I was promised that my journey to Fukue — the largest of the Goto Islands west of Kyushu — would be an uneventful one. My berth, a simple bunk with a matt screen for privacy, was comfortable, and the gentle rocking of the ferry as it crossed the Genkai Sea, combined with a midnight departure, sent me quickly to sleep.
But a 4 a.m. alarm cried “Awake!” as we approached Uku, the northernmost of the Goto Islands. Bleary eyed, I watched the first passengers depart, expensive fishing bags and excited chatter distinguishing the weekenders from the local residents. “The best catch of the season is to be had in Uku,” called one fisherman to another still aboard the ferry. This boast was dismissed with a wave and a grunt, and the man aboard slipped back inside to sleep. I followed suit and the ferry departed once more.
The alarm announced three more stops before I emerged again. At a little after 7 a.m. the sun was still rising, and my surroundings were apparent for the first time since leaving the lights of Fukuoka.
Long gone was the city, and even Kyushu’s coastline, along which we had made most of our voyage, was lost beyond the horizon. The nearest city, Nagasaki, lay 100 kilometers to the east. The surrounding sea was broken only by the odd cluster of uninhabited islands.
Arriving on Fukue after such a journey feels significant; the slow passage into port had more ceremony than the ping of the seatbelt sign and the rush for baggage that accompany arrival by air. The city of Goto grew steadily as we approached and Onidake, Fukue’s naked volcano, loomed in the background.
The city is built around the ruins of Ishida Castle, which once touched the sea on three sides but is now marooned by extensive land reclamation. The castle was the last to be built in Japan and, after being completed in 1863, stood for just nine years before it was seized by the new Meiji government and torn down. A high school now takes the place of the main keep, safely housing its students between a double moat and 2-meter-high walls.
The castle’s gardens remain largely unaltered however, and are tended by a team of caretakers, including Sachiko Saitsu. Taking a break from her spring pruning, Saitsu guided me through the gardens’ villa, which sits elegantly on the edge of a small lake and has recently undergone a five-year renovation. In the guest room, with golden light diffusing through the translucent paper of the closed shōji doors, Saitsu recounted the story of Goto’s Christian history:
“It was not until Luis De Almeida arrived here in 1566 that Goto was introduced to Catholicism. He preached the gospel to the feudal lord of Goto, Sumisada Uku, who had his son and heir baptized as Don Luis Sumitaka Uku. But this period of success didn’t last.”
As we skirted the outside of the villa, walking along the engawa walkway to the former servants’ quarters, she elaborated: “Following the rise of the warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Christians fell out of favor and were persecuted throughout the islands. In 1597, 26 believers, including St. John of Goto, were crucified on Nishizaka Hill in Nagasaki.”
This sustained campaign against Christians resulted in the birth of the hidden Christian movement, recently dramatized in Martin Scorsese’s film “Silence.” Many Christians fled to the Goto Islands in the hope that distance from the mainland would reduce the chances of discovery, joining the ranks of secret believers among the inhabitants. It was not until 1873, following the Meiji Restoration, that freedom of religion was re-introduced.
In the decades following freedom, churches were built across the archipelago by communities of hidden Christians. On Fukue, the first Western-style church to be built was Dozaki, completed in its present form in 1908. Red-bricked and only 20 meters from the sea, it is dedicated to the 26 martyrs of Nagasaki and has become a standing museum to the hidden Christians and Catholic missionaries who brought Christianity to Goto.
Located further west on Fukue is Mizunoura Church which, though empty on my arrival, has an active congregation. To the right of the church lies a graveyard, spilling gently down the hill toward the sea. As I stood there, a solitary nun wandered through the gravestones, carefully cleaning them and paying her respects. She has completed this ritual almost daily since joining Mizunoura’s nunnery five decades ago as one of 28 sisters. I asked her how many sisters reside there today.
‘Twelve. Just 12,’ she replied.
This story is repeated across the island in various forms. On Fukue, the population has shrunk from 60,000 in the 1980s to just below 40,000 in 2016, while the average age stands at 58. What remains is a population still in decline. The shuttered shops along the city of Goto’s shopping arcades are a testament to the fact that there simply isn’t the demand there once was, and you cannot help but notice the lack of young faces. There does, however, seem to be some resistance to this decline, and there are plans to bring new life to Goto.
Since 2010, the islands have been the playground of one of Japan’s largest fleets of electric cars, supported by subsidized charging stations linked to wind turbines. The cars can be rented from any local rent-a-car shop and, although a full charge can take just over an hour, I can recommend no better form of transport for exploring the archipelago.
To encourage more visitors to the islands, a bid was launched in 2015 to classify two of the churches associated with the hidden Christians as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Visiting the two nominated churches, Kyugorin and Egami, proves a challenge, as both are located at the extremes of smaller islands, where ferry services are infrequent and taxis are the only dependable form of public transport.
Of the two, Kyugorin is the easier to reach from Fukue, located on Hisaka Island and a 25-minute drive from the closest ferry port. However, the more impressive is Egami, situated in the northwest of Naru Island and built beautifully with white wooden slats and details in blue. While the islands wait for UNESCO’s verdict, many of the other more accessible churches have already been designated Tangible Cultural Assets by the central government in recognition of their role in the islands’ history.
If churches don’t take your fancy, there is plenty more to appeal to visitors. By and large, those I met were of two varieties: weekend fishers concerned with the chances of a good catch, or those pursuing an escape from city life — not so much hidden Christians as hidden salarymen — reveling in the offerings of the Goto Islands.
On the western shore of Fukue lies one of the island’s greatest assets: Takahama beach is half a kilometer of golden sand sloping gently into turquoise waters. The place heaves with people for three weeks in summer, but until Sea Day marks the start of Japan’s swimming season in July, it is all but a private beach.
The westernmost point of the island is capped by Osezaki Lighthouse, a lone tower dressed in white at the end of the treacherous Osezaki Cliffs. The water below churns where two currents meet off the coast of Fukue, courted by daring boats who know it as a prime fishing spot.
An abundance of sea life gives the islands their excellent reputation for sashimi. Kibinago, silver-stripe round herring, is a local delicacy. Those who are more interested in seeing live fish can enjoy scuba or snorkeling with one of Fukue’s diving schools. The seas surrounding the Goto Islands are impeccable, and it was with envy that I watched a boat, loaded with fins, tanks and divers, set off toward the uninhabited Rojojima Islands and the coral reefs beneath the waves.
Certainly there are reasons why few people make it to the Goto Islands: They are not inaccessible, but neither are they easy to reach. They do not hold the prestige of Okinawa or Yakushima and have never quite made it onto the tourist track. But after a weekend of ferries, sunshine and seas so clear it pained me that it was too cold to swim, the Goto Islands were a break from the quotidian and a weekend of excellent fun. As my ferry departed Fukue, I could not help but keep my eyes on the islands as they slipped beneath the horizon. Back again, and soon.
By sea: The main island, Fukue, can be reached by ferry from Fukuoka (Hakata Port — eight hours; one per day) or from Nagasaki (three hours; three per day). The Fukuoka-Fukue route stops off at each of the major islands on its voyage. By air: Direct flights to Fukue Airport depart from Nagasaki or Fukuoka Airport.