The horn blast from the incoming ferry echoes clearly through the top-floor hall of Hirado Castle. From the donjon’s vantage point, my husband and I can clearly see the large passenger ship as it enters the sheltered bay of Hirado’s port, marking the end of its route between this small city on Nagasaki Prefecture’s northwestern coast and the nearby island of Oshima. The ship may be different but it’s not hard to imagine the Matsuura lords, former rulers of Hirado, with spyglasses pressed eagerly to their eyes as they watched the arrival of a European trading ship.
Most people associate Japan’s early ties to the West with Dejima, the fan-shaped island in Nagasaki Bay that served as the trading post and “prison” for Dutch merchants during the years of the Edo Period (1603-1867) when the country was essentially closed to outsiders. Yet long before foreign visitors were sequestered behind Dejima’s stout gates, they enjoyed a certain amount of liberty in the merchant town of Hirado, where trade between Japan and Western powers flourished in the late 16th and early 17th century.
The first foreign merchant ship to ply the waters around this craggy island just off Kyushu’s coast was a Portuguese galleon that arrived in 1550. A few decades later, the Dutch East India Company claimed a piece of the action and in 1613 the British followed suit with their own trading post (the 400th anniversary of which is currently being feted in Hirado).
Trade with the West brought wealth and power to the Matsuura clan, who governed this far-flung corner of Japan. Successive daimyo (feudal lords) used their new riches to construct a castle on one of Hirado’s highest hills. The keep we’re currently standing in is, like many Japanese castles, a modern reconstruction, but two of the castle’s wooden gates are original and date from the early 1700s. After soaking up the views from the top of the castle keep, we poke around the donjon’s exhibits. The true treasure here is the Kanto-no-tachi, a sword dating from the Asuka Period (538-710), yet I find myself more enthralled by the woodblock prints of early European traders.
From the heights of the castle, we descend into town for a quick wander along the city’s narrow alleys. Union Jacks flutter from every lamppost, and multiple posters in shop windows remind us of Britain’s long-standing history here. Dutch ties to Hirado were more permanently etched on the cityscape on their 400th anniversary in 2001, with the erection of gleaming bronze statues of notable European and Asian figures from the trading heyday.
Of the former English trading post, there is no physical trace, but along the harbor we pop into the newly reconstructed Dutch Trading Post warehouse. The white facade is blinding in the hot August sun, so much so that it’s hard to see the date stone — engraved with the company abbreviation of VOC and 1639 — over the main entrance. It was those four numbers that earned the original warehouse its ultimate demise; the increasingly insular Tokugawa shogunate demanded the building be razed not long after its construction because the date had been written in the Christian style, and not according to the Japanese calendar.
The building may be new, but nearly all of the items on display are relics. From weathered figureheads that once graced the prows of Dutch ships to an atlas of Japan first published in Amsterdam in 1669, the items are fascinating clues to the history of this town the Dutch once labeled Firando on their maps. Particularly noteworthy — and heartbreaking — is a collection of letters on faded cloth, written by the Japanese wives and children of European merchants. When Japan strictly enforced its closed-door policy, anyone associated by marriage or blood with a foreigner was shipped off to Batavia (present-day Jakarta and the former seat of Dutch power in Asia) and forbidden to return.
The second floor of the warehouse has an unfinished feel to it, and is empty save for a handful of old-fashioned Dutch games. My husband shows off his dexterity with a premodern take on carnival fishing games while I try my hand rather unsuccessfully at shuffleboard.
Back out on the town’s main street, Hirado’s European-inspired sweets tempt us from shop windows. We pick up some sugar-coated castella, a version of the famed pound cake unique to Hirado, to take for the road, but our stomachs are primed for the famed local meat. Ichiyama, a bustling yakitori restaurant not far from the port, has the only free tables in town offering Hirado beef and we order up a platter of various cuts and a beef lunch bowl. Whether it’s the meat itself or the delectable dipping sauce that accompanies it, it seems all too soon that we’re scraping the bottom of our bowls.
Appetite appeased, we cross the bridge from Hirado back to the mainland and drive south through mountains and iridescent rice paddies, polishing off the purchased castella along the way. Just north of Sasebo, we leave the main road and head for the coast and the Saikai Pearl Sea Resort.
The resort does a booming business between its aquarium — surprisingly impressive, with a focus on sea life that can be found in local waters — and its restaurants, one of which sells the town’s renowned Sasebo Burger, a legacy from the area’s American military connections. Delicious as the beef patties look, we bypass the burgers and head instead for the end of the resort’s pier, where cruises leave hourly for tours of the Kujukushima area of Saikai National Park.
“Kujuku” (99) is an umbrella term in Japanese, used to describe something vast in number. In reality, there are 208 little islets off the Sasebo coast, the most concentrated area of islands anywhere in Japan. Our large multi-level ship weaves effortlessly through them, gliding by heavily forested hills and bare outcroppings alike. Numerous black rafts dot the calm surface here, used in the cultivation of pearls.
Although four of the islands in the national park are inhabited, we don’t see another soul from the deck of our ship, save for those enjoying the waters in private sailboats or kayaks. The occasional bird flies overhead, but the high heat of summer has kept most of the wildlife away.
It’s late afternoon by the time we dock, but we’re determined to get a bird’s-eye view of the islands before the sun goes down. On a nearby peak, the Yumiharidake Tenboudai observatory offers a stunning panorama of both Kujukushima and the nearby port of Sasebo city. Hollywood apparently found the view just as beguiling, since it was used in the opening scenes of the film “The Last Samurai.” We’ve arrived a tad early for the sunset, and the glare off of the water is hard on the eyes. Yet we wait: The light soon mellows to gold on the sea and the few other tourists on the platform depart for their cars. For a moment, this beautiful corner of Kyushu is ours alone.
The castle in Hirado (¥500) is accessible via a 10-minute uphill hike from the tourist office at the base of the hill. The Dutch Trading Post is open daily year-round except for the third week of June (¥300, excellent English signage). Cruises of the Kujukushima from Saikai Pearl Sea Resort cost ¥1,200 and leave hourly from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. (no noon sailing); www.pearlsea.jp. Trains connect Hirado and Sasebo but the region is best explored by car.