Statue of Amakusa Shiro, the boy-messiah who led the Shimabara Rebellion.
The Amakusa Islands don’t get many foreign visitors. Despite their beauty, they are a very quiet and remote region of Japan. Yet the views were stunning and the people were generous and welcoming; many seemed to have never interacted with a Westerner in their lives, and were eager and excited to meet me. Strangers approached to talk, children picking fruit chased me down to share what they'd collected with me, an old man in a shop stuffed my hands full of free snacks after I spent a mere two coins on a bottle of green tea.... As I hiked through the islands, it seemed that everywhere I went I was met with curiosity, openness, and warmth. I have a deep affection for such places, as I too come from a very remote and rural part of the Unites States, what many would call the middle of nowhere in the Northwoods of Wisconsin.Yet in my experience, the kindest, most sincere people can often be found in these nowhere places.
Amakusa is completely off the map even for most Japanese travelers. The scenery is breathtaking, but Japan is a country with many such beautiful views. The food is excellent, but the food is also excellent throughout southern Japan, and Fukuoka is easier to reach. But I was in the Amakusa Islands looking for something particular, something of special interest to me.
The northern end of Oyano Island, where the rebel leader Shiro was born.
Sunset view from one of the Tenmonbashi, a series of five bridges spanning a chain of islands from Upper Amakusa to the mainland.
Bejeweling the southern waters of the Ariake Sea, the Amakusa Islands once concealed enclaves of Hidden Christians, and before the persecutions, the faith thrived here. But even today, the islands’ beauty is shadowed by a dark history—a terrible, apocalyptic event known as the Shimabara Rebellion. Nearly four hundred years ago, starving peasants, persecuted Christians, and discontented war veterans rose up in a bloody 4-month revolt against the government, uniting under the leadership of a mysterious, charismatic, 16-year-old “messenger of God” named Shiro. Prophecies had foretold his coming, and eyewitnesses claimed he wielded supernatural powers bestowed by Heaven. Government authorities seeking to crush the revolt heard rumors about a young sorcerer who could heal the sick, walk on water, and command birds from the sky to alight on his hand. To them, Shiro was a villain, a fanatic, an incomprehensible threat; to the suffering peasants and Christians, he was a messiah come to deliver them. The people of the region had endured abuse, starvation, and oppression at the hands of local tyrants for far too long, and Shiro gave them the rallying cry and the hope they needed.
The resulting battle wiped out half the population of the islands, claimed tens of thousands of lives, and was the final blow that drove Christianity underground for over two-hundred years.