Aso. A single word that symbolizes a lot. The Aso area consists of 1 city, 3 towns, and 3 villages. These are all located inside, or along the rim of the huge caldera that surrounds the five peaks of Japan’s largest active volcano.
One of the most symbolic parts of Aso’s scenery is 22.000 hectares of grasslands. This is enough to cover all of Paris twice over in grasslands with some left to spare! These grasslands are the vastest in Japan and give birth to a unique landscape unlike anything else that Japan has to offer. But these grasslands aren’t just here by chance, they haven’t been born through some fluke of nature, and they won’t remain if left alone.
Let’s have a look at the secret of Aso, the truth about Japan’s most extensive meadows.
In the summer Aso is known for these intensive green grasslands that seem to stretch out endlessly.
As autumn comes along, the grasslands are painted in gold and you can enjoy the calming sight of pampas grass swaying in the wind.
These grasslands change their appearance with the seasons but regardless of when you visit, they always put on a show.
One of the more unique displays, but arguably the most important one, is from mid-March to early-April.
Pitch black fields of grass that cover hills and mountains.
The reason for this is…
Noyaki. Noyaki (野焼き) literally means “field-burning” and is the process of burning the fields every year in early spring. According to some of Japan’s oldest scripture, the Kojiki, Aso was covered in grasslands 1300 years ago. This means that the grasslands have been maintained at least since the 8th century!
By burning the fields, you prevent the grasslands from being overtaken by shrub and turning into a bushy forest-landscape. Without the burning, the grasslands will slowly turn into woodland. Furthermore, the burning removes substances that prevent the grass’s growth making it possible for an exquisite green lawn to burst forward as the flames settle down.
Grasslands can’t exist naturally, at least not in Japan, so the reason that you can enjoy lush green fields in the summer and breath-taking pampas grass in the winter is all thanks to this ancient tradition.
The sight of these burning flames is both exhilarating and frightening. Controlling large areas of fire always comes with risk and every other year, someone passes away in the process. Nearby roads are often closed down restricting access to surrounding areas as well.
Fewer and fewer people take part in this hard work every year which leads to consequences.
As you can see above, these three pictures (from left to right) display the Aso area in the early and mid 20th century and early 21st century. The green parts represent the grasslands that have become smaller and smaller over the last 100 years. Compared to 100 years ago the size of Aso’s grasslands has shrunk by half its original size.
This is a result of many different factors such as heavy machinery replacing horses and cows in farming, urbanization, Japan’s aging population, cheap fertilizers that lessen the need to grow grass, and such.
But the grasslands aren’t simply an outdated remnant of past times but a vital part of the eco-system. The grasslands make up a giant recharge area for Aso’s plentiful groundwater that supplies not only all of Kumamoto City with drinking water but 5 million people all around Kyushu. Furthermore, thanks to these grasslands, that has been maintained for over 1000 years, some flowers and animals remain only in Aso while having gone extinct in the rest of Japan. As if that wasn’t enough, the grasslands also operate as a carbon sink, removing carbon dioxide from the air storing it in the soil underground. Recent research indicates that grasslands actually are more effective at this then forests. So there are many reasons to protect these grasslands.
I’ve mentioned the 1300 year history of the grasslands, but there are actually indications that these grasslands have been maintained for much longer than that.
What you see above is the soil around Aso, if you spend some time here, you might notice this striped soil now and again as you travel around the area.
The volcanic red soil gradually turns into brown soil as a result of growing grass and maintaining the grasslands. But if you look closely, you will see a reddish line going through the brown soil. Tests have shown that this is a layer of volcanic dust that blew in and covered Aso when the Kikai Caldera had a super eruption 7000 years ago. Still, we can see that the brown grassland-soil existed before that, and remember, no grassland without human intervention. This indicates that the Aso grasslands probably have been maintained for over 7000 years!
With that said, the mystical and powerful sight of these mountains as they gradually get colored in black by raging flames, and the intricate ancient relationship between humans and nature that Noyaki represents, is in and of itself, something I believe should be protected.
Regardless of where you go during the Noyaki season, the scenery will be something different and unique, but that is precisely why it’s extra exciting to see someplace familiar! Komedzuka, the nearly perfectly cone-shaped inactive crater often looks like this.
Here you have her in black!
This is truly a sight that you only can see for a very limited time. Soon the spring grass will burst forward coloring Komedzuka green again and Akaushi cows will start grazing in the surrounding fields.
If you want to learn more about the grasslands you can always head to…
Aso Grassland Conservation Center!
In their education center, you can learn about the history, the importance, and the struggles of the grasslands.
Thankfully the facility also has good explanations in English so feel free to visit even if your Japanese is a bit unpolished.
<Aso Grasslands Conservation Center>
Address: 869-2307 Kumamoto, Aso City, Kosato 656-6
Open hours: 09:00 – 17:00
Fixed holidays: None
Entrance fee: None
So, you might have read this article and is thinking, “What can I do to help?”
There are many things you can do!
If you live in Japan and speak fluent Japanese you can be educated to participate as a volunteer during the Noyaki.
For more information, check out Aso Greenstock’s website. Only in Japanese though!
If you live in Japan, you can also pay to become the owner of an Akaushi cow and in return receive regular shipments of local Aso products.
If you’re not living in Japan, then making Aso a part of your trip is the best way to support the grasslands. Try out the local wagyu, Akaushi beef. Take part in any of the guided tours that donate some of their revenue to organizations that conserve the grasslands. Buy some local products and be a part of supporting the local people who live here. Your visit to Aso also leads to more work opportunities that might incentivize young people to stay rather than moving away to big cities. These are all small steps but each of those steps is an important step that brings us closer to saving these beautiful grasslands.
In short, the vast grasslands of Aso are a treasure that has been protected through at least 1300 years, probably far more than that. The grasslands have enabled and supported the lives of people and keep doing so to this day. The single most important factor in maintaining these grasslands is the spring burning of the fields, Noyaki.
If you happen to be traveling in Kyushu late March, early April, visit Aso to take in this unique landscape as you feel the tightly connected history of humans and nature. This won’t only give you an amazing experience but also be a small contribution to the efforts of preserving this eco-system and protecting the Aso area’s ancient culture and customs.
Thanks for reading and see you in Aso!