Japan City Guides: Shimabara & Unzen
Shimabara Peninsula 島原半島
The Shimabara Peninsula is located west of Nagasaki city in Nagasaki Prefecture. The active volcanoes of Unzen (雲仙) dominate the center of the peninsula and the massive peaks of the volcano: Fugendake (1,359m) and Heisei Shinzan (1,486m) are clearly visible from most of the peninsula.
The volcano erupted with deadly effect in 1792 killing over 15,000 people in a tsunami and again in 1991, when 43 people died.
The small town of Unzen is a noted onsen resort with very hot water! There are many luxury hotels with hot springs as well as three public baths to soak in at a lower cost. Like Beppu in Oita Prefecture, Unzen is known for its scalding jigoku (hells) hot springs and boasts one of Japan's first golf courses laid out in 1913.
Unzen can lay claim to Japan's first national park - the Unzen-Amakusa National Park - established as early as 1934. Buses run from the Shimatetsu bus station in Unzen town to the start of the trails to see the volcanoes. A ropeway takes visitors from the Nita Pass to an observation platform west of Fugen-dake. Buses to the ropeway leave from Unzen's Ken-ei bus station.
The port city of Shimabara on the east coast of the peninsula is a sleepy place but has a few noteworthy attractions. Shimabara Castle, which dates from 1625, being the principal attraction in town.
Matsukura Shigemasa, who had replaced the Christian daimyo Arima Naozumi, raised taxes to pay for the building of Shimabara Castle and this financial burden, added to his ruthless suppression of his Christian subjects, was a major reason behind the unsuccessful Shimabara Rebellion of 1637-38.
The castle was beseiged during the hostilities but not significantly damaged. Shimabara Castle was later to be under the control of the Koriki, Matsudaira and Toda clans through the Edo Period (1600-1868).
There are a number of museums in the castle and its grounds including the Shimabara Cultural Hall with more on the Shimabara Rebellion and Nagasaki Prefecture's Christians, the Fugen-dake Museum with exhibits of the local volcano's destructive eruption in 1792. The Sculpture Museum is dedicated to the work of Seibo Kitamura (1884-1987), whose art included the Peace Statue in Nagasaki. The free Folk Museum has exhibits from the Edo, Meiji and Showa periods of Japanese history.
A short walk from the entrance to the castle is the Buke-yashiki area of lower and middle samurai houses, with a small spring water canal running down the middle of the street, that served for daily water needs. A number of the wooden residences and gardens have been preserved including the Torita, Shinozuka and Yamamoto homes.
Other reminders of Shimabara as a samurai castle town are the Old Shimabara Province Herb Garden laid out in 1834 and the City of Swimming Carp - a stone-lined canal stocked with around 1,500 of the colorful fish.
Shimabara's other attractions include a number of onsen public baths, footbaths (ashiyu) and the Hamanokawa Spring which is still used for washing food and dishes.
The 8.6m-long Statue of Buddha Entering Nirvana in Kotoji Temple (Tel: 0957 62 2788) was built in 1957 to honor Itakura Shigemasa, who commanded the Tokugawa government forces against the rebels during the Shimabara Rebellion. The statue is the longest reclining Buddha in the country.
The Unzen Disaster Memorial Hall, south of the Ferry Terminal is dedicated to the fatal eruptions of Mount Unzen in the 1990s.
The Tourist Information Center (Tel: 0957 62 3986) is in the ferry terminal to the south of the old town.
Nagasaki Airport is the most convenient airport for Shimabara and has flights to Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya.
Kumamoto Airport has direct flights to Tokyo, Osaka, Naha and other cities in Japan. The airport is about 50 minutes from downtown Kumamoto by regular bus.
JR LEX Kamome trains from Fukuoka on the Kagoshima Line go to JR Isahaya Station (1 hours, 50 mins) and then change for a local train to Shimabara (70 mins).
Express buses from Nagasaki Airport take 1 hour and 45 minutes.
There are regular highway buses to Hakata via JR Isahaya Station at the neck of the Shimabara Peninsula (3 hours).
Two ferry companies run car ferries from Shimabara to Kumamoto. The crossing takes one hour on the cheaper, slower boat run by Kyusho Ferry (Tel: 096 329 6111) or 30 minutes on the more expensive quicker boat operated by Kumamoto Ferry (Tel: 0957 63 8008).
The last crossing on weekdays from Shimabara to Kumamoto is 5.30pm with Kumamoto Ferry and 6.55pm with Kyusho Ferry. Both companies have later sailings on weekends and public holidays from April to December. 7.20pm for Kumamoto Ferry and 7.05pm for Kyusho Ferry.
There is also a ferry from Miike in Fukuoka Prefecture to Shimabara (50 mins) and a boat from Nagasu Port in Kumamoto to Taira Port.
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