The small town of Unzen in southern Nagasaki Prefecture is an internationally known resort town with a long, tumultuous history going back over 1300 years. In 1911, the area around the town was designated Japan's first national park and the Unzen golf course is the oldest pubic course in the country. Modern day Unzen is not much more than a small village, but a charming one at that. In the fall, the local mountains are made spectacular with the changing colours of the trees and in the spring, the azaleas seem to light the slopes on fire. Despite its small size and somewhat remote location, there are a multitude of things to do here and many reasons to come back again and again.
Unzen is located on the Shimabara Peninsula at an altitude of 700 meters. With an average summer temperature of 21°C, it is one of the coolest places to be in summertime Kyushu. Unzen is easily reached by direct bus from Nagasaki (1900¥) and Isahaya (1600¥). There are also about 10 buses a day from Shimabara (740¥). There are many hotels and ryokan in Unzen, with room rates starting in the 5000-6000¥ range. There is also a charming campsite within walking distance of the bus station where you can rent a wall tent or pitch your own for 300¥ a night.
Things to Do
- Unzen Jigoku
The Unzen Jigoku or Hells are boiling, bubbling pits of water that smell like rotten eggs. This is due to the fact that the water is highly sulphuric in content and the clouds of steam that billow throughout the town remind one that there is an active volcano oh so very close. 350 years ago, during the Shimabara Rebellion, the hells were used to boil unrepentant Christians. Today, they boil little else other than eggs, which can be bought from a wrinkled, little old lady for 80¥ an egg.
- Public Spas
Walking thorough the desolate landscape of the hells, you will notice dozens of pipes running into the town. These siphon off the boiling water and run into the town's public bath houses or onsens. The sulphuric water is, of course, mixed with cooler water, but you will still walk out a little stinky, albeit, very relaxed. The Yunosato and Shin-ya public bath houses are simple and cheap (100¥) but if you are willing to pay a little more, the recently renovated Kojigoku on the outskirts of Unzen, is far more picturesque and reminiscent of bygone days. And, if you are up for a full day of relaxation and pampering (and you have a little extra money to spend) a must try is the Unzen Spa House where you can be massaged, bathed and buried in hot sand to your heart's content.
- Unzen Museum
The Unzen Museum is located on the second floor of the Unzen Bus Terminal. It contains about 139 works and documents. Included in the collection is a lithograph of the eruption of Mt. Fugen in 1792 painted by Seabolt, a doctor for the Dutch Merchant House and a travel diary written by Raiden, a sumo wrestler. Admission is free.
- Nita Pass
- Nita Pass, reachable by a 20 minute bus ride from Unzen Bus Terminal (320¥), is a spectacular lookout point near the peaks of Mt. Fugen and Mt. Kunimi. There is a 3 minute cable car (an exorberant 1200¥) to the top of Mt. Myoken, where on a clear day you can see as far as Mt. Aso in Kumamoto. Mt. Myoken is also easily hiked along a clearly marked trail. It takes about 30 minutes.
- Mt. Fugen
- The trail up Mt. Fugen (1359m) has only recently be reopened after the 1991 volcanic eruption that created a new peak (Mt. Heisei Shinzan), wiped out many homes and killed several dozen people. The volcano is still somewhat active, but safe to get close to. From Nita Pass, there is a lovely and relatively easy, one hour hike to the top of Mt. Fugen. From there, you can have a close look at the lava dome as well as the hardened lava flows. Hiking back down, you have the option of completing a loop to Mt. Kunimi (1 hour) before descending to the pass. Mt. Kunimi (1347 m) offers great views of the villages down below.
- Mammoji Temple
Mammoji Temple, located five minutes walking distance from the bus station, was amongst the three biggest in Japan and is over 1300 years old. It is home to an impressive gold Buddha with cobalt blue hair, one of the largest in the country.
You can see a up to the minute pictures of Unzen Mountain at http://www2.sevo.kyushu-u.ac.jp/LiveUnzen/indexe.html
For more dramatic photos of the 1991 eruption, go to http://volcano.und.nodak.edu/vwdocs/volc_images/img_unzen2.html