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It started with one small flame, then another, then another. Soon, night became day in the sea of fire.

Children laughed as skin began to roast and hair withered under its angry gaze. Smoke filled the air and the smell of accelerants tickled our noses.

And just when you thought you were in hell, came hundreds of samurai marching under banner.

Welcome to Chijiwa’s annual Kanoukaen festival, one of the many things to do in Unzen, Nagasaki prefecture.

“Iyasaka,” they yelled, which means “more prosperity.” “Ohhh,” we answered over and over again.

Kanoukaen takes place in the small town of Chijiwa, located in Unzen, about a two-hour drive from Sasebo Naval Base.

It is a minor festival in Japan, yet is its biggest fire festival, according to participants. The kanji for Kanoukaen literally means “sakura fire party.”

About 400 years ago, the area’s samurai fought in battle and marched back to town by torchlight. This would later birth Kanoukaen.

Residents have been commemorating the march back to town with torches of their own for the past 70 years or so, according to web reports.

On March 30, several friends of mine and I drove to Unzen and located Chijiwa. We parked by the temple, where most of Kanoukaen’s festivities take place. We walked amongst the stalls and vendors selling food and marveled at the beautiful scenery, which included old Japanese bridges over picturesque rocky streams and cherry blossoms.

Unzen’s citizens enjoyed their final hanami parties as cherry blossom petals fluttered to the ground from the trees above.

When it was time, we made our way down a steep hill, about a mile, to the water. There we found hundreds of samurai reenactors on a baseball field, manning cannons, carrying banners, swords and muskets. They came from all over Japan.

Girls in vibrant outfits danced with fans as the samurai ominously looked on. Torches were passed out to anyone lucky enough to get one. Then the cannon sounded and flame shot out the barrel. It was time.

As darkness fell, the torches were lit and stretched for what seemed like forever as we marched from the sea, up through narrow windy roads of Chijiwa, to the temple. The route was lined with onlookers.

When we arrived, the torches were burned en masse and Kanoukaen came to an end. We hoped braving the flames, hot upon our necks and faces, was enough to bring prosperity this year.

Unzen has much to offer. It sits on Mt. Unzen, an active volcano, so it is best known for its volcanic hot springs, or onsens, and hells, or areas where steam shoots forth from the ground. But it is also an outdoorsman’s dream.

Unzen features picturesque lakes for fishing, trails for hiking, scenic lookouts with views of the volcano and numerous campgrounds.

After Kanoukaen, my friends and I set up camp at Eco Park Ronshobaru, located in Unzen Amakusa National Park, which was the first designated national park in Japan.

The park’s campsites and cabins were strewn across spectacular rolling hills; the fresh mountain air was reinvigorating. The park even has various animals from goats to horses and one can find wild birds and plants in abundance. I was even able to bring my dog to stay and enjoy their dog park.

“Eco Park Ronshobaru aims to protect and educate people about this precious nature and to promote living in coexistence with nature and circulating society,” the website states.

There is a plant that makes oil from various plants that were harvested within the park, which is open to visitors.

We set up tents and laughed around the fire all night long, until the sounds of friends snoring serenaded us to sleep.

The next day we drove to the top of the mountain to enjoy the view before returning to Sasebo more relaxed than we had been in some time — medium well done, of course.

Stars and Stripes reporter Hana Kusumoto contributed to this report.

Eco Park Ronshobaru

ADDRESS: Eco Park Ronshobaru, 4731-2 Kita-Arimachohei, Minami Shimabara city, Nagasaki Prefecture

COSTS: Kids ages 4-7 cost 1,000 yen. Kids ages 7-13 cost 1,500 yen. Adults are 2,500 yen.

On weekdays and Sundays, cabins are 15,000 yen during the top season, 13,000 yen during the on-season and 11,000 during the off-season. On Saturdays or a day before Japanese national holidays, 17,000 yen during the top season, 15,000 yen during the on-season and 13,000 yen during the off-season.

Bedclothes cost 1,000 yen per person.

Day-use campsites are 2,000 yen from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. After 5 p.m., you will be charged an additional 3,000 yen.

Auto campsites are 4,000 yen per space. Tents that can sleep five to six people are 1,500 yen to rent and a tarp is an additional 500 yen per sheet. Sleeping bags are 800 yen per night, mattresses are 300 yen per night and blankets are 300 yen per night.

Assorted supplies, including grills, pans, coolers, lanterns, charcoal, firewood and furniture, are available for rent.

FOOD: A small store onsite sells beverages and snacks.

TIMES: Top season is between April 29 and May 5 and July 20 to August 31. The on-season is from March 1 to April 28, May 6 to July 19 and September 1 to November 30. The off-season is between July 4 to February 28 and December 1 to December 28.

INFORMATION: If you cancel your cabin a week prior to your reservation, a cancellation fee will be charged. A discount coupon of the same price as the cancelation fee will be issued for use next time.

On the web:

Phone: 0957-65-7056

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Matthew M. Burke has been reporting from Okinawa for Stars and Stripes since 2014. The Massachusetts native and UMass Amherst alumnus previously covered Sasebo Naval Base and Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan, for the newspaper. His work has also appeared in the Boston Globe, Cape Cod Times and other publications.
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