The Hells of Unzen

The Unzen-Amakusa National Park was established in 1934 as Japan’s first national park, and today spans Nagasaki, Kumamoto, and Kagoshima prefectures in southern Kyushu island. It’s name is derived from Mount Unzen (雲仙岳 Unzen-dake), an active volcano in the middle of Shimabara peninsula, about an hour and a half drive east of Nagasaki city.

For many centuries, the town of Unzen located at the foot of the mountain has been a popular travel destination, famed for its onsen (hot springs) and geothermal activity. This was also the country’s first vacation resort targeted at foreign visitors, so in addition to traditional Japanese inns, there are a number of western-style hotels in the area as well. Today it is one of Japan’s most famous hot spring resorts.

Unzen Jigoku Hells

The most popular attraction are the Jigoku (or Hells), an area of volcanic activity where hot water and gases spout from fissures in the ground. Several paths and paved walkways wind through the site, allowing the visitor to experience this Buddhist idea of hell – scalding hot steam billows from below, accompanied by bubbling and hissing, and a strong acidic smell of sulphur.

The Unzen Jigoku is also the site of Christian martyrdom, a dark period during the Edo Period when Christianity was banned. Practitioners were tortured and killed in the boiling hot waters. A monument marks the deaths of 33 Christian martyrs at the site from 1627 to 1632.

The Nita Pass

When visiting Unzen, you can also take a short drive to the Nita Pass for a closer look at the volcanic peak. Mount Unzen actually comprises several volcanoes, its highest peaks being Fugen-dake (普賢岳) and Heisei-shinzan (平成新山).

A winding mountain road that will bring you two observation decks for great views of Shimabara peninsula. At the Pass, there is a visitor center and a cable car (ropeway) that will take you even closer to the peaks (though during my visit, everything was closed due to strong winds). For the adventurous, several hiking trails traverse the national park area.

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