Journeying by train—these very words are sure to rouse the spirit of any traveler. The Minami-Aso Railway, which traverses 17.7 km from east to west through the massive caldera of Aso, may be the best way to enjoy Aso, one of Kumamoto’s greatest sightseeing destinations. In this article, we will introduce the Minami-Aso Railway in all its glory.

The Minami-Aso Railway is a small railroad operator with fewer than 20 employees, which commenced business in 1985 after taking over the lines of the former Japanese National Railways. At only 17.7 km long, the line is dotted with 10 stations, with its greatest attraction the picturesque scenery that can be enjoyed along the entire line. Although the line is used mostly by locals, a trolley train also operates for sightseeing purposes during the travel season from March to November. This heritage trolley train is symbolic of the Minami-Aso Railway. On sunny days, its windows are removed, allowing passengers to fully appreciate the scenery of Minami-Aso from inside its open cars as the fresh highland air rushes by. These experiences have become so popular that in 2015, the train welcomed 250,000 visitors to the spectacular scenery of Minami-Aso.

The scenery that can be enjoyed from the trolley train is truly diverse. Passengers can appreciate the majestic scenery of Aso, one of the world’s largest caldera volcanoes, experience the thrill of flying along a single-track bridge spanning a steep gorge, and enjoy a 900-meter narrow tunnel resembling a gateway to another world. In fact, by going through this tunnel, the trolley train takes passengers to a very special place—“Village where water is born.”Minami-Aso is rich in water sources, with incredibly clear springs scattered all over. The fresh water that flows from these springs to enliven the beautiful countryside creates truly unique scenery unlikely to be found anywhere else. The many station buildings, which vary in character from station to station, are also something to enjoy. Some are new, some are old, some are stone, some are timber, some contain cafés, and some even retain traces of wartime air raids. Part of the appeal of the Minami-Aso Railway lies in being steeped in the historic atmosphere of 1928 (the same year as Mickey Mouse!), which is when the rail line was opened as part of the former Japanese National Railways.

The last stop on the line is Takamori Station. A statue of Franky, a character from the comic book series “One Piece,” which has recently been made into a live-action movie, welcomes passengers arriving at the distinctive new station building. The station building is crowded with tourists seeking souvenirs, but it is not the sole attraction. Takamori is home to Kamishikimi Kumanoza Shrine, an amazing sightseeing spot that makes you feel as if you have wandered into a fantasy anime world. Visitors can also enjoy local delicacies such as dagojiru (miso soup containing paste-like dumplings, made mostly from rice) and red beef, a specialty of the Aso area. After enjoying the scenery on the trolley train, be sure to enjoy Minami-Aso in greater depth through sightseeing and dining.

Although we have touched on some of the many charms of the Minami-Aso Railway, the fact remains that much of the route was severely damaged by the Kumamoto earthquake in 2016. As a result, the railway was forced to suspend operations for an extended period of time, except for a few sections suffering only minor damage. Despite the restoration itself being in jeopardy, with bridges and tunnels collapsing and tracks washed away by landslides, the entire line opened to passengers in July 2023 for the first time in seven years, thanks to large-scale construction work supported both locally and nationwide. The restoration of the trolley train, so symbolic of the Minami-Aso Railway, was an emotional moment for the local people who had endured so much damage from the earthquake.

The fact that the Minami-Aso Railway was able to recover again, despite the extent of the damage and how long it took to repair, was because it was of such great value. I truly believe that the Minami-Aso Railway, much loved by the local people and tourists from all over Japan, will surely be loved by people from all over the world too.