People started to live in the Unzen area around 701 AD in the Nara-era when a famous Buddhist monk, Gyoki-Daijyoin, built "Manmyo-ji,"(Manmyo temple). Thereafter, the Manmyo-ji had expanded its influence and been recognized as "Kouya-san in the west" where more than one thousand monks had been performing ascetic practices. The place had been called "Unzen-zan," (old reading of kanji which means Hot spring mountain) until the Unzen area was designated as a national park and its kanji was changed. Although the original Manmyo-ji burnt away due to the Shimabara war led by Sirou Amakusa in 1637, it was rebuilt two years later and still there until now.
The first hot spring village of Unzen can be traced back to the year 1653 when Zenzaemon Kato opened "Enreki-yu". In 1693, Tadafusa Matsudaira, a feudal lord of Shimabara domain, ordered an environmental conservation of Unzen and prohibited to kill birds and animals as well as to pick azaleas in the area. Unzen's unspoiled nature and the beautiful azalea flowers owe much to the efforts of the environmental protection started more than 310 years ago. In the Meiji Era, the period of the modern state construction, Unzen was introduced by the books of Kampfer and Siebold, and became the summer resort for many foreign visitors from Europe and Shanghai, China.
In this way, Unzen has been popular for long period as the hot spring resort with unspoiled nature and a long history. Furthermore, in 1912, the first public golf course (9 holes) in Japan was opened in the area; and in 1934, Unzen became the first national park in Japan.
Unzen Catholic Church
From the 4th to the 9th year of the Kanei-era (1627-1632), Shigemasa Matsukura, feudal lord of Shimabara, had repressed Christians in the area. Antonio Ishida, the martyr, died sometime during that period in the Jigoku of Unzen. The Unzen Catholic Church was built to offer prayers of reverence to him. In June 15, 1981, Cardinal Joseph Satowaki, Archbishop of Nagasaki, blessed and consecrated the church in commemoration of John Paul II's visit in Nagasaki and silver anniversary of Cardinal Satowaki's accession to a bishop. Although the number of the congregation now is fewer than ten, many pilgrims and tourists are visiting the church throughout the year since it is situated within the Unzen National Park and the area is famous for the act of martyrdom. Many couples want to have their wedding ceremonies in this church lately, which wedding scenes became new charming sights of Unzen.
Place of Martyrdom
During the depression of Jigoku (1627-1632) conducted by Shigemasa Matsukura, many Christians were killed. Though it is impossible now to indicate the exact place in which many Christians suffered martyrdom, two monumental stones were placed in "Oito-jigoku" to honor the martyrs. The one is called "Seika Moyu-no Hi," (monument of sacred flame) built in 1939. On the surface, the Japanese poem written by Ikuta Chosuke was inscribed: Your exalted spirits and sacred red blood have never faded away and are still vividly seen through the red mountain covered by azalea flowers (translation from original verses). The other monument of the cross was raised by Archbishop of Nagasaki in 1961. On the surface of its setting stone, six martyrs' names were inscribed. The Unzen Remembrance Service of the church is held by Archbishop of Nagasaki on the third Sunday every May, followed by the pilgrimage starting from the Unzen Catholic Church to the Oito-jigoku.