When you think of escaping on an island getaway, churches probably aren’t the first things that come to mind. But tucked away on a little-known archipelago to the west of Nagasaki are 50 houses of worship—a vivid reminder of the role this area has played in the history of Japan’s tenacious and long-suffering Christian community.
First introduced to Japan in 1549, Christianity was initially welcomed by the local rulers, and flourished for the next 50 years. But when the Tokugawa shogunate came to power in 1603, it saw Christianity as a threat, and launched a campaign against the country’s estimated 300,000 converts, eventually banning the religion altogether.
A number of “Hidden Christians” (kakure kirishitan) fled south to escape persecution, eventually arriving at the Goto Islands, where they continued to practice their faith in secret through the Edo Period. The priest who showed us around during our recent trip there was a descendent of this group, and took us to churches and other sites that commemorated their plight.
We started at Dozaki on Fukue-jima, the most famous church in the archipelago. Positioned on the edge of a beach looking out over the ocean, it was built by French missionaries who arrived on the island in the early Meiji period. One can only imagine their surprise on discovering that there were already Christians living there. With its red brick walls and soaring columns, the church is the closest thing that the islands have to a cathedral. Still, the simple stained glass windows and white shutters ensure that it retains the feeling of a small country church.
A short ferry ride took us to Hisakajima, where we drove through lush green rice paddies and deep fjords to the site of a prison in which Christians had once been incarcerated. After the Meiji Restoration, many who had been hiding their faith chose to declare it publicly, and were imprisoned as a result, with men—and sometimes entire families—forced into a single hut. They were only released after word of the prison spread overseas, sparking an international outcry. An immaculately clean chapel now stands on the site, serving as a monument to this dark moment in history.
After staying the night in a guesthouse run by a local convent, we traveled to Gorin, one of the first churches built in Japan. The structure is unusual in that it incorporates many Japanese elements in its design, including the gray-tiled roofing seen in traditional homes. Unlike the other churches on the Goto Islands, Gorin is made of unpainted wood, and employs sliding windows reminiscent of shoji doors.
The following morning, we went by boat to look at a cave-like crevice known as “the eye of a needle”—so called because whichever way you look through it, you can see a sliver of sky on the other side. This was once a hiding spot, where Christians congregated when they heard about coming raids. They were eventually caught when a local fisherman saw the smoke from their lunchtime fires and reported them to the local government. Today, a statue of the Virgin Mary next to the opening of the crevice serves as a memorial to their ordeal.
On the final morning of our stay, we attended an early Easter Sunday mass, which we were surprised to find brimming with worshippers. It was inspirational to see farmers and fishermen uniting to celebrate a festival that was being marked all around the world. That 250-odd years of persecution weren’t enough to drive Christians away from these islands is a true testament to human courage.
ORC runs three flights a day from Nagasaki to Fukue, the largest city on the Goto Islands, and there are also regular ferry and jetfoil services. From Fukue, ferries can be taken to Hisakajima and Nakadorijima. Public transport on the islands is minimal, and renting a car is highly recommended. The JNTO website has some basic information on the islands, though there is more detailed accommodation and travel info available on the Japanese-only www.gotokanko.jp.