Ken and Bill's Excellent Adventure
      We spent the next two days in the Aso Caldera, a vast bowl some 80 kilometers across left by the collapse of a prehistoric volcano, out of which protrude five newer peaks, one of them—Nakadake—still active.  The area is extremely fertile, the caldera floor planted with rice, while red beef cattle particular to Aso graze on the slopes of the volcanoes.  Freshwater springs are everywhere, gushing up from the ground and free for the drinking in front of every little streetside shop, at least on the street that leads away from (or to, depending on your direction) the Shinto Shrine in Aso City.

Nakadake Volcano Crater, Aso Caldera (SA)

One of the many small springs that line the street near Aso Shrine, each spring turned into a small work of art by the homeowner or shopkeeper who maintains it. Passersby are free to drink from any of these springs. (SA)
      At Shirakawa Spring, where 60 tons of fresh water pour out of the ground every minute, Anne and I made rice paper and decorated it with dried flowers, leaves, colored dyes, and gold flecks.

Entrance to Shirakawa Spring, Aso City. (SA)

Anne making rice paper art at Shirakawa Spring. (SA)

Tsuetate Onsen resort area. Hizenya Hotel is on the distant right. (SA)
      We spent a night luxuriating in the natural hot springs (called onsen) at Hizenya Hotel in the Tsuetate Onsen resort area that straddles the border of Kumamoto and Oita Prefectures, Anne and I in a roomy tub on a 9th floor balcony overlooking a steep, narrow, but incredibly lush valley with a river rushing noisily by below us.  (Tsuetate means “no need for walking stick,” the name given to this area 1300 years ago by a Buddhist monk who watched sick people taking hot spring baths and emerging without their walking sticks.)

Bride and groom entering Aso Shrine. (SA)
      The next day, while visiting Aso Shrine, we happened by chance upon a traditional Shinto wedding, bride and groom in kimonos, but with the bride’s head hooded to hide her horns—an ancient Japanese custom—and the union sealed with sake, first drunk by bride and groom, then by their parents, and finally by the other members of their families.

      We passed on the opportunity to check out Cuddly Dominion, though the billboard in the shrine’s parking lot, complete with adorable-looking chimpanzee and dog, looked intriguing, opting instead for lunch at Aso Kougen, a restaurant featuring buckwheat soba noodles where female employees were helping half a dozen different groups of children to make their own noodles.  Though I couldn’t understand what the children were saying, it was clear that making the noodles was at least as much fun as eating them.

Group of children preparing for their chance to make soba noodles. A portion of restaurant dining area in the foreground.(AGE)
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