A cosmopolitan enclave since the 19th century, this Nagasaki getaway is rich in charm and natural beauty.
By Robert Morel
Home to Japan’s first national park, oldest public golf course, and first UNESCO Geopark, it is surprising that the onsen resort of Unzen has managed to quietly slip under the tourist radar for so long. But this gem was not always so hidden. In the 1870s, soon after Japan opened its doors to the world, Unzen became a popular summer resort for the wealthy Europeans and Americans of Shanghai. After taking the boat to Nagasaki, travelers would make the half-day trek (now a one-hour drive) to Unzen Onsen. For two months every summer, Unzen was home to dances, swimming, horseback riding, and tennis and golf tournaments. Pictures from the era show people from all around the world. A scene of an old dance hall decked with flags from Europe, the Americas, Asia. Japanese in suits and Europeans in kimono. At a time when most of Japan was struggling to figure out how to deal with the world outside, Unzen was already international.
Unzen has quieted down since its heady resort days, and likely changed for the better. In 1934 the area around Unzen Onsen became Japan’s first national park, and later Japan’s first UNESCO Global Geopark. It is easy to see why. Home to a myriad of bird and plant species, stunning mountain formations that seem to drop directly into the sea, and hillsides covered in the bright pink of Unzen Azaleas in spring and the deep reds of autumn leaves, it is a nature-lover’s paradise. With average summer temperatures similar to those in Sapporo, Hokkaido, it is a perfect escape from the heat and humidity.
Thanks to the national park’s strict building guidelines, Unzen Onsen escaped the bubble-era development that scarred the scenery of so many onsen resorts. Here there are no tall buildings, no concrete boxes of hotels, no flashy advertising. The angled brown-tiled roofs on nearly all the buildings gives a feeling of a quiet European mountain resort, and the architecture on the ground is a charming mix of Western lodge-style buildings and traditional Japanese houses. The main street is lined with small shops, restaurants, and, for those willing to ask around, a ryokan turned bakery with
a private onsen for rent by the hour.
Dotting the town, feeding and heating the onsen, are the jigoku—the hells. These otherworldly grey rock beds spouting sulphurous gas stand in sharp contrast to the idyllic townscape and forested mountains. Following the winding path through the area makes for a leisurely hour’s walk, offering a chance to see this unique landscape up close, take in views over the town, and even stop for a local Unzen Cider and onsen tamago—an egg hard boiled in the jigoku’s sulfurous waters.
From the town center there is no short- age of trails into the surrounding moun- tains. A 20-minute shared taxi and short ropeway ride will take you to Mt. Myoken. The observatory at the top of this 1333-meter peak offers stunning views of the mountains sloping down to the sea in one direction and Unzen Onsen, like a distant scale model, in the other. And not far away, the lava dome of Mt. Heisei Shinzan, which erupted in 1990, the gash cut in the mountainside by the lava still visible. For hikers, birdwatchers, and other nature enthusiasts, there are enough trails and sights to explore for days.