An early Japan adventure found us driving back and forth upon the craterous skyline of Aso in search of a place Studio Ghibli fans had dubbed 'The Road to Laputa.' Guided by a ménage of offline Google Maps, a Japanese Navman and a paper map we set off to discover this mythical scenery for ourselves which was said to appear straight from the Hayao Miyazaki animated film 'Castle in the Sky.'
Looking back this was also the first of our unintended Miyazaki themed travels as we followed directions to drive along the quaintly named Milk Road which wound through the dairy cow pastures along the top of Mount Aso's ancient caldera. This still active volcano is responsible for the creation of Japan's Kyushu region and with its current periodical eruptions continue to sculpt the Aso mountainscape.
Smoke hung heavy and ribbons of ash fell upon us through the cold air as we stopped on the side of the road to check our bearings. Around us the pastures were charcoaled and grasses browned from 'noyaki,' the farming area's ancient practice of field burning to prevent the forest from reclaiming the cleared land. Over the hours of driving with stops at scenic tourist points we felt no closer to our intended destination - with the thought that maybe this hidden place wished to remain hidden.
As we drove further into the afternoon we stopped to trade our road tripping weariness for the awkwardness of our first onsen. Reciting to each other the particular etiquette required for a Japanese bath house, we wished each other luck as we parted ways down the paths to the separate men's and women's baths. Scrubbing down nude next to a mix of grandmothers and teenagers is enough to have you forgetting a day of driving defeat and later as I sunk into the hot water and gazed through the steam at the forests of Ash trees and the river flowing next to the baths I hoped that Mark was feeling his angst melting away too.
An hour later, dressed again and enjoying an ice-cream in an effort to cool our steaming bodies Mark admitted that in his naked fluster he had not found any little room to wash in before entering the baths. He had instead found a small hose, and in an attempt to respect the onsen rules, had earnestly washed as best he could with its cold water awkwardly under a tree before entering the hot springs. With our good humour restored and Mark unsure if he would partake in future onsens we decided to head back via the farm village roads that would put us inside the Aso caldera in a hope to access The Road to Laputa from the base of the mountain.
Unaccustomed to using driving navigation in general but finding ourselves deep in a foreign land we took to relying on our Japanese Navman to safely guide us along Aso's country roads. During one particularly long stretch we came across the odd sight of a food truck in the middle of nowhere peddling local citrus and corn. Encouraged by the most enthusiastic of food vendors we were sent up a rickety ladder to perch like two shoguns atop his caravan. Through the ashy afternoon light we surveyed the crater lands sweeping beyond us whilst enjoy a fitting afternoon snack of charcoaled corn with a cup of the darkest roast coffees.
With twilight falling we found the lower valley entry to The Road to Laputa. The road though was blocked as parts had been destroyed and the mountain face devastated during last year's seismic quakes. Barely satisfied with gazing up at the underside to our quest we resumed the long drive home. As we unquestioningly followed the Navman's directions, it attempted in all its navigational wisdom, to send us up a forest short cut which traversed the side of the caldera. With the road steeply ascending into no more than a soggy dirt path, a sheer drop soon appeared beside our little cube car's wheels. With imaginings of becoming stuck, then waiting out the night within the eerieness of a forest on the side of a cliff, we executed the tightest of three point turns and drove back the way we came, ignoring the Navman's desperate bleeping for us to turnaround.
Despite our best navigation efforts it was only after this day and night and the next morning of searching we finally found The Road to Laputa - it's turn off marked by a small Jizo statue we had missed the previous day. Even in the early rains of the morning, with its charred brown mounds and its asphalt damaged and awaiting repair, this mythical road still reigned majestic among the clouds, delivering lofty views of the volcanic farming valleys below.
Ducking under a sign we assumed read 'no access' in Japanese we explored the road we had wanted to find for ourselves. Running through the hip high grass down the cattle trodden paths we jumped across the slabs of disrupted bitumen awestruck by the power of tectonic earth. All the while the howling wind and sheets of rain chilled us past our thermals, we were warmed by our own golden moments of realisation that we had made it on this adventure together as we continue to chase our own castles in the sky.