Up to the mid-19th century, Kashiragashima, a small, rocky island in Nagasaki's Goto Island chain, was a place of quarantine, where contagious patients were sent to recover or, more likely, die. As a consequence, most healthy people avoided the place. Who can't relate to that sentiment these days?
But there was one group happy to settle on Kashiragashima and make a life for themselves. The historical sites that resulted, both at Kashiragashima and across the Goto Islands, received UNESCO World Heritage listing as the "Hidden Christian Sites in the Nagasaki Region" in 2018, making the islands, about a 90 minute ferry ride from Nagasaki, a fascinating place to visit.
In 1858, one Goto Islander, Maeda Gidayu, wanted to try to develop a farming and fishing economy on Kashiragashima, across a 150-meter strait from Nakadori Island, the second largest of the Goto Islands. Maeda recruited some peasants originally from the village of Sotome on the west coast of the Kyushu mainland who had recently been relocated to the Goto Islands in a people swap negotiated between two of the local feudal lords. It seems that in the Edo Period feudal lords regarded their peasants as chattels to be traded away as easily as they might barter property.
It turned out that Maeda's recruits were "Hidden Christians" (kakure kirishitan), adherents to Christianity who had practiced their faith in secret, handing it down from generation to generation since the Tokugawa shogun had outlawed Christianity in Japan in the 1630s. Prior to that, Christianity had been widespread in Kyushu, especially along its west coast, including the Goto Islands.
The newcomers were happy to move to remote Kashiragashima, which was the least likely place on the islands to be closely monitored by officials on the hunt for Hidden Christians. If found out, Hidden Christians were either forced under torture to apostatize or put to death. (For those interested in the Edo Period persecution of Christians, check out Martin Scorsese's 2016 film "Silence", based on the 1966 novel by Japanese novelist Endo Shusaku.)
Some relics of that persecution and of the ways Hidden Christians used outwardly Buddhist or Shinto symbols to conceal their Christianity are on display in local museums, including the Geihinkan Museum inside the ferry terminal at Arikawa, the port on Nakadori Island that is closest to Kashiragashima, and the 1903 wooden Tainoura Church nearby, which was converted to an informal museum when a new modern church was built next door in 1979.
At the old Tainoura Church visitors can see authentic fumie, Christian images that Edo Period peasants were required to step on to prove they were not Christians, as well as examples of statues of Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy, that Christians used as a surrogate for Mary, mother of Christ.
The old Tainoura Church is also notable for its brick bell tower, built in 1948 of bricks from the Urakami Cathedral destroyed by the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki on August 9, 1945.
The 19th century Kashiragashima community of Hidden Christians thrived, as did similar communities across the Goto Islands. Although Maeda himself was Buddhist, he was unconcerned about the religion of his new villagers and even took steps to help keep their secret when officials did visit.
The ban on Christianity in Japan was eventually lifted in 1873 and small groups of Hidden Christians "came out" to Catholic priests from Europe who were ministering to the growing Western community. Although the Catholic church was surprised to learn of the Hidden Christians, priests happily baptized those who wished to rejoin the Catholic faith. (Interestingly, the Catholic church judged that the syncretic faith practiced by Hidden Christians that had evolved over two centuries of isolation was not Catholicism and required religious instructions and baptism before it welcomed the Hidden Christians back. Some Hidden Christians refused and instead continue to practice their syncretic religion, but that's a story for another day.)
Many of the newly baptized Catholics particularly desired to worship openly and wanted to build churches where they could do so. By the early 20th century they were building brick or stone structures, to some degree emulating the churches of Europe. Just Nakadori Island has about 50 churches from that period.
Another Goto Islander, Tetsukawa Yosuke (1879-1976), was instrumental in the church building boom of the time. Tetsukawa was a self-taught architect who was fascinated with techniques for building structures with a single large central hall. Although a Buddhist himself, Tetsukawa designed and built 30 Catholic churches during his long career, many on the Goto Islands, including one at Kashiragashima completed in 1919. The Geihinkan Museum mentioned above has a substantial exhibit on Tetsukawa's work, including a very informative film that analyzes how his skill developed over successive projects. Other exhibits center on the whaling industry that once supported this area.
Kashiragashima's church was built by its members using large blocks of local sandstone they quarried themselves. Look closely at the blocks and you'll even find inventory numbers chiseled in. Inside, the ceiling of off-white wood paneling is decorated with wooden medallions carved into flowers and arabesques, painted in pastel colors. The four-petaled camellia flower, which grows well on the island, was long a symbol of the cross to Hidden Christians and features prominently inside the church.
There is a good local bus service to Kashiragashima from Arikawa port, timed to give visitors plenty of time to visit the church, the nearby Christian cemetery, and other spots in the little village before boarding to make the return journey. For visitors wanting to explore further who are not in a hurry, there is good bus service covering most of Nakadori Island. Alternatively, the tourist desk at the Arikawa ferry terminal can help make arrangements to hire a taxi for driver-guided half or full day tours of several of the area's heritage-listed churches and other historical sites. The taxi drivers are friendly and knowledgeable about the churches and the Christian history and eager for their guests to enjoy their visit to the Goto Islands.
Besides Tainoura Church, be sure to check out the 1916 Oso Church, sitting above the town's pretty little fishing harbor. This harbor is also known for providing refuge to ships caught in storms while crossing the East China Sea in the first millennium.
An even larger hillside church is Aosagaura Cathedral. Built in 1910, it is one of the oldest surviving Tetsukawa churches.
There is so much to see and do on the Goto Islands that one could happily spend a few days "quarantined" there, but it's also possible to see the most significant sites as a long day trip from Nagasaki.
Vicki L Beyer, a regular Japan Today contributor, is a freelance travel writer who also blogs about experiencing Japan. Follow her blog at jigsaw-japan.com.© Japan Today