Kumamoto: Tours Offer rare Glimpse into Aso Pastureland

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Nasu Blasen professional cycling team members race up a grassy slope in Aso, Kumamoto Prefecture.

ASO, Kumamoto — Cycling enthusiasts have been racing to sign up for the chance to bike, trek and camp in the sprawling pastoral landscape at the foot of Mt. Aso.

A series of sightseeing “Bokuya” (grassland) tours, launched in December 2018, takes visitors off the beaten path to restricted areas that are only accessible when accompanied by certified local guides.

The tours were devised by a nonprofit organization that runs Michi no Eki Aso, a local roadside rest area. The NPO convinced farmers from the regional pastureland cooperative to open their land to tourists during the off-season when there is little risk to cattle and crops, as a means to introduce the area’s charms and promote conservation.

The knowledgeable guides have been trained in how to protect the many rare plant species on the plains and are well-versed in the workings of the region’s agricultural and livestock industries. They have also completed field training to steer clear of dangerous sections of terrain but have been certified in emergency response protocols, just in case.

Over the past two years, the tour has already drawn nearly 700 participants. The organizers said there was a particularly strong international turnout coinciding with the 2019 Rugby World Cup matches held in Kumamoto and Oita prefectures.

Last December, a dozen cyclists clad in yellow and black uniforms could be spotted buzzing around the open terrain in Machikoga, Aso City on mountain bikes. They were members of Nasu Blasen, a professional cycling team from Tochigi Prefecture that joined the tour as part of their training regimen. “The electric assist on the tour bikes makes it easy to ride up these hills. And the scenery’s great, too,” said Shotaro Watanabe, a 26-year-old in his second year with the team.

Machikoga was the first rangeland to offer tours, although they could initially only be conducted in the off-season from December to April when the cattle were not out to pasture. Shimoogi-no-kusa and Nishikozono, two nearby sites that are not used for cattle grazing, soon followed suit, making it possible to operate tours year-round.

Participants also have the option of pitching tents and enjoying a more leisurely communion with nature, catering to demand for outdoor activities amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Although visitors will discover a new appreciation of Aso’s many faces throughout the changing seasons, the peak months are March and April, after the white winter snowfall and before the fields turn black with soot from the annual spring fires.

“There’s something really special about the grasslands experience. I’d like people to have a better understanding of the history of the plains, and share a love of nature,” said Sho Kamasaki, an 18-year-old guide.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Participants rest in a tent set up on the plains.

Preserving agricultural heritage

The Aso Caldera region boasts nearly 22,000 hectares of grassland, making it one of the largest swaths of natural splendor in Japan. Subtracting the 6,000 hectares used primarily as pastures, that still leaves roughly 16,000 hectares of stubborn soil that requires careful tending by a local cooperative. Each year, the co-op sets fire to the grassland in a controlled burn that eradicates pests and prepares the plains for the first spring sprouts.

In 2013, Aso was designated a Globally Important Agricultural Heritage System (GIAHS) by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, in recognition of the flourishing ecosystem that has arisen over a millennium-long struggle to sustainably tame the volcanic soil.

This ancient ecosystem is now threatened by a quintessentially modern problem. The cattle farmers are ready for retirement, yet there is a severe shortage of workers willing to take over the reins. More and more pastures fall fallow.

Maintenance of the pastures is vital in order to protect the region’s rich biodiversity while also preserving the aesthetic landscape. A portion of the tour proceeds will be contributed to the co-op and put toward the upkeep of the historic grasslands.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Volunteers bundle harvested grass in the Aso region of Kumamoto Prefecture.

Shipping grass for roofing material to generate profit

An effort to commercialize grass from pasturelands as a material for thatched roofs has begun in the Aso region of Kumamoto Prefecture.

Selling the grass, which would otherwise have to be burned, will provide new income for farmers. Moreover, if the amount of grass in pastures is reduced by harvesting, the work of prescribed burning, a valuable tool for pasture management, will be made safer.

According to the Japan Thatching Cultural Association, based in Ibaraki Prefecture, there are 408 nationally designated important cultural properties with thatched roofs in Japan. If their roofs were to be replaced every 20 to 30 years, about 100,000 bundles of grass such as Japanese pampas and reeds would be needed annually.

Although it is generally traded at ¥700 to ¥800 per bundle, the carpenters sometimes have to wait for replacement materials because the number of well-managed grasslands is decreasing.

Aso Green Stock, an organization that works to conserve grasslands, has started to commercialize grass as a product. An official at the organization said that the sales of grass from Aso will provide a new source of income for farmers.

In 2019, 3,500 bundles were shipped to Kyoto to demonstrate the concept. Aso grasses were highly prized in Kyoto for their thinness and strength.

Aso Green Stock has decided to start commercialization in earnest this season, with a goal of shipping about 10,000 bundles. If the project gets on track, it is expected to both promote Aso’s grasslands and help secure workers.

“We’d like to link this to the promotion of the local economy, and make the product a brand over the next five years or so,” Aso Green Stock’s senior official said.