Today I’m taking you on a 3-day trip to the island of Kyushu to visit the beautiful volcanic region of Aso. It is located next to the city of Kumamoto and I had already visited the region back in 2016 after the Kumamoto earthquake. I had volunteered to help in Minami Aso which is just south of the Aso mountains.
This region is very dear to me and visiting it 3 years later was a real pleasure. When I got to Kumamoto airport and drove to Aso, I was very happy to see that most of the damage caused by the earthquake had been taken care of. There were a few construction sites here and there, of course, but I think the hardest part is over.
Like I said earlier, I spent 3 amazing days in Aso and I’m going to detail everything I did in this article. I’m sure it’s going to help you to plan your next trip to Aso area. But before that, let’s learn a bit more about Aso region with this brief introduction.
Let’s start with a bit of geography, shall we? Aso is located in the center of Kyushu Island in the southwest of Japan. The whole area was in fact formed by an important seismic activity about a hundred thousand years ago which formed what we call a caldera. A caldera is simply a cauldron-like hollow that forms as a result of the collapse of a magma chamber. Basically, when there is a rapid volcanic eruption, the magma becomes too heavy and causes the crater structure to collapse. The result is a basin-shaped crater.
But the main characteristic of Aso is that its caldera is really huge! It is actually one of the biggest in the world. Its circumference measures no less than 120km, can you imagine the size of this thing? You can easily see it from the sky when you fly over it.
So Aso is the area that is inside the caldera and all of it is surrounded by mountains that constitute the edges of the caldera. As you may see on the map above, there are also mountains in the very center of the caldera including the active Nakadake volcano that we will visit later.
Let’s move on to a bit of history! After the formation of the caldera, rainwater began to fill the cauldron until a huge lake formed inside the caldera. An earthquake later, however, a breach caused all the water in the lake to empty. This event is very important in Aso’s history because it is this breach that made its caldera inhabitable.
People started migrating to the caldera because the area inside was very fertile and well irrigated. Therefore, everything was suitable for agriculture, especially rice cultivation.
So to give you a little background, the legend goes that the god of rice actually managed to drain the water from the lake to make the area more suitable for growing rice. 🙂 Today about 45,000 people are living inside the caldera and most of them are crop and cattle farmers.
I wanted to give you an idea of the history of Aso because this trip is going to reconstitute the life of the ancestors of the people of Aso. On the first day, we will walk on the edges of the caldera as if the lake still existed. On the second day, as the lake eventually disappears, we will explore the inside of the caldera and the Nakadake volcano. On the third day, we will get back to the present to discover the daily life of the inhabitants.
Ready to relive the history of Aso? Let’s go!
Before we jump back in time, we will stop at the shrine of Aso to pray so that our trip goes as smoothly as possible. Then, we will have a bite to eat at the district of Monzenmachi and try a delicious local specialty. Finally, we are going to move up a little bit and visit Mount Daikanbo which is located on the edges of the caldera.
What you see on the structure surrounding the entrance door of the shrine of Aso is actually a particularly good painting. This part of the shrine was destroyed in the 2016 earthquake and is still being repaired.
This does not prevent the people of Aso from visiting the shrine and they go there at every important event in their lives. It could be a wedding, the birth of a child, or simply the purchase of a new car or before an important exam. Like the locals, we visit the shrine to pray for the best conditions during this 3-day trip.
Before leaving, we fill our water bottles with sacred water from the sanctuary. There are drinkable water sources everywhere in Aso; their water tastes nice and light.
We’re not leaving yet! At the district of Monzenmachi, we stopped for lunch. That’s how I discovered one of the culinary specialties of the area, called akagyu. It literally means red (aka) beef (gyu) and it’s really delicious! I really liked the light cooking and the breadcrumbs on top that give it a crispy texture, although the meat somehow melts in your mouth. Definitely worth a try!
We then went for a walk in the district to end up in a very nice café hidden in the middle of nowhere where very nice antiques are sold.
Notice the very creative method of keeping drinks fresh by using spring water. 🙂
We finally reach the heights of the caldera through Mount Daikanbo after a hearty lunch. The higher we go the more impressive the scenery becomes. The panoramic view gives you a better idea of the caldera’s actual shape, kind of like an observatory.
Let’s now go back in time and imagine ourselves the inhabitants of Aso, thousands of years ago. If you’ve been with me through the history of the region, you can imagine the beautiful view of Lake Aso from Daikanbo. By the way, wouldn’t it be interesting to get closer to it? Let’s abseil down towards the ancient shores of the lake as the ancestors of Aso would have done.
It was a first for me and I must say it felt really good. With a breathtaking view of the whole region, you get to live a truly unforgettable experience!
Technically speaking, abseiling is of course a bit of a workout but once you get the basics, everything goes fine. On the other hand, it is the mental side of things that got me stuck at some point. As long as the slope is not too steep, I was doing well, but once it’s at 90 degrees, your heart starts beating hard. But like everything else, once you get through the first descent, you sort of develop a taste for it and start wanting more. 🙂
A few descents later, we take our time to enjoy a breathtaking sunset.
What would Aso’s ancestors do during a cool starry night other than light a campfire?
We settle down in the fields, have some soup while keeping warm by the fire. Definitely one of my favorite memories of this trip to Aso.
After a very busy first day, we spend the night at the Aso Grandvrio hotel. I was so tired that I went to bed as soon as I got there without really visiting the hotel. I woke up to the stunning view from my bedroom.
Thousands of years ago, the caldera of Aso cracked following an earthquake, emptying all the water of the lake. The people who lived around the caldera ventured for the first time inside it. And that’s exactly what we’re going to do now!
Inside the caldera, you can see many mountains but the most attractive is the one that is releasing white smoke (on the right in the picture above). This mountain is in fact the still active Nakadake volcano. To go there, we are going to use a very nice means of transportation: an e-bike. As its name suggests, it’s a bike with an electric motor that is activated as soon as there is a steep ascent. How convenient and comfortable does that sound?
As you can imagine, the landscapes we pass through are amazing and the encounters we make there are just as beautiful! 🙂
The scenery is really incredible throughout the trip so if you’re going uphill, make sure to stop often to appreciate the setting.
The smoking Nakadake volcano will be more visible as you keep going.
We’re almost at the crater! The smoke that comes out of it is really impressive and the site can be closed to visitors if there is too much toxic gas coming out of the crater. Everything was fine when we went there and the crater was a sight to behold.
Volcanoes as well as earthquakes are an integral part of the history of the region of Aso. There is no doubt that they will also be part of its future. Because of them, the earth is fertile and all its mountains allow the accumulation of large amounts of water, which is very useful for agriculture. On the other hand, it happens that nature’s roar destroys what the inhabitants of Aso took time to build.
But the inhabitants have learned to live with it and to appreciate the benefits of volcanoes all while fearing their eruptions. Destruction, in Buddhism for example, is not always a bad thing. It is part of life and is ultimately only the beginning of another cycle. This is how the people of Aso have learned to live, always looking at the bright side of things.
Going down the Nakodake volcano, we came across a sanctuary in the forest, in the middle of nowhere. It is the Fujitani Jinja Shrine and the atmosphere there was really special. The teaching of the shrine is that failure or victory against an external opponent does not really matter because the main battle you have to fight is the one you fight with your inner self.
It reminded me of a quote from Edmund Hillary on hiking that goes something like: “It is not the mountain that we conquer, but ourselves.”
When traveling to Japan, you absolutely must spend a night in the traditional hostels of the country called ryokan. It’s in the Sozankyo ryokan that I spent my second night in Aso. There, you’ll be welcomed with a mighty bowl of matcha, which is a very popular Japanese green tea, then you’ll be directed to your room which of course has a tatami floor.
Wondering where the futon I’m going to sleep on is? In a ryokan, you only unfold your futon at night before going to bed so as not to clutter up your room during the day.
We had just arrived and it was already dinner time. Dinner in a ryokan rhymes with kaiseki!
A kaiseki dinner is a traditional meal consisting of several dishes that are served to you throughout the evening. The dishes depend a lot on the region you’re visiting but also on the season. As you can see, I visited Aso in autumn.
In the top right corner of the picture above, you can see a rather surprising local specialty that I enjoyed. It’s called karashi renkon and it’s actually boiled lotus roots stuffed with mustard and miso. You don’t expect to taste the mustard so it stings a bit at first but it’s a great snack.
At the bottom left of the picture, there’s some tomoji guruguru which is also a local specialty. It’s actually boiled green onion, served in a knot, and also covered with mustard and miso.
What’s really special about a ryokan is its onsen (natural hot spring). There is a public onsen at Ryokan Sozankyo but you can also book a private onsen for free.
It’s already the last day of our trip. We’re now back to the present to live like the current inhabitants of Aso do.
To start the day, how about an early morning panoramic view of the caldera? We went looking for that on top of Mount Tangoyama and the morning mist covering the area makes the landscape look even more extraordinary.
After a brief walk, we get to drink some hot coffee next to the small hut you see in the picture below. All the infrastructure you see here is maintained by volunteers by the way.
We went on to visit local farmers in Aso. This couple runs a homestay so you can stay in their house if you wish. I really fell in love with these adorable people full of energy and kindness.
Their wooden house is great! You will be staying in the middle of nature but you will still have all the comfort you need. There’s a fireplace, drinking water coming directly from the mountain, comfortable rooms, and even two onsens with stone bathtubs. What more could you ask for? 🙂
We were then offered lunch on the river bank as the weather was very nice. The lady had prepared a real feast for us with mainly local products.
We enjoyed a nice picnic and got to know them and their daily life better. It was a really instructive exchange and you could easily feel how much they were attached to Aso. The stunning view of the surrounding mountains made the whole thing even more enjoyable.
After lunch, we went to pray at the Kokuzo shrine. It is dedicated to four deities including Hayamikatamano-Mikoto who is the pioneer of Aso. Another widespread legend in the region says that when the caldera broke, a giant catfish prevented all the water from emptying. So the inhabitants prayed for him to leave and that’s what he finally did. Since then, the inhabitants of Aso never ate catfish again and there is even a small building dedicated to this catfish in Kokuzo Shrine.
If you visit the sanctuary, you can’t miss the huge tree trunk inside the site. It is the trunk of a cedar tree that was over 2000 years old and unfortunately collapsed due to a typhoon in 1991. The inhabitants were very attached to it so they decided to keep it in the sanctuary.
Our visit to Aso ends with a walk in the traditional village of Teno. A friendly farmer accompanies us and shows us around the various agricultural fields. We end up having tea at his place.
Observing his very simple way of life, one cannot help but question one’s own… Indeed, we are sometimes so caught up in our daily lives that we forget what is really important in life. Visiting this village and the whole region of Aso to me was like a break from all that.
This 3-day retreat in nature was very nourishing and helped me have new perspectives on things. Coming back to the simple pleasures of life is, I think, essential! And even if we sometimes forget about it, traveling to regions like Aso should be our wake-up call.
So, did you like Aso? What’s your favorite place there? Do you think you will visit it on your next trip to Japan? Let me know in the comments below.
For more info about Aso area, feel free to check these websites:
See you guys very soon for new adventures in Asia and in the meantime, take good care of yourselves!