A Cheat Sheet to Unzen, Japan’s Oldest National Park

Unzen Amakusa National Park is Japan’s oldest national park. While its legacy has had far-reaching international influence, the park still feels like one of Japan’s best-kept local secrets. At the middle of it all is Unzen Onsen, an onsen town home to a landscape of rugged hiking trails, steaming volcanoes, lush forests, and some of the fascinating history you’ll learn, Unzen Onsen, part of Unzen Amakusa National Park, just an hour from Nagasaki Airport in Kyushu, should be on your next Japan travel bucket list.

Where is Unzen? (Google map link)

Unzen-Amakusa National Park sits on the west side of the southern island of Kyushu, and it sprawls across both Nagasaki and Kumamoto prefectures.

The Unzen part of Unzen-Amakusa National Park sits on 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° C.

The natural beauty of Unzen

Mt. Unzen is a national park for adventure seekers, and it’s home to some still active volcanoes, including Mt. Unzen (雲仙岳) itself. Technically, Mt. Unzen is a volcanic range of mountain peaks and home to some spectacular hiking trails. 

One popular hiking route is up to Fugendake (1359 m), the highest peak on the mountain range. From there, you can see the smoldering summit of Heisei Shinzan (1486 m), and admire views from over the surrounding mountains and the Ariake Sea to Kumamoto Prefecture.

Unzen town, which sits essentially at the base of Mt. Unzen, 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.

The international influence 

Since even before its 1934 designation as a National Park (the first of its kind in Japan), Unzen has retained a unique connection to the international community, a feature rare for Japan’s national parks. 

Unzen is located near the port city of Nagasaki, where the first Portuguese missionaries arrived in Japan. As most recently represented in the 2016 Martin Scorsese-directed film “Silence,” this area was home to the 1637–38 Shimabara Rebellion, where the nation’s Christians (many of which were brought into the faith by Portuguese missionaries) were forced into hiding to avoid death. It’s a dark but fascinating history of Japan’s religious legacy and one you can learn a lot about here at Unzen.

Since the Meiji era (1868 – 1912), Unzen was visited by many Europeans working in China. Escaping the sweltering Chinese summer heat, many foreign guests took advantage of the opening of the Shanghai sea route connecting Shanghai and Nagasaki and turned Unzen into Japan’s first resort destination for international travelers. As a result, this area was also one of the first to accept and embrace foreign cultures proactively.

The volcanic power of Unzen

Unzen is not one for the faint of heart. The area is home to a volcano that was most recently 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 is the volcanic landscape of this great earth. The pair’s final volcano was here at Mt. Unzen.

Unzen Onsen town

The area is also home to a quaint hot spring resort (yes the same one that became popular in the Meiji-era) Unzen Onsen (雲仙温泉). 

It was originally developed as a temple town that was once large enough to be compared to Mt. Koya. Today it’s a mix of Japanese traditionalism and steaming hot spring fields. Also known as hells (jigoku), relaxing onsen baths and some very fine ryokan/ accommodations. 

Where to stay

Hoshino Resorts KAI Unzen

Address: 321 Obamacho Unzen, Unzen, Nagasaki 854-0621
Web: hoshinoresorts.com/en/hotels/kaiunzen/ 

Unzen Shinyu Hotel 

Address: 320 Unzen, Obama-Cho Unzen-shi Nagasaki Japan
Web: https://www.sinyuhotel.co.jp/

For more about Unzen, visit: https://www.unzen.org/e_ver/