Wed, Feb 12, 2020 - Page 13 News List

Digging deep into the underground faithful

A four-day journey through ‘hidden Christian’ country in southwestern Japan answers many lingering questions from the movie ‘Silence’

By Han Cheung  /  Staff reporter

Built in 1934 atop a former site where locals were forced to trample on holy images or face execution (as depicted in Silence), the gothic Sakitsu Church rises above the two-story traditional houses lining the harbor. Near the village is a white statue of the Virgin Mary looking out to sea, with a viewpoint marked for the perfect sunset shot. We mosey on to Oe Village to see its romanesque cathedral on a hill, one of the first to be built on the island after the ban was lifted.

Despite the perseverance of the hidden Christians, most churches we visit are empty besides tourists. Although no longer oppressed, a Reuters report last year indicated that the hidden Christians are dying out as their descendents aren’t interested in religion. Japan’s population is less than 0.4 percent Catholic, according to a Japan Times report, and even the former hotbed of Nagasaki Prefecture boasts just over 4 percent.

CULTURES COLLIDE

Back on the mainland, we pass by the ruins of Hara Castle, where Shiro and his rebels were besieged by government forces, but I was suffering from Shiro fatigue by that point. Alas, the entire history of the rebellion is retold at the reconstructed 396-year-old Shimabara Castle — although the information is the most accessible here with QR codes on each artifact linking to English descriptions.

From the top of the castle one can gaze toward Mount Unzen, an active volcano that caused Japan’s worst volcanic disaster in 1792. The Unzen Hells, a patchwork of barren sulphuric fields with scalding hot springs, served as torture sites for Christians and sets the opening scene of Silence. It is possible to scale several of the peaks, but thick fog and snow dashed those plans. Still, we took the cable car up to Myokendake peak, where the bright red gates to a shinto shrine provide a splash of color to a landscape of pure white.

Our pilgrimage ends in Nagasaki, best known to the world as the site where Americans dropped the second atomic bomb during World War II. However, there’s much more to the city than death and destruction. When the Japanese expelled nearly all foreigners after the Shimabara Rebellion, the man-made island of Dejima was the country’s only point of contact with the outside world for the next two centuries as Dutch traders were allowed to reside there. Foreign goods and games such as chocolate, tomatoes, coffee, beer, photography, badminton and billiards all entered Japan through this impeccably-preserved neighborhood.

The Chinese were the only other foreigners besides the Dutch allowed to trade with Japan. The city boasts a bustling lantern-lined Chinatown, but the real gem of the area is the quieter historic center to the south, where winding pathways lead to simple but colorful temples.

The foreigner ban was lifted in 1859. All these cultures converge at a pretty stone-paved path named Dutch Slope. Atop the hill, one can see European-style mansions, the Confucius Temple and the Oura Cathedral standing out against modern apartment blocks and black-roof traditional dwellings.

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