Despite its dark history, Unzen Onsen is a nature lover’s paradise.
Today, Unzen Onsen is regarded as an onsen (hot springs) paradise, with public and private baths available at ryokans and hotels that are sprinkled around the region. Their source is the Unzen Jigoku, or Unzen Hells, a key feature of Unzen.
Here you can see boiling water with temperatures reaching 98°C bubbling from the ground, when the reeking sulfuric steam isn’t clouding your path. A little steam adds to the mystery of the place though as the visage is rather ruined on clear days from the number of pipes connected to various onsen locations crisscrossed all over the place. If you get hungry, you can purchase an egg boiled by the hot spring waters for a mere ¥100 yen.
This “hellish” landscape proved to be just that in the Edo Period.
During Nagasaki’s dark period of purging Christianity from its shores, in the aftermath of the Shimabara Rebellion, over 30 people were boiled alive in the hot springs for following the Christian faith. There’s now a monument beside the Jigoku to commemorate the martyrs.
Unzen is also known for becoming the first national park of Japan. Designated in 1934, the park is still going strong drawing hikers and nature lovers from across the country. Before checking out the trails, head to the Unzen Mountain Information Center, which is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and provides geographical information and Unzen’s history. Then, choose one of the five routes with varying distances available. However, camping and campfires are prohibited to protect local wildlife and vegetation.
A popular route for those hoping to get a good workout before relaxing in the baths is the Ikenohara-Nita Pass Trail (Ikenohara-Nitatoge Tozando). Located near the Unzen Golf Course, this zigzagging trail will take most less than an hour. The trail ends at a parking lot for the Unzen Ropeway. The ropeway leads up to Mt. Myokendake in about 3 minutes, costing ¥630 one way and ¥1,260 roundtrip. From Mt. Myokendake, with an altitude of 1333 meters, you can see the five mountains and three peaks that make up Mt. Unzen. Although open year round, from 8:51 a.m. to 5:31 p.m. (April to October) or 5:23 p.m. (November to March), the ropeway is dependent upon weather.
Unzen Onsen is a feast for the eyes all year round, but is especially popular during the cooler months. In the fall, the forests change to a rich swathe of yellows, oranges, and reds, attracting photographers from all over Japan. In the winter, if Mother Nature cooperates to set the mood, you can catch sight of the Hana borou, or hoarfrost. A natural phenomenon, the trees of Mt. Unzen become draped in frost that makes the land look like a scene from Disney’s Frozen.
Picking one onsen to check out on Unzen Onsen may prove daunting with the number of options available. So before you get your feet wet, head over to the Unzen Onsen Tourist Association, open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. While the friendly staff can speak English sparingly, the association does have information and maps available in English on site.
If you’re vying to undertake a thorough onsen adventure, you’ll want to check out neighboring sites on the peninsula. To the east, there’s Shimabara city, whose onsen offer sunrise views for early birds. To the west, there’s Obama town, with its stunning sunset views and the longest foot bath in the world at 105 meters.