Do you know the feeling you experience at the top of a roller coaster? That split second after you lose the battle with gravity and sense the world slipping from beneath you? Those nanoseconds of weightless ecstasy that truly make you feel alive? It’s a type of sensation that’s fleeting and difficult to intentionally induce. But what if we told you there’s a place on Earth that achieves just that?
Aso is a small city located in the northeastern part of Kumamoto Prefecture on Kyushu Island. You might have heard of it for being the home of Japan’s largest active volcano, Mount Aso, or for the massive ancient 120-kilometer perimeter caldera that cradles the city. Whatever the case may be, there’s a quiet awe about Aso that must be witnessed to be believed.
One of Aso’s most significant and unexpected attractions is its vast expanse of man-made grasslands. You might be thinking, “Grasslands? What’s so special about them?” It may sound peculiar to assert that certain grasslands can evoke more reverence than an actual active volcano, but this is no ordinary grass. Aso’s grasslands were originally cultivated over 1,000 years ago by early settlers who used the land for grazing cattle. These lands continue to preserve centuries of culture and ritual.
The green carpets sprawl along the rim and cascade down the steep 1,592-meter-tall cliffs of the caldera before disappearing into the dense woodlands that enfold the surrounding area. The elevation at the parts of the rim closest to the volcano is high enough to ascend above the clouds. With the ground below hidden from sight, standing amidst the lush, undulating green hills that stretch into the horizon imparts the sensation of being transported to an alien planet.
To sustain these grasslands and prevent their absorption into the forests, local people observe the yearly tradition of Noyaki, the controlled burning of the grasslands, in early spring. Burning the grass not only repels forest encroachment but also maintains the land’s health and facilitates the growth of fresh grass for both cattle and other animals dependent on the grasslands for survival.
Here isn’t merely employed for cattle grazing. As Aso’s population dwindles, maintaining the area becomes more challenging each year, leading to the gradual shrinking of the grasslands. In order to preserve Aso’s lands and unique culture, the locals have opened certain areas of the land for recreational activities that all nature lovers and thrill-seekers alike are sure to enjoy.
For summer activities Metropolis recommends visiting the Yumedaichi Green Valley Ranch for an exclusive horseback riding adventure through the privately owned grasslands. Soak up the majestic landscape, eat lunch and try your hand and making traditional Aso rope out of dried grass. After you get acquainted with the terrain, we recommend checking out あそBe隊 (Asobitai) for their guided e-biking, repelling, and trekking tours. Be warned, these tours are not for the faint of heart.
Bike around the sharp lip of the caldera and weave in and out of exclusive trails and viewing locations that you’d never have access to otherwise. あそBe隊’s head tour guide and representative, Yoshifumi Usui is the quintessential jack-of-all-trades. A retired Aso firefighter, mountain rescuer and current ski instructor among other things, Usui knows his way around the nooks and crannies of the caldera so you are sure to be in good hands no matter which tour you choose.
After a full day of exploring Aso’s natural wonders, take the time to stretch your muscles and relax in your own secluded kashikiri buro, or personal hot spring bath, in Aso’s only luxury hotel Hoshino Resorts KAI Aso. The ryokan is perfect for those looking to enjoy the romantic atmosphere and crisp Aso air with a bit more privacy. With only twelve stand-alone villas equipped with their own bath, there is no better getaway to punctuate your Aso adventures.
Aso doesn’t just have things to do in the summer, there is always something to do in the colder months. Whether it’s skiing through the clouds, hiking to frozen waterfalls or participating in Kurokawa‘s annual Yu Akari Illumination where guests can take a dip in the hot spring while taking in the display of handcrafted lanterns display against the backdrop of winter, you are bound to find the thrill you’re looking for at Aso, Kumamoto.