From its cosmopolitan capital to its craggy coastline, its subtropical islands to its historic castle towns, Nagasaki prefecture squeezes a lot into its corner of northwestern Kyūshū. And with a new bullet train line opened in 2022, it’s now easier than ever for travellers to visit this diverse and beautiful part of Japan.
1. Feast on traditional food at Mushigamaya
Located on the coast of the Shimabara peninsula, Mushigamaya makes creative (and delicious) use of the volcanic landscape. Here, along with set meals and rice bowls, you can try food cooked in the natural steam of a bubbling hot spring, enjoying your meal as you look out over the ocean. Simply select what you’d like – meat, vegetables, fresh fish and seafood – and you can watch it being cooked until perfectly tender in the sulphurous steam. Don’t get too close, though. They’re called jigoku mushi gama (steaming hell ovens) for a reason.
2. Visit Unzen Jigoku
On the Unzen plateau, an atmospheric onsen resort of the same name makes an ideal base for exploring the area. Hiking trails head out into the mountains nearby, with weary walkers returning each evening to soothe their aching muscles – and beautify their skin – in the town’s mineral springs. Stay here overnight to enjoy bathing at a ryokan (traditional inn), or head to a public bath like central Shin-yu or picturesque Kojigoku Onsen.
There are some springs where you won’t want to bathe, though: the Unzen Jigoku, or “Unzen Hells”. These tightly clustered pools reach dangerous temperatures, with the most active, Daikyōkan Jigoku, emitting 120°C hydrogen sulphide steam. In the early 17th century, Christians were threatened with exposure to the springs if they didn’t renounce their faith. Many resisted; you can see a memorial to 33 martyrs nearby.
Thankfully, today Unzen Jigoku is simply a spot to appreciate the awesome power of nature. The fertile ground nearby is awash with different colours each season, contrasting dramatically with the bleached whites and sulphurous yellows around the 30 steaming pools.
3. Lace up your hiking boots
The peaks of the Unzen stratovolcano are a tempting sight for hikers, and sure enough, they’re criss-crossed by trails. The Unzen Fugendake New Ascent Trekking route (2–3hr walk) is a great option for climbing Fugen-dake, Mt Unzen’s 1359-metre central peak. The trail leads you in a loop from Ikenohara Park, taking you within about 300 metres of Heisei Shinzan. This is Unzen’s highest peak, at 1483 metres, and was only formed after eruptions in the early 1990s.
There are plenty of places worth stopping at while you’re walking. Be sure to stop and admire Momiji teahouse as well as the mountainside shrines which are scenic places to rest – and perhaps pray for your legs to stay strong. You’ll find several viewpoints along the route, though of course the most satisfying vista is the one from the top, a sweeping panorama of the Shimabara peninsula.
If you’d rather hike just some of the route, you can always take the Unzen Ropeway from Nita Pass to the observation deck, from where the summit is about an hour’s walk.
4. Sleep on the doorstep of nature
Mt Unzen sits in the centre of Unzen-Amakusa National Park – Japan’s first national park, established in 1934. If you’d like to explore its diverse landscapes over the course of a few days, stay at the Unzen Kyūshū Hotel, moments away from Unzen Jigoku.
The hotel combines Japanese and Western characteristics, bringing an understated luxury to its private villas and spacious rooms. The restaurant uses local ingredients and techniques to add a new twist to Western-style dining, while the rooftop lounge is the perfect place to admire the views of Unzen.
5. Explore Shimabara Castle
On the eastern coast of the Shimabara peninsula, facing the Ariake Sea, is the castle town of Shimabara. In 1637, it was the site of a pivotal event in Japanese history: the Shimabara Rebellion. The uprising was unsuccessful, but it left the authorities shaken up. Many of the rebels were Christian, and the government responded by closing Japan to foreigners almost entirely by 1640. It wouldn’t open up again for about 200 years.
Another trigger for the rebellion was the dangerous and expensive construction of Shimabara-jō, the town’s five-storey castle. As well as being fascinating in their own right – and offering a lovely view towards the port – the castle buildings house some excellent exhibitions of art and historical objects. There are good English explanations of the items on display, as well as information about the history of the town, the rebellion, and Christianity in Japan.
Leave time to explore the grounds, as well. The tree-dotted lawns and outer moat make for a relaxing scene, and of course the tiered white castle itself is best admired from outside.
6. Discover Shimeisō
The castle isn’t the only beautiful historic building in Shimabara. Shimeisō is a “water villa” – a villa built to show off its garden’s water features. The spring-water pond, which the open-sided building juts over on stilts, has water that gushes out at a rate of 3,000 tons per day. It is home to several koi carp. The flashes of white, red and orange as the fish arc through the water provide a counterpoint to the restrained tones of house and garden.
Take a seat on the veranda with a cup of green tea, and contemplate the serene tableau in front of you, the epitome of Japanese aesthetics.
7. Sample sweet dumplings
For over 100 years, Ginsui has been serving kanzarashi made with water from the Hamanokawa spring. This refreshing snack is a local speciality, small shiratama mochi (rice dumplings) served in a light honey and sugar syrup.
Today the homey restaurant, still housed in a beautiful wooden building, also acts as the Hamanokawa Spring Water Sightseeing Exchange Centre. You can learn more about how the spring is used here, the methods passed down over centuries. It also aims to enable communication and exchange between locals and tourists, sharing the fascinating history of Shimabara over a delicious bowl of kanzarashi.
To discover more of this brilliant part of Japan, head over to the official website.