A Christian Pilgrimage In Japan?

Mika and I are two of the many pilgrims traveling to Japan to walk the Shinto Kumano Kodo and The 88  Buddhist Temple Pilgrimages. However, we learned of a Christian Pilgrimage in and around Nagasaki. Having some time after completing The Kumano Kodo and the 88 Temple, we decided to travel to Nagasaki and check out this Christian Pilgrimage. 

St. Francis Xavier introduced Jesuit Christianity to Japan in 1549. However, in 1587, the Emperor’s Regent, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, placed a ban on Christianity which lasted 260 years. The Christian priests were expelled. The excellent historical novel and recent Scorsese movie “Silence” depicted a glimpse of life for the Japanese Christians and a few Jesuit priests who went underground to support them.

This is the actual plaque replica made for and featured in the movie “Silence”. The Japanese gov’t forced Christians to step on it and denounce their religion or die.

The World Heritage Site, the “Hidden Christian Sites in the Nagasaki and Amakusa region” tells of the unique religious tradition of “Hidden Christians” who secretly passed on their faith under the ban on Christianity for more than two centuries, from the 17th to the 19th century. Since the first mission in 1550 in this region in Hirado in 1550, many people believed during the ban on Christianity that it would be lifted and continued to secretly practice their faith. 

The Pilgrimage Route of Nagasaki and the Amakusa region is a 468 kilometers route connecting the World Heritage sites that has a total of 35 sections which consist of 12 components, and related heritage sites, and is divided into five areas that tell the history of each region. The pilgrimage is relatively new since 2018 and we are told poorly marked for walkers but hopefully the necessary infrastructure will be developed over the next few years

Having just a few days, Mika and I explored a few of the pilgrimage sites in Nagasaki. 

In 1853, the ban was lifted and in 1864 two French Priests oversaw the building of Oura Cathedral aka The Basilica of the 26 Martyrs of 1597. The Church in itself was not special but in 1865 a dozen locals approached Father Petitjean saying, “We are of one heart with you.” And soon thousands more Hidden Christians emerged from the surrounding area and islands. For over 250 years they had been worshiping Jesus in secret on their own, without priests or churches or statues of any kind. 

Later we visited St. Philip Church, which is reminiscent of Gaudi’s Basilica of the Sacred Family in Barcelona. Next door is a small museum and outside is a memorial with the 26 life sized crucified martyrs .Walking inside, I was surprisingly delighted to see a statue of St. Francis Xavier dressed in Camino de Santiago garb including 2 Camino shells. 

We then walked to the site of the August 9, 1945 Atomic Bomb explosion in Nagasaki. The Urakami Cathedral, just 500 meters from the hypocenter was mostly demolished by the blast. However, next to the Hypocenter Memorial is a 12 meter high stone pillar with a statue of St. Francis Xavier with his followers. This was a most powerful place. Inside the adjacent museum one learns the story of women, children, and other civilians who were obliterated, or badly burned, or died later after suffering from radiation. I found these stories both disturbing and sad. I was startled to see young school kids on class field trips there. At the Hypocenter Memorial, there was a classroom of kindergarten kids with a guide explaining the bombing to them. I was bothered by this thinking the kids are too young to be learning of this horror. Mika explained that the Japanese are very serious about educating everyone from a very young age about the horrors of nuclear weapons and seeking the eradication of nuclear weapons and world peace. Later I read that nuclear arms purchases were up 13% in 2023 by all the leading powers in the world. Made me think of the white pillars around the world where Japan has placed World Peace memorials; Finisterre at the end of the Camino, on a hill above Pokhara in Nepal, India not far from Bodhgaya where Buddha was first enlightened, here in Nagasaki, of course in Hiroshima as well where they also have a clock counting from August 6, 1945 with the intent to keep it going until all nuclear weapons are gone from the planet. Naive? Perhaps, but these people experienced first hand the horror. 210,000 deaths are attributed to the 2 bombings. 

There was $91 Billion spent on nuclear arms in 2023 globally. In 2021 the World Food Programme Executive Director stated that world hunger could be eliminated with $40 billion per year. Perhaps we should follow Japan’s lead. 

Anyway, it excites me to think that future pilgrims coming to Japan can undertake a Triple Crown Pilgrimage of 3 different religions on 3 of the 4 main Japan islands. Kumano Kodo Shinto Pilgrimage on Honshu. The 88 Temple Buddhist Pilgrimage on Shikoku. The Hidden Christian Pilgrimage on Kyushu.

For more information view Nagasaki Hidden Christians Pilgrimage.

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