The world turned upside down for Kumamoto on April 14, 2016. An earthquake measuring Shindo (degree of shaking) 6.5 on the Japan Meteorological Agency seismic intensity scale (near the upper end) was followed by an even stronger one of magnitude 7.3 two days after the initial tremor (as a reference, the March 11, 2011 Fukushima quake registered 7.1 on the Shindo scale), resulting in 50 deaths and over 3,000 injuries. More than 1,000 buildings were seriously damaged and water, gas and other utilities stopped due to the tremors.
Fast forward two years later and I finally had a chance to visit the prefecture and see how the area and its people were doing — including visits to popular tourist attractions and witnessing the earthquake ruins.
Kumamoto City was the first destination in my trip. When I visited during this year’s Golden Week holidays, its shopping streets were packed with tourists, restaurants were packed with tables available by reservation only and an Oktoberfest beer festival was pumping festive energies throughout the main streets of the city. At first, it looked like the city had mostly returned to its pre-earthquake condition, but encountering a big area of scaffolding at Kumamoto Castle convinced me otherwise.
Originally one of Japan’s top three castles (alongside those in Himeji and Matsumoto) — with 98-square-meter grounds — the hilltop Kumamoto Castle is one of the sites that suffered the most damage from the 2016 earthquake. Currently, more than 80 percent of the castle grounds are inaccessible and covered in scaffolding. Throughout the recommended walking route, one can see numerous structures that have collapsed, walls that have crumbled and rock pieces that have piled up.
My heart trembled with fear and pain as I walked past the ruins and learnt that it would take another two decades for the entire castle to be fully repaired. However, the heavy feels gradually dissolved into hope as I saw multiple stuffed donation boxes and “がんばろう熊本!” (“Hang in there, Kumamoto!”) signs near the Kato Shrine located in the north of the castle ground.
I can only imagine the grandeur of the main castle keep when it was perfectly standing, after several restorations prior to the 2016 earthquake. Though, I am thankful for other buildings that stood through this particular earthquake — for they signify strength that is present and essential for Kumamoto’s future.
After two days of urban vibes, I followed my itinerary and drove to the countryside towards Aso area
Driving away from Kumamoto City to the rural area in Aso, I quickly realized that damages from the earthquake were coming into view more often. For the most part, traveling around Aso was an otherworldly experience: endless lush green grasslands spread out in mild slopes occasionally edged by mountains with a powdery, smooth appearance. Though, from time to time I’d spot a part of the mountain that had fallen off and shows the rough, brown rocky insides of the mountain. Small stone heaps, as a result of landslides, were here and there like disorganized stone cairns built for spiritual purposes.
I was in Aso area to see Mt. Aso, one of Japan’s biggest active volcanoes. In fact, as an accompaniment to the tectonic movements in April 2016, Mt. Aso erupted a number of times — most severely in October. Its first rumblings in 36 years. The eruption damaged the central roads as well as the ropeway that took tourists to the crater of the volcano, formerly a popular tourist attraction. The presence of toxic volcanic ash had also kept the volcano from public access for four years upon a small-scale eruption until this March.
Blessed by good timing and weather, I was able to see Mt. Aso from its crater. The ropeway station is still under repair, but tourists can either drive up or hike to as close as one kilometer from the crater (not recommended for visitors with asthma, bronchitis and heart diseases, however). The top of the volcano was chilly and windy, but I could hardly contain my excitement of being able to take in its natural beauty — though it was hard to associate the calm, baby blue magma with deadly disasters.
The surroundings of the crater were desolate. Canyons were dry and showed signs of rock slides, old walking paths were damaged and greeted by sporadic huge rock pieces that made me wonder if that’s what the aftermath of the Big Bang explosion looked like.
Another popular spot in the Aso area is Laputa Road — reminding Ghibli fans of the anime Castle in the Sky. This locally named “road to heaven” appears to be above the clouds at a certain time and season.
However, this spot, like many, had been severely damaged by the quake. Despite the little warning sign at the beginning of the road, I tried to drive in anyway. My hands were trembling and sweat was rolling down my forehead as I tried to navigate my mini kei car through the narrow, cracked roads and guard rails deformed by fallen rocks.
Eventually the road intersected with a massive landslide, resulting in an endless barrier filled with rocks as high as 1 1/2 meters. My friend and I tried to climb, but seeing that there was no end to it, and that the sun was burning our backs, we gave up.
So, what can you do?
There is no doubt that the 2016 earthquake destroyed much of the breathtaking landscapes and put the lives of the locals under great hardship. Nonetheless, people have continued to move on bravely since the disaster. It may take a while for the destroyed sites to return to prior conditions, but here is how we can help: certainly by giving a push in local economy through tourism and donation, but positive energies would mean a lot, too. If ever you’re in Kumamoto, consider participating in the volunteering events organized by NPOs. Or, if you reside in Tokyo, purchasing Kumamoto products from the Kumamoto-kan in Ginza would be helpful too!
Resilience is in the air that flows throughout Kumamoto. I hope that your next trip to this prefecture will be an inspirational one — as it was for me.