The roadside is smouldering and ash-white. From it billows a steady flow of pungent sulphur fog that pours into Unzen and escapes into the surrounding mountains. There it meets the low-hanging cloud spilling down from the peaks and blends into a mist that threatens to engulf this small town. It is a marked step-change from cosmopolitan Nagasaki which we left behind in a bus only ninety minutes before.
Unzen was designated Japan’s first official National Park in 1937 and centres around the eponymous Mount Unzen, an alarmingly active volcano. The area has a history of natural violence: in 1792 it held the accolade for Japan’s worst volcanic disaster when Mt.Unzen caused a tsunami that killed nearly 15,000 people. As recently as 1991, another eruption forged a new mountain (Heisei-shinzan) but also claimed another forty-three victims. Even the hot-springs near town have their own chequered past.
We sit at a local cafe munching on delicious steamed mushroom dumplings and plot a plan of attack for the afternoon. Between mouthfuls of chewy, earthy goodness we decide to leave Mt.Unzen until tomorrow when visibility promises to improve. Instead, we strike off for the summit of Mt.Kinugasa which is a shorter hike and closer to town.
Unzen wears its association with the underworld on its sleeve and, like the sulphur clouds themselves, an unsettling atmosphere seems to cling to us as we make our ascent. This hike begins creepy: around the back of a vacant memorial hall and through a gloomy and claustrophobic forest, one where the trees seem to hem a walker in the further up the trail we go. The silence is incredible.
At this point in the trip, our imaginations are rife with images of hungry bears and so we start talking at increasing volumes to make any peckish types aware of our presence. This talking turns to clapping. The clapping turns to ‘can you guess the Disney song I’m clapping?’ Needless to say, when we break through to the summit, out of the thick canopy and into a glorious view that stretches from the top of Mt.Unzen to the Amakusa Sea, we are relieved. I imagine if anyone else is in earshot, they are more so.
We descend to find the vacant campsite around Shirakumo Lake; another eerie location. Empty paddle boats bob and squeak against each on the water. The shutters for the lake house are down and the murky windows stare out at us. I feel like I’ve stepped into the beginning of a bad horror movie, but one that has been filmed by accident against a warming mosaic of autumn colours. Red, yellow, purple and orange are all splashed across the trees here.
Town is buzzing by comparison. We cut back through to get to the springs and pause to watch a group of distinguished gentleman playing a game of getoboru (gate ball). Like croquet, it looks the ambling sort of game best enjoyed with a shandy, which these chaps are sadly lacking.
The rain starts to come down in earnest now and it turns the Jigoku Springs even more biblical. We stumble on a convent of nuns praying at the highest point, huddled under umbrellas and around a crucifix erected to mark the thirty-three Christians that were boiled alive in these springs for their beliefs.
The cracked and steaming earth is epic to watch; it bubbles and pops like its got a life of its own. It is easy to see how this place has stirred the imagination for generations and continues (clearly, in my case) to do so today.