Amakusa (天草) is an island group about 60 kilometers southwest of Kumamoto City in western Kyushu. Made up of two big islands and hundreds of smaller islands, the Amakusa area is remote and rural with nice natural scenery. This isolation allowed missionaries to convert a considerable percentage of inhabitants and even the local lord (daimyo) to Christianity before the religion was forbidden in the early Edo Period. Today there are numerous museums and churches spread across the islands which reflect this religious heritage.
The three main islands of Amakusa (Shimoshima, Ueshima and Oyano) are connected to one another and to the mainland of Kumamoto by bridges, while ferries provide connections to the smaller islands. Amakusa is abundant with lush greenery and natural geological formations that earned the islands a designation as national Geopark. In addition, wild dolphins live amongst the islands and can be seen on boat tours.
During the early Edo Period, the Amakusa Islands suffered a period of famine and harsh treatment of its lower classes. Fed up with heavy taxation of the poor and the persecution of Christians, peasants from the Amakusa Islands and nearby Shimabara Peninsula rose up against their lord in 1637-1638. The so called Shimabara Rebellion, named so because it was mainly fought on the neighboring peninsula, was one of the largest peasant uprisings during the Edo Period.
The rebellion was eventually put down by an overwhelming Shogunate force and ended in the death of the entire rebel army, including its young leader, Amakusa Shiro. Afterwards, the Tokugawa Shogunate further enforced its ban of Christianity. All missionaries were expelled from Japan, and a nationwide crackdown on practicing Christians was carried out, especially in the Amakusa and Shimabara regions where the religion was widely established.
Those who continued to practice in the area, the "hidden Christians", found ingenious ways to continue exercising their faith by disguising it as Buddhism. Images of the Virgin Mary were made to resemble the Buddhist Kannon, while crucifixes, crosses and the Virgin Mary were carved into the back of Buddhist statues or hidden in concealed objects. Christians altered their prayers to resemble Buddhist chants and would congregate in the dead of the night so as not to be discovered.
Yearly checks on the locals were carried out to root out Christians. One of the methods of ascertaining if one was Christian was to have them step on an image of Christ. Christians who refused to step on the image were subjected to torture until they denounced their faith or were sentenced to death.
Below is a list of some churches and museums where religious items and statues, edicts and stories from this period of Christianity in Japan can be seen.
Sakitsu Catholic Church
Hours: 9:00 to 17:00 (from 9:30 on Sundays) Closed: Mondays (following day if Monday is a holiday) Admission: Free
The Sakitsu Catholic Church was established in 1569 and served as the center of Christianity in Amakusa during the mid 16th century. The current building was constructed in 1934 in Gothic style and makes for an unusual sight in the small, calm fishing village.
Oe Catholic Church
Hours: 9:00 to 17:00 (from 11:30 on Sundays) Closed: Mondays (following day if Monday is a holiday) Admission: Free
The Oe Catholic Church is a Romanesque style building constructed in 1933 on top of a small hill by a French missionary and his followers. At the bottom of the hill is the Amakusa Rosario Museum which exhibits items related to the hidden Christians during the Edo Period when Christianity was banned.
Amakusa Christian Museum
Hours: 8:30 to 18:00 (entry until 17:30) Closed: December 30 - January 1 Admission: 300 yen
The Amakusa Christian Museum in central Amakusa City showcases the history of Christians in Amakusa with an emphasis on the Shimabara Rebellion and the lives of the "hidden Christians". On display is a large wall painting depicting the final battle of the rebellion at Hara Castle and items used by the hidden Christians. Information in English is rather limited.
Amakusa Collegio Museum
Hours: 9:30 to 18:00 (entry until 17:30) Closed: Mondays (following day if Monday is a holiday), Dec 29 to Jan 3 Admission: 200 yen
The Amakusa Collegio Museum exhibits items related to Collegio (1591-1597), a Christian college which was the world's largest publisher at that time with a large variety of books printed with a printing press imported from Europe. A life-sized model of Japan's first Gutenberg printing press is on display. An English printout with explanations about the college is available.
Santa Maria Museum
Hours: 9:00 to 18:00 (until 17:00 from December through March) Closed: No closing days Admission: 500 yen
This museum was established to preserve the history of the hidden Christians for generations to come. The small museum is packed with an impressive 300 items used by the hidden Christians at that time to practice their faith. Not much English is available, but many exhibits are self-explanatory.
Amakusa Shiro Memorial Hall
Hours: 9:00 to 17:15 (until 17:00 from November through April) Closed: 2nd Tuesday in January and June, December 29 to January 1 Admission: 600 yen
This museum covers the Shimabara Rebellion with a focus on its young leader, Amakusa Shiro. Visitors follow a chronological route that ends with a diorama of the final battle at Hara Castle. A detailed English pamphlet is available. There is also a meditation room for those who wish to relax and meditate.
Access and Orientation
How to get to Amakusa
Amakusa Airlines serves Amakusa Airport on Shimoshima Island with daily flights from Osaka (1.5 hours, 8000-20,000 yen one way), Fukuoka (35 minutes, around 13,000 yen one way) and Kumamoto (20 minutes, around 7500 yen one way). A shuttle bus from the airport into central Amakusa City takes about 15 minutes and costs 340 yen one way.
By land from Kumamoto
Kyushu Sanko Bus operates hourly buses between Kumamoto (Kumamoto Kotsu Center and JR Kumamoto Station) and Amakusa City (Hondo Bus Center, 本渡バスセンター) on Shimoshima Island (about 145 minutes, 2240 yen one way). Along the way, it serves multiple stops on Ueshima and Oyano Island. How to get to Kumamoto.
By ferry from the Shimabara Peninsula
Hourly ferries connects Kuchinotsu Port on the southern tip of the Shimabara Peninsula with Oniike Port at the northern end of Shimoshima Island in Amakusa. The one way ride takes about 30 minutes and costs 450 yen. The one way fee for a regular sized car is around 3000 yen. How to get to the Shimabara Peninsula
By ferry from Kagoshima
One ferry every 1-2 hours connects Kuranomoto Port on Nakashima Island in Kagoshima Prefecture with Ushibuka Port near the southern tip of Amakusa. The one way ride takes about 30 minutes and costs 490 yen. The one way fee for a regular sized car is around 3000 yen. Kuranomoto Port can be reached by bus from Izumi Station on the Kyushu Shinkansen (65 minutes, 1050 yen one way).
How to get around Amakusa
The three main islands of Amakusa, Shimoshima, Ueshima and Oyano, are connected to one another and to the mainland of Kumamoto by bridges, while ferries provide connections to the smaller islands and to the neighboring Shimabara Peninsula in Nagasaki Prefecture and Nagashima Island in Kagoshima Prefecture.
A bus network is available on the major islands of Amakusa. Bus service is relatively frequent (approx. hourly) along the major road that connects the Kumamoto mainland with Amakusa City and Ushibuka Port in southern Amakusa, but tends to be infrequent or inexistent elsewhere. Consequently, a rental car is the recommended means of exploring the islands. Rental car outlets are available in central Amakusa City or near major railway stations on the Kumamoto mainland.