Dreaming of Japanese Adventure: Explore Kumamoto

By Don Kennedy

October 20, 2022

Nature lovers will revel in the active volcanoes, wild rivers, and biking and hiking trails in scenic Kumamoto Prefecture in central Kyushu, Japan.

Kumamoto Prefecture on the island of Kyushu is known in Japan as a nature lover’s paradise, with active volcanoes, wild rivers and verdant islands just waiting to be explored. A quick 30-minute Shinkansen bullet train ride south of Fukuoka will bring you a stone’s throw from the caldera of Aso-Kuju National Park or close to the wild dolphin pods of Amakusa.

The prefecture is beautiful in all seasons, with a mild climate that makes it the ideal region for traveling all year round. However, if you are looking for a mix of beach and mountain summer activities, Kumamoto is ready and waiting. Here are some of the best ways to get in on the action for those with an adventurous spirit.

Climb the Aso Caldera Firewall

Hop on an ATV and explore the Aso Caldera along one of Japan’s largest grasslands in Aso-Kuju National Park. Photo: Burcu Basar

Created by an eruption 90,000 years ago, the Aso Caldera and the central lake which filled the caldera 8,000 years ago, have been continuously inhabited for 30,000 years – generations of inhabitants transforming what was a muddy swamp in rich, cultivated land. Meanwhile, locals have managed the grasslands with controlled burns to help them regrow in the spring and summer. In March each year, once the grass is dry, they perform this ‘noyaki’ process, with villagers walking along the approximately 500 km of ‘wachi’ fire-break circular paths with sticks in hand to prevent the fire from spreading to the forest on the edge. from the caldera.

With the help of electric mountain bikes and a guide in the lead, this thrilling fire-break ride will take you along centuries-old rolling wachi paths at the edge of one of Japan’s largest grasslands. The perfectly round green hills are almost Martian, reminiscent of an AI-generated stock photo when viewed close-up.

Early August is the best time to explore the firebreaks as the grass is still short and the scenic views are plentiful. Yet each season has its highlights – autumn brings flowers and insects, winter brings snow, and the blackened hills after the controlled burn create a surreal contrast to the springtime landscape in March. In addition to tours around the caldera perimeter, there is also a one-day mountain biking course to the crater of the active volcano itself.

Walk the Mennoishi hiking trail

This breathtaking view of Mount Aso can be seen from the lookout point at the top of the Mennoishi hiking route. Photo: Burcu Basar

Unknown even to most locals, the Mennoishi hiking route was only possible with a professional guide until last year, but the path has been improved and it is now possible to walk it unaided. Mennoishi, literally translated as the “immunity stone”, was, until the 2016 Kumamoto earthquake, stuck on the edge of a cave between two cliffs 40m in the air and was considered by locals to be lucky charm. People came to pray to him for success in anything from passing exams to finding work to even being nominated in local elections. During the earthquake, he was dislodged, but this created another coincidental resemblance, that of a cat.

The hiking route begins with a winding path through the trees, quickly turning into an adventure park-like hiking trail, with ladders to climb and metal chains to hold on to as you go. as you progress through the dense forest. For those who want to reach the top but are not cut out for the climbing sections, a “safe” route is available, which winds along steps and ladders. It takes about 1.5 hours (with several breaks included), and there’s an abundance of ferns, flowers, and moss-covered monoliths to examine along the way. If an Instagrammable silhouette of a cat isn’t your style, the hike alone is worth it for the scenic views at a lookout point near the top of the trail.

Rafting on the Kumagawa River

Go rafting along the wide Kumagawa River. Photo: Kumagawa Kudari

Don your life jacket and prepare to get wet as experienced guides take you along one of the few rafting spots in Kyushu. Commercial rafting trips have been popular on the Kumagawa River for 20 years, and it’s easy to see why. The wide river allows for a range of conditions, from short sections of rapids to deep pools where you can jump into the water and float peacefully, listening to the sounds of the environment. The combination of fast and thrilling streams with slower sections – featuring rich bird life and flora – provides an exceptional rafting experience, especially compared to tours that focus on white-knuckle excitement and downpours. throughout the course.

The rapids of the Kumagawa River. Photo: Don Kennedy

Only two years ago the river was flooded and some doubted it was even possible to rebuild and continue the commercial tours. The flooding was extensive and the aftermath of the flooding can still be seen today, with pylons sticking out of the river to where a railway bridge previously stood. But Kumagawa Kudari workers have been working hard to revive the industry, with the fully renovated Hassenba base offering relaxing river views and fantastic cuisine courtesy of the Kyushu Pancake Company. Many regular visitors enjoy rafting in the summer, when the bright blue summer sky, tree-covered hills, and crystal-clear river create breathtaking visual vistas. In addition to rafting trips, Hassenba also offers more leisurely boat trips so you can take in the beauty of the river and its surroundings at your own pace. Cycling tours are also offered from October to June.

Kayaking to the Amakusa Islands

Kayak to some of Amakusa’s hundreds of uninhabited islands. Photo: Burcu Basar

Amakusa, west of Kumamoto City, consists of a chain of over 100 islands, the majority of which are uninhabited and accessible only by boat. And that’s where Funa-san, owner of a kayaking tour company, found his calling. Before becoming a sea kayaking tour guide, Funa-san kayaked along the Kumagawa River on some weekends and snorkeled and scuba-dived in Amakusa on others. In his mind, kayaking was for the rivers and snorkeling for the ocean, but one day he borrowed a sea kayak from a friend and discovered that Amakusa was the perfect middle ground. So, at age 35, he quit his job as an advertising salesman in the city and decided to do what he loved by starting a sea kayaking tour business in Amakusa.

Take a break on one of Amakusa’s many remote and uninhabited islands. Photo: Burcu Basar

Amakusa’s waters have the most extreme tidal range in Japan, which changes daily. Jump into a sea kayak and cruise to these stunning islands while learning about the region’s geography and history. Amakusa’s waters are renowned for dolphin watching, with pods of hundreds of dolphins calling the area, and they’re also home to large stingrays and (non-toxic!) jellyfish. Unlike Kumagawa whitewater rafting, it’s a much more relaxed affair, with plenty of time to take in the scenic surroundings and cool off in secluded bays. Funa-san says Amakusa is unique in that once you get there, there are so many things to do in such a small area, including snorkeling, scuba diving, biking, skydiving climbing and hiking, as well as excellent restaurants and hotels.

This article was brought to you by the Kumamoto Prefecture Tourism Federation.

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