Mt. Aso. (Photo by Adam MacDonald)
The gorgeous sights and scenery in the Mt. Aso and Kumamoto areas of Kyushu are not to be missed.
By Adam MacDonald
Tokyo has the lights. Kyoto has the history. Sapporo has the snow. Often in the light of these illustrious brothers the wayward cousin of Kyushu rarely seems to make an appearance on travel itineraries, except occasionally for its largest city, Fukuoka. The question then remains, why should you visit the less-traveled areas of the southernmost of Japan’s four main islands? While the lights may be a bit dimmer, the history less well-known, and the snow decidedly unimpressive, the Mt. Aso and Kumamoto areas of Kyushu more than make up for these shortcomings with their beautiful scenery and slower-paced charm.
Mt. Fuji may be the most famous mountain in Japan, but Mt. Aso easily competes when it comes to natural beauty. Mt. Aso first distinguishes itself by being made up of not just one peak but five, appearing more as a small mountain range rather than rising up in a symmetrical cone. The highest of these peaks stands at 1,592 meters (5,223 feet) above sea level. While not winning any height contests — it doesn’t come anywhere close to matching Mt. Fuji’s 3,776 meters (12,385 feet) — Mt. Aso gives his brother a run for his money in terms of sheer sublime beauty. The land stretching in all directions with rivers of green grass and crisp blue skies makes this a truly inspiring area.
Turquoise water fills the caldera inside Kyushu’s volcanic Mt. Aso. (Photo by Igorberger)
The most well-known aspect of Mt. Aso is the volcano. The top is easily accessed either by driving or taking the ropeway up from the station below. Once there, you immediately can see the massive caldera (volcanic crater), which is the largest in the world. The interior of this gigantic hole is otherworldly and resembles a Martian landscape with dusty, rocky valleys curving sharply around the various spots where lava has shot out in the past. At the very bottom of the largest crater you can see an eerily beautiful lake shimmering with an intense turquoise and Statue-of-Liberty green through the poisonous clouds that swirl above it. Though there hasn’t been a dangerous eruption recently, the mountain is still very active and spews poisonous volcanic gases year-round when not erupting. This is still an active danger and there are certain areas of the caldera that are off-limits since, due to wind and proximity, they get a heavier dose of the gases. In fact, people are cautioned when passing through the entry gates to limit their visiting time since prolonged exposure could get dangerous. The always-present danger of an eruption is eerily alluded to by the strategically placed concrete bunkers dotting the caldera’s rim. Resembling flattened igloos, these heavy stone structures are meant to shield tourists from a rain of fire should the mountain begin to rumble, although one can’t help but wonder if the shield itself wouldn’t just turn out to be a massive broiler pan, roasting the poor folks trapped inside. Food for thought.
The areas surrounding the volcanic portion of Mt. Aso are as green as the caldera is dead. There are acres of hills too steep for farming interspersed with rural dairy farms whose cows lazily mill about as they investigate their visitors. Straying from the blank green hills yields a number of interesting stops. The first is the fountainhead (or origin of) the Shira River. Famed for its clarity, the water from this fountainhead has apparently become the beverage of choice for a Japanese celebrity who announced once that she drinks nothing else. Indeed, the water is as clear as glass (the clean sort of glass, not some grease-smudged konbini glass) and bubbles hypnotically from below the surface of the earth. At the entrance to this area is a little shop that only sells empty plastic bottles from 0.5 to 5 liters. That’s right; this water is so pure that you’re able to just take your bottle, bend down and fill it up from the open pool itself. If you’re on the cheap side, you can always just plunge in one of the plentiful cups on a stick that litter the edge of the reservoir and drink your fill.
Reimei Waterfall in the Kikuchi Ravine near Mt. Aso. (Photo by Adam MacDonald)
Not far from the fountainhead is the beautiful Kikuchi Ravine. Named using the kanji for “chrysanthemum pond,” this valley is as gorgeous as its name implies. Additionally, this is the area most often recommended as a “must see” by locals who know the area well. Walled in on all sides by old trees hanging with years of shaggy moss, a river cuts through the heart of the ravine and there are numerous waterfalls, many of which you can easily climb around in or lay down in for a rest, letting the misting water fall around you. Though the path is fairly well laid out, the area doesn’t feel particularly commercialized and it makes for a great little exploration into the countryside for those that don’t care to be walking for ages. A leisurely hike through this ravine takes about an hour, not accounting for any waterside napping.
While the lack of civilization is what makes this area so wonderful, it does make the use of a car recommended. While there are a number of public buses that shuttle around, the full experience of this place is best seen from a car. It is well worth your investment to ensure a driver is in your group and that you pool together for a rental car.
View of Mt. Aso from the Minami Aso Railway. (Photo by Adam MacDonald)
While it doesn’t run very far or conveniently, thus making it rather useless for getting around, one form of transportation that makes for a very memorable journey is the Minami Aso Railway. This tiny little railway, which is really closer to a kiddy ride than a real locomotive, runs twice a day on a snaking path along the valleys of Mt. Aso, offering stunning views and the ability to literally travel through people’s backyards. While the entire railroad line only stretches for 17.7 kilometers (11 miles), the scenery makes the trip well worth it. The highlight of the journey is a stop atop the Tateno Bridge, which spans just over 350 meters (roughly 1,150 feet) across a steep ravine. Standing 105 meters (about 345 feet) above a rushing river, the bridge offers a spectacular view. The train comes to a halt in the middle of this iron beast for about 10 minutes, allowing passengers to peer down and pray that they don’t drop their cameras. It is truly a sight to behold and not for those afraid of heights. In the sections of the journey before and after the bridge, the train also offers fantastic sweeping views of waterlogged rice paddies reflecting Mt. Aso and an unending dome of blue sky. It’s difficult to imagine a more beautiful place.
The region is not only worth visiting for its natural scenery but also for its man-made sights. Often overshadowed by Himeji for castle fame and by Fukuoka for urban charms, nearby Kumamoto also has a great deal to offer. While the city itself stands at a sizeable 670,000 inhabitants, the Greater Kumamoto area clocks in impressively at nearly 1.5 million people. Lying close to the Mt. Aso area as well, it makes for a good diversion when you’ve had your fill of mountains. Probably one of the most well-known tracts of land in the city is the Suizenji Jojuen Gardens. This nice strolling garden is similar to Okayama’s Korakuen Gardens in that it features a large amount of rolling hills and grass-covered landscape, distinguishing it from typical Japanese garden design. The garden is not large and you can easily stroll along the edge of the central koi and duck pond in less than 30 minutes. Also on the grounds is the small Izumi Shinto Shrine, which contains a very old Japanese White Pine. When you’ve finished taking your constitutional, you can ease out your fatigue at one of the quaint little teahouses lining the grounds.
If quaint little strolls through parks with miniature Mt. Fujis aren’t really your thing, then you can quickly pop over to the very impressive Kumamoto Castle. Boasting that it is one of Japan’s three greatest castles (though it’s not explained who developed this list or what the criteria were consulted for making such a judgment), Kumamoto’s fortress is indeed a sight to behold. Despite not being a true invader, one can’t help but feel a bit weak in the knees when confronted with the tremendous stone walls that once challenged any enemy foolish enough to attempt a siege. Huge stones are piled atop one another, rising forebodingly out of the moat surrounding the exterior walls. Most of the castle’s wooden buildings are not original, the exception being the Uto Turret, which managed to tiptoe around the centuries of fires, but the place has been faithfully restored only using the methods and tools available at the time. While the castle itself has been recreated to convey a more well-worn look, the Honmaru Goten Grand Hall on the grounds gives you an idea of what the more palatial parts would have looked like when they were brand spanking new, including gorgeous polished wood floors, elegantly painted screen doors, and an HDTV looping a documentary.
Kumamoto Castle. (Photo by Birdman)
Whereas the much more visited Himeji Castle is famed for its white walls, Kumamoto Castle proudly flies black colors. Much of Himeji’s fame comes from the fact that it is a complete and untouched original castle, unravaged by war and fire. Kumamoto, on the other hand, proved its mettle in 1877 during the Seinan War when it managed to protect those defending it from rebels even though many of the wooden structures burned. Looking at the massive stone walls and parapets, it’s easy to imagine that any army would have a difficult time in tackling this beast. While other Japanese castles maintain a sort of clean detachment from the realities of war, Kumamoto Castle, much like a marine in dress uniform, conveys a lot of the bulk, grit and ferociousness of a soldier on the frontlines, making it all that more fascinating and captivating to the imagination.
While not an area usually frequented by non-Japanese tourists, the Mt. Aso and Kumamoto area of Kyushu offers a wonderful step into some of the most scenic areas in Japan. The natural beauty of the ravines, the smoking mystery of the volcano and the evocative stone faces of the castle walls all make this a place well worth a visit. Though it takes some effort to get there, you will find your efforts well rewarded.
Getting there and getting around
Though beautiful, Mt. Aso and Kumamoto are a bit more out of the way than other Japanese cities. One of the best ways to get there that balances out cost, convenience and speed is to take the Shinkansen to Fukuoka and from there take a highway bus to Kumamoto or any other destination you choose. The bus terminal is conveniently located near Hakata Station and has numerous reasonably priced buses running many times each day.
Additionally, you can opt to take the train all the way to Kumamoto, changing at Hakata Station from the Shinkansen to the local train, but for the price and time required a highway bus is probably a better bet.
Once there, Kumamoto is easy enough to get around with a bus system that, while not simple, is navigable. Often there is also a shuttle running directly from Kumamoto Station to the castle. The Mt. Aso area and the volcano itself are a bit more complicated. The best method to ensure you are able to easily get everywhere you want to go would be to drive, preferably with a GPS if you’re unfamiliar with the area. Buses also run in the area for those without car access, though they are decidedly less convenient.