It’s funny, now that I don’t live in Japan, I’m exploring these quaint onsen towns that used to be on my doorstep. Back when I lived in Japan I was surrounded by such beauty that I didn’t appreciate it as much as I should have. Hong Kong is bustling enough that bright lights and crowds are the last thing I want, and I have little tolerance for badly-behaved mainland tourists, so I’m always looking for less touristy places to enjoy the quiet and beauty of Japan.
Hello, Unzen – a quaint, quiet onsen town with better ‘hells’ than Beppu but flying under the radar of big tour groups. Nearby onsen town Obama has big tour buses parked outside big duty-free shops and big hotels. Good, tour groups can stay there. Unzen has a few upscale ryokan (Japanese inns), where guests enjoy the property’s hot springs and kaiseki cuisine. Day trippers are welcome, but staying at least a night gives you the full experience and allows you to relax completely.
Unzen has an intriguing history. It was known for its hot springs as far back as the Heian period, but became a spot popular with foreigners during the Meiji era, when foreigners living in colonial Shanghai would sail over to Nagasaki prefecture for their holidays. Our ryokan was one of the places where they stayed, and some public areas were decorated with pictures and newspaper clippings from those days.
There are a few ways to access Unzen, but since we were coming from Kumamoto (a delightful small city which I again never bothered with when I lived in Japan – boy was I an idiot!), we took a ferry and a local bus from Shiamabara.
What a scenic bus ride that was, as we passed Japan’s first geopark.
After leaving our luggage at our rokyan, we explored the hells until check-in time:
After a soak in the superb onsens, both indoors and outdoors, it was time for dinner in our room:
Soak – sleep – eat – soak – wander – soak – eat – sleep. Repeat for as many days as you can!
One thing I love about exploring small towns, Unzen being no exception, is the spirituality – everywhere you go, a shrine, temple or site filled with amazing energy.
The most beautiful, spiritual place we encountered was after a stroll around Lake Oshidori, which is part of the geopark.
I can’t adequately describe the effect this place had on me. The silence was deafening, and this sacred space filled me with such calm and reverence for nature.
Quiet, calm, beauty and equilibrium. Japan’s small towns are so special.