Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Kumamoto - Oita rally

I covered a large amount of southern Japan over the long weekend with my French Canadian friend.

Riding shotgun in the red biscuit, Carol, the weekend path led from Saga through Fukuoka and into Kumamoto, up to Mt. Aso via an hour long traffic jam, then overland across the island to Beppu in Oita Ken on the eastern coast. Highlights included;

Visiting the Mt. Aso volcanic Plateau, the largest active volcanic caldera in the world at something like 140 odd kilometers wide. The plateau levels off about 1000 meters above sea level and as a major bonus it is blessedly cool, especially after the sweaty hell of the traffic jam earlier. It’s like being instantly transported to the English moors described by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in The Hound of The Baskervilles. Mist and cloud cling to the bleak, scrubby hills. Black rocks jut up from the ground at jaunty angles. The sun is reduced to a small speck behind the columns of steam and sulphur spewed from the active volcano’s. Large swathes of land are laid bare, swamped by fields of volcanic ash. Bright blue sulphur lakes hiss as wind runs over them, fanning plumes of gas up towards the blue vault of sky. The area is well developed, like most of Japan. Serious amounts of seismic instruments litter the landscape. The museum on the northern edge of the Plateau looks more like a re-enforced war fighting base rather than a geological museum. It gives more than a subtle hint to the degree of activity that the buildings planners foresaw the museum surviving through. Helicopters rattle overhead. Red warning lights flash over multi language signs warning people with asthma to avoid going to the crater due to the amount of gas in the air. Damn the man. Catch the ropeway gondola up to the crater rim. A two kilometer or so wide crater with a large lake at the bottom. The strata of the bare rock of the crater walls exposed, ripped apart and blown upwards during the craters creation. Apt evidence to the power of the forces maintained below our feet. Rugged looking men sell yellow sulphur cake blocks. Drunk businessmen play silly buggers on the craters lip. Took a very long walk out to the edges of the crater area and was rewarded with a stunning view down into the valley below. Spent so long exploring that the ropeway is shut down for the evening. Walk back down through the rock and the scrub along the edge of the road. It begins to get darker, mist starts to descend from the hills. It’s all very Led Zepplin. You can almost imagine a group of skinny English men, high on drugs, wandering about the place posing on rocks, singing about time and indulging in five minute long drum solo’s.

Pull over by a large crater lake. Long overgrown with grass, a herd of horses makes their home in this landscape straight from a Roger Dean painting. We walk down into the field and play with the horses, who stand, munching on grass and letting themselves be patted. Large docile, gentle animals. The light fails totally. The horses move off across the lakeshore into a mist advancing out at the same speed as their withdrawal. The cold mist clings to the ground as we drive off the edge of the plateau. Driving through thick clouds for a few minutes as we drop altitude. Holding breath that we don’t run out of fuel at this comparatively remote part of Japan we emerge down into Aso town and break for dinner.

Decide to drive to Beppu, a resort town on the eastern coast. Fill up on gas, crank the music and follow the road into the night. A huge full moon rises. The Aso plain is flat for a while, then a massive black hill ridge appears, silhouetted in the gloom by the moonlight. We make our way up, and up and up into the mountain ranges of central Kyushu.

This is true Revenge of Shinobi country.

We drive into clouds. It is remote. Sheer, tree lined mountains stretch up into the clouds. Round, curving improbably surreal looking Asian mountains. They are drenched in a light that is close to day. It gets really remote. We think we live along way away from civilization in Saga, but that’s just peanuts compared to this. Plumes of steam from hydrothermal vents creep up into the sky. The mountains keep on rising up higher and higher. This is all still national park. Isolated Spa towns nestle in valleys. A mechanical breakdown out here would be, to say the least, a major buzzkill. Army vehicles roll dangerously close to us as they drive past on the narrow mountain roads. They are towing 105mm howitzer cannons. Out of nowhere a town emerges with a large amusement park. The park and its lights fit in and kind of amplify the natural beauty of the surrounds. Hours later we emerge into Beppu, the town where I got remarkably drunk last year. Beppu is in full swing on a Sunday night as Monday is a national holiday. It takes us an hour to find a hotel room. We crash, exhausted from a full day on the road and volcanic exploration.

Spent a very nice morning at Beppu’s Umitamago aquarium. Went to pieces over sea otters, who are one of the most endearing animals ever created. Stroke stingrays, pick up sharks, get erked by crowds of swarming Japanese old ladies and children. Visit the monkey sanctuary, but most of the monkey’s are up in the hills. A few are wandering around. When they get into a fight one flees, screaming straight for Jayne’s legs and dodges around them at the last minute. Monkeys are cool.

Browse though some shops in the afternoon, grab some lunch and then hit the express ways back to Saga.

When I get home a receive a phone call from Tim in Dublin.

Here is a photo that expresses how good the weekend was. I was at the time imploring the Volcano God, Kahl-Zamesh, atop the ceremonial sacrificial drinking and chess playing rock, for assistance in vanquishing the armies of man. I was screaming at him to release his unearthly army to my control so that I could spread a wave of darkness across the globe in glory of his name.

Received no response, gave up evil sorcerer ambitions.

For now.

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