Hirado is an island—several islands fall within the same municipal territory, to be precise—with a unique history as a waypoint for European traders and a bolthole for the hidden Christians, stunning views that recall the Hebrides, and a rich local culture. Unlike the Goto Islands to the south, Hirado can be reached by a bridge from mainland Kyushu. Small enough to experience in a day but large enough that you can keep coming back to make new discoveries, Hirado is a hidden gem.
The town of Hirado gives the island its name; its jurisdiction has been expanded to include not only Hirado Island but also Ikitsuki Island, Azuchi-Oshima Island, Takushima Island, and some of the Kyushu mainland. Most of the population of Hirado Island and the great Hirado municipal territory are clustered now around the east coast ports. For a millenia or more these waters have been visited by traders from kingdoms in China and Korea, and, beginning a few centuries ago, by British, Portuguese and Dutch traders and missionaries.
Hirado Castle was home to the rulers of the island, the Matsura clan, descendents of murderous pirates, who eventually became Hirado’s aristocracy. The castle came down in the late-19th century, and was reconstructed in the 1960s. Like many reconstructed Japanese castles, the steel-reinforced concrete structure is a bit sterile, but preserved in the castle’s museum are some fascinating relics of the Matsura clan. Stroll the extensive grounds of the castle, paying a visit to the shrines and gardens, and, for all the smokers, current and former, stop by the stele marking the arrival in Japan of the first tobacco seeds, carried on a Dutch ship from Manilla.
There are still traces of the foreign presence in Hirado, throughout the town and surrounding villages and islands. St. Francis Xavier Memorial Church commemorates the visit of its namesake, the great Catholic missionary, to Hirado, establishing the island as a base for missionary work. The story of Christianity in Japan would take a tragic turn, but Hirado is now reclaiming its history with the hidden Christians fleeing persecution on the mainland and the Roman Catholic missionaries. On the way up to the church, there is a famous view spot where the church’s white spire is framed by the pagodas at Komyoji and Zuiunji temples.
The Dutch influence on Hirado has mostly been wiped away by time, but some traces remain, like the granite wells and the quay. Wandering the town, the basalt and stone remains of Dutch structures seem to pop up regularly. Visit the reconstructed trading post for more concrete remains, and march up the stairs to Sakigata Park to visit the memorial to “blue-eyed samurai” William Adams, the Englishman who became an advisor to the shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu.
The Saiwai Bridge is also known as the “Dutch Bridge,” leading some to the mistaken conclusion that it was among the structures put up by the Dutch traders—the Dutch had already been given the boot by that time, chased off to Dejima to set up shop there—but it was built by local craftsmen in the Dutch style.
There’s not much nightlife in sleepy Hirado Town, but wandering the quaint streets after dusk is a chance to see the unique artwork that adorns the shop shutters. There’s no better way to end a day in Hirado.