Most people who visit Aso Volcano stick to the main attraction and content themselves with a quick look into the active and steaming crater of Naka-dake. While the direct view from the crater rim is surely mesmerizing, I think that venturing out into the volcanic desert and/or going for a hike will give you a much more intense experience.
To find yourself in an empty but fascinating lunar landscape, you just have to follow the paved path along Naka-dake’s steaming crater. About halfway down there is a boardwalk that leads you across a plateau called Sunasenri-ga-hama (砂千里が浜). The further you walk the more bizarre the landscape becomes, like a new not yet discovered planet.
Allow up to one hour for the plateau. There is a minimum amount of walking involved, so you will spend most of the time marveling at the surroundings. However, if you wish to continue, there is a walking trail starting at the end of the boardwalk, leading up the mountain in front of you. The trail is clearly marked with some yellow paint on the rocks, and it will take about one hour to reach the top. At the end of the climb you will realize that you are standing on another crater rim, with an amazing overview of the whole area, and that’s where you are also able to see the other craters inside the immense Aso Caldera.
Continuing further to the peaks of Naka-dake (中岳, 1506m) and Taka-dake (高岳, 1592m) brings you closer to the steaming crater again (about another 30-45 minutes one way). The trail is now relatively flat, so a great time to soak up the atmosphere and enjoy the view.
From the top of Naka-dake, and if conditions are right (good weather without the stench of sulfur in the air) you might be able to go down to an old viewing platform. However, bear in mind that you will have to go back the way you came. Some old maps show a ropeway and a trail on that site (Sensui-kyo, 仙酔峡), but now you can only see a deserted and dilapidated looking terminus building. Plus, there does not seem to be any public transportation on that site of the volcano and you might have a hard time to get back to your starting point.
All in all this is a fantastic hike, and it did not bother me at all to return on the same path—the views all along the way make up for it. For more pictures along the way, have a look at this photo story.
Before you go up to the volcano, please do visit to the helpful tourist information desk at Aso Station, as they will have the most up-to-date English language information about the status of the volcano and weather conditions. Volcanic activity may change quickly and you should know that it is not always possible to visit the active crater rim. However, no need to be disappointed, you can get great views from the surrounding craters, too.