Aso is selected as one of the top 100 famous mountains in Japan. This, of course, also means that there is an almost infinite number of hiking paths for the one who loves walking. But it might be hard to know where to start. So, this time I will introduce two hiking paths. One that anyone can easily enjoy at any point and one where it is recommended to go with a guide!
[Nr. 1] Sankin-kotai, cobblestone pathway
This path, called “Futae-no-Toge Ishidatami” used to connect the previous provinces of Higo and Bungo, today known as Kumamoto and Oita. Sankin-kotai was a system established during the Edo period (1603 – 1868) that forced the lords, known as daimyo, to regularly visit the capital. The daimyo of Higo, the Hosokawa clan, used this very road during such times. The procession could consist of as many as 2700 people!
This cobblestone pathway is about 1,6 km long and is one of the longest stone pavements remaining in Japan today. This path, which harmonizes with Aso’s grand nature, is beloved by and cared for by the locals.
You can walk the path in either direction, but this time we will start from the bottom and hike up along the mountain.
If you go by car, you enter Prefectural road 23 from the Milk road and head in the direction of Akamizu. After some while, you will take a left and find a parking lot with this sign indicating the start of the hiking route. Toilets are available as well!
Make a wish for safe hiking at the small shrine and get ready to set out!
The path starts with this road leading you straight into the forest.
The beautiful and carefully built stone pavements attest to the skill of the people of the past. Interesting fact, the Japanese word for stone pavement/cobblestone is “ishi-datami” which literally translates to “stone tatami”.
If it has been raining, the stones might be a bit slippery, so proceed with care!
Along the path, you can find small resting places such as this one. During the time of the Sankin-kotai, these were used to let the ones who carried all the heavy load have a small breather.
Once you reach this stone staircase, you will be about halfway to the goal.
This mud-road will cross your path, ignore it and keep following the stone pavement on the other side.
Until this point, you have been hiking through the woods. But suddenly the scenery opens up and you find yourself facing the symbolic grass plains of Aso.
As you hike along the trail, you will also come across these three Jizo statues. They serve as guarding spirits for travelers and can be found all around Japan.
Pay your respects and keep moving ahead!
And before you know it, the scenery has changed completely.
If you turn around and look back…
Far in the distance, you can see townscapes, fields, forests, and the mountains.
This day was a bit foggy so not the optimal conditions but on a clear day, it might look something like this!
And this pole here with the Japanese signs [豊後街道 (Bungo Kaido)], marks the goal for the hike. If you look back you will notice that your endeavors have taken you to quite the high location.
There is an information board here where you can learn more about the history of Sankin-kotai and this path.
There is a parking lot here as well if you prefer to do the hike in the opposite direction.
And this is what the entrance from the Milkroad looks like!
Drink something warm and have a rest before heading back!
On our way back, we finally got some sunlight piercing through the trees to create a nice atmosphere.
The hiking route is easy and takes about 2 hours (one-way), including a break midway. Unless you have someone picking you up, you will need to go the same way back. Personally, I prefer to go downhill on the way back which is why I chose this direction.
Even though you need to go the same way back, it’s totally worth it. This is a hiking path where you can truly feel the history of Japan, the nature of Aso, and enjoy some stellar scenery along the way.
Sankin-kotai Stone Pavement
Address: Muta, Aso, Kumamoto 869-2233
Google maps: https://goo.gl/maps/1ecpmd9u66DRzhXt6
[Nr. 2] Geo Tour, Mt. Kishima Hiking
Did you know that Aso is appointed as one of UNESCO’s Global Geoparks?
So, what is a Geopark?
“UNESCO Global Geoparks are single, unified geographical areas where sites and landscapes of international geological significance are managed with a holistic concept of protection, education and sustainable development (unesco.org)”.
There are many hiking paths and beautiful natural areas in Aso. But while you’re here, why not make this an even deeper experience and learn about all the mysteries hidden in these landscapes?
If that sounds interesting to you, then you should let one of the certified Geo guides give you a guided tour!
The tours are available in English and can vary between anything from 1,5 hours to full-day tours. The price is set per group and the cheapest ones cost 10,000 yen and the most expensive one is 22,000 yen. What I will introduce here is a short 1,5 hours hike up to the top of Mt. Kishima. They recommend the 3-hour course to get the full Mt. Kishima experience though!
Here was our guide for the day, Mr. Kawahara.
For about 1,5 hours he taught us a lot of interesting facts about Aso and helped us deepen our knowledge.
This is where the tour starts, right outside the Aso Volcano Museum.
Firstly, you get a short explanation of the Aso area and its geological features.
Time to hike!
There is also a small postbox here with notes where you can write down your contact information and such before ascending the mountain.
This day the volcano was active and happy burping out a lot of volcanic dust. So, to be on the safe side, Mr. Kawahara provided us with goggles and masks. Hiking with goggles and masks was in and of itself quite a unique and exciting experience!
The height of Mt. Kishima is 1,321 meters!
The steeper parts of the path have staircases making the hike easier. With that said, be prepared for an ascent of about 30 minutes. It might be a bit tough if you have been slacking off on the everyday exercise!
But the more you climb the more stunning the scenery becomes. If you stop partway and look back…
You will see this spectacular and unusual view of Kusasenri! And to the right, you can also see the Aso Volcano Museum where we started! So small!
In the far far distance, you can even see the volcano Unzen located in Nagasaki prefecture! It’s only visible as a small triangular dot! But during clear days you can apparently enjoy the majestic sight of a Mt. Unzen that seems to float upon the Ariake sea.
After roughly 40 minutes of hiking, we have finally reached the peak of Mt. Kishima!
And from here you have an absolutely unparalleled view of the volcano as it spews out an endless stream of thick volcanic dust and smoke!
You can also see the remains of this, relatively new but inactive, volcanic crater from 3500 years ago. If you go for the 3-hour route you will also walk along the rim of this inactive crater!! The view from the far side looking out over the caldera is supposed to be jaw-dropping. I truly regret that we didn’t have more time!
While having a break at the top you get to learn more about the birth and history of this unique landscape. Hearing the explanations while actually seeing the landscapes makes it so much more interesting and easier to grasp!
The weather conditions this day made for quite the unique scenery. Dark clouds of volcanic dust contrasting against a blue sky, and to top it off, a sea of clouds floating in the far distance.
You might visit Aso and be disappointed because access to the Nakadake crater is restricted. Then I warmly recommend hiking up Mt. Kishima and experience a slightly different, but nevertheless fantastic view of the volcano!
After a short break, we head back down towards the museum. The total time for this hike was about 1,5 hours.
So, if you, like me, have been entranced by the amazing scenery of Aso and want to learn more, then you should definitely take part in one of these Geo tours!
And if you really want to watch the Nakadake crater up-close and it happens to be restricted. You can experience live camera footage of the volcano through a VR-headset back at the museum. Free of charge!
Aso Volcano Museum
Address: 1930-1 Akamizu, Aso, Kumamoto 869-2232
Opening hours: 09:00 – 17:00
Fixed holidays: None
Website: http://www.asomuse.jp/ (Mostly in Japanese)
Google maps: http://www.aso-geopark.jp/kyoukai/en/guide/
Aso is an area with many mountains, and there are tons of easy routes that make Aso great for inexperienced hikers. But even the veteran hiker can enjoy more challenging paths or the simple fact that the stunning landscapes will be unlike anything you have ever seen before. But remember to keep an eye on the status of the volcano. And in winter, the roads can be frozen and slippery so be careful!
For more information on warnings and restrictions regarding the Aso volcano: