A Purr-fect New “Power Spot” for Kumamoto
A Forever-Falling Rock Finally Hits the Ground
The laws of physics dictate that what goes up must come down, even if it takes a while. A volcanic eruption of Mount Aso tens of thousands of years ago in what is now Kumamoto Prefecture tested this theory when it launched a boulder into the air. For some 70,000 years the stone hovered above the ground, lodged in the opening of a cavern.
Seeing the precariously suspended rock, early residents in the area imagined it to be an egg laid by a flying dragon. They named the obelisk Men no Ishi and believed the stone to have the power to ward off difficulties and disasters.
In modern times, the gravity-defying boulder earned a reputation as a “power spot,” and for years it attracted visitors from around Japan who trekked up the path to bask in its perceived life-affirming power.
But in April 2016 a pair of massive earthquakes shook Kumamoto, dislodging the boulder and sending it hurtling to the ground. Authorities closed the cavern trekking course for several months after the quakes, and when tours finally resumed visitors were amazed to find that in place of the fallen rock stood a majestic silhouette of cat. Transformed, the cavern continues to attract visitors with its mythic energy.
Men no Ishi, now known as “cat cavern,” sets atop of a steep mountain path on the south side of Mount Aso’s massive caldera. The craggy track leading to the site passes through private property and is only accessible to participants of guided trekking tours. Visitors registered for tours gather on the day at the Minamiaso Mura Association of Tourism, located in the Asobōnosato Kugino rest stop and information center. From there, it is about a 10-minute drive to the trailhead.
The trail is paved at first and easy to walk, but quickly grows steeper and more rugged as it enters tree-covered foothills, giving hikers the sense of being swallowed by an ancient forest. The path passes through a variety of terrain and scenery, including an area of giant, moss-covered volcanic rocks deposited by an ancient eruption of Mount Aso. Trekking tours are available year-round.
Along with showing visitors the way, trekking guides like Kashiwada Isao share their extensive knowledge of the wild plants and flowers found along the route. A former Self-Defense Force officer with survival training, Kashiwada uses his deep understanding Mount Aso’s natural environs to heighten the experience of visitors he guides along the trail.
Midway is the spot where Men no Ishi came to a rest after falling from its cavern roost in 2016. The massive stone is thought to weigh around 50 tons, and despite tumbling some 50 meters down the mountain it survived its fall basically undamaged, a remarkable ending that adds to the rock’s mystique.
A Giant Cat over Minamiaso
After around 40 minutes, hikers reach a steep set of stairs leading up to the cat cave. To see the feline silhouette in its full form, hikers must enter the shallow cavity and look back toward the opening. From this angle, it seems as if a giant cat is keeping watch over Minamiaso.
After the feline power of the cat cave, the next attraction on the route is an observation point where hikers can enjoy an expansive view of Minamiaso’s pastoral scenery. Visible beyond the town’s fields and paddies are Mount Aso’s five peaks, which include the jagged ridgeline of Neko-dake, the volcanic Naka-dake, and the towering Taka-dake.
The observation point marks the turnaround point of the two-hour roundtrip course, but more adventurous hikers can opt for a longer, four-hour circuit. The extended route passes by steep cliffs and is dotted with maple and Japanese elm trees, some over 200 years old, giving trekkers a chance to immerse themselves further in the area’s abundant nature.
Tori no Kozuka Park
Visitors less keen on climbing steep mountain paths can instead visit Tori no Kozuka Park near the trailhead. The easily accessible park was originally built to provide visitors a less rigorous way to view the Men no Ishi. Next to the footpath leading to the small, hilltop park is a monument to the Men no Ishi decorated with small wooden ema tablets inscribed with prayers or wishes. There is also a small stone shrine dedicated to the Bodhisattva Jizō and Kannon.
From the park, the cat cavern is just visible along the rock face of the hillside. Even at a distance, visitors can tap into the energy of the cat’s silhouette.
Men no Ishi Trekking Course
- Appointments and Inquiries
Minamiaso Mura Association of Tourism (tel. 0967-67-2222)
Men no Ishi roundtrip course (approximately 2 hours): junior-high and older ¥2,000, elementary school ¥1,000
Men no Ishi circuit course (approximately 4 hours): junior-high and older ¥3,000, elementary school ¥1,500
- Departure times
Men no Ishi roundtrip course: 10:00 am and 1:00 pm (10:00 am only from November to February)
Circuit tour: 10:00 am and 1:00 pm (10:00 am only from October to March)
Must be made for two or more people at least three days in advance (single hikers will be charged a two-person fee).
(Originally published in Japanese on December 27, 2018. Text by Satō Fumi. Photos courtesy of the Minamiaso Mura Association of Tourism.)