As the largest active caldera in Japan, Mount Aso is a great place to discover the effects of volcanoes and how they have shaped this beautiful country.
Mount Aso is one of the largest active calderas in the world and the largest in Japan. It is the remains of several small and four large-scale volcanic eruptions. Ranging from 90,000-300,000 years ago, these four large eruptions shaped much of Kumomoto Prefecture and the island of Kyushu. The most recent small eruption occured in 2016.
The Mount Aso caldera measures 18 km east to west and 25 km north to south. There are 5 peaks, Takadake, Nekodake, Kishimadake, Eboshidake, and Nakadake; Nakadake is the active peak. All throughout Kyushu you’ll see evidence of Mount Aso’s violent eruptions. From megaliths to gorges formed from pyroclastic blasts to the many hot springs Mount Aso has left its footprint on this area.
Living in Harmony
The towns in the region adapt to and accept a volcano in their midst. An example is Takamori Town, where after tunneling 2000m into a mountain for a train tunnel, water burst through the volcanic rock and hasn’t stopped flowing since. They turned it into a beautiful park, instead! Natural springs and hot springs are common in the area and are one of the great benefits of living near an active volcano.
See how the people near Mount Sakurajima, the most active volcano in Japan, deal with almost daily eruptions.
As we drove around, we noticed the soil in the rice paddies looked darker and richer than what we are used to seeing. There are many fields and farms in the area. Yama no Sato, a farmer’s restaurant will host you with some of their local dishes from pickled foods to their very own red cattle beef (call for information at 0967-25-2253).
Tourism has grown in the past several years, helping the economy and providing a way for the people to share their beautiful Mount Aso with the world. Most foreign travelers don’t make the trip to this part of the country; it is, however, very popular among the Japanese, especially during the fall colors.
While you’re visiting there are many ways to make the most of your trip:
From strenuous climbs to leisurely strolls, there are several hikes to take throughout the caldera. The gondola was down for maintenance when we were there, so we hiked up to the Nakadake crater. The trail was paved and was relatively easy (I wish I had Jeannie in the carrier). The trails and gondola will close depending on the volcanic activity and gas levels.
You can enjoy a horseback ride through the meadows and around the ponds. We saw a few people enjoying Mount Aso this way and it looked really fun.
The gondola can take you up to the top of the Nakadake Crater when the weather and volcano allow it! It was closed due to maintenance when we visited, but would be nice for anyone that would rather not hike.
For 4 minutes, you can take a thrilling helicopter ride around the rim of the fuming crater! It was more like a roller coaster ride than a scenic flyby – they really dip and dive to give you some great views!
Mount Aso Museum
Learn the history of Mount Aso by visiting their museum. There is a lot to learn about volcanoes in general, but learning about the one that we are standing in adds a level of discovery that was great not only for us but the kids loved it too! They have many interactive displays and hands-on experiences with volcanic rocks.
There are several restaurants near the museum for you to enjoy. Also go into town and enjoy local dining. As mentioned before, at Yama no Sato you can eat local produce and beef and eat with the locals!
Onsens and Hotsprings
In Aso City alone there are over 80 hotsprings and 30 hotels with 11 bathhouses. There are even more in the surrounding area. Enjoyed by locals and tourists, this relaxing and refreshing experience can also give you some incredible views of the caldera.
Plan your trip:
There is plenty to do in the area, and some of it depends on what is going on with the volcano – which can change daily. We had high hopes to get to the rim, but because of the gas fumes weren’t able to make it. That being said, because of the volcanic activity, Mount Aso was billowing incredible amounts of steam, and was particularly beautiful! If Mount Aso is on your list of places to visit, have a Plan A and some back-up ideas, too. I would prioritize them, then see what you can actually accomplish when you get there.
A rental car is going to help make the most of the trip, but Aso station is accessible by rail or bus, too.
Something we didn’t know until we were leaving was the Geopark put together a Mount Aso Geotourism map. There are 5 different courses taking you to different areas with different views and experiences to enjoy. For your convenience we have plotted out each of the courses on our map here. You can visit them as they suggest, or see what interests you and pick and choose! If we were to do it over again, which we plan to, we would follow many of the points on the Geotourism map.
After we visited Mount Aso we headed to the Takachiho Gorge, another must see while you’re visiting Kyushu!