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The Shimabara peninsula in one day

Unzen Hell

Volcanoes, hot springs and a bloody history: the Shimabara peninsula, east of Nagasaki

Sometimes the weather is just against you. There is no reason to get angry or get depressed, you simply have to adapt. The new route might just have other surprises waiting, moments you wouldn’t have lived if the sun was shining. Planning too much, I think, isn’t really travelling.

Guidebooks write that Kyushu, the southernmost island of Japan, has a sub-tropical climate, but at the end of winter it can be cold, very cold we learned as our tiny rented car was climbing up the slopes of Mount Unzen, in the heart of the Shimabara peninsula, while hit by a fierce, cold wind. We had planned a hike, but it looked impossible at the moment. We’ll see, I told myself.

Shimabara peninsula

Shimabara peninsula (島原半島, Shimabara Hantō), east of Nagasaki, is mentioned in history books for the 1637 Shimabara rebellion, started by Christian peasants and repressed by the shogun (more than thirty thousand dead were reported in the siege Hara Castle of which some ruins remain), which marked the beginning of the hardest phase of persecution against Christians, told in the book and in the beautiful film with the same title, Silence.

Viewed from above, in satellite images, it is clear that the peninsula is in fact a volcano, you can see its shape. The volcano is big and still very active: the peninsula has hot springs, boiling mud pools, geysers. And terrible eruptions. Mount Unzen is one of the most dangerous volcanoes in Japan and the devastating eruptions of the early nineties have devastated the outskirts of the town of Shimabara, causing dozens of victims and even creating a new peak of the mountain.

The area is part of the Unzen Amakausa National Park.

The peninsula can be visited quickly in a day, like we did, but you wouldn’t get bored staying two. A ferry links Shimabara with Kumamoto, on the other side of a small stretch of sea.

Shimabara peninsula in one day: our itinerary

Hiking on Unzen (cancelled)

The plan was to  drive up to the Nita-toge pass and to take the ropeway from there. From the top station the Fugendake peak (1359 meters) can be easily reached with a ridge trail. The alternative is the different path that starts from the lower station (marked by a torii, the portal of the Shinto shrines) and reaches the same point. From Fugendake, I read on the web, there is a beautiful view on Heisei Shinzan, the new peak (1456 meters).

But we have to change plans. The fierce, cold wind is all but unbearable: trees and shrubs are covered with ice. Moreover, the ropeway plunges into a wall of clouds after a few metres from the station. It’s a bit scary. Early March, in short, can be very cold in the mountains of Kyushu. Lesson learned.

Ice on Unzen

Ice on Unzen (photo by Patrick Colgan, 2018)

⇒ If you want to try this hike you can find more details here

Unzen Onsen

Vapors and an intense smell of sulfur announce Unzen Onsen, a beautiful spa town nestled in the woods just a few kilometers from the pass. The place is obviously a bit touristy and there are the usual ungraceful hotels, but on weekday at the end of winter we find the village almost completely deserted. And very nice.

We warm ourselves up in the oldest bath in town, Yunosato Onsen Kyodo Yokujyo. I had read about it on The Onsen Magazine and is, in theory, tattoo friendly. We are the only customers and maybe I shouldn’t even ask, but my mention of tattoos puzzles the old lady at the counter, but nonetheless she lets us in.

When I enter I am welcomed by the usual warm vapor, mixed with a cold breeze coming from the open windows. The water, slightly acidic, is greenish, opaque and very hot. In theory it’s 43 degrees, which is a lot, but it’s probably a bit more. My wife Letizia, in the women’s section, couldn’t immerse herself completely.

Yunosato, Unzen Onsen

Yunosato, Unzen Onsen (photo by Patrick Colgan, 2018)

While a light rain is beginning to fall we find a welcoming, small tavern, full of locals. Reminds me of similar places in the Italian mountains, close to home, unchanged year after year. We order a  ramen and chanpon (the typical Nagasaki noodles bowl) and they are delicious.

Ramen and chanpon

Ramen, front, and chanpon (photo by Patrick Colgan, 2018)

Unzen Hell

Shortly after we can see with our eyes where the water comes from. The famous Unzen Jigoku (Unzen Hell), on the edge of the inhabited area, is really an amazing place. Here hot water leaps out of the ground, rocky and whitened by sulphur and minerals, together with clouds of vapor. The area can be explored on wooden walkways that meander in a rather vast area among mud pools, small geysers, hot springs.

It’s a pleasant stroll, but there is also something disturbing in all this. These springs look like open wounds on the skin of the Earth. Their sight (and their hissing sounds) evoke pain. And they show powerful forces at work, far superior to ours. It’s the heartbeat of the volcano and it’s the right place to visit if you want to feel small.

Unzen Hell, Shimabara peninsula

Unzen Hell, Shimabara peninsula (photo by Patrick Colgan, 2018)

At the jigoku there is also a memorial to the Christian martyrs of the XVII century. Some have been tortured and killed in this place (you might remember a scene from Silence).

Now only the gifts of this place are used: among springs and vapors, one can see the pipes fueling the onsen. And there is also a stall, selling eggs boiled in thermal water. They taste very good.

A scene from Silence shot in Unzen

A scene from Silence shot in Unzen

Shimabara

Our ferry to Kumamoto is booked for 17.30 (as always there is no need to pay in advance, I only have a printed e-mail) and we decide to spend a few hours in Shimabara, the city of carp in the threatening shadow of the Unzen volcano.

This place deserves more than an afternoon: Shimabara has some interesting museums, a neighborhood of samurai houses and pleasant, narrow canals in which beautiful, coloured carps (koi) swim. We park close to a beautiful traditional house, open to the public, Shimeiso, where we are with a cup of green tea. Qe sit on the tatami contemplating the small, beautiful garden. I love the light, soothing sound of water. I deeply love Japanese gardens, they can be a hypnotic experience for me, as they bring me close to a state of meditation.

Shimeisou

Shimeisou (photo by Patrick Colgan, 2018)

The town has numerous directions in English. Therefore is quite easy to explore, although once again we are the only tourists around and it feels a bit strange. And the covered market, full of lowered shutters and abandoned shops, has seen better days for sure. But some shops are nice. A pretty clothing store catches our eye. The owner is a stylish lady that welcomes us with joy and surprise. In the shop we buy some items on sale with heavy discounts and we are given socks and even chocolate as gifts. We are moved.

Carps in Shimabara

Carps in Shimabara (photo by Patrick Colgan, 2018)

Statue by Kitamura Seibo

Statue by Kitamura Seibo (photo by Patrick Colgan, 2018)

Shimabara castle, rebuilt in the Sixties, is perhaps not too interesting but the area has some interesting museums including one dedicated to Kitamura Seibo, the sculptor of the famous Peace statue of Nagasaki. Some of his sculptures are on display outside.

In Shimabara there are also memories of the eruption, including a museum and some houses submerged by the pyroclastic flow, preserved as a monument. If you are interested you will find details on Japan Guide: Unzen disaster memorial hall (in English)

There are no museums or sites linked to the Shimabara revolt in the city: you will have to visit the museum of the 26 martyrs of Nagasaki or the museum of Amakusa.

Mount Unzen from Shimabara

Mount Unzen from Shimabara (photo by Patrick Colgan, 2018)

Shimabara Castle

Shimabara Castle (photo by Patrick Colgan, 2018)

The ferry from Shimabara to Kumamoto

Two companies link Shimabara and Kumamoto from the early morning (the service starts around 7 am) to 5.30 pm (updated timetables on their websites, they have a later service around 7 pm on weekends). The fastest is Kumamoto Ferry (around thirty minutes), the other one is Kyusho.

For two passengers with a small car a ticket will be respectively 5.100 and 3.090 yen. All is very straightforward once you are at the pier: if you have a booking just tell the staff and the proceed to the counter for payment. Credit cards are not accepted.

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