Kyushu Island is famous for its excellent hot springs, and last week my wife and I revisited one of our favorite areas for onsen: Unzen, Nagasaki Prefecture. Some 800 meters above sea level, the quiet village lies within Unzen-Amakusa National Park, one of the oldest of its kind in Japan. Manoeuvring up the steep, twisty road is more than worth it for the spectacular views and plentiful nature.
We were invited to spend a night at the recently renovated Unzen Kyushu Hotel, a historic property that first welcomed Japanese and overseas guests in 1917. A century on and the hotel’s location remains as impressive as ever: it sits literally on top of the jigoku (‘hells’), a hot spring field of barren rock pierced by vents that billow steam. Yes, the smell of sulphur pervades, but like the area’s silky-smooth spring waters, the hot, pungent air is all part of the organic therapy that people travel from afar to experience here.
The hotel’s renovation was a long time in the making, the result of careful planning by the fourth generation of proprietors, Akinobu Shichijo and his wife. The result is a mix of old and new, contemporary comforts blended with traditional aesthetics and service, as becomes clear within minutes of arrival. Unlike in a ryokan, here it is shoes-on, and guests are seated in chairs (not on tatami) for the welcome cup of tea and a sweet. This tradition, too, comes with a twist: the hotel serves a mix of locally sourced, organic herbal and green tea, along with a tiny vegan doughnut.
The hotel offers several room options, including four detached villas. Each room has a private ensuite bath and faces onto the jigoku, offering every guest what is hands down the best view in all of Unzen. From our room, on the third of six floors with huge windows and a sizeable patio complete with sofa, it was hard to tear our eyes away.
Inside, the room was furnished comfortably and with just the right conveniences, stripped of unnecessary electronics or gadgets. Even the room key was an old-fashioned metal affair, not a slippery piece of plastic.
Meanwhile the bath was large enough for my lanky North American body with space to spare, and controlling the temperature was easy – crucial if you plan to spend hours soaking.
Heading to the large dining room, located in an adjacent building and decorated with period chandeliers, furniture and carpets, reminded us of how generations before us must have spent their vacations here. Dinner was several courses of Japanese-European dishes made with local, seasonal ingredients, each perfectly proportioned and leaving us anticipating what would come next. For breakfast, we were offered a choice of Western or Japanese food and went for one of each – of course!
Before or after dinner, guests can enjoy complimentary drinks (alcohol included) under the sunshades on a spacious outdoor patio on the second floor of the main building. A rooftop lounge was still under construction when we visited, but to judge from the views we glimpsed from up top, it will be something to look forward to when it opens.
With its romantic views and elegant comforts, the hotel makes a great choice for couples of all ages. Imagine soaking in your private bath, gazing out at one of Japan’s most unique and beautiful landscapes, then enjoying a meal in the grand dining room followed by a nightcap on the rooftop bar. Rebuilding on such a landmark location was a risky proposition, but the new Unzen Kyushu Hotel is a triumph – and we’re already planning our next visit. We hear the autumn colors there are stunning!
Report and photos by Nick Szasz / Publisher, Fukuoka Now
May 23, 2018
Unzen Kyushu Hotel
From Fukuoka City: approx. 170 min. by expressway
From Nagasaki City: approx. 80 min.
From Kumamoto City: Kumamoto Port → Shimabara Gaiko Port (30 min.*), then take Shimatetsu Bus (approx. 40 min.)
From Kumamoto City: Amakusa Oniike Port → Kuchinotsu Port (30 min.), then take Shimatetsu Bus (approx. 40 min.)
*Depends on the type of the ferry