Meet Unzen Onsen: One of the best national parks in Japan

Home to volcanoes, blockbuster history, luxury hotels, and incredible hikes, here are the best things to do in Japan’s oldest national park.

While many travel to Japan expecting scenes of geisha, futuristic skyscrapers, and powder snow, the country’s national parks are still very much untouched by international tourism.

Japan boasts 34 national parks, spanning from the snowy northern corners of Hokkaido to Okinawa’s bright tropical southern islands. Unzen Amakusa National Park, though, is Japan’s oldest. The original. And while its legacy has had far-reaching international influence, the park is still one of Japan’s best-kept local secrets.

Discovering Unzen Amakusa National Park

Home to Mount Unzen, Unzen-Amakusa National Park stretches across Nagasaki, Kumamoto and Kagoshima prefectures. The park features a contrasting blend of smoldering volcanoes, freckled with wildflowers to an archipelago where dolphins, turtles and marine life can be witnessed. From gothic churches in secluded fishing villages to historical artifacts, this park is rich with adventures.

Where is Unzen Onsen?

You’ll find Unzen Onsen on the west side of the southern island of Kyushu. From Nagasaki Airport, it’s a little over a one-hour drive south towards the Shimabara Peninsula. This area was a volcanic island 400,000 years ago, and today is still home to many onsens (hot springs), some with water as hot as 98 degrees Celsius. You’ll also find the locals are friendly, with a reputation for their high spirits known across the country.

A brief history

In 1934, the Unzen Onsen area was designated a national park, the first of its kind in Japan. Then, in 1956, the park expanded to include the Amakusa region, which added an archipelago of 120 islands to the park’s landscape.

During the Meiji era (1868 – 1912), Unzen first captivated the attention and admiration of many Europeans working in China.

Looking for somewhere to escape the sweltering Chinese summer heat, travelers took advantage of the opening of the Shanghai sea route connecting Shanghai and Nagasaki, arriving on the shores of Unzen. It developed into a popular resort destination, complete with tennis courts and a golf course. Unzen Golf Course opened in 1913 and is the nation’s oldest public and second-oldest golf course after the Kobe Golf Club, which opened in 1903.

Unzen store

Religion and culture in Unzen

In the center of Unzen Onsen town is Unzen Jigoku, a pit of steaming sulphuric fields, which in 1627 was where the local lord of the Shimabara domain killed 30 Christians who refused to renounce their faith. As punishment for not obeying the local non-Christian laws, they were thrown to their deaths in the boiling springs. Stroll along the Unzen Jigoku site, and you’ll find a small cross and a plaque in erected in commemoration of those who died there.

Where the volcanoes still smoulder

Heisei Shinzan is the highest and newest peak on Mt. Unzen, and it formed when the volcano last erupted in the 1990s. The peak was active from 1990 to 1995, and a large eruption in 1991 generated a pyroclastic flow that killed 43 people, including three volcanologists.

In 2022 National Geographic released the spectacular documentary film “Fire of Love”, an Academy Award-nominated story of two intrepid French scientists and volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft. The couple roamed the world exploring the wonders that are the volcanic landscape of this great earth. The pair’s final volcano was here at the creation of Heisei Shinzan.

If you’re seeking a little adventure, take the Unzen Ropeway from Nita toga Pass to the Fugen Dake hiking trail to the area’s popular hiking route up to Fugendake (1359 m), the highest peak on the mountain range. Just a few hundred meters away, you can see the steaming smoky summit of Heisei Shinzan, which is nothing short of spectacular as you make your way to the summit.

Fugen Dake trail

More laidback ways to see the sights of Unzen Town

Unzen town is also home to a handful of other stunning natural views. Another excellent hike is to the top of the town’s Mt. Kinukasa (about 40 minutes) and down to Shirakumonoike (Lake Shirakumo) Camping Ground.

For those who want to explore in a more leisurely style, a stroll through the centerpiece of the town Unzen Jigoku has to be on the cards. These milky, acidic, and sulfurous open pits of water are fascinating and ever-evolving. In recent years, a new hell ‘opening’ took over a car park right by the main hot spring field.

Unzen Jigoku

Where to stay for traditional Japanese luxury in Unzen Onsen

The area is also home to quaint hot spring resort Unzen Onsen (雲仙温泉). Once large enough to be compared to Mt. Koya, the resort has shifted over time, into something much more local. It’s a mix of Japanese traditionalism and steaming hot spring fields. To make the most of the town, you should stay in one of the luxurious ryokans that populate the townscape.

One highlight is Hoshino Resorts KAI Unzen. Part of Japan’s popular Hoshino Resorts chain, it’s a traditional hot spring getaway that blends modern design with classic Japanese hospitality.

For something more traditional and local, head to Unzen Shinyu Hotel. This sprawling ryokan facility is run by a fourth generation of ryokan proprietors, two sisters. A particular highlight of this facility is the accommodation’s focus on implementing Sustainable Development Goals into the development and management of the ryokan through waste minimization and local community initiatives. The staff are kind and generous, and the food is locally sourced, seasonal, and delicious. The hotel offers both traditional Japanese and western style bedding.

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