When we were driving in Aso, we admired the stunning view of the volcano. And I remembered there was a sign somewhere at a viewpoint with an inscription: この美しい自然は皆んなのもの大切にしましょう。 Meaning, “Let’s cherish this beautiful nature for everyone”. These words stuck in my head for a long time because I was so stunned by the natural scenery there. It is one of the most beautiful places that I have ever been to in Japan.
Something about… Mount Aso
Mount Aso is the largest active volcano in Japan and is among the largest in the world. The volcano is located in the heart of Kyushu, at a height of 1,592 meters. If you look for Mount Aso on Google Map, the caldera of Mount Aso covers a fairly large area with a circumference of over120 kilometers long. Since it’s an active volcano, civil infrastructure is built around the caldera, giving the volcano an untouched beauty.
Unlike Mount Fuji, Mount Aso is not shaped like a perfectly symmetrical cone – the central cone of Aso has five peaks, and the group is named “Five mountains of Aso”. The highest peak is the summit of Mount Taka, and tourists generally enter the caldera from roads in the west.
The recent volcanic eruption(s) stopped flights and travel tours for a long period of time, and scientists even suspected that the eruption might affect global weather. The active volcano still emits smoke constantly with occasional eruptions that threaten the lives of the surrounding cities. In fact, an Eruption Alert of Mount Aso has been hoisted and the latest eruption happened in October 2021. Many tour attractions such as the services of Mount Aso Ropeway have been suspended due to safety reasons. At the time I arrived at Mount Aso some time ago, we couldn’t take the ropeway to the mountain top. However, we enjoyed a gorgeous sunny day in the Aso area with only a few degrees Celsius. The entire rural area has untouched beauty and it was so peaceful and quiet. I love it.
Planning a road trip to Mount Aso
We made a few changes when we planned our North Kyushu trip. We had a few other places on our list, like Beppu and Saga, Oita is an amazing onsen village and it’s popular among tourists. Due to limited time, we had to take them out eventually, we kept Nagasaki (I wanted to see Gunkanjima!), Kumamoto, and Fukuoka on our list – but one place never changed. Mount Aso remained on our list and it is a must-see highlight of our trip.
The best way to explore Mount Aso is self-driving because it’s much easier to get around efficiently, allowing us to complete our journey in just two days. Besides, we explored some offbeat locations and onsen resorts. This scenic route allows us to take a good look at the entire Mount Aso and the area is filled with untouched grasslands and bodies of water. Take the National Route 57 and enter Aso. A classic way to explore the area is a round trip – usually counterclockwise – from Route 57 to 339 and return to Route 57 from 225. This route covers Aso and the major highlights.
Another exciting place that we visited was a fantastic onsen resort located in Minami (Southern) Aso, we had individual rooms, with a private, outdoor garden-style onsen, facing Mount Aso as we soaked in the natural hot spring! More on that below.
So here, I have a simple road trip itinerary for Mount Aso, including a few important checkpoints and attractions that you should not miss:
Day 1 Pick up the car rental (Kumamoto JR station) > Head to Aso via National Route 57 (~43 km) > Explore the city of Aso through the Milk Road (Route 2) > Visit Daikanbo > Stay in Uchinomaki, an onsen town with a number of dining hotspots in the town’s main street.
Day 2 Continue your visit to Aso, cover the city’s highlights and maybe look for some souvenirs > Arrive at another hot spring resort in Minami Aso before dinner >
Day 3 Mount Aso scenic trip: Mount Aso Visitor Center, Ropeway, Kusasenri-ga-hama > Shirakawa Suigen > Mount Aso (Mount Aso Station) > Aso-boy scenic railway (Aso JR Station) > the train head to Fukuoka, or self-drive to Kumamoto via Route 28 – 225. It’s possible to stay for one more day if you plan to go cherry-picking or horse riding at one of the local farms.
Mount Aso Website http://www.kyusanko.co.jp/aso/
(Check the Mount Aso website for the eruption alert and services status. As I mentioned, the ropeway may close due to safety concerns.)
Ticketing: The ropeway service, horse riding, shuttle services, Mount Aso Visitor Center.
How to get around: Self-driving is a recommended way to get around. Take the Trans-Kyushu regular sightseeing bus if you prefer public transportation. However, there are only four shuttle buses daily.
There are many places in Aso and it’s impossible to visit them all in three days. But you don’t have to. To me, the most important is to absorb and admire the beautiful landscape of the area as it’s truly one of a kind. Then explore the many cafes, restaurants, and farms.
Aso and Minami Aso
Aso has an abundance of green on the highlands and it’s a great place to get in touch with many domestic animals or paragliding. Check out Aso Farmland, Aso Nature Land, or Aso Cuddly Dominion Zoo. The hot air balloon ride goes up to 40 meters high and allows visitors to have a panoramic bird’s eye view of the Aso Valley, Mount Aso, and Futae Toge.
Minami Aso Railway
Minami Aso Railway is a privately owned scenic railway connecting five places in Aso from Takamori to Nakamatsu with an amazing view that will take your breath away. Part of the routes of the railway was shut down due to the earthquakes in 2016. The train runs hourly and it’s a vintage gas train with open windows that passing through classic scenic spots like the Daiichi Shirakawa Bridge – Japan’s highest span at 60 meters when it opened in 1928. The bridge was seriously damaged and repair work is undergoing.
Daikanbo is in the northeast of the Uchinomaki Onsen area and is on the edge of the outer rim of the Aso caldera. The summit, surprisingly, does not usually appear on many Aso travel bucket lists. Having said that, it is now officially on my must-see recommendation because it is the highest viewpoint from the North to look down on the entire caldera.
Daikanbo is definitely a highlight of my entire trip here and it was not widely promoted on foreign travel websites may due to its less fanciful commercial development but with the more natural outdoorsy vibe, the peak must be well-known among the Japanese locals. The summit stands at 936 meters high and the signs that led to the lookout were not very clear, and the roads upon the peak were not shown correctly in GPS. Follow the crowd and we had to drive around a few times until we finally enter the right lane. If weather permits, you may be able to see a sea of clouds in the morning.
Shirakawa Spring Source
Shirakawa Spring Source is a famous landmark that Ministry of Environment chose it as one of the 100 Best Natural Waters in Japan. It is inside the Shirakawayoshimi Shrine, with water gushes out 60 tons per minute at 14 degrees Celsius.
Mount Aso Visitor Center
Mount Aso visitor center is where the souvenir shops, museums, and restaurants are. It is a busy pitstop as visitors usually park here for some rest. The center is quite spacious, with a giant window that offers an unobstructed view of Mount Aso as smoke emits from the top of the volcano. It is a great place to spend some time and warm up, especially during the cold weather. However, if you are up for a walk, take a stroll outside and explore the unique volcanic terrain.
For family travlers, visiti the animal farms!
Aso is an open space and there are a lot of animal farms where visitors can interact with domestic animals like cattles, sheep and rabbits. Just from my onsen resort is Minami Aso I can see cattle grazing on the grassland right outside of my hotspring. It is a great place of family travelers, while children will have a great time feeding or milking the cows, learning about the production of milk, and more; parents can also enjoy the sites from purchasing freshly made or prepared farm products at the souvenir shops.
There is horseback riding everywhere in the world, yet somehow it is a signature activity in Aso. Let’s just say this place is beautiful (and much more economical) for those who plan to enjoy a fun time with horses (I like animals, and the ranch is so damn close to the hot spring resort we stayed in!). Unfortunately, the ranch was fully booked the day I visited for a private event. It is recommended to make a reservation prior to your visit.
Ticketing: Horseback Riding – Beginner Class ¥5250 (45 mins) / ¥7350 (60 mins)
How did I get there: Drive, please~ 🙂
This is a wonderful way to truly get close to the summit of the volcano and see what it’s actually like from meters above! The view is for sure spectacular and there are five different routes – flyling time ranging from 2 minutes to 20 minutes. I would recommend the 7-minute fly which offers an opportunity to see the top of the volcano at ¥7500.
Aso helicoter tours
Ticketing: 5 different kinds of flights from 2 to 20 minutes. 7 to 20 minutes flight get close to the volcano and it’s summit.
How did I get there: 3-minutes from JR Aso station, or by bus from Kumamoto.
Takenokura Sanso Onsen Ryokan
The Ryokan is another amazing place that I stayed in Aso that I recommend it! This hot-spring resort in Minami (Southern) Aso offers INDIVIDUAL, OUTDOOR, IN-ROOM, and PRIVATE hot springs at an amazing price that’s almost too hard to believe!!
That’s how we found our resort. For a much lower price, the resort was an amazing experience. The resort is divided into the old wing and the new wing. Every guest has an individual room and a small outdoor hot spring area. Each zone is thoughtfully designed and has a view of the beautiful mountain range, with cows wandering outside on the lawn.
The dinner was nicely prepared and I can’t say it’s top-notched as I have tasted better in other hot spring resorts in Arima Onsen and Togo Onsen. Having said that, we had a chance to taste horse meat as it’s a common dish in Kyushu.
Since we visited Aso in March, and to me, March has a great temperature as it’s not too hot nor too cold to have a soak in the hot spring outdoor and rejuvenate our exhausted bodies right before our big adventure during the day.
What is a caldera?
Let’s talk a little bit about the geography of Aso. Aso is located in the Kumamoto Prefecture, on the island of Kyushu; and it is the largest active volcano in Japan. I learned that the feature of the area is called a caldera. Caldera is a hotpot-like volcanic feature with a cone-shaped volcano in the center, and its surrounding land was collapsed due to a volcanic eruption many, many years ago. Villages are now built around the volcano these days. The largest village is Aso – and it is located on the north side of the volcano.
How did I get there: I drove, but it’s possible to get there by train ~
We planned to take the 4:47 pm train to Kumamoto and therefore, we also planned to make the most of our time driving around the Aso area. Otherwise, it would have been less “stressful” for us to arrive at the Aso station 10 minutes to catch the train but would have been less “fun” to reach Kumamoto with the Aso-boy “Kuro” scenic train.
Japan is a small and developed country where railways could get you anywhere. The railway is inseparable from the Japanese daily lives, and there are a lot of fans who like collecting models and toys related to the Japanese railway. Me, I was always fascinated with the rail system route design, and I could stare at a roadmap for hours, wondering about the city layout, connections, and everything that comes with it. Aso Boy is a limited express train running two times a day between Kumamoto and Aso. Besides, the mascot Kuri is everywhere on the train and decorated with different themes and functions.
Aso Boy (あそぼーい!)
Ticketing: Reserve a train ticket beforehand, and it is included in the Kyushu JR pass