If you’re tired of bustling crowds at popular tourist attractions and the impossible task of taking a selfie without including the world and his wife in the background, perhaps you’ll consider taking a day-trip to a less well-known location such as Shimabara. Visiting a small place may not be as exciting as top tourist attractions like the Tokyo Skytree or the Imperial Palace, but for a breath of fresh air and some peaceful relaxation time, Shimabara could be just what you need.
From Kumamoto, you can get a special day-trip ticket for 2,500 yen, which includes the return trip for both the bus from Kumamoto bus station to the coast as well as the boat across to Shimabara. Both the bus and boat journey take about 30 – 40 minutes for each trip. For those of you who prefer to drive, the boat is also able to accommodate cars as well as passengers for an extra cost.
Surrounded by Shimabara Bay on one side and Tachibana Bay on the other, it’s easy to think that Shimabara is an island – in fact, it is joined to land near Unzen City. Other nearby cities include Nagasaki (90 minutes by train) and Saga (2 hours by train).
Shimabara is a sleepy little place and not done up in a touristy way at all. Getting off the boat and walking a short way up the hill, you can catch the rickety little train three stops along the coast to get to the main town area. From there, walk straight up the hill for 10 minutes to reach the Shimabara Castle, with the Unzen volcano looming in the background.
The castle was completed around 1625, and with five layers to the tower it is bigger than typical castles of that time period. Plastered a blinding white, it is a stark contrast to the dark black of Kumamoto Castle. During the Meiji Restoration, most of the original castle was destroyed. All that remains today of the original are the stone walls and moat, which is up to 15 meters deep. It was restored to its former glory in 1964. Entry to the castle is 540 yen, which includes the other museums and buildings in the castle grounds.
Inside the castle are many relics from the Shimabara Rebellion. In 1637, 37,000 local Christians rioted against persecution, and all were slain. The rebellion was led by the charismatic 16-year-old boy Amakusa Shiro, who was considered to be a messenger from God. Artefacts in the museum include crucifix’s, swords, armour, statues of the Virgin Mary disguised as the Buddhist deity Kannon and other Christian (Kurisuchan) objects.
Climb up to the 5th floor and you’ll be rewarded with views across Shimabara City. The scene is actually sort of dismal – the limited space between the shoreline and the foot of the mountain means that there is hardly any space for green areas – it’s quite built up and grey-looking.
One of the museums you can visit in the grounds of the Shimabara Castle is the memorial hall dedicated to the works of Seibo Kitamura, a Shimabara-born sculptor. The large statues in the garden are striking and impressive, but the works inside the hall are barely worth a look. Despite this, it’s nice that the ticket includes access to all these different areas, and your visit to the Shimabara Castle could easily fill a morning.
Visible from miles away, Mount Unzen is a dominating aspect in Shimabara. One of the worst volcanic disasters in the history of Japan was caused by the volcano. In 1792, there was a massive volcanic eruption which then caused a tsunami – more than 15,000 people were killed and the majority of the town was destroyed. More recently, in 1990 and 1991 there were a series of eruptions which killed nearly 50 people and forced many to flee their homes.
If you are interested in geography, you can visit the Unzen Geopark to find out more. There is also a memorial hall about a 15 minutes drive from Shimabara Port in the opposite direction of the town.
The Samurai District of Shimabara is a popular place to visit – you can go into some old residences that date back to the 1600s. The thatched roofs are particularly attractive. Walking around the quiet streets, you can glimpse into what Japanese life was like in the days gone by.
Walking down the Ichiban-Gai Arcade in the middle of the town, it’s easy to navigate your way to the ‘Town of Swimming Carp’ and see a pool of the bright orange fish swimming about.
If you like hot springs, there is a very good onsen just off the main shopping arcade called Yutorogi-no-yu. It costs 520 Yen to use the public baths where there are several different pools to choose from, including a bath with bright green water from the minerals added to it. This onsen is unique in that it had a ‘clothed’ pool where either sex can use it, provided they are wearing a swimsuit – this onsen is not for relaxing – it’s a work-out bath where you walk around the circuit in the water. If the onsen is not for you, then consider using the free foot-bath which is located just behind the car park outside the onsen, but be warned, it is extremely hot!
If you love trying local delicacies, then your food of choice in Shimabara will be Guzoni. This dish has roots back in the Shimabara Rebellion and was what the rebels survived on. The soup is served with blobs of gritty mochi-style rice balls (which doesn’t sound very appetising, I know…) as well as meat, fish and vegetables. This hearty soup is a favourite dish for tourists and you can grab a bowl at the restaurant near the entrance to the castle, but be prepared to queue for it.
Despite being a small place, Shimabara is packed full of things to see and do. As well as the attractions listed, there is certainly enough in the area to fill more than a day-trip if you are so inclined. One last word about Shimabara – for some unknown reason, there are hardly any convenience stores at all, so be prepared and don’t expect to find a 7/11 or Family Mart on every street corner.
Check out the website for Shimabara tourism information.