“You should visit Aso at least once in your lifetime”—when the subject of Aso comes up, you’ll often hear people say this.

Here, vast grasslands cover the surface of mountains, the cedar forests are beautiful, and rice paddies in the mortar-shaped basin reflect the sunlight’s glow. Located in the northeast of Kumamoto Prefecture, Mt. Aso is one of the world’s largest caldera volcanoes.Once known as the “Land of Fire”, it is the perfect symbol of Kumamoto. This article will introduce the fascinating charms of Aso, as well as some activities that will allow you to experience it with all five senses.

The most obvious of Aso’s attractions is its grandeur. Seeing is truly believing—anyone who visits Aso is sure to find it breathtaking. Inside the outer rim of the caldera is shaped like a gigantic doughnut, which is vast, expansive caldera basin. In the center of this basin is a chain of five relatively small volcanoes that had formed inside the caldera, known as the Aso Gogaku (the five peaks of Aso). Although this overview of the topography of Aso may seem simple, there are several municipalities and tens of thousands of people living in the caldera basin which give you some idea of the massive scale of the area.
(Viewed from the north, the five peaks of Aso are said to resemble a reclining Buddha.)

The scenery of Aso is diverse. You can enjoy the view over the outer rim from inside the caldera, or the beautiful caldera basin with its rice fields from the outer rim, or simply admire the emerald-green crater pools of Mt. Naka , one of the five peaks of Aso. All of these views have a kind of power that cannot be felt anywhere else, which some find overwhelming. The reasons can be explained in part by looking at the origin of the topography. The landform of Aso was formed by a massive eruption that occurred between 270,000 and 90,000 years ago. The landscape of Aso thus formed reminds us of the beautiful, wild heartbeat of the ancient earth.
(Aso is registered as a UNESCO Global Geopark due to its living volcanoes and history of gigantic eruptions.)

Aso has a unique landscape but it has one major characteristic that sets it apart from other natural landscapes. Its grassland landscape, sometimes also called its “secondary nature”. Grasslands are symbolic of Aso, and in fact, it is the activities of the people who live in Aso that create and maintain this grassland landscape. The secret lies in its unique primary industry. In Aso, livestock farming is practiced by the grazing of cattle. The fields are burned in spring, preventing the grasslands from becoming forested, while grazing and grass-cutting are carried out from summer to fall. Cattle and horse manure is spread over the fields as compost to maintain the fertility of the arable soil, which is mostly highland volcanic ash soil not suited for agriculture. These activities change the landscape of Aso in interesting ways—in spring, the grasslands are blackened by field burning; in summer, they are lush with pasture grass; in autumn, they are silver with Japanese pampas grass; and in winter, they are withered yellow and dotted with snow.
(Aso’s unique landscape has been recognized as a World Agricultural Heritage site by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations due to the unique cyclical agriculture that links livestock farming with cultivation of the grasslands.)

Driving around and visiting various observation spots is a great way to truly appreciate the scenery of Aso. However, if you do intend to visit Aso, it is also helpful to know about more active ways to enjoy the area. To conclude this article, let’s take a look at some activities that will allow you to enjoy the charms of Aso with all of your senses.

First and foremost are cycling tours. Aso is famous as one of Japan’s best driving and touring locations, offering unrivaled views of its varied and magnificent scenery. There are cycling tours that travel around Aso. By traveling around local spots and stores known only to tour guides with strong roots in Aso, visitors directly experience aspects of local atmosphere and culture that simply cannot be encountered when driving or touring.

Our next recommendation is horseback riding tour. Reading through this article, you’ve come to understand how precious the grasslands of Aso are. These tours offer a leisurely ride on horseback through these grasslands. Come and experience the extraordinary feeling of the breeze as you sway gently atop a horse amid vast grassland stretching as far as the eye can see. Since even inexperienced riders can easily enjoy this tour, it makes an ideal first-ever horseback riding experience.

Our final recommendation is paragliding. Paragliding in tandem with an instructor from Daikanbo, one of the best viewing spots in Aso. You can see the huge caldera of Aso spread out below you. As you fly from the top of the mountain’s outer rim into the caldera basin, you gain a bird’s eye view of Aso only visible from the sky. As long as you’re not afraid of heights, this will surely be one of the best memories of your life.

So, what do you think? Aso has so much more to offer than just amazing views—it’s worth going a step further and truly experiencing it, rather than just looking at it. Hopefully, this column will help you keep Aso in mind as somewhere you should visit at least once in your lifetime.