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Friday, March 26, 2004


Town of grisly times past

Special to The Japan Times

As the unfortunate home to one-tenth of the world's active volcanoes, Japan lacks no variety in these ill-tempered peaks.

News photo
Among the sights to see in Shimabara are its castle (above); some of the thousands of koi that give it the name "Town of Swimming Carp"
News photo

Some volcanoes, like Mount Fuji, are majestic affairs and have inspired poets and artists for centuries. And then there are others, like thuggish Mount Unzen, that inspire feelings of a different kind.

Unzen dominates the Shimabara Peninsula, a kidney-shaped land mass at the southeastern end of Nagasaki Prefecture. I approached the town of Shimabara by ferry from Kumamoto one dull, gray morning, and the brute character of the volcano slowly revealed itself as the mist lifted here and there, uncovering its great scars and the pyroclastic debris that litters its slopes.

Evidence of the volcano's thuggery was practically the first thing I saw upon disembarking, where an exhibition in the ferry terminal charts Unzen's turbulent history. When Unzen blew its top in 1792, the resultant landslide and tidal wave claimed 15,000 lives in Japan's worst volcanic catastrophe.

The calamities that have struck this part of the country have not, however, all been natural. Shimabara was the location of an infamous revolt that broke out in 1637. The shogunal government conveniently regarded it as entirely religious in origin, and to have been instigated by the Christians it had been assiduously persecuting for the previous couple of decades. It chose to ignore the fact that extortionate overtaxing had propelled the peasants in this poor, backward region into desperate rebellion.

The Shimabara Uprising is a sorry episode in Japanese history from which none of those involved emerges to advantage. Remarkable naivete was shown by the rebels, who were led by a 16-year-old boy into open revolt against an unbeatable, unforgiving government. That government displayed utter barbarity in massacring the 37,000 insurgents, a large proportion of whom were women and children, when the rebel-held Hara Castle fell to the shogunate's massive army. And disregarding any notion of solidarity with fellow Christians, a Dutch ship obligingly bombarded the besieged castle at the behest of the Tokugawa government, in whose good books the Dutch traders wished to remain. Razed at the end of the siege, Hara Castle, toward the southern end of the peninsula, is today no more.

However, Shimabara does have a castle that was involved in the rebellion, and many of its artifacts document the region's Christian past. During the period of persecution, when the authorities were refining their methods of torturing Christians, those of that faith were naturally keen to conceal their beliefs. Exhibits at Shimabara Castle show some ways in which Christians secretly carried out their worship, such as with one small, innocuous-looking statue of a Chinese-looking woman with her child, representing Mary and Jesus.

In addition to its Christian paraphernalia, Shimabara Castle has a large display of photos on its upper floor of other Japanese castles -- just as all those other castles also seem to possess. And as with the other castles, the color all but faded from the pictures long ago.

The structures comprising Shimabara Castle date from one of Japan's greatest castle-building periods -- the 1950s and 1960s, when many damaged and destroyed fortresses were reconstructed in ferroconcrete. As well as the main donjon, the castle has three watchtowers, which today serve as museums. One of them is devoted to a local sculptor whose work is linked with yet another of this prefecture's tragedies. In the watchtower and adjacent grounds are displayed sculptures by Seibo Kitamura, whose monumental 9-meter Peace Statue presides over the Peace Park in Nagasaki.

Not far from the castle, and once closely related to it, is Shimabara's district of old samurai residences. The area is reasonably well preserved and atmospheric, with its main street surfaced simply with gravel and flanked by walls made from the lava belched out of Unzen. Three restored samurai houses are open to the public and are quite charming -- as is the fact that admission is free. Like many such museums in Japan, the buildings are not empty shells, but also house period implements used in daily life. And as with many such museums, too, mannequins have been installed to enhance the historical mood. In the Torita House, visitors see the dispirited samurai head of the household, whose lot is to sit over dinner in the sparse room and stare balefully in the direction of his mother and wife for all eternity.

Down the middle of the samurai district's main street flows a narrow stream, one of many that formerly supplied domestic water needs. Elsewhere, waterways are an attractive feature of the town. Shimabara likes to call itself the "Town of Swimming Carp" from the rivulets at its center stocked with 1,500 of the fish. Aficionados of koi carp -- and there are many around the world -- fondly refer to the fish as "living jewels." Personally I refer to them as river rats. But the narrow canals are a welcome touch in Shimabara and provide no bad splash of color as the living jewels wait hungrily for handouts from accommodating tourists.

Overall, Shimabara is a pleasant enough town with a strong port character. Though parts of it are as generically dull as so much of provincial Japan, Shimabara takes care of itself a little better than most, and has a conspicuously large number of fine old town houses, some with exquisitely manicured gardens. One might even forgive the local constabulary for hamming it up with their castle-shaped police station.

For my return to Kumamoto, I took the Ocean Arrow, a sleek, sharp-looking ferry staffed by sleek, sharp-looking stewardesses. The modern vessel whisked through the gray waters of the Ariake Sea. On the way, it overtook the rather nicer, old green-and-white ferry that was chugging along the same route. As we passed, I looked back toward the peninsula, but the great hulk of Mount Unzen had already sunk into the mist.

Shimabara can be reached from Nagasaki by train or bus in a little under 2 hours. Ferries from Kumamoto Port reach Shimabara in 30 minutes or 1 hour.

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