History in a stunning setting

Hirado on Japan's western tip was for centuries the country's scenic gateway to the world

by Chris Bamforth

It may be hard to imagine of a Saturday night in the gaijin gulches of Tokyo’s seething Roppongi entertainment district, but back in the 16th century, foreigners — especially of a Western ilk — were a complete novelty in Japan.

In the years after 1543, when the first Europeans showed their big noses in Kyushu, the compatriots of that battered Portuguese vessel’s crew were keen to trade with the fabled land at the far end of the world. The Portuguese brought with them all manner of European commodities, many then utterly unknown in Japan. And the place where they — and later Dutch and English traders — centered their activities was Hirado.

Located in present-day Nagasaki Prefecture, Hirado is the name for both the 32-km-long island lying northwest of the Kyushu mainland, and its major town.

Occupying a strategic position controlling a key narrow shipping lane at the country’s western tip, Hirado has been a nexus for trading and shipping since ancient times. In the Nara (710-784) and Heian (794-1185) periods, it was a port of call for Japanese envoys and scholars before they undertook the daunting voyage west to learn from know-it-all neighbor, China.

In 1550 when the first Portuguese ship arrived in Hirado, it was warmly received by the ruling Matsura lord. Among the artifacts it brought, the Japanese looked with most glee at the weaponry, as violent civil conflicts had riven the land for almost all the previous century.

With Portuguese firearms and gunpowder, the Matsura domain was able to bolster its power and influence as, by the end of the 16th century, firearms had become the most important offensive weapons in Japan.

Along with their guns, the Portuguese also transported their faith, and they were particularly keen to inculcate the heathen locals with the delights of Roman Catholicism. Hence, to get their hands on Western weaponry, the Matsura lords shrewdly slipped on a mask of Christian piety. Others were more sincere. The Jesuit missionary Francis Xavier traveled to Hirado from Kagoshima at the southern end of Kyushu after hearing of the Portuguese vessel’s arrival in 1550, and by 1600 he and his successors had led around 300,000 Japanese to embrace their beliefs.

Though Christianity in Japan was initially tolerated, the authorities gradually began to view it as a threat to stability. A series of incidents led the government first to ban foreign missionaries and then prohibit the practice of Christianity altogether. Many Japanese were, however, determined to keep the faith, and so they resorted to worshiping in secret as kakure Kirishitan (“hidden Christians”).

Today, Christianity is anything but hidden on Hirado and adjacent areas, with the many churches — mostly about 100 years old — prominent features on the landscape. On the far side of Hirado Island from the main town, the Christian Museum displays the subterfuges that the kakure Kirishitan resorted to, including concealing crosses and Christian medallions in secret recesses in their homes or worshiping statues superficially resembling the Buddhist bodhisattva Kannon, but representing the Virgin Mary.

A little further north from the museum on this western side of the island, and connecting Hirado with the island of Ikitsuki, is 960-meter-long Ikitsuki Bridge — a counterpart to the 655-meter-long Hirado Bridge which spans the strait between Hirado and Kyushu. The short drive across is definitely worth it, particularly to see the remarkable coastline of Ikitsuki, including the cliffs of Shiodawara with their polygonal columns of basalt.

Back in the Edo Period (1603-1867), Ikitsuki was Japan’s largest whaling port, and it’s a heritage that is hard to ignore there today. Whale motifs are ubiquitous, likewise packs of the mammals’ flesh for sale. I stopped for a coffee in a regular cafe and whale meat, whether in curry, champon or udon noodles, appeared in every single item on the menu — except for the mixed pizza tagged on as a kind of afterthought. The cafe was empty at 3 on a weekday afternoon except for a couple of middle-aged women who, cackling and deep-voiced, chain-smoked and slung back beers like there was no tomorrow and looked as if they were ready to take on any number of cetaceans. They breed ‘em tough on Ikitsuki.

The champon noodles served on Ikitsuki are a variety common in Nagasaki Prefecture. It’s an odd sort of dish — the antithesis of Japan’s famed “less is more” mentality and the kind of thing that a 6-year-old might concoct if you let them loose in the kitchen, consisting as it does of an irregular assortment of pork, seafood, vegetables, noodles and whatever else the chef feels inclined to drop into it. But it does work — in a jolly, hearty sort of way.

There’s no vast difference between the champon of Nagasaki and Hirado’s, though the latter is often made with a broth using the small flying fish known as ago, which are something of a local specialty, best enjoyed grilled with a cold beer. Or indeed the local shochu Jagatara Oharu — unusually made from regular, not sweet, potatoes — or Kapitan, made from wheat. Even those of us who ordinarily would sooner drink embalming fluid than Japan’s native spirit will find these two rather a fragrant, delicate delight.

Ago aside, Hirado’s proximity to good fishing grounds ensures that the seafood is generally first rate on the island, which is a pleasant spot, engagingly well off the beaten track.

There are not actually too many physical remnants from Hirado’s trading heyday. Just a few lengths of stone wall and part of a wharf are all that survive of the Dutch Trading House, which a 17th-century engraving shows was once an extensive structure. Even the donjon of the Matsura’s castle overlooking Hirado harbor is a 1960 reconstruction. But it’s an intriguing exercise working the imagination to visualize this quiet, quaint port as the prime hub of Japan’s international trade that it once was.

Getting There: The highway bus from Nagasaki to Sasebo takes about 90 minutes, or about 125 minutes from Hakata. From Sasebo, the bus ride to Hirado is about 90 minutes.