It's a rare day that the top of Oita Prefecture's Mount Yufu (or Yufudake) isn't obscured by clouds, claims Lonely Planet's "Hiking in Japan" guidebook. Luckily, our visit happens to coincide with one of those rare days — there is nothing but an unbroken stretch of blue around the peak and the crisp, autumn air is perfect for a hike.
Unfortunately, a number of other people share our sentiments and the parking lot at the base of this 1,583-meter-high volcano is packed on the final day of a holiday weekend. I'm not exactly looking forward to traffic on the trail but it's been too long since my family and I enjoyed the great outdoors without smothering humidity and I've dusted off my old hiking boots just for the occasion. Aiming to outdistance some of the larger groups still lacing up their boots, my husband slips our daughter into the hiking backpack he has promised to lug up the mountain and we set off on a well-marked trail up one of Kyushu's 100 famous peaks.
Even if you're not in great shape, the short walk from the car to the treeline is worth the slight exertion. Dry grassland allows for an unobstructed view of the Yamanami Highway as it snakes from the commercialized, coastal hot-spring city of Beppu to the gentrified spa town of Yufuin and beyond. Here and there, puffs of steam rise from the landscape, a reminder of the volatile nature of this region and the source of those vaunted onsen.