world heritage

Hidden Christian Sites in the Nagasaki Region (UNESCO) Explore the sites of Japan's Christian past

Following the banishment of the religion by the Tokugawa shogunate in the early 1600s, Japan's small Christian population went underground

Christianity first arrived in Japan in the mid-1500s, where it briefly spread around Nagasaki and the adjacent islands of Amakusa . Visiting this region today, you'll find castle ruins, rebuilt churches, and religious antiquities telling a storied history of local rebellions against the shogunate, forced rituals renouncing the Christian faith, followed by the eventual liberalization of religious practice in the mid-19th century.

kattyan / PIXTA

Nagasaki Prefecture Convention and Tourism Association

Highlights

  • Exploring the ruins of Hara Castle, where a local rebellion by Christian farmers erupted in the 1600s
  • Trekking up Mt. Unzen for rugged volcanic terrain followed by soothing natural hot springs
  • Visiting the well-preserved churches of Amakusa and Hirado islands

Three centuries of religious persecution

Christianity spread to Nagasaki and the islands of Amakusa for a brief period in the 16th century, through the Jesuit missionary Francis Xavier. Just a few decades later, in 1614, the Edo shogunate banned the faith, and its followers were forced to practice in secret or face torture and death.

Though many Christians were forced to renounce their faith, many others found ways to carry on their religious practices in secret. Without ordained priests or institutions to follow, the religion began to slowly evolve into its own distinct form.

Oura Cathedral

With the opening of Japan following the Meiji Restoration (1868-1912) and the ban on Christianity officially lifted in 1873, the Christians who had been secretly practicing their religion for so many years were free to practice openly. Many churches constructed in the region date back to this mid-19th century period. Most notable of these churches is the Oura Cathedral, located in the heart of Nagasaki , a Catholic gothic church dedicated to the 26 martyrs executed on Nishizaka Hill.

A bloody revolt ends in a long reign of terror

To get an understanding of the history of Christian persecution firsthand, head to the town of Shimabara , located on the southern tip of Nagasaki . For almost five months, farmers revolted against the shogunate, opposing religious oppression and tax increases. The revolt eventually led to an open confrontation with some 120,000 troops, ending with a battle at Hara Castle in April 1638. The bloodshed only served to increase the government's resolve to restrict the religion.

Visiting Shimabara today, you'll find stone foundations, castle gates, and a stone monument commemorating the revolt. The site overlooks the ocean, making for an ideal photo spot.

If spending additional time in the area, consider a trip to nearby Mt. Unzen , an active volcano bubbling with geothermal activity. While Christians were once sent here for punishment, the area is now home to traditional inns, hot spring resorts, and rugged scenery.

Mt. Unzen

The home of the region's religious revolutionary

From Shimabara you can take a ferry to the islands of Amakusa , a series of rocky islands with lush vegetation and idyllic seaside villages. These islands were the home of Amakusa Shiro, the leader of the Shimabara Rebellion. Following the prohibition of Christianity, the area became ground zero for Japan's secret Christians. Known as kakure kirishitan, these underground practitioners worshipped in secret rooms, creating statues of the Virgin Mary to inconspicuously resemble typical Buddhist Kannons.

Head to the main island of Shimoshima to find several Catholic churches built in the early 20th century, along with the Amakusa Christian Museum.

Head to the main island of Shimoshima to find several Catholic churches built in the early 20th century, along with the Amakusa Christian Museum.

Amakusa Sakijin Church

By car, you can explore nearby islands like Ueshima and Oyano, which are also home to museums (Santa Maria Museum and the Amakusa Shiro Museum) illustrating the history of the region's hidden Christians.

Churches northwest of Nagasaki

Northwest of Nagasaki you'll come across the former town of Sotome. Like Amakusa, Christians here practiced their faith in secrecy until the mid-1800s. Following the Meiji Restoration, several churches returned to the area. Among them, Shitsu Church continues to operate to this day and has been restored to its original appearance.

An island once inhabited by Jesuits, Dutch and British

Continue your excursion with a trip to the northwestern island of Hirado , which boasts beautiful scenery, Christian churches, a 17th-century castle, and more. Head to the Ikitsuki Island Museum Shima no Yakata to see stain glassed windows and other relics from the region's Christian past. In addition to the area's notable religious history, Hirado was also open to Dutch and British traders for several decades prior to their forced relocation to Dejima Island in 1641. The present-day monument to William Anders and the Dutch Bridge are a testament to this cross-cultural past.

Hirado Island

How to Get There

Located on the western side of Kyushu, Nagasaki and the surrounding islands of Amakusa and Hirado are accessible via the JR Kamome Line. Connections to the JR Kamome Line can be made from Hakata Station in Fukuoka.

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