Change of Plans
Rainy days on holiday can lead to a truly unexpected awful moment when you wake up, see the streaming water, and completely change your original sightseeing plans. For our second day in Japan we had programmed to see the cute fruit bus stops near Kanagai, on the western side of the Ariake Sea. We would have loved to cycle along route 207 to discover the fun designs, however the insistent rain cancelled our bike ride. Instead we chose to turn it into a drive around the Ariake Sea, with the comfort of being in the dry car and therefore explore other scenic spots in this part of Kyushu, including Unganzenji and Unzen Hell.
After one of the best breakfasts in Japan taken early at our minshuku in Kumamoto, we took a slight detour to the ferry port, with a stop at the mysterious Unganzenji temple. I had discovered a photo of the moss covered statues online and was spellbound by their enchanting scenery, more so because there was almost no mention of the temple in any of the guidebooks. The sacred place lies in a tiny hamlet below Mount Kinpo, its verdant top shrouded in thick mist during our visit. After paying the small entrance fee (200JPY for adults and 100JPY for children) we strolled along the winding path towards the cave where the legendary samurai Miyamoto Musashi wrote his “Book of Five Rings”.
500 Buddha Statues
Besides the path stood 500 stone statues, each in different positions and expressions, also called Gohyakurakan (achievers of Nirvana). A few were headless Buddha, maybe the recent earthquake had decapitated them. Their smooth rocky surface, coated with moss and fallen leaves, they were a fascinating sight and brought back memories of a wondrous hilltop shrine on Innoshima. We carefully trod on the slippery, wet path until we reached the cave at a dead end. After climbing into the cave we discovered a large dry chamber and altar within. I would have loved to linger longer at Unganzenji and was disappointed that I only had my iPhone to take photos of the intriguing temple due to the streaming rain.
Leaving Unganzenji behind we drove to Shinminato port for the Ocean Arrow ferry connection between Kumamoto and Shimabara across the Ariake Sea. Upon arriving at the port we received a card in Japanese and English stating the length of our car. This card we had to take into the terminal building in order to pay for the crossing. The ferries run frequently, however it is advisable to reserve a space for the car on the Ocean Arrow during busy times of the year like Golden Week, Obon and on weekends. It is also worth checking departure times online to avoid lengthy waiting.
On Board the Fast Ferry
On board the ferry, Jerome and I took a wander outside but the heavy rain and wind chased us straight back inside the fast ferry. We had hoped to enjoy views of the inland sea and the Unzendake range on the Shimabara peninsular but the thick clouds prevented us.
Unzen, a Charmong Onsen Village
After our arrival on the Shimabara peninsular we headed up into the clouds. The winding roads snaking through thick, verdant forest led us towards Unzen Hell. The bubbling jigoku just outside Unzen village were our next destination. Unzen itself is a charming onsen village and unlike Beppu the tourist crowds have largely stayed away, possibly due to its remote location in Kyushu.
The Natural Wonders of Unzen Hell
Wafts of foul eggs announced the hot springs proximity and after parking our car we entered the natural wonders at Unzen. Hot steam rose from the mineral springs, where the hot water had found spots in the rocky ground to surface, merging with the foggy surroundings, the perfect atmosphere for visiting “hell”. The path through the mineral spring was well sign posted with boards describing and explaining each point of interest, even in English. Puddles filled with boiling hot water could be seen along the track, volcanic rocks in pastel shades of turquoise, salmon pink and sulphur yellow bordered the trail.
A group of men joined us along our stroll through hell, curious where we came from. After a while we reached a hut selling onsen tamago, eggs cooked in the hot steam. Cats lazily rambled about to the joy of Jerome and the Taiwanese men kindly invited us to a round of onsen eggs. Jerome found it fascinating to see the woman lift the lid of the makeshift egg cooker above a vent from underground.
Interesting Rock Formations and Jigoku
Continuing our tour, we passed many more interesting rock formations and jigoku. There were “farting” daikyokan, these fumaroles emit gas, producing low-pitched sounds and further on a mud volcano. Disappointingly, it wasn’t much of a scary, exploding mountain, due to the heavy rain and looked more like a large muddy puddle gently bubbling in places as the steam escaped.
Unzen Hell and its natural wonders were a great detour on our drive around the Ariake Sea and it would be a great place to explore further. Unzen village offers many scenic hikes and Shimabara town, despite the deathly eruption of Mount Unzen on 1991 is a relaxed castle town, with samurai houses (we wistfully missed) and koi filled waterways. There’s plenty of accommodation to choose from, a traditional ryokan with private onsen is always a good choice.
Accommodation in Kumamoto and Unzen:
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