Travelling from Kumamoto to Nagasaki mid January by boat and bus, I had the good fortune to go to Hell myself, and for good measure not one, but several Hells – “jigogu”. Having ascended to Hell and spending the night there, I had the even better fortune of descending from “jigoku” without the Devil’s exit approval to continue my Kyushu journey and return to my office in Tokyo to tell the story of my visit here in the Embassy’s newsletter.
Having called on Governor Kabashima, Vice Mayor Nishijima and my good friend “Kumamon” and met with the Norway Friendship Society in Kumamoto, impressed by the magnificent Kumamoto Castle and now standing on deck feeding by hand the seagulls accompanying the ferry to Shimabara, I could not but admire the majestic volcano Unzen-dake that we were sailing towards on shore ahead.
The Unzen Volcanic Area Global Geopark in Shimabara is definitely worth a visit. Another reminder of the powerful, and for us humans, destructive forces of nature. From there my wife Anita and I bravely ascended to the hot springs of Unzen volcano. Mount Fugen-Unzen last erupted in 1990 killing forty three people. Craters called “hells” even when not erupting, these hot springs flourished as a Buddhist retreat from the 700s and were used as an example of the Buddhist concept of Hell.
Later, the “jigoku” were used for torture and execution of early Christians in Japan, when the feudal Lord Matsukara cracked down on this new religion from abroad in the 1600s. After being mildly scalded by hot water, the two options for these early Christians were quite clear. Either abandon faith and descend from Hell to return to a daily existence, or confirm their faith and be thrown alive into the boiling “jigoku” for eternal suffering.
Inhaling the devilish smell of sulphur, we visited several “little hells” after spending the night in the heavenly “Miyazaki ryokan” on our private, non-official visit to Hell. We were especially impressed by “Hachiman Jigoku” – the eighty thousand hells. According to Buddhist scriptures, we human-beings have a mindset to commit up to eighty-four thousand kinds of sin and misbehaviours. Those who do are condemned to hell must consequently go through up to eighty-four thousand kinds of torture to make up for their acts of misbehaviour on Earth. Fair enough, but not a pleasant scenario for those of us, who misbehave a little from time to time.
Then there is the “Daikyoukan Jigoku” – the “Screaming Hell” with 120 degree steam rising forty meters in the sky accompanied by a deep and constant roar, which is really the anguished cry of the dead as they drop down into Hell. I felt very sorry for them and would not want to suffer the same fate. And nearby the more useful “Jaken Jigoku” – the “Jealousy Hell” – water from which is very good for settling of troubles caused by jealousy.
Wandering through these “jigoku”, it is advisable to stop and make your personal reflections at the “Baba ishi” – the “Old Woman’s Stone” – and “Kagami ishi” – “the Mirror Stone”. “Kagami ishi” has the power to distinguish whether dead people are good or bad. If you pretend you are dead, you might get some useful corrective information before you might meet Enma, the Judge of the Hell, who sits on the “Baba ishi” in the Sohzu River.
Back at our heavenly “ryokan” after an enlightening and at times disturbing morning walk through various hells, we stepped carefully into our “onsen” in Unzen and settled into the almost boiling, sulphurous hot water with many, many things to think about.