Many people are familiar with Nagasaki because of the atomic bombing during World War II. But there is so much more about Nagasaki that shaped Japan’s history for many centuries. It was actually one of the few sites in Japan where Christianity briefly flourished in the mid-16th century.
Nagasaki is one of the oldest ports in Japan and it was the only port opened to foreigners during the Tokugawa period between 1639 and 1859. Portuguese traders came through this port and introduced Christianity converting many of its locals to the new religion.
In my tour, I highlighted the rich history of Nagasaki by visiting three important sites. It was a very cold and windy day, but that didn’t deter me from showing you the beauty of Shimabara!
You would notice that I wore a special type of clothing called a hakama, the Taisho era’s high-collared style worn by female students in the past. You can rent a hakama as you walk around Shimabara City. It costs ¥2000 for 90 mins.
My first stop is the gorgeous Shimabara Castle. It is a 33-meter tall, five-story flatland castle (平城, Hirajiro) located between Ariake Bay and Mount Unzen. Shimabara Castle was constructed in 1624 and is a symbol of the excesses and cruelty of the local rulers during the Tokugawa Shogunate. After the imposition of the national isolation policy, the Tokugawa regime prohibited the practice of Christianity and persecuted believers. They also enforced high taxations on the local Christian population to fund the construction of the Shimabara Castle between 1618-1624. The tyranny is one of the factors that led to the uprising known as the Shimabara Rebellion.
Today, Shimabara castle has become a city museum that exhibits the history of Christianity, the Shimabara Rebellion and other aspects of life during feudal times.
As I entered the castle, I was welcomed by a guide wearing clothing representing Arima Harunobu, an important Christian feudal lord. I noticed right away the rosary she was wearing around her neck.
In the exhibit, I saw a portrait of Portuguese missionary Francis Xavier who came to Kagoshima to teach and spread Christianity in the region. Several young Shimabara people were sent to Rome to learn about religious teachings.
One interesting part of the tour was that because Christianity was eventually banned by the Tokugawa Shogunate, many believers were forced to hide their identity. There I saw various Christian artifacts that were disguised as part of the Buddhist faith such as statues of Mother Mary that were made to look like Buddhist icons and butsudans (Buddhist altar) but with subtle crucifix symbols at the bottom. There were also bronze plates that bear the image of Christ or the Virgin Mary (known as fumie). During that time, people were asked to step on these plates to prove that they were not Christians. It was very fascinating. You would notice that most signs and descriptions were in Japanese, but they also offer a QR code that you can scan so you can read the information online offered in other major languages.
The picture below is the first Christian school – Shingakkō 神学校 built in Shimabara.
After exploring Shimabara castle, we then headed to Buke Yashiki 武家屋敷 or Samurai residence. When we reached the Buke Yashiki, we saw a small but beautiful irrigation canal that was running in front of it.
My guide explained that there were actually two types of samurais, the lower-class and upper-class samurai. The residence that we visited belonged to the Yamamoto family and they were considered lower class samurai. The house was constructed in 1868 and the family served the Tokugawa Shogunate for 13 successive generations.
As we peeked inside, we saw various rooms with tatami mats divided by shoji or Japanese sliding doors. It was fascinating to learn more about the samurai’s way of life. The Yamamoto house is one of the only 3 samurai houses that are open to the public in this district known as Shimabara Teppo-cho (Gun Town).
Our last stop was Shimeisō 四明荘 or Spring Water Garden. We took a car from the Buke yashiki to Shimeisō as it’s a bit far away each other. It’s about 5 mins by a car but if you walk, it will take about 15 mins.
In Shimeisō, over 3,000 tons of spring water gush out every day and many colorful Koi fish are seen swimming under the house and around the waters surrounding the place. Because it was a cold day, I was worried that the Koi would be hiding, but fortunately we still saw plenty of them. It is discouraged to feed the fish since during wintertime, they move very slow, so they don’t need to feed as much.
We also saw streams of spring water lining the streets that were filled with Koi fish (Japanese Carp). These fish were introduced by the authorities in 1978. It was quite a fascinating sight, seeing them swimming freely in the long stretches of canals. The water is very clean and pristine allowing the Koi to flourish.
Here at the spring water garden you can just chill and soak in the relaxing atmosphere. Before the Covid pandemic, one was offered tea by the local host. But they have stopped this practice for the time being and you would have to bring your own.
The water was clear, and it was a delight to see the Koi swimming about. Koi is very prominent in Japanese culture. They symbolize fortune or good luck. It is also said that because Koi fish often swim up rivers and climb waterfalls, they are considered courageous and brave just like a Samurai warrior.
After the live tour, we went to Inohara Kanamonoten (hardware shop) where we ate a delicious lunch! Strange right? Well, the master’s wife loves cooking and started to serve meals 25 years ago. They also provide free sharpening lessons for kitchen knives. The hardware shop itself opened in 1887 and the store is registered as one of the country’s tangible cultural assets.
Nagasaki allows you to discover a different side of Japan. From its obscure Christian legacy, to the samurai houses, to and the soothing koi streams, I encourage you to include it in your itinerary for your future travel plans!
With Nakama-san (left) from Shimabara Tourism Bureau and Yamada-san from Nagasaki Prefecture. Thank you so much for your support!
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Shimabara Castle 島原城
|Access||From JR Nagasaki Station, take the limited express Kamome headed towards Hakata, the JR Nagasaki Line for Isahaya, or the JR Seaside Line for Sasebo. Get off at Isahaya Station. Change to the Shimatetsu line for Shimabaragaiko to Shimabara Station. From there, it’s 10 minutes on foot.|
|Hours||9:00 to 17:30, Open daily.|
|Address and Contact Number||1 Chome-1183-1 Jonai, Shimabara, Nagasaki 855-0036
Buke Yashiki (Samurai residence) 武家屋敷
|Access||10 min walk to the west from the Shimabara castle|
|Hours||9:00～17:00, Open daily|
|Address and Contact Number||Shitanocho, Shimabara, Nagasaki 855-0052
|Access||15 mins walk from Shimabara Station|
|Hours||9:00 to 18:00, Open daily|
|Address and Contact Number||2 Chome Shinmachi, Shimabara, Nagasaki 855-0803