When winter rolls around, it may seem tempting to retreat indoors until the warm weather returns. Yet doing so would mean missing the opportunity to experience one of the greatest pleasures Japan has to offer – thawing the winter from your bones with a steaming hot onsen!
Nagasaki Prefecture is an ideal place to do so, as the properties of the water from the hot springs vary across the prefecture, meaning that each town offers a completely different bathing experience.
To help you choose the perfect onsen town to visit, we've put together a guide to the prefecture's greatest bathing spots. We've also included just some of the great activities you can do, and cafes and sightseeing spots you can visit, before or after your trip to the onsen. Soon, you won't be wondering which onsen you should visit, you'll be wondering which onsen you should visit first!
Walking around the peaceful streets of Shimabara Onsen, you would never guess that in 1637 it was host to the Shimabara Rebellion, in which Catholic peasants, tired of religious persecution and overtaxation, rose against their lords.
The rebellion was quashed, and led to an even stricter enforcement of Japan's isolationist policy, or "sakoku". Portuguese traders were forced to leave the country as European Catholics were suspected of encouraging the rebellion.
Shimabara Onsen also recently experienced unrest in 1990. Mount Fugen, which had lay dormant for almost 200 years, erupted, tragically killing 34 people. At the same time, a new lava dome was created - the 1468 metre Heisei Shinzan, which is 100 metres taller than Mount Fugen.
As well as its fascinating history, Shimabara Onsen is a wonderful place to experience Japanese culture up close in a serene setting, before visiting one of the town's many hot springs.
Make a Shimabara specialty かんざらし
Kanzarashi are small dumplings made of rice flour served soaked in a light syrup with spring water. At Shimabara Yuusuikan しまばら湧水館, in the famous "town of swimming carp", where carp swim alongside the pavements in clear spring water canals, you can get up close with the local culture by making your own kanzarashi!
The process of rolling the rice flour into soft, cool dumplings is a sensory joy, and you then have the satisfaction of eating your creation in a traditional Japanese tatami room overlooking a peaceful garden.
Once you've finished, mark the location of your hometown on the world map with a pin (the small white ball atop it looks like – guess what - a kanzarashi!) and accept your personalised certificate showing that you are a master of kanzarashi making!
Sample Shimabara's spring water
Hamanokawa spring is tucked away a little from the town's main thoroughfares. However, it is well worth a visit as it provides an insight into the lives of Shimabara locals.
The spring is maintained by local people, and you may see someone trundle up with a trolley full of empty bottles to collect water for the week. Visitors are recommended to use the small metal ladle to try some of the delicious water from the first pool before they leave!
Enjoy green tea with a view
If you need a pick-me-up, or simply want to enjoy one of Nagasaki's most peaceful spots, visit the Shimeisho Spring Garden 四明荘 for a cup of green tea. From the open sliding doors you can revel in the view of the tranqiul water that the house is built over.
Fuss over the huge, colourful carp swimming near by, and leave a small donation on the way out if you wish, as the friendly staff offer the tea to visitors free of charge.
Shimabara's water is rich with cleansing hydrogen carbonate, which is great for dry, rough and hard feeling skin.
If this sounds appealing, visit Hotel Nampuro, where you can rejuvenate your skin at Shimabara's open-air bath with a stunning sea view. If you're willing to have an early start, the open-air bath is a prime location to view a beautiful Shimabara sunrise. Helpful posters near the baths list the exact time of sunrise for the next day, so you can time your bath to coincide with it.
The indoor bath is softly embued with the energising and uplifting scent of hinoki (Japanese Cypress), and between the hours of 2pm and 11pm, the sauna is enriched with special herbs. A recent renovation has seen the changing rooms decorated in a modern Japanese style, which contributes to the onsen's serene atmosphere.
For those wishing to stay at the hotel, rooms with private baths can be booked, as well as rooms with terraces suitable for pets. There's even a shallow bath in the hotel gardens where dogs can bathe while their owners soak their feet in the adjoining footbath!
You can also learn about Shimabara's rich history at the Hotel Nampuro. The garden overlooks the point in the sea where, in 1627, 16 Christians were martyred by drowning in the rough sea. A silver plaque marks an appropriate place to view the site of the martyrdom, as well as more details about what happened.
Friendly hotel staff speak English, Korean, Chinese and Thai, as well as Japanese, which may be reassuring to first time hot spring visitors. However, the beautiful view and soft water make Hotel Nampuro a great choice for experienced onsen goers too!
The Nagazasshi is Nagasaki's No. 1 English language magazine. You can read it online at www.nagazasshi.com
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Collaboration Pages: January-February 2016 issue
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