Kumamoto Prefecture, located in the centre of Kyushu, is a beautiful and rural location for a quiet trip out
of the city and into the mountains.
Photo : Sagra-KS on FlickrWith a temperature between 10 to 33 degrees year round, Kumamoto manages to avoid (for the most part, anyway) the snow of northern areas of Japan and also avoid the constant heat of areas like Okinawa, making it perfect for not only hiking, camping, and cycling for the tourist, but also agriculture and farming for the locals. Arguably the most beautiful place in Kumamoto is Aso-San (Mt. Aso), a volcano surrounded by lush green fields and rolling hills and mountains reminiscent of Scotland (but with better weather!). The cattle and horses nibbling at the fields kept by farmers also add to the impression that you are in a completely different country. The wide open sky and rural landscape is a far cry from the busy streets of Tokyo and Kyoto and can provide some much needed rest and relaxation for the tired traveler.
Photo : ゴンザレス 森井 on FlickrMt. Aso is surrounded by a ring of large mountains offering great views of the volcano and the little villages below it. These mountains around Aso are famous with travelers in particular for a very special spot, known by locals as `Laputa Road` (Laputa no michi). For all those who have seen Ghibli`s Laputa: Castle in the Sky, perhaps something will have clicked. This road overlooks the vast drop below and seems, like the castle in Laputa, to be simply floating above the clouds. While it`s a hard ride on a bike, the sense of achievement you feel after you have reached the top is worth it. If you don`t feel like cycling, you might be lucky enough to get someone drive you there! Occasionally managers of guest houses in Aso drive their guests up in the morning – check out Asobi-gokoro at the base of Mt. Aso if you need a place to stay for the night as the manager there is often kind enough to do this.
Photo : St Stev on FlickrMt. Aso itself (Japan`s largest active volcano, by the way, with a North to South caldera size of 25 km and a peak at 1592 metres) is also great for outdoors activities like hiking, cycling, and even horse-back riding! That’s right, you can actually ride a horse around on one of the biggest volcanoes on earth. In how many places in the world can you do that!? Head to the beautiful Kusasenri-ga-hama to hop on a horse! Mt. Aso actually has 5 peaks (Mt. Neko, Mt. Naka, Mt. Eboshi, Mt. Kirishima, and Mt. Taka), so take a good look around if you have more time after your horse-riding experience.
Photo : Chris Gladis on FlickrMt. Naka is one of the most popular peaks of Mt. Aso due to its moonscape crater with its contrastingly green and pleasant outer side. There are a variety of ways in which you can reach Mt. Naka`s crater – why not hike or cycle? If you`re not the outdoorsy type, you can catch a bus from JR Aso Station (it takes about 30 to 40 minutes) or drive your car up the volcano and park just 1 minute`s walk to the crater! The bus doesn`t go the full way up the crater, meaning that you will have to take the \1,200 Mt. Aso Ropeway ride (like a large enclosed ski lift for sightseeing) to the top. Alternatively, for something completely different, you can even ride a helicopter to the crater! One important thing to note is that, due to the active nature of the volcano, occasionally the Japan Metereological Agency decides to close the crater for the safety of visitors due to a chance of eruption – this means that the Mt. Aso Ropeway will also be temporarily shut down.
Photo : t-mizo on FlickrEven if the crater is shut while you`re visiting Mt. Aso, there`s still plenty to do in one of the most beautiful areas in Kyushu. Why not take a relaxing bath in one of the area`s onsen? Being an area of volcanic activity, naturally Kumamoto Prefecture`s Mt. Aso area arguably produces some of the best hot springs in the Japan. If you want some more advice about what to see or do in the area, head to the Michi-No-Eki (Roadside Station) in Aso which doubles as an information/tourist centre for the area. They can tell you if the crater is open or not, where to stay (there are lots of great (and cheap!) guest houses in the area as well as high-class hotels and traditional onsen), what to eat (being an agricultural area there is plenty of fresh fruit, veg, and traditional dishes on offer), and anything else you need to know.
Photo : plattbridger on FlickrYou can access Mt. Aso via bus from JR Kumamoto Station – the ride takes around 2 hours and 1,250 yen, whereas a train ride will cost a slightly more expensive 2,000 yen and will take about 70 minutes.
Kumamoto`s Mt. Aso is a beautiful spot to take a break from the bustling streets of the city and indulge in nature. Don`t forget to bring your hiking boots!