When the area around Unzen Spa was designated a national park in 1934, it was named after what was thought to be an extinct volcanic chain, collectively called Mount Unzen. In 1990, however, a peak in Mount Unzen -- Mount Fugen -- erupted for the first time in almost 200 years, killing several dozen people on its eastern slope and leaving behind a huge lava dome. Unzen Spa, on the opposite side, was untouched and remains the area's most popular resort town.
The Hells (Jigoku)
Unzen Spa literally bubbles with activity, as sulfurous hot springs erupt into surface cauldrons of scalding water in an area known as the Hells (Jigoku). Indeed, in the 1600s, these cauldrons were used for hellish punishment, as some 30 Christians were boiled alive here after Christianity was outlawed in Japan. Today, Unzen Spa has more than 30 solfataras and fumaroles, with the Hells providing the greatest show of geothermal activity, making this spot Unzen's number-one attraction. It's a favorite hangout of huge black ravens, and the barren land has been baked a chalky white through the centuries. Pathways lead through the hot-spring Hells, where sulfur vapors rise thickly to veil pine trees on surrounding hills. A simple cross erected on stones serves as a memorial to the Christians killed here.
If you feel like taking an excursion, head for Mount Fugen, Unzen's most popular destination outside Unzen Spa. To reach it, make reservations for a shared taxi with Heisei Kanko Taxi (tel. 0975/73-2010), which departs three times a day from the Visitor's Center to Nita Pass, about a 23-minute ride (round-trip fare: ¥860). From Nita Pass, board the 3-minute ropeway for ¥1,220 round-trip to go up higher to Mount Myoken, which at 1,333m (4,399 ft.) offers spectacular panoramic views. If you're ready for some real climbing, however, continue for another hour or so along a marked path leading starkly uphill to the summit of Mount Fugen, once Unzen's highest peak at 1,359m (4,485 ft.) above sea level -- this is the peak that erupted in 1990. On a clear day, you'll be rewarded with splendid views of other volcanic peaks as far away as Mount Aso in the middle of Kyushu, as well as Mount Heisei Shinzan (a lava dome), born during Mount Fugen's last eruption and now Unzen's loftiest peak at 1,483m (4,894 ft.). Allow at least 2 1/2 hours for the hike to Mount Fugen and back.
Taking the Waters
On the main street of Unzen are a finger spa and two foot spas, where you can soak the appropriate appendages in outdoor baths for free. If you'd like to get more than your feet wet (though all accommodations below offer hot-spring baths), the Unzen Spa House, across from the Unzen Kanko Hotel (tel. 0957/73-3131), is open Monday to Saturday 10am to 6pm; on Sundays and holidays (including summer school vacation from mid-July through Aug), it's open to 7pm. Indoor cypress baths and rotenburo (outdoor hot-spring baths) cost ¥800. In the Spa House is also the Vidro Museum (daily 9am-6pm), with Edo-Era Nagasaki glass and Bohemian, Italian, French, and other glassware. Admission here is ¥700; or, buy a ticket for the spa and museum for ¥1,100.
I was looking for an easy hike, somewhere quiet to write in my journal, and settled for Konohanasakuya-Hime Jinja, a hillside shrine established 300 years ago above the Gensei-Numa Marsh on the edge of Unzen Spa. Unknowingly, I had picked a shrine dedicated to the deity of flowers, where people come to pray for fertility, safe childbirth, and family harmony. So imagine my delight when I reached the shrine's small clearing to discover two unmistakable statues of -- well, you'll just have to see for yourself. Benches provide views over Unzen to Mount Myoken and the ropeway.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.