Welcome to Unzen, Kyushu, a sulphurous field of geothermal activity so inhospitable to life that its boiling hot springs and gas jets go by the name of jigoku or hells. This Halloween, allow us to be your Virgil and guide you through this strange world where eerie noises drift from hellish craters, clouds of foul-smelling gas confuse the mind and Christian martyrs were once boiled to death!

From its historical roots as a sacred mountain restricted to monks to a foreigner-friendly resort in the early 1900s to its modern incarnation as part of a UNESCO-recognized geopark, Unsen Onsen has long attracted people to soak in its hot spring waters. Of course, when it comes bubbling out of the ground at temperatures in excess of 100 degrees Celsius (212 degrees Fahrenheit), you need to exercise a little caution. Local hotels have to mix the boiling spring water with cold to make sure their bathers don’t end up parboiled.

Such extreme conditions make for a rather interesting, if dangerous, environment at the sources, so Unzen sets itself apart from other hot spring towns with a walkway which allows visitors to wind their way through the 30 hells of Unzen without being suffocated or scalded. Particularly at night, it’s a very spooky place to take a stroll, not just because of the atmospheric sights and sounds, but because of the dark history and creepy mythology surrounding the place.

1024px-140322_Unzen_Onsen_Jigoku_Unzen_Nagasaki_pref_Japan13oPhoto: Wikipedia

Let us introduce you to some of the sights of hell!

Monument to Christian Martyrs

NPS1108Photo: Nagasaki Tabi Net

Kyushu is actually the seat of Christianity in Japan, as it was an important port of call for Europeans. Initially, the shogunate was supportive of the efforts of Christian missionaries as a way of countering the power and influence of the Buddhist monks, but as Christianity began to take hold and concerns about Western colonialism increased, the shogunate became more and more opposed, finally outlawing the religion in 1587. Foreign priests were deported and killed if they returned and Japanese Christians were forced to convert or face torture and death.

The monument in Unzen marks the deaths of 33 Christian martyrs at the site from 1627 to 1632. The Christians were tortured by having the boiling spring waters poured over their bodies, but rather than renounce their faith, they endured as the flesh was slowly boiled off their bodies.

The cross was erected by the Archbishop of Nagasaki and nearby there is a stone inscribed with the names of the victims as well a poem by Japanese poet Chosuke Ikuta which reads: “Your exalted spirits and sacred red blood have never faded away and are still vividly seen through the red mountain covered by azalea flowers.”

Seishichi’s Hell


One of the first hells you will come to on the walking path is Seishichi’s Hell, named after another Christian martyr from Nagasaki. Seishichi was captured bearing a tablet with Christian imagery on it. He refused to throw it to the ground and trample it in a renunciation of his religion, so he was executed likely by beheading or crucifixion, the preferred methods at the time. It’s said that at the moment he was killed, the hot spring here erupted spectacularly, so it has borne his name ever since.

Oito’s Hell


Further along the path, you encounter a sinisterly boiling pond of greenish water. This spring is called Oito’s Hell. As the story goes, Oito was the wife of a wealthy man near the castle. Although he adored her and provided her a life of luxury, she became an adulteress, eventually murdering her husband to be with her lover. When she was captured and executed, this spring erupted and the locals believed it was the splash of her spirit being cast down into hell.

The Shrieking Hell Mouth


Carry on up the hill and you will come the Shrieking Hell Mouth, a crevice that billows with so much steam, it’s impossible to see exactly where it is or how deep it goes. The super-hot steam sometimes shoots out in plumes 30 to 40 meters high (over 100 feet). The noise of the hydrogen sulphide gas escaping rumbles and shrieks over the hell fields, sounding for all the world like the howls of damned souls and bringing with it the foul reek of brimstone.

The Hell of Wickedness

7261840008_6544b7de58_hPhoto: Fukuoka de Asobitabi

The story behind this spring is that if lovers or friends drink the waters that boil up here, any envy or discord between them will melt away. However, this seems to have been a subtle ploy to poison people with dark secrets, because the water is so acidic it makes you ill. The Ministry of Environment has helpfully posted a sign suggesting people just let go of any resentments they may be harboring.

▼Another sign nearby: “Keep out. Hell is dangerous.”


▼ The hell fields on a clear day.


▼ The hell fields at their spooky, nocturnal best.

imagePhoto: Nagasaki Tabinet

▼Sulphurous deposits lurk under every stone.


▼Sometimes it makes pretty (and pretty smelly) crystals.


If you happen to be in the Nagasaki area tonight, allow us to recommend a nighttime stroll through the hells of Unzen as a creepy way to spend Halloween, though you may want to bring a buddy and a crucifix or two. Boo!

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