If the thought of an entire mountaintop in flames sounds like a nightmare or a Dali painting, you’ll be surprised to learn that noyaki, a land conservation technique in Kumamoto Prefecture’s Aso county, looks exactly like that from a distance. Local environmental group Aso Greenstock has been teaching the public about noyaki (field-burning) for several years now to ensure it doesn’t die out — and take the Aso grasslands with it.

Aso’s noyaki

Aso’s landscape was formed by volcanic activity around 50,000 years ago. Forests once covered these 1,000 meter-high plateaus, but cultivation of the area over centuries by humans created the present-day grassy plains.

Culling forests for agricultural purposes is usually associated with environmental destruction. But according to environmental groups, including the Kyushu branch of the Environmental Agency, Aso’s well-being today depends on cultivation practices such as noyaki. If the practices are abandoned, the land does not return to its original state; instead, a heavy buildup of susuki (Japanese pampas) grass results. Extremely slow to decompose, buildups of susuki do not return sufficient nutrients to the soil. Soil quality degrades, leading to land erosion after about four or five years, as has been observed at some properties in the area.

Noyaki is by no means unique to Aso or Japan. Burning off the dead pampas growth encourages new growth, and the resulting healthy roots help nurture the soil and prevent land erosion. Sound grasslands and soil form part of Aso’s ecosystem. Because rainfall is filtered by soil and tree roots and then drawn into rivers and lakes, the health of this “filter” is essential, especially since many of Kyushu’s major rivers are sourced from the Aso region.

The sight of the several-kilometer-long walls of noyaki fire moving across Aso’s hills at a rate of around 180 meters per minute, billowing from the heat of 660- to 800-degree flames, is an awesome one. A grueling task, noyaki requires about 7,600 workers to burn over 10,000 hectares of land every March and October and clear around 640 km of firebreaks in advance.

But worker numbers are declining, and in some areas the work load per person has trebled. Fewer young people are staying on the land in Kyushu, where one-third of the rural population is now over 65. In comparison, the rural over-65 population nationally is 28.5 percent.

At the same time, over 14 million tourists visited Aso in 2000, a figure exceeding Kyushu’s entire population, and more visitors are becoming interested in green tourism activities such as farming and nature studies. By carefully encouraging this trend — and participation in activities like noyaki — local environmental groups could use tourism to help promote conservation in Aso.

Aso Greenstock was one of the first proponents of such tourism in Aso. Prompted by the 1989 book “Aso Greenstock,” written by Kumamoto University professor Makoto Sato, which linked golf courses and large tourism projects to land erosion in Aso, the group’s early actions consisted of opposing these developments.

When the ’90s recession hit developers, the golf furor subsided. The group shifted its aims and began promoting Sato’s proposals of conservation practices that blend green tourism with farming and livestock traditions.

Volunteers clear fire breaks at Uchinomaki, Aso, for noyaki.

Aso Greenstock was officially incorporated in 1995. The bulk of its work to date has been researching, promoting and implementing noyaki activities.

With advisory members including Kumamoto Governor Kyoko Shiotani, Greenstock has attracted financial support from more than 40 sponsors, including banks, the Kumamoto Nichinichi newspaper and the Kumamoto branch of JA, the national agricultural cooperative.

The group is aware that its activities must contribute to the local economy.

“We need to work with the community as a whole,” says spokesman Ichiro Kubota. “We want to create parks, leisure facilities and forests that support the local economy. Preserving Aso in this way is not only healthier, but also more cost-effective than depending on taxes and handouts.”

Greenstock was initially criticized as seeming to favor the livelihood of farmers only. Since then the group has diversified its activities to include children’s programs, tree planting, and water conservation forums.

The diversification paid off. Greenstock won a Minamata Environmental Prize in February 2000 not only for its achievements in preserving the grasslands, but also for educating the public about conservation issues.

Fostering new, committed volunteers is important. “Aso’s environment depends on the care of locals, but fewer are able to help today,” Kuboto says. Some 40 percent of 175 farm owners in Aso surveyed by Greenstock said they were too old to perform tasks such as noyaki. The fact that outsider noyaki volunteers have increased from fewer than 30 applicants in 1995 to 578 in 2000 is a good start, but repeat participants are still a low 16 percent of the total. This raises the question of how many outside volunteers can really be expected to revive Aso’s environment.

Aso’s grassland area today is already less than half the size it was 50 years ago, due to the inroads made by urban development. Greenstock hopes the sparks it has set to the green economy in Aso will catch fire soon.

Apart from noyaki, many events characteristic of the Aso region involve fire. The region has long been known as “Hi-no-Kuni (Fire Country),” because of its volcanoes.

One of Aso’s most spectacular fire festivals is Hifuri Shinji at Aso Shrine, scheduled tomorrow. The ceremony symbolizes the marriage of the god Kunitabu and the goddess Himemiko.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.