Four hundred years ago, the lord of the Sendai domain – one-eyed samurai Date Masamune – was looking for a way to expand his trade options. Though the policy towards outside religions was about to change dramatically under the Tokugawa shoguns, Date planned to open trade with Catholic Spain (and subsequently, Mexico) and further build up the fortunes of his clan and fiefdom. To that end, he commissioned loyal retainer Tsunenaga Hasekura to make a sea voyage to Europe, via Mexico, to petition both Spain and the Pope to encourage Christians to open relations with Japan.
And thus begins one of the most fascinating stories of Japanese history never (or at least rarely) told.
The San Juan Bautista was the ship that carried the intrepid band of emissaries from Sendai’s shores to far off Mexico. After the return voyage, it simply fell off the historical radar and no one has any idea what happened to it. But a faithful recreation now sits in the harbor of the San Juan Bautista Park and can be toured as part of the museum.
Start off at the museum itself, where a very detailed English brochure will help supplement the sign panels that are placed around the small exhibit. Unlike many museums, the exhibit here – while mostly in Japanese – isn’t dull. There are colorful pictures, life-size figures and cut-outs of various European harbors.
To further illustrate the journey of Tsunenaga and his cohorts to the papal seat, an experiential theater runs 20 minute shows twice an hour (on the :10 and the :40, show included in ticket price). The seats move as the ship pitches and rolls and as a result, there is actually a height requirement for this theater (110 cm). The movie unfortunately has no English subtitles and can be hard to follow at times but kids might enjoy the “action” of it all.
A long escalator takes you down to the harbor and the ship itself. You can tour the rebuilt San Juan Bautista in its entirety, from the foredeck to the hold. Puzzle over where on earth they fit a crew of 180 people and compare the sleeping quarters of Tsunenaga and the Spanish priest who accompanied him, Luis Sotelo. Ring the ship’s bell and take a look at the tiny kitchen (hardtack, anyone?). While fascinating, the cramped confines where enough to reaffirm that I am a landlubber at heart!
The story of the San Juan Bautista doesn’t end well. It took two years for Tsunenaga to reach Rome – the first Japanese to do so. By the time he returned to Japan (with a multiyear stopover in Acapulco, Mexico) seven years after his departure, the policy toward Christians in Japan had changed considerably. He was basically told to forget his efforts, keep his head down and be a good samurai. It’s hard to know how he felt about the mission’s essential failure as none of his writings survived and he died a mere two years after coming home to Japan.
History-minded adults will love this site and appreciate the effort made to dispense information in English in an area of Japan that sees few foreigners. Kids will love exploring the ship and riding the waves with Tsunenaga in the theater. All in all, if you can swing a day trip from Sendai, this site will probably be a hit.