An Investment of Love
The barren slopes of Mount Aso are unforgiving—gusts of wind and sleet to race screaming past ones’ ears to the valley below. Clouds swirl aimlessly from base to tip. In the February dusk, the view is always the same: yellow stunted shrubbery emerges from the dust into a viscous mist.
Mount Aso is the largest active volcano in Japan with a 100km caldera circumference that spits poisonous gases out of the belly of Kyushu Island. The volcano has an unpredictable temper; a no-entry zone circles Nakadake Crater, and the ropeway and closest hiking paths are often closed.
At the base of this breathing, belching giant sits the small town of Aso. Aso’s handful of streets are quiet and grey, even during the day. Life revolves around the main onsen and the single platform train station.
It’s in this hostile environment that Umi and Tano decided to invest their life’s savings into an oasis of their own creation. This husband-wife team was born and raised in Kumamoto, the closest city about two hours away by train. After working office jobs for a few years, they pooled resources, bought a building in Aso, and renovated it into a backpackers’ hostel.
After braving the volcano, the hostel’s warm air and light hugs guests as they enter. Umi is behind the check-in counter, wearing a traditional cooking apron over a long-sleeve top and slacks. She wears no makeup or adornments of any kind. She moves with precise efficiency, organizing papers, marking her calendar, answering the phone and welcoming guests in a seamless stream of management.
The property, now four years old, was professionally designed from floor to ceiling. It’s evident that when Umi and Tano planned the hostel, they decided to go all in. Umi’s heart is reflected in the warm olivewood floors and counters, the matching pots, bowls and utensils, the hair dryers carefully tucked in bamboo baskets next to the oversize fern in the bathroom. Neutral furniture and bedding balance the gaiety of purple, green and red walls.
Umi and Tano grew up hiking around Mount Aso and they know the area intuitively, marking routes on maps for guests with ease. They handle themselves with brilliant composure and kindness, showing an innate desire to serve without a trace of subservience. Every last detail, from how they welcome guests to their care for the perfectly smooth tatami and the rounded-edge bookshelves, shows the Japanese care for the minute in the creation of an experience embraced in business and common life.
But behind their eyes, wheels are always turning. They’re thinking of the next thing on the to-do list, the stain in the kitchen to clean, the reservation to confirm, the ramen to order for that high maintenance guest.
Shortly after eleven in the evening, Umi quickly chows down homemade noodles behind the check-in desk, eyes fixated on her bowl, before the next guests arrive. During her two-minute dinner, Tano fixes a heater upstairs and apologizes to the guests for the disturbance. Both are operating at peak efficiency with trust that the other is doing the same. When they cross paths during the day, they whisper updates to each other in Japanese, faces set in concentration on their individual tasks.
It’s a stressful job to live up to, especially after personally investing everything in a new life path. But beneath the pressure is a sense of ownership, a calm confidence that transfers to the guests, carefully engineered by two people who love what they do.
Guests mill about the carpeted bedroom floors, protected from the howling winds and unsettling gurgles of Mount Aso, and it feels as if someone slipped cotton into your ears; a gift of silence and peace from two people who made a conscious choice to live life a certain way, to pour the past and present into a base for the future, together in tandem.