The churches of Shinkamigoto tell a story about martyrs, narrow escapes and resilience. Out on Kashiragashima, one of the northernmost islets of the Goto chain, stands one of the finest of the islands’ chapels, a utilitarian yet beautiful sandstone church is part of a collection of churches, cemeteries, monuments and shrines (officially, “Churches and Christian Sites in Nagasaki”) that have been named a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site.
The Christians of the island came from an area called Sotome in what is now Saga Prefecture. The message of missionaries like Francis Xavier spread like wildfire through the coastal communities of Kyushu in the 1500s, and local powers benefited from the relationship with the Europeans, who traded muskets, and goods from Chinese silks. But the good days could not last. The suspicious shogun and daimyo began to persecute Christians, putting them through extended torture sessions, or simply killing them. The killing of twenty-six Catholics at Nagasaki in 1597 was a clear sign: it was time to go. From Sotome, the Christians went to Kuroshima, Nozaki, Hisaka and Naru Islands—and eventually to Kashiragashima
Kashiragashima was known as a place to quarantine people infected with smallpox and was later resettled with the help of Maeda Gidayu from Arikawa on Nakadori. The Buddhist whaler joined with local Christian patriarchs to resettle Kashiragashima in the 1800s. By then, things had opened up for Japanese Christians; they built a church on the site in 1887 and it quickly became the center of the community.
It took over a decade to build the church that can be seen today on the island. Stone for the church was quarried on the northern coast of the island, and the nearby island of Rokuro, which sits a mere 700 feet from Kashiragashima. Things progressed slowly, with money being raised mostly by villagers, who also did most of the construction.
The interior of Kashiragashima was meant to stand in contrast with the rugged landscape and desolate seascapes of the Goto chain, the exterior built to stand against the elements. The somewhat imposing facade of the church belies a folksy, cheery interior. The soft pinks and blues of the nave’s walls are embellished with floral buttons carved from local wood, bringing the famous flowers of these islands into the chapel.
Like other Christian communities on the island, Kashiragashima’s Catholics face an uncertain future—old ways of life have become untenable and the populations of these hard-to-reach islands are in decline as young people head to the mainland to build a new life—but the history of their faith community, the churches they built, and the traditions they cultivated over centuries over persecution and isolation might provide the way forward. Local tourism boosters, Christian leaders, and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Nagasaki have all gotten on board with the project to promote pilgrimages and tourism at the churches and related sites.
A visit to Kashiragashima’s church is often included as part of package tours of the islands’ Christian sites, but it’s also possible to drive up to the island—a bridge links Kashiragashima to the island of Nakadori Island—if you land at Narao or Arikawa. The electric vehicle charging and rental infrastructure pushed enthusiastically on the islands has made it to Shinkamigoto as well; the twisting roads out to the island and then on to the village are well maintained. The church and the nearby cemetery are open to visitors, although it’s important to respect the fact that the church is not merely a tourist site but the place where the village worships, weds and holds funerals.