Of the arrant optimist engaged in reckless enterprise we often say in Japanese that he is "dancing on the edge of a volcano." As a matter of fact there are thousands of people who are actually living not only on the edge of a volcano but at the bottom of a crater. For the best example of this you must go to Asosan of Kyūshū. On second thought, however, one will realise that Japan itself is a land of volcanic mountains, and that the whole surface of it, on which sixty million Japanese are so happily crawling, may be described as either edges of volcanoes or the bottoms of craters. This is a commonplace which none will gainsay, but for its dramatic and spectacular illustration one must see the famous crater of Asosan. Indeed, the chief justification of the Aso National Park is the crater, the greatest in the world, with its accessories of lakes, forests, hot springs, etc.
Mount Aso, in the center of Kyūshū, is made up of five great peaks: Taka-dake (high peak), Kishima-dake (pestle-island peak), Eboshi-dake (coronet peak), Neko-dake (cat peak) and Naka-dake (middle peak). The first-mentioned Takadake (5,221 feet) is the highest, as its name suggests, and the most difficult to climb. The last-mentioned Nakadake (4,582 feet) is the only active volcano in the group. It presents the most typical and awe-inspring sight associated with volcanoes. When one is said to have climbed Mount Aso, it does not generally mean that one has scaled the five peaks of Aso, but oftener than not merely this Nakadake. It is an easy climb since one can do it by motor all the way from Kumamoto, the capital city of Higo province, up to the very top. Even by walking one may go up and come down in half a day. The view into the depths of the crater from the top of this peak is something, which, if you have not seen an active geyser before, will haunt your memory for the rest of your life. At the bottom, or on one side, of the broad bottom of this bowl is a pond filled with vari-colored waters, boiling and bubbling. No, not waters, but molten rocks seething, as they were, the boiling water in a hot kettle. Their green, yellow and fiery-red colors inspire a weird feeling with which primitive people naturally associated the cauldron of hell, such as the sinners of this world might be thrown into in the nether world. It is the Japanese Gehenna. In quiescent times the volcano presents this uncanny sight without smoke or rumbling, but occasionally it will heave a sigh, and at such a moment the earth around will shake and groan fearfully, while from the bowl will issue smoke, dense, dark and ominous, as is shown by the famous picture of Asosan in labor.
Asosan is not the highest mountain even in Kyūshū, nor is it famed for the beauty or symmetry of its form. Not that it is ugly and bald; it has its beauty spots--peaceful lakes, fine panoramic views and dense forests, but when compared with the alluring charms of Unzen or the vari-colored grandeur of Kirishima, Asosan must be described as a fierce, rugged mountain, full of primitive unadorned sights. It is a common saying that if Unzen represents the graceful curves of feminine scenery, Aso typifies the masculine strength of broad, straight lines.
But by far the grandest thing about Aso is its outer crater already mentioned, and it is something the magnitude of which one can hardly realize at first sight. You have to go over it again and again, if not with your visual sense, at least with the mind's eye, in order fully to appreciate this world's greatest crater district. Around the five great peaks there is a wide tract of land--the basin--of which the one in the north is called Aso-dani (Aso-valley) and the southern one, Nangō-dani (South-country-valley). Upon these basins are located 3 largish towns and 11 villages, containing more than 60, 000 inhabitants. Around the plains stand Chinese walls of mountain ranges, going up and down for 75 miles, rising to a height of 2,500 feet, and forming a circle 10 to 14 miles in diameter. The space thus enclosed, including the five peaks and the villages, etc., is none other than the crater of the once widely-flung sprawling volcano. It is not hard to imagine that the whole of this basin was filled with water at some far-off time, when it must have formed a wonderful mountain lake district with the five islets floating upon it, and screened with the undulating ridges of the outer mountains. In fact there is an old legend, which says that this was a great lake but that the god of the mountain, taking compassion on the people around, kicked open one part of the continuous range, letting out the water and making the land within, fit for cultivation. That break occurs on the western, or Kumamoto side, from which issues the river Shirokawa (white river) joined by the Kurokawa (black river); the two rivers traversing the valleys are reminiscent perhaps of the great lake of water that in ancient times filled it. The proposed Aso National Park encloses all this area and much beyond, altogether 75,460 acres, and when all the schemes of improvement and modern facilities and accommodation have been carried out, it is expected to rank as one of the wonder parks in the Far East. Asosan is on the high road, so to speak, of Kyūshū, being on the main Kyūshū rail line (Moji to Kagoshima), 18 miles from Kumamoto, and half a day's trip from Unzen or Beppu.