Each time, we followed roughly the same route: expressway to Oita prefecture, windy little roads from Kokonoe into the mountains of the Kuju Plateau, and an overnight in a quiet onsen town. Then, across the fields of wild barely into the Aso caldera, up to the very much active crater of Nakadake, down to the expressway at Kumamoto and straight on till morning. In essence, a drive straight through the heart of Aso-Kuju National Park. Beautiful, and well worth the repeat voyage.
On our first day, not counting expressway driving, we covered a stretch of mountains from Kokonoe to the southern edge of the Kuju plateau. Along with Aso, Kuju is one of the most volcanically active areas in Japan. As such, it's a strange and abrupt landscape, scored with deep wooded canyons, laced with waterfalls, and dotted with hot springs.
Our first photo spot, however, looked almost Pennsylvanian . . .
But the similarities stopped there. Shortly upriver from there, the road turns into this:
At the top of the hill is an apparently famous Japanese roadside attraction: a rest-stop-restaurant-waterfall-shrine-spa run by people made up to look like tanuki (that's Nana's scholarly treatise on the tanuki, which is possibly NSFW).
|A free footbath for weary travelers.|
|The view back down to the road below.|
From there, it was a short way uphill to the Kokonoe Dream Bridge, a huge suspended footbridge built as a viewing platform for two of Kyushu's biggest waterfalls.
|The Kuju Mountains. Look closely and you can see some smoke from one of the active craters.|
|The middle-aged Korean man spontaneously breaking into "Gangnam Style" was, I am told, not part of the standard visitor experience.|
|Watch as my graduated filter struggles mightily to handle this light!|
|A tiny hint of rainbow down there.|
|According to this sign, Godzilla cannot get you on this bridge. (I hope.)|
Down below the bridge is a trail to a little wooded viewing area, where you can get a closer view of the larger of the two falls. A very pretty spot.
|As you can see, we were there much earlier in the day the second time around.|
After the Dream Bridge, we came down the south side of the Kuju Plateau, passing hundreds of hikers' parked cars along the way.