassy covered bluffs and cliffs at the edge of the valley.  Somewhere below me, I heard a hawk's cry, but as I hadn't seen any traces of animal life, I wondered what it was looking to eat. 

This route forced me to scramble a little, and I wound up giving up on my trekking poles and reattaching them to my pack, wanting to keep my hands free to pull me up in places.  I had made a promise to my wife that I wouldn't do anything dangerous after the events of a few months back, and of course there is the obligatory unspoken pact with my mother that essentially says the same.  

Both the taxi driver and the man in the town office had mentioned that many people are rescued off this ridge, which didn't do much for my confidence.  But they did a pretty good job keeping the route safe by having it flip flop back and forth over the spine of the ridge, and keep hikers away from the steeper drops.  The problem is, you'd go from the sunny eastern side, where you were hot and sweaty, and over to the shady western side, where the winds howled and forced the chill deeper within.  

Things got a little more interesting near the top, but the chains and ropes helped, then without warning, I found myself on the gentle trail which ran along the higher col which led to Taka-dake, and the peak.  It wasn't far off, and I sat awhile with the views, until the winds encouraged me to move along.  By the time I'd descended a little to Naka-dake, I had on all the clothing that I was carrying.  I began to meet a few people on this more touristed peak, which looked down toward the steaming crater of the volcano.  One guy, severely underdressed for the season, told me that he'd come up the forbidden route.  I worried a little as I watched him descend that way, as he looked woefully underprepared for even this easy hike.  

I was moving toward Minami-dake as I continued along the ridge, and unable to pass up a welcoming peak, I dropped my bag and detoured up there.  I found three park rangers standing on top, spray cans in hand.  We talked a good long while, all of us expressing concern about the current "mountain boom" in Japan, and the danger that that entails.  To cope with it, they were in the midst of repainting the markers showing the route, but one ranger said that they tried not to make too many, as this was a National Park.  I suppressed a snicker, having already passed yellow paint on every third rock.  The ranger seemed to notice my eyes straying over to Neko-dake, which looked wild and ferocious, like a handful of ravines and ridges had been shaken out of a box and had fallen atop one another.  Every route on the map showed the dotted lines of a challenging trail. The ranger said it was a mountain to avoid, as the storms come in quickly, and there are no easy routes down. 

The descent was crumbling and rocky and presented its own challenges.  Then I found myself at the bottom, walking across an empty sand plain beneath buttes like back home. As I walked along, I found myself singing a line from Bowie, "Is there life on Mars?" while watching for the sidewinders that I half expected to slide across at any moment.   A boardwalk came up at some point, and as I walked toward its triangular tip stretching away, I could've been on any beach in New England. 

I paid a quick trip to the crater, and looked down on the steaming liquid, white hot.  The prudent part of me made me pop my head into the surveyor's hut at the crater's edge, to get a cell phone number to call in order to check the conditions on the mornings when I return with clients. In this particular case, I do need a weather man to tell me which way the wind blows.   

I dodged the Chinese tourists and walked down to the lower ropeway station, but couldn't find a pleasant place to eat my lunch due to all the buses and concrete.  My taxi showed up about then and saved me.  Whereas I'd been hiking in a barren wasteland all morning, the western edge of the park was all alpine lakes and grassy meadows.  I'm looking forward to coming back to explore more fully.  Once you move away from all the tourist nonsense, Aso presents her fiery self as one of the most beautiful places in the country.

A train took me through the 19th Century to Kumamoto, then a Shinkansen whisked me through the 21st.  I immediately liked the feel of Kagoshima, on this my first visit.  The day was warm and on this weekday evening the streets around the station were bustling.  I've mentioned that this hiking boom worries me some, but contrarily, I'm quite pleased about the current boom in craft beer.  With a little forehand research, I found a small joint that specializes in Belgian Beers.  It was a bizarre hybrid of a place, the interior self consciously English pub, but with izakaya food, and of course, the main event in a glass.  I tend to shy away from Belgian beers, a bit put off by the fruity taste and the high alcohol content.  As I was the only customer, the owner had plenty of time to talk beers with me, and steered me toward things he thought I'd like.  When I mentioned my love of hops, he brought me a glass of his hoppiest, but to my palate, it tasted like the hand soap back at my hotel.  I intend to further my research in this area, but I think that it'll take a lot to evict me from the craft beer camp.  

On the turntable:  Lefties Soul Connection, "Skimming the Scum"


Zacky Chan said...

Ah dude! Reading this is making me even more impatient to get to Kyushu, but loving the accounts you're giving. I went to Kyushu and Yakushima a couple years ago and think of that city as one of my favorites.

Zacky Chan said...

whoops, I meant to say "Kagoshima", not Kyushu