In the Footsteps of the Great Navigators: Tranquility and History in Hirado, Nagasaki Prefecture, Japan

One more final transfer at Imari station before arriving in Hirado. The booked tickets from Hiroshima to Hirado showed ten minutes to make the connection in Imari. It would be “plenty of time” and “Imari was a small station”, were the messages given in Hiroshima. There are few countries were you can voyage on a long journey by rail and be absolutely chilled out about making your connection. This is the country were you can count on it. Here the trains run more punctually than the fanciest Swiss watch.

Imari station, Kyushu, Japan (Photo: Jan Haenraets).

Imari station, officially Kami-Imari Station (上伊万里駅 Kami-Imari-eki) indeed is a wee establishment. Boarding the previous train from Arita-Amari had occurred without a ticket and that ticket also still to be settled in Amari. The handful of local passengers on the Arita-Imari train, including the conductor, did not speak English, but they mastered a display of polite gestures. Whatever had to happen to settle the bill was gently made clear with the ever universal sign-language.

With no matter of urgency every living soul at Imari station made certain that the stranger completed successfully his transfer onto the Imari-Hirado train, and settled his tickets. The genteel manner that comes with remoteness always is a pleasure to run into. The final stretch of the long morning’s rail journey could unfold.

The trip from Imari to Hirado covers 40 kilometers along the shoreline. This section is part of the Nishi-Kyushu Line (西九州線 Nishi-Kyūshū-sen) and is operated by the Matsuuru Railway. It connects Imari, in the Saga Prefecture, with Hirado (平戸市, Hirado-shi) in the Nagasaki Prefecture, and continues from there to Sasebo, another 40 kilometers down the line. The route halts at the villages along the coast, and leaves an impression that everyone knows everyone here. Co-passengers were predominantly elderly and their journey seemed part of a regular routine to amass a series of errands in town.

Slow down

About midday. Hours earlier, very early, the city of Hiroshima was only waking up slowly, when the Shinkansen bullet train was boarded to fly overland to this south-western edge of Japan. After that final transfer onto the Nishi-Kyushu Line the speed of travel was significantly slower. Everyone and everything had started to operate at a more humane rhythm. The draining  metropolitan pace and buzz had been left behind, and a parallel reality had been entered.

In the case of Hirado, this universe is made up of an environment that is blessed by a refreshing ocean setting, and is steeped in history. While relatively remote, places like Hirado and Hirado Island (上島 Hiradoshima) are fully developed and modernized in Japan, but they still appear to lean stronger towards the vernacular stories and traditions of the country.

Hirado town with Hirado Castle in the background (Photo: Jan Haenraets)

The city of Hirado is located to the north west of Nagasaki city, partly on Hirado Island and partly on the Kyushu mainland, across the sea strait that separates the mainland from the island. The train station of Hirado, officially named the Tabira-Hiradoguchi Station (たびら平戸口駅 Tabira-Hiradoguchi-eki), is located on the Kyushu mainland side of the city.

Hirado’s city boundaries expanded as a result of administrative city mergers and now the city district of Hirado officially even encompasses the whole of Hirado Island. Of all islands in the Nagasaki Prefecture, Hirado Island is the fourth largest, and the wider city of Hirado presently has a population of slightly over 31,000.

Near to Hirado station, along the sea strait, is Hirado’s modern harbor and fish market. The spot offers enthralling views of Hirado Bridge. For anyone without the means of road transportation, there is a ferry that crosses to the island. The city’s buildings on this part of town are in the usual functional architectural styles of Twentieth century Japan, with touches of urban horticulture to provide some streetscape beautification.

Crossing the circa 570 meters wide sea strait to Hirado Island from the Kyushu mainland can since 1977 be done over the Hirado Bridge (平戸大橋 Hirado Ō-hashi). This suspension bridge has a span of over 465 meters and a total length of 665 meters. Given its reddish colour it appears like a smaller version of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, which has a total span of 1,280 meters (4,200 feet). The red shade of the Hirado Bridge is the distinctive Japanese vermilion red, which is more a red-orange, and that has in Japan a strong affinity with Shinto religion.

Another small port can be found on the Hirado Island side, where the historic town and harbor of Hirado is located. Here a number of unpretentious seafood restaurants offer the freshest catch. The menus feature shells, oysters, snail, scallops, octopus, and various types of fish. In true Japanese custom the fish tank offers a ‘pick your own’ option.

Firando, Christianity and the trading gateway to Japan

Hirado was already a trading port between the Asian mainland and Japan during the Eight century Nara period. After the Portuguese arrived in 1550 in Hirado during the Shogunate era it became the main gateway to Japan for ships from the Asian mainland and Europe. During that period Hirado Island was known as Firando, as can be seen on many historical maps.

Map of the bay of Hirado, 1621 (Source: Atlas Amsterdam van Isaac de Graaff, from The National Archives in The Hague).

When the Portuguese arrived, they also brought the first Christian missionaries. The uncomfortable stories of early Christianity in Japan during the Seventeenth century was the theme of Shūsaku Endō’s 1966 novel Silence. It narrates the story of the persecution of Christians in the region, and was turned in 2016 into a major Hollywood motion picture that was directed by Martin Scorcese.

The St. Francis Xavier Memorial Catholic Church (サビエル記念聖堂 Sabieru Kinen Seidō) from 1913 (and relocated here in 1931) and the surrounding alleyways are one of the iconic landmarks in Hirado, and are evidence of its Christian past and present. Near the church several Buddhist temples and shrines are located, including the Komyo-Ji and Zuiun-Ji temples. The church commemorates St. Francis Xavier, a Jesuit missionary who arrived in the 1550s and who did missionary work in Kagoshima, Hirado and Kyoto. He sailed by ship to China where he died of illness and exhaustion in 1552.

Another most significant landmark from the Sixteenth century is Hirado Castle. It was first built in 1599 and was several times rebuilt over the next centuries due to destruction. It still sits high above the town and the old town and port.

Buddhist grave stones along the lane to the St. Francis Xavier Memorial Church (Photo: Jan Haenraets)

At the start of the Seventeenth century the English and Dutch found their way to Hirado and it further developed into a center for foreign trade. The Dutch and English trading posts can be seen on the 1621 map of the Bay of Hirado, from the National Archive in Amsterdam. The trading post of the Dutch East India Company is marked by a Dutch flag on the map, and also an English flag appears to indicate the British trading post. The British only traded briefly through Hirado Island from 1613 until 1623.

The Dutch trading in Hirado lasted from 1609 until 1641, when it shifted to Dejima, in present-day Nagasaki. The historic Dutch Trading Post of Hirado dates back to 1639 and has been reconstructed in town as a collaborative effort between Japan and the Netherlands. The Trading Post is regarded as the first complete European style building in Japan and now a historic landmark that can be visited.

Sweets, matcha and the Matsura family

One of the most important cultural heritage sites in Hirado is the Matsura Historical Museum. The Matsura family (often written as Matsuura) ruled over the Hirado area from the 12th century to 1868. From 1603 to 1868 the Matsura family were the official Lords of the Hirado domain, under the Tokugawa Shogunate. The Trust remains to this day involved in the museum, which holds over 30.000 documents and objects including artwork, maps, globes, porcelain, textiles, drawings and various other objects. Artifacts on display are rotated to allow that over time different pieces can be shown to the public. The museum’s website has good general and historical information in English and includes samples from the collection. Much work has been put into translations of information in the museum and online into English, to make the collections accessible to a wide audience.

In the grounds of the museum the Kanuntei Teahouse can be found. This small teahouse has the character of a grass hermitage and dates back to 1893. The original teahouse was destroyed during a 1987 storm and has been meticulously reconstructed. Japanese tea ceremonies are one of the great intangible cultural heritage assets of Japan and the Chinshin School of Tea was established by the 29th head of the Matsura family.

The Kanuntei Teahouse at the Matsura Historical Museum in Hirado (Photo: Jan Haenraets)

Sugar was introduced to Japan by the European traders and the Nagasaki prefecture as a result had the best access to sugar. They soon developed an easy to forgive addiction to this sweet asset and many of the culinary specialities of the region, such as the sweet cakes, have mandatory high doses of sugar. The 35th head of the Matsura family must have been one of its most dedicated addicts, as he ordered that 100 types of sweets were created in 1841. Tasting a bowl of matcha tea together with the delicious Matsura sweets here at the Kanuntei Teahouse in the garden of the museum makes Hirado’s history really sink in.

Heritage and preservation

Hirado continues to search for ways to narrate its rich, but somewhat hidden history to visitors. The signs and remnants of its past are clearly noticeable throughout the town for anyone that takes the effort to observe. It is a palimpsest of historical layers that given Hirado its distinctive character. The main street has many charming historical buildings, and the wider town is sill dotted with historical sites and homes. Each one has a story to tell.

With society and cities continuously developing, many of such sites, especially privately owned and residential places, are at risk of losing over time their historic character and integrity. Several committed and talented people are setting up initiatives to invest in the renovation of historical houses, and to safeguard and tell the stories of Hirado’s rich heritage.

In the charming main street of Hirado the historical houses can for instance get a new lease of life through investment and creative ideas. On the outskirts of Hirado a good example of a rehabilitation project is being steadily taken forward by another private initiative. An old geisha house from around 1900 that underwent throughout the last century many adaptations, is now being rehabilitated by Remco, its current Dutch owner. He arrived in Hirado through participation in ongoing initiatives between Japan and the Netherlands, and has now settled here. Remco also has been much involved in the Matsura Historical Museum’s documentation and interpretation work, and gained a keen interest in the local heritage.

Remco’s old geisha house always had many rooms, given its historical functions. While aiming to subtly upgrade the house to modern living standards, Remco’s vision is to uncover and revive its former significance, and retain and repair key historical features. For instance, the balcony screens and intricate woodwork of the interiors are splendid features.

At the same time the geisha house may regain in a contemporary manner its former function as a guesthouse, as part of the house might find a future use as a type of homestay or bed and breakfast. A special asset of the house are the rooms that offer views over the garden and on to the ocean. The small garden in itself is a distinctive historical feature, and provides contemplation when inside the house, or functions as a foreground to the ocean views.

Promoting conservation, sharing expertise

Remco is taking his project forward with a great eye for detail and is aiming to do the history of the former geisha house justice. It is a remarkable project that can inspire other initiatives and sound approaches. Renovation and rehabilitation projects of private homes are often major challenges for their owners. Owners often have have limited practical conservation experiences, or restricted access to the conservation methodologies and principles that are needed to help guide their decisions. For instance, one of the really difficult challenges in buildings such as Remco’s geisha house is finding the balance between replacing or repairing historical elements with traditional materials, or deciding to upgrade them with modern alternatives.

Views to the sea from the old geisha house (Photo: Jan Haenraets))

As a result many houses that were built with more traditional methods will over time often get altered to such a degree that they lose too much of their historical integrity and authenticity. Given Hirado’s heritage significance it would be a pity if many of such historical domestic houses lose their character or integrity. Hopefully the city authorities can provide some form of assistance and inform people about exemplary projects that occurred throughout Hirado and beyond.

Remco’s ambitious project is only one of the examples of conservation and sustainable development projects that are presently occurring throughout the island archipelagos of the Nagasaki Prefecture. Ojika Island has for instance also been praised for the many initiatives that are being taken forward there. Interestingly, many people returned from life in the busy metropolitan cities of Japan. They often come back to reconnect with the roots and traditions of these islands and commit their energy and time to keeping these communities vibrant and sustainable.

The blessed island

Almost a quarter of the wider Hirado Island (上島 Hiradoshima) falls within the Saikai National Park. The island is blessed with a mountainous landscape and beautiful white beaches and several new initiatives emphasize making the island’s scenery and natural assets accessible to visitors.Within the context of vision access, a pleasant surprise – especially for anyone that has spent time on the Korean Jeju Island – is to encounter in Hirado a variant of the famous Olle Trail. The Olle Trail on Jeju Island in South Korea is the first Olle Trail that was established, and consists of a multiple day trail that goes around Jeju island. It is a very successful long distance trail and in inspired the creation of the Kyushu Olle Trail.

Map of the Hirado Course of the Kyushu Olle Trail (Source: Kyushu Tourism Information).

The same enterprise that coordinates the Jeju Olle Trail is overseeing the Olle Trail network that now exists throughout Kyushu. The 13 kilometer long Hirado course takes about four to five hours and is one of the sections of the full Kyushu Olle Trail. The course route is marked by the recognisable blue and red ribbons that are also used for the Olle Trail on Jeju island.

The Kawachi Pass (Photo: Jan Haenraets)

The trail also crosses the Kawachi Pass, where there is a beautiful panorama over the archipelago. From here also San Juan Island can be observed, a name which reflects its significance as a sacred martyrdom site. It was here that during the harshest periods of the persecution of Christians in Seventeenth century Japan many believers were martyred.

The start and end point of the Hirado course of the Kyushu Olle Trail is on the street in front of the Matsura Historical Museum, at the small ‘Hirado onset’ where you can soak arms and feet in the natural hot spring. It is the perfect spot to recover after completing the 13 kilometers of the Hirado course. The Kyushu Tourism Information website has the main information in English for all 17 course sections of the Kyushu Olle Trail, with useful maps and course leaflets. The online leaflets currently only seem to be available in Japanese.

The ‘Hirado Onsen’, the foot and arm hot bath at the starting point for the Kyushu Olle Trail. Located in the street that leads up to the Matsura Historical Museum. (Photo: Jan Haenraets)

Getting there

The Hirado bridge makes Hirado Island easily accessible by car from the main cities in the region, such as Nagasaki, Fukuoka, and Sasebo. Fukuoka and Nagasaki both have international airports, and also connect to Japan’s high speed rail network. Sasebo is the largest city near to Hirado, with also an important ferry terminal for connections to the Gotō Islands and Oshima Island. From Hirado Island there are a number of local ferries that connect to the nearby smaller islands.

Getting to Hirado is also straight-forward by train, as described above, and depending where you come from there are two equally feasible routes that bring you to Hirado station. Coming from Nagasaki the standard train route goes via Sasebo. If you would arrive overland from the north, the route via Sasebo also works, or also the scenic route via Arita and Imari is a worthwhile experience.

The Tabira-Hiradoguchi Station (たびら平戸口駅 Tabira-Hiradoguchi-eki) or ‘Hirado station’, is the westernmost railway station in Japan, and as described above, the train station is located on the Kyushu mainland side of town. From there visitors can cross to Hirado Island via the Hirado Bridge. Aside from the Hirado Bridge, there is also a second bridge, Ikitsuki Bridge, which opened opened in 1991, and connects from the north of Hirado Island to the smaller Ikitsuki Island. The bridge is described as the worlds longest continuous truss bridge.

Local busses can be found at the Hirado-guchi Sanbashi bus stop (平戸口桟橋), about ten minutes walk from the Hirado station. In Sasebo there are also busses that take you directly into Hirado town on the Hirado Island side.

Other articles about the islands of Japan’s Nagasaki Prefecture and their heritage

This article is part of a series on islands in the Nagasaki Prefecture, and for an overview of the series and additional information about getting there, check out ‘Islands and Heritage of Japan’s Nagasaki Prefecture’.The article about Olive Bay Hotel (オリーブベイホテル) on Oshima Island, can be found under ‘Lines on the Shore’.

Text and photography by Jan Haenraets

 Jan Haenraets is a Director of Atelier Anonymous Landscapes Inc., Vancouver, BC, Canada, and a Professor in the Preservation Studies Program, at Boston University

Thank you to the Nagasaki Prefecture Tourism Association and Yukiko Taniguchi; Yukari;  Hirado Tourist Association; and Remco Vrolijk of the historical Geisha house.


Sources and information:

Discover Hirado, Hirado City’s new 2018 website in English, with info on activities in and around Hirado

Hirado Net, An Island of History and Romance, the Hirado Tourism Association website

Hirado, Japan National Tourism Organization

Hirado Net – Access & Sightseeing, Hirado Tourism Association

Japan Visitor, Hirado

Matsura Historical Museum

Hirado Dutch Trading Post

Sweet Hirado, new Hirado sweets inspired by the Japanese-Dutch connections

Visit Nagasaki, The Official Guide to Nagasaki Prefecture

Matsuura Railway, Japanese language only

Silence, the 2016 movie by Martin Scorsese on IMDb

Kyushu Olle Trail, Hirado course, Hirado course, on the Kyushu Tourism site

Kyushu Olle Trail, Hirado course, on Visit Nagasaki

Olle Trail on Jeju Island, the official Olle Trail in South Korea

Nagasaki Travel Guide, Nagasaki City Official Tourism Information

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