Gaining a Different Perspective on Nature
What's duller than Kyushu in early April? That question entered my head as I boarded a bus leaving the Japanese city of Kumamoto in April, 1992. I'd been traveling around Kyushu, Japan's large southern island, for the past week and a half. Several days of overcast skies mixed with rain had dampened my enthusiasm for this trip. But the bus ride I was about to take would change that, and give me a new perspective on the power of nature.
During my stay in Japan, I normally took trains wherever I went. But there were no trains heading in my direction. So, I had to make this leg of the trip by bus. I chose that particular bus because its route passed Mount Aso, an active volcano that was said to have had some of the most explosive eruptions of any volcano on Earth. Seeing that my hometown of Toronto lacked anything more volcanic than my highly volatile neighbor, I couldn't pass up this opportunity. I didn't know when I'd have another chance to get close to a live volcano. Especially one, as it turned out, that was ready to blow.
As the bus pulled out of the city, I couldn't help but notice that the ride was a lot like the one from Toronto to Montreal. The highway was peppered with beautiful roadcuts, and there were impressive stands of trees broken up by wide, deep fields. Quickly, the familiar morphed into the prosaic. My eyes moved from the window and my mind started to drift to more immediate concerns. I whiled away endless minutes pondering where I'd be staying for the next couple of nights; what I'd be doing at my destination, the city of Beppu; and, of course, what I was going to eat.
I shuddered at the thought of using one of the McDonald's coupons in my waist pouch to buy yet another half-price teriyaki burger and Coke combo. That's when I noticed that the bus had begun a gentle climb. Reflexively, I turned my head to the right and was stunned by what I saw through my window.
There were deep black gouges in the ground at the point where the dull grey sky met the dull brown earth. It looked like a giant had taken its forefinger and traced crooked lines into the landscape. The gouges, I was later told, were the product of magma flows that had burst to the surface and burned their way across several hundred meters of land. As the bus continued to roll uphill, I marveled at the way nature could quickly unleash enough destructive force to scar the surface of the planet. But I was also in awe of how quickly that power could be shut off.
The bus reached the top of the rise, and parked for a 15-minute rest stop in a parking lot just a few hundred meters from Mt. Aso. As I stepped off the bus, my nostrils were assailed by a stench that was a mix of rotten eggs and sulphur. The remnants of volcanic belching were hanging in the air.
Most of the other people who stopped here, including the other passengers on my bus, had retreated into the nearby visitor's center. Braving the stink that clung to the air, I walked to the edge of the parking lot and stared in wonder at the scars on the outer edges of Mt. Aso's crater. Following the scars upward, I hypnotically watched a plume of white smoke roll skyward from the bowels of the mountain.
Before I knew it, my 15 minutes were up. It was time to get back on the bus and continue down the highway to Beppu. As I took my seat, I remembered a lesson that my aunt Adrienne had taught me. "When travelling," she said, "always look up." To that I could add "always keep at least one eye on the window." You never know what you're going to miss.
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Published on 8/3/05