An island paradise with a peculiar history
Located on the western tip of the southernmost island of Kyushu, Nagasaki Prefecture is known for its rolling hills, beautiful ocean views, and outsized western influence. Sitting approximately 100 kilometers off its coast are the Goto Islands, (literally, "five islands"), an archipelago with a history equally as rich as its natural wonders. In addition to its pristine beaches, the islands are distinguished by historical churches, a remnant of efforts to spread Christianity to the region centuries ago. Take a journey exploring this vibrant history while enjoying all the scenic beauty typical of an island paradise.
A tumultuous past spanning Jesuit priests, samurai rulers and Catholic missionaries
The Goto Islands offer a unique look into Nagasaki's "Hidden Christian" past. (In 2018, "Hidden Christian Sites in the Nagasaki Region" were registered as a World Heritage Site; there are 12 locations in total.) Jesuit missionaries first came to the region in the 16th century, briefly spreading their religion before facing a brutal crackdown from the shogunate a few decades later. Once banned, local Christians were forced to renounce their beliefs or carry on the faith in secret. Many even fled to neighboring islands to escape persecution.
To conceal Christian faith, Christianity in the region began to take on Buddhist characteristics. For example, statues of the Virgin Mary from this period bear an uncanny resemblance to Kannon, the Buddhist deity of mercy. After two centuries in secrecy, the Meiji Restoration resulted in Christianity making a slow comeback in the region, and dozens of churches sprouted up under the tutelage of Catholic missionaries. Fukue Island, the main island on the archipelago, serves as the site of much of this history.
In addition to its Christian heritage, the Goto Islands also boast a fascinating samurai history. In the late Edo period, feudal lord Morinori Goto built Ishida Castle in 1863 to ward off foreign vessels. Just five years later, the feudal system was dissolved, and the main castle structure was destroyed. While the outer walls are still intact, the inner grounds are now occupied by a museum, garden and high school.
Christianity returned to the region in the late 19th century with the arrival of the French Catholic missionaries Ferdinand Marmand and Pierre Theodore Fraineu. Marmand's mission here led to the creation in 1879 of what is arguably the region's most notable church, Dozaki Catholic Church. Featuring original Gothic-style architecture, the red-brick church now operates a museum where visitors can view exhibits and items documenting the region's Christian history
Imochiura Church, located on the southwestern tip of Fukue Island near Osezaki Lighthouse, was founded by the missionary Father Peroud and has Japan's first Lourdes grotto. Inspired by a 19th-century French religious story about the Virgin Mary, this grotto was assembled by Peroud after learning that a similar structure had been erected at the Vatican.
Perhaps the most picturesque Christian site on the Goto Islands is Mizunoura Church (main image). The bright white exterior contrasts beautifully with the blue skies and verdant surroundings. Though it was remodeled in 1938, this wooden church is one of the oldest in the Goto Islands and was founded in 1880 by a missionary of the Paris Foreign Missions Society.
To learn more about the region's cross-cultural history, pay a visit to the Goto Tourism and Historical Materials Museum. Located at the former site of Ishida Castle, the museum offers insight into the region's religious history and local way of life.
Stunning views from Osezaki Lighthouse
For the best sunset view, take a 30-minute scenic walk that leads you up to Osezaki Lighthouse, located on the southwestern tip of Fukue Island. Though steep at times, the paved walkway makes the journey accessible to regular visitors without requiring extra gear. The lighthouse platform offers excellent views of the ocean and the rugged cliffs.
Eating and shopping on the island
While on the islands, be sure to try the famous Goto Udon. Each noodle is hand-stretched using a special method and features a unique dashi stock made with flying fish. Another local specialty is Goto Wagyu beef, a particularly rare treat given that the majority of calves are sent to the mainland. For a memorable culinary experience, consider a trip to Tsubaki Chaya, an upscale oceanside restaurant serving meat, seafood and fresh produce over a traditional irori hearth.
With camellia flowers growing across the Goto Islands, locals have come to integrate camellia into their culture and daily lives. Many souvenir shops sell camellia oil and various beauty products incorporating this oil.
Glamping on a scenic island
For accommodation, consider a stay at Nordisk Village, a Scandinavian-style glamping site on Fukue Island. Glamping combines the best parts of camping (such as campfires) with the comforts of a hotel. The pre-built tents are furnished with beds and other typical amenities while allowing you to step outside and immediately enjoy the scenic beauty of the island. The site is also replete with a cafe/restaurant and a refurbished schoolhouse that offers additional private rooms.
Learn from the locals
Aspiring chefs and foodies will enjoy trying their hand at making Goto's famous udon noodles. On Fukue Island, udon manufacturer Goto Asunaro-Kai offers visitors the opportunity to make their own noodles.
Among the numerous outdoor activities that the Goto Islands have to offer, stand-up paddleboarding (SUP) is perhaps the most serene way to take in the island views. Head to Ohama Beach on Fukue Island to rent gear or take an introductory course. With many water activities available across the islands, be sure to check before your trip for the most convenient beaches and locations.
As a major production area for camellia oil, the Goto Islands offer a range of activities and souvenirs for those interested in beauty products. The oil is used to rejuvenate hair, skin and nails. If you are going to Nakadori Island (one of the Goto Islands), head to the Tsubaki Taiken Kobo to partake in a hands-on workshop where you can learn how to crush and process the seeds into highly refined oil.
Getting to the Goto Islands
- Fukue Island serves as the main access point into the Goto Islands. You can reach Goto Fukue Airport by plane from Nagasaki Airport or Fukuoka Airport. The flight time is 30 to 45 minutes.
- You can also opt for an ocean voyage, taking the ferry from Nagasaki Ferry Terminal to Fukue Port Terminal (approximately four hours), or the faster Kyushu Shosen Jet Foil (90 minutes).
- For an extended journey, consider an eight-and-half-hour trip via the overnight Taiko ferry, which departs from Hakata Port in Fukuoka. On-board accommodations range from capsules to luxurious suites.