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Aso Christmas Balloon Festival

One of Aso’s most striking features is the 28-km ring of rugged mountains that are actually the walls of a giant crater, or caldera. This lush area, considered the largest caldera in the world, is a natural paradise, with wide grasslands and pure spring water testament to the plains’ fertile, volcanic past. It’s easy to see why Aso is such a popular tourist spot; people come to drive, walk or camp in the idyllic surroundings. In every season you can find visitors from all over Japan exploring the region.

Among the events happening in Aso at this time of year, the Christmas Balloon Festival is the most popular. Twenty-five colorful hot air balloons race over the expanse of Aso, and there are illuminations, fireworks and Christmas decorations, too. You can enjoy the balloons simply as a spectator, but visitors are invited to actually take a ride in one themselves. Trial flights take you 40 meters into the air where you are sure to find a whole new way to appreciate the Aso landscape. Find out what it’s like to use the powerful, roaring burner and get high up in the air. All these activities and more combine for a great day out with your family. There’s more to see on the various stages around Hana Aso as professional mountain bikers perform their tricks, and street performers are ready to entertain. Spectators can grab a bite to eat and shop for souvenirs at the various stalls dotted around, too.

During the evening, the atmosphere changes; the twenty-five balloons are fired up and the mood becomes romantic. Enjoy the sight of the multitude of balloons sailing through the air, the “Balloon Illusion”, and then take in the amazing fireworks, which even spell out messages against the night sky. This event is named “Crying Out Love in the Center of the Caldera”, in honor of a famous Japanese movie, “Crying Out Love, in the Center of the World”.

Most of these festivities are centered around the Fureai Mizube Koen area. You can use a shuttle bus service to take you from there to Otohime Guest House and discover the Illuminations Maze, where Christmas decorations light up the alleyways in the evenings. The bus also goes to Uchinomaki Shopping Arcade, where the Uchinomaki Guide Association, made up of Aso locals, can advise you on how to enjoy everything the area has to offer, including a Gourmet Walking Tour.

What, Where and When
Catch these events in and around Aso Uchinomaki Onsen, Hana Asobi, and Fureai Mizube Park (the grasslands around the lake.)

23/13 (Sat.)

  • 08:00~ Hana Asobi. Balloon race, public balloon rides*
  • 15:00~ Balloon race
  • 16:00~ Mizube Park. Public balloon rides*
  • 18:00~ Stage events
  • 19:00~ Kumamoto FM live broadcast
  • 19:30~ “Crying Out Love in the Center of the Caldera”, “Message Fireworks”
  • 20:00~ “Balloon Illusion” , “Message Fireworks”

24/12 (Sun.)

  • 8:00~ Hana Asobi. Balloon race / public balloon rides*
  • 19:00~ Mizube Park. Public balloon rides* Suntory Presents:”Crying Out Love in the Center of the Caldera” “Message Fireworks”

* Balloon rides last about five minutes (ascending and descending) and cost 1,000 yen.

If you can’t make it to Aso this Christmas (or you’re already planning your next trip!) then check out the fascinating cultural events below.

Hifuri Shinji

Held in the Aso shrine, the Hifuri ceremony celebrates a legendary wedding ceremony between gods. During the dark night, the locals make spectacular fire rings by swinging torches around dramatically.
Name: Hifuri Shinji
Date: 15/3 (Thu.) 18:00 ~ 20:00
Place: Aso Shrine and adjacent area.
Access: 5 min. by bus from JR Miyaji Stn.

Dai Himojiyaki

On the Aso Ojotake mountain, on a raised mound near Uchimaki hot springs, the Chinese character for “fire” is burned into the ground, large and blazing and crackling in the night, on the hillside for all to see. Check out the local market and live shows earlier in the day, and fireworks in the evening.
Name: Dai Himojiyaki
Date: 17/3 (Sat.)
Place: Aso City, Uchinomaki
Access: 15 min. by bus from JR Aso Stn.

More information: Aso Himatsuri Organization Committee


The Koga Waterfalls

Two waterfalls cascade from a caldera precipice: the Male Waterfall, 80 meters tall, and the Female Waterfall that tumbles 100 meters. During the winter, the north wind freezes both waterfalls into stunning, solid, white ice. This spectacular scene reminds us of the wild nature of Aso. It’s a fifteen-minute walk to the waterfall basin from the parking lot.

Contact: Aso City, Ichinomiya-cho, Sakanashi Koga
Aso Information Center
10 min. by taxi from Miyaji Stn.

The Nakadake Crater

See the bubbling heart of Japan’s largest active volcano; a 600 meter wide, 130 meter deep crater, where lava flows and acrid white smoke billows. Take the ropeway to the crater, or walk up and let the eerie, volcanic landscape and rock formations convince you you’re on another planet.
Contact: Aso Mountains Ropeway
820 roundtrip
Open: 9:00 ~ 17:00
Closed on days of high volcanic activity
40 min. by bus from JR Aso Stn.

Doroyu Mud Springs, Seifuso

Suzume-no-yu (sparrow bath) is a thick, mud hot spring where you can spread the mud on yourself and soak up all the health-improving minerals. Plus, you can really feel the power of nature heating your bath as the hydrogen sulfide bubbles up from the ground below you. Even though the baths are mixed (male and female), you needn’t worry as the mud will hide your modesty!
Jigoku Onsen (“Hell Baths”), Seifuso
Aso District Minamiaso-mura, Kawayo 2327
Price: 400 yen (3 years ~ primary school: 200 yen)
Closed: Never
From JR Tateno Stn. change toMinami Aso line and get off at Aso Shimodajo Fureai Onsen Stn. From there, it’s 15 min. by taxi.


Ogunigo Circuit Bus

The Ogunigo Circuit Bus, starting from Yu Station (information center), covers the whole Aso area, particularly local hot springs. The bus runs every day. Please inquire for more information on prices and routes. There is also a direct connection between the Fukuoka and the Ogunigo Circuit bus for your convenience.

More info: Sanko Bus, Aso Branch Tel.: 0967-34-0211

Aso 1962 Train

From Kumamoto Station, the historic Aso 1962 train takes just over two enjoyable, scenic hours to reach Aso Station and then Miyaji Station. From both stops, you can transfer to the Aso 1962 bus to explore Aso further. Using the bus and train is a relaxing, cost effective, and simple way to enjoy the Aso area.

Weekends and holidays, including 12/30 ~ 1/3. (not running 1/20, 21, 27, 28)
After 2/25, please check for schedule.
Train: 1,580 yen, reserved seats only.
Bus: Fare between each stop is 200 yen. All-day pass: 400 yen

More information, tel.: 092-471-8111
Reservations, tel.: 092-411-1616


Barokke (Horse Croquette)

100 yen
Barokke is a deep fried potato snack made with a well-known Kumamoto delicacy – horse meat! You can pick one up in Torimiya, a butcher’s shop near Aso shrine. They offer a very popular salty / sweet boiled horse meat croquette with a subtle garlic flavor. You know it’s fresh – they don’t start frying until you order!
Aso Torimiya
Aso City, Ichinomiya-cho, Miyaji 3092-2
9:00 ~ 19:00
From Miyaji Stn., 5 min. on the Aso 1962 bus service (Weekends and holidays only)
Closed: Never

Tano Cream Puff

Tanoshu is a cream puff filled with custard and fresh cream. You can buy one for a snack on the go, or get ten to bring home in one of their unique, edible baskets – made from cookies! A great souvenir, famous with tourists as well as locals. 105 yen
Aso City, Ichinomiya-cho, Miyaji 3094
9:00 ~ 20:00
Closed: Wed.
From Miyaji Stn., 5 min. on the Aso 1962 bus service (Weekends and holidays only)


By car
2 hours 20 min. / 2,500 yen

Dazaifu Interchange – Kyushu Jidosha-do (1 hour / 2,500 yen) – Kumamoto Interchange – National Route 57 (1 hour 20 min.) – Aso

By train
2 hours 33 min. (Express) / 5,120 yen

JR Hakata Stn. – Kagoshima Main Line (1 hour 13 min.) – JR Kumamoto Stn. – Hohi Main Line (1 hour 8 min.) – Aso Stn.

By bus
3 hours 40 min. / 3,220 yen

Tenjin Bus Center – Nishitetsu bus / Sanko bus (around 2 hours / 2,000 yen) – Kumamoto Traffic Center. Then take the Sanko bus (1 hour 40 min. / 1,220 yen) – Aso Stn.

More information:
Aso Design Center
Aso City, Ichinomiya-cho, Miyaji 2402
Kumamoto Prefecture Aso Information Office.
Tel.: 0967-22-4801

Originally published in Fukuoka Now magazine (fn96 Dec. 2006)


Published: Dec 1, 2006 / Last Updated: Jun 13, 2017