In 1549, the Portuguese missionary Francis Xavier landed in Kagoshima with one main mission – to spread the gospel to the inhabitants of Japan. In the next 100 years, Christianity flourished in various communities on Kyushu (Nagasaki, Hirado and Kagoshima, to name a few) but never seemed to spread much further. In the mid 1600s, the shogun – in a desire to consolidate his power and quash any possible opposition – outlawed Christianity and drove it underground.
There are still plenty of places in Kyushu to learn about the island’s ties to Christianity, and the Shimabara Peninsula is one such location. A few weeks ago, my family and I took the ferry from Kumamoto across the Ariake Sea to the rugged peninsula (technically a part of Nagasaki Prefecture). We visited Shimabara Castle (also a spot with strong ties to the region’s Christian history) and the town’s samurai district before taking the mountain road up to Unzen.
Unzen is the peninsula’s main volcano, and quite an active one at that. Its last eruption from 1990-1995 created quite a bit of chaos and damage on its lower slopes and in Shimabara city. Even today, you can still see the earth belching and steaming at the Unzen Jigoku, or Unzen Hells.
One of the areas of those sulphurous fields is said to remind visitors of the violent cries that those banished to hell must make. Sadly, this sound was an all-to-real occurrence in 1627 when the local lord of the Shimabara domain sacrificed 30 Christians who refused to renounce their faith. They were thrown to their deaths in the boiling springs, an event which is marked with a small cross and a plaque in the middle of the barren area.
You can follow the boardwalk and walking path through the entire “hells” area, a circuit that takes a leisurely 20 minutes. Be aware that in some spots, the smoke is thick and those with breathing problems may just want to catch a glimpse on a drive-by. There is also a small loop of the path south of the main parking area as well. The information booth near the parking area has an excellent English brochure to accompany the marked signposts along the trail.