Nagasaki, Japan was heavily impacted by Portuguese and other European cultures during the 16th century through the 19th century and there are numerous churches and Christian sites today, which attest to this influence. But during the Sakoku period (1633-1853) Japan was closed off to foreigners and the teaching of the European Catholic religion was officially prohibited. Still, the Japanese Catholic Church had many followers (it is estimated that there were 30,000 converts throughout Japan) known as kakure Kirishitan (hidden Christian), who fled south to escape persecution, eventually ending up at Goto Islands, where they continued to practice their faith in secret.
Goto Islands (translated means five islands) really consists of 140 islands off the western coast of Kyushu. The island chain spans 60 miles and the total land area covers 266 square miles, however, only one third of the lands are actually inhabited. The five main islands of the chain include: Fukue, Hisaka, Naru, Wakamatsu and Nakadori islands. The Japanese Agency for Cultural Affairs has submitted churches at these locations for consideration as UNESCO World Heritage sites and they have been included on a tentative list.
The largest of the chain of islands is Fukue. It is merely a 3-hour ferry ride from Nagasaki. Here you will find the Dozaki Church, a beautiful red brick building constructed in 1908, which served as the base for the revival of the Christian religion. It functioned as a mini-Vatican and symbolizes Goto Catholicism. There are 50 churches scattered throughout the islands, each imparting a sense of the area’s long history.
Nakadori enjoyed a period of prosperity during the 13th century when trade with China flourished. Another period of prosperity followed with the whaling boom, which has long since ended. Today, it is a quiet place with camellias blooming everywhere. The camellia oil produced here used to be an important local product but now it serves primarily as a tourist omiyage (souvenir). The Tsuwazaki lookout point is quite scenic and includes the Tsuwazaki Lighthouse.
Hisaka was once the site of a prison where Christians had been incarcerated. After the Meiji Restoration, many Christians who were hiding their faith decided to declare it publically and were imprisoned. They were released once word of the imprisonment spread overseas raising a public outcry. Today, a chapel stands at the site of the former prison, serving as a monument to this period in history.
On Wakamatsu, you will find what is known as the eye of a needle, a cave-like crevice 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 stands next to the opening of the crevice and serves as a memorial to their ordeal.
Aside from their attachment to Christianity, Goto Islands are a mecca for marine sports and fishing. Since 2001, the islands have sponsored the Goto Nagasaki International Triathlon, a World Championship Qualifier event.
So whether you seek to immerse yourself in the history or simply want a quiet getaway where you can relax on the sandy beaches off the east China Sea, Goto Islands are a must see.