By Mio Hori / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterMINAMI-ASO, Kumamoto — A caldera is a vast crater left behind when a volcano collapses or explodes. An impressive feature of the caldera at Mt. Aso is that its rocky somma, or rim, features a gigantic opening in the shape of a cat.
The cat-shaped space is filled with layers of color, as visitors can look through it to see blue sky, mountains, farmland and trees — the latter ablaze with autumn colors at the time of my visit.
In the past, a gigantic stone called “Men no Ishi” about 3 meters long and 2 meters wide, was suspended in the air between the rocks. About 10 years ago, groups including the local Makino Kumiai associations, which manage grassy fields, began tours of the area, allowing visitors to marvel at the stone, which appeared to be on the verge of falling and yet somehow didn’t.
Then came the 2016 Kumamoto Earthquake, which dislodged the giant stone at last. The space it left behind looked remarkably like a cat.
Isao Kashiwada, 78, my guide, said, “Although the stone had not fallen for many years, the earthquake was so powerful that the stone finally fell.”
As I listened to the story of someone who experienced the strong earthquake, I was struck by how powerful the forces of nature are.
The village of Minami-Aso in Kumamoto Prefecture is surrounded by the Aso Gogaku five peaks and Mt. Aso’s somma. The entire area is included in the 1,079-square-kilometer Aso Geopark. This is a UNESCO Global Geopark, meaning it is recognized by UNESCO as having scientific significance in terms of geography, geology and other aspects.
It’s a place where visitors can appreciate the blessings of nature on various climbing routes. I participated in the Men no Ishi trekking tour.
The tour started from Tori no Kozuka Park, at 548 meters above sea level. I could see the Aso peaks and reddish cows lying comfortably on the ground.
We climbed along a rocky trail. “Along the route, you can enjoy looking at tall, mossy trees, giant rocks and old-growth forest,” Kashiwada said.
Just as he said, the green mosses and red, brown and yellow foliage of broad-leaf trees, such as Japanese zelkova and maple trees, were beautiful. The sound of fallen leaves underfoot was pleasant to the ear.
The famous stone came into sight. The stone, which had been stuck at a height corresponding to the neck of the “cat,” fell because of the earthquake, rolled downslope for about 50 meters and was stopped after crashing into trees.
We arrived at our destination, “Manekineko no Kudo” (hollow of the beckoning cat). Rainwater seeping between the rocks freezes and expands in winter and then thaws in spring. Through repetition of the processes, the rocks collapsed little by little and the hollow became larger. I realized that, since the eruption occurred about 90,000 years ago, this place had changed little by little over a very long time.
“I hope it will become a beckoning cat that invites fortune,” Kashiwada said.
I was moved by his words, as his village lost its Men no Ishi from its original place, which was one of the things it had been proud of, in the aftermath of the earthquake.
After the tour, I took a hot spring bath at the foot of the mountain. In the village, there are many hot springs, which refresh your awareness of the fact that an active volcano is located near the village.
I also visited the Shirakawa Suigen riverhead, designated as one of the 100 best natural water sources in Japan. I scooped with a ladle the spring water continuously welling up from the bottom of a pond and drank it. Rainwater falling in the mountains passes through strata and percolates up. As a result, the rainwater becomes mellow.
On the way home, I drove through a Japanese pampas grass field lit by the sunset. It was a fantastical landscape like a golden carpet, which was different from the steep rocky mountain I climbed during the daytime.
Next time, I want to come here at night and participate in a night hike where I can watch the starry sky.
While the forces of nature sometimes bare their fangs, I appreciated that nature also blesses our minds and bodies with rich abundance such as hot springs, pure water and beautiful landscapes.
Soba workshops popular
The village of Minami-Aso is a soba production area. At Kugino Soba Dojo, visitors can experience an about 40-minute soba making course, which is popular among foreign tourists. Participants can eat the soba they make or bring it back home. The head of the center, Seiji Kai, 57, said: “We hope many people will come and enjoy soba.”
It takes about 1½ hours by car from Fukuoka via the Kyushu Expressway to the Mashiki-Kumamoto Airport Interchange. It takes about 50 minutes by car from the interchange to the michi-no-eki roadside facility Asobo no Sato Kugino, which has a reception desk for trekking tours.
For more information, call Minamiaso-mura Toursim Association at (0967) 67-2222.
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