For such a quiet place, you’d never guess that Shimabara hides a violent history.
Tucked away in the shadow of Mt Unzen and on the shores of the Ariake Sea, the port town of Shimabara is a convenient place to stop and relax between Nagasaki and Kumamoto. Arriving at the station on a one-car train and walking through the empty streets towards the castle, the city feels as still and silent as any other provincial Japanese backwater.
But things weren’t always so quiet around here. Shimabara was once the catalyst for for a very bloody chapter of Japanese history, when an army of rebels rose up and attempted to overthrow their oppressive Tokugawa-installed ruler in an event known as the Shimabara Rebellion (1637-1638).
Shigemasa Matsukura ruled Shimabara brutally, enacting mass executions of Christians, forced labour, and exorbitant taxes to fund the construction of Shimabara Castle. The locals revolted—first peasants, then Catholic ronin—and attempted to lay siege to Shimabara castle. When they failed, the group moved further south and took over neighbouring Hara Castle for several months before eventually being defeated by Tokugawa forces. The government army then slaughtered the rebels, all 27,000 of them including women and children, wiping out almost the entire population of the Shimabara Peninsula.
Shimabara Castle survived the rebellion, but not the bureaucracy of the Meiji Restoration. Today the moat and stone walls are the only original structures, while the replica castle keep was built from concrete in 1964. As far as Japanese castles go, Shimabara is no white stork or black crow, but the keep does house a city museum with exhibits about early Christian culture and the Shimabara Rebellion.
Shimabara is also famous for the natural spring water that gushes up from the ground and trickles through the town’s canals. If you follow the canal that feeds the moat into the quiet streets northwest of the castle, you’ll find Shimabara’s buke yashiki-gai, or samurai houses. The neighbourhood was once known as Teppo-machi, or gun town, named after the gunmen who resided in the area. There are three Meiji-era samurai residences that are open to the public, as well as a school and a bell tower. Signage is minimal but the exhibits are livened up with mannequins posed in the middle of cooking or writing letters. Visitors are welcome to take off their shoes and explore the spacious tatami rooms where the low-level samurai of the day went about their daily business.
The area is atmospheric, with gravel streets and moss-covered walls made of stone from nearby Unzen. The babbling creek in the centre of the road is the exact same one that supplied local residents with cool, clean spring water centuries ago.
South of the castle district are more pristine canals, their clear spring waters brimming with another one of Shimabara’s famous sites: carp. There’s no fanciful history to the over 1,000 fish that swim along the streets and between the old minka houses in the Koi-no-Oyogu-machi, but they’re relaxing to watch and fun to feed.
Like everywhere else in Japan, the streets here are relentlessly paved, but the gutter-like canals are shallow and wide enough to provide views of the koi, which come in a rainbow of colours and grow up to 50cm. Some carp seem to be ravenously hungry, fighting to gobble up chunks of bread tossed in by tourists ignoring the “don’t feed the fish” signs; others are disinterested and overstimulated, like felines at a cat cafe.
Feeding the fish is hard work, which makes a stop at the Shimeiso garden all the more inviting. If you step in to enjoy the greenery, it’s more than likely that the lady of the house will beckon you to take a seat on the shady veranda and enjoy a free tea. The garden is impressive, and natural spring water bubbles up out of the ground to create large, glassy pools filled with, you guessed it, more carp.
If you’ve got time on your hands and are looking for lunch, a great place to stop is Himematsuya. The speciality here is gu-zouni, a clear and light soup filled with mochi, eel, egg and local vegetables. Himematsuya’s founder reportedly created the dish in 1813, based on one eaten by rebel leader Amakusa Shiro and his troops while they were holed up at Hara Castle, with only rationed mochi and foraged mountain vegetables to eat, during the last months of the Shimabara Rebellion. Unfortunately not a single rebel survived the battle, so there’s no one to back up the claim.