Lost bearings

The children of the Aso caldera plain are bronzed, and they run lightly over
the sun heated flagstones of the village shrine and through the icy waters
which run down from the mountains. The people of the plain have been here for generations. They farm rice and rear beautiful long-haired red-gold cattle, which lean over walls and admire their reflection in the car windows as we drive past. It’s August, and the farmers have gathered to celebrate their harvest with a sumo contest beside the gates of the shrine in the lea of the mountain.

Mount Aso sits in one of the world’s largest calderas, the still-active remains of a volcano which hurled lava over much of Kyushu a hundred millenia ago. The walls of the caldera stand two hundred meters high and form a perfect circle 20km across. They enclose the Aso plain, billiard table flat, the leftover result of a lake which formed in the crater and has now since long vanished. Only the lush green paddy fields betray the richness of the thick black sedimentary soil it left behind. Everything feels lilliputian measured against the caldera walls.

The Isle of Axholme, where I grew up, was a similar sized island which stood above the marshes of north Lincolnshire in England before Cornelias Vermuyden drained the land in the 17th century. Aso is very familiar. The walls of the cal protected it, much as the marshes did for Axholme, and the people have the same untouchable confidence that only isolation breeds. Ideas from the outisde are viewed with skepticism, change only happens when it suits them, which is to say rarely. They are anchored in a way that city dwellers are not.

We’re here to climb some mountains, two and maybe three over the long weekend.

We say out prayers at the shrine and drive past the giant white stupa which marks Aso before starting the climb. It takes no more than an hour to reach the top and as we do the clouds briefly clear. Revealed is the full sweep of the caldera walls and the patchwork of farms within them, while the summit of Mt Kuju (tomorrow’s destination) peers over them in the north.

The core of Aso still spews gas and pumice from an enormous crater. Further along the ridge we find ourselves peering into its very bowels as the verdant vegetation suddenly gives was to a wasteland of hematite reds and sulfuric yellow streams. The black-red mouth of the volcano stands stark against the backdrop of the green hills all around, throwing a column of smoke into the troposphere as a constant warning to the towns below.

We climb down and I feel uneasy. There’s something not quite right about active volcanoes. It’s as if I am trespassing on the birth of something private. I’m glad to be going down.

The sun dips behind the caldera as we drive north to Kuju and I lose my bearings. This never happens. I blame the igneous rocks of the area which throws my internal compass, or maybe the strange horizon effect of the cal. Either way, we drove in circles, making Kuju after nightfall and camping at the southern trailhead where the easy-going campsite manager cocks his head on one side and looks at us quizzically.

He hands us a map of the area, optimistically hand drawn with short, straight roads and navigational pointers such as “field with many cows” and “Mr Suzuki often paints here”. We pitch the tent and head for the local hot baths where we joins the locals as they scrub the harvest chaff from their bodies. We talk of crops and cattle, green grass and rainfall. This feels like home.

The south route up Mt Kuju is a vertical 1000m climb. Yuka smiles all the way the next day and studiously refuses any help, working out all the foot and handholds herself. She is still burning with energy at the top and insists on doing all five of the mini-summits at the top finishing with Naka-dake, the highest point in Kyushu. The area reminds me deeply of the Peak District, it has the same rolling nature and familiar granite formations. Like the plain of Aso below, I feel very at home here.

“Nepal. You should go to Nepal and climb a bit round there.”

A walker in his sixties with angular, orange wraparound sunglasses advised us.

“Take lots of pencils. The children love them. And Diamox for the altitude. Pencils and Diamox.”

We climbed down through the black mud on the west of the mountain, sliding and slipping, reaching the saddle between the peaks by mid afternoon. I found myself wanting to see these mountains in the snow. My red tent nestled in the whiteness.

The thunder which echoed from the peaks put pay to Monday’s plan to climb Mt. Sobo, so we spend the day in the Takachiho gorge.

Amaterasu, the sun goddess, is said to have shut herself away here after her brother Susanoo went rampaged across the land. Without her light, the world started to die, and so the other gods devised a way to lure her back from her hiding place, and finally tempted her out. The cave where she hid is still visible from Takachiho shrine, but it is said that no human has ever set foot there.  To make sure she could never hide again, the door to the cave was hurled northwards and landed in Togakushi (literally door-hiding-place) in Nagano and forms the beautiful mountains around Takatsuma.

The land around Aso and Takachiho is neither manmade nor is it natural. It was carved by the gods as they fought and loved, and I don’t want to get on the plane back to Tokyo.


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