It was during the Obon festival (one of the only decent-length holidays we get all year) when a freak storm cancelled our boat across to Tomioka (and therefore, also our booking at a luxury hotel). Checking into a cheap hostel, we thought our perfect summer break had been cancelled.
However, always determined to look on the bright side, we noticed that our hostel was right next to an amazing church with a small museum next to it. Turning our frowns upside down we checked it out and discovered a hidden gem – one of the most interesting parts of our visit that we would have never discovered if it hadn’t been for that storm.
Christianity has had a turbulent relationship with Japan. Throughout history, Christianity has been introduced to this country by various people at different times, and time and again it has been received well… only to then fall from popularity just as quickly, often with grizzly consequences.
At the end of the sixteenth century, it is thought that there were as many as 300,000 Christians in Japan. However, due to several factors (Spain and Portugal having political difficulties, differences of opinion between rival missionary groups, and opposition from certain parts of the Japanese government being but a few of the reasons), it was at this time that Christianity was met with resistance.
The museum in Nagasaki is a memorial to the 26 Catholics who were martyred there in 1597. They were marched from Osaka to Nagasaki, a distance of about 1,000 kilometers, and were killed at their final destination. The 26 martyrs were all members of the Third Order of St. Francis, and while most of them were Japanese, there were also Spaniards, a Mexican, and an Indian amongst them. They ranged in age from 63 years down to three young boys, aged 14, 13, and 12. The martyrs were crucified and speared to death.
The 26 Martyrs Museum is a really excellent place to visit – first of all, the architecture of the place is amazing. It was built after the Second World War, a time when Nagasaki was still suffering the devastation of the atomic bomb. It was decided that there should be a public park on the site of the 26 martyrs, and a famous sculptor made the large piece of artwork which is now at the forefront of the museum. After the statue was completed, the museum and shrine were built to preserve the memory of this event, and also to give hope to the people of Nagasaki at the time as a symbol of rising again after a disaster.
Inside the museum are countless relics relating to the 26 martyrs, and also to Christianity in Japan. Some of the treasures featured at the museum include an original letter by Francis Xavier, various religious carvings (often disguised as Japanese deities for Christians trying to conceal their faith), paintings, maps, and important documents. One very interesting piece is a small statue with a life-like hand protruding from the top. Looking closer, you can see that the statue is supposed to be a human arm and hand, and in the middle, where the ‘cloth’ of the garment is pulled back, you can see a very important relic – a bone from one of the martyrs, Jacob Kisai.
Next to the hall of exhibits, you can visit the Hall of Glory on the second floor – a beautiful, tranquil shrine that encourages reflection and peacefulness in the pale light through stained glass windows.
Open from 9-5 (closed only over the New Year period) the museum entrance fee is 500 yen for adults, 300 yen for High School students, and 150 yen for elementary students. When planning our trip to Nagasaki, this museum hadn’t featured on our to-do list at all, and while the poor weather was disappointing the turn of events was certainly improved upon discovering this fine museum. Another interesting slice of Japanese history to add to the memory book.
To find out more you can click here to visit the multi-lingual website, and include this top attraction on your next trip to Japan.