Hirado, Nagasaki

  Hirado is one of Japan’s little known but most intriguing places. Firstly, its name is most un-Japanese sounding and is, in fact, derived from Firando, with which Portuguese traders dubbed the port town in the 16th Century. Secondly, Hirado is one of the most westerly points of Japan, an area relatively secluded to this day, yet it boasts historic and deep international associations with the Portuguese, Dutch, British and Chinese that stretch back over 450 years.

Hirado has a rich townscape that reflects its history: a Buddhist temple cheek-by-jowl with a Christian church; and Japan’s oldest stone arch bridge, built with European techniques, spanning a creek leads to a memorial to the less-than-successful 17th Century English trading mission led by Richard Cocks.

Topographical map of the bay of Hirado in 1621. To the far left, back from the shore-line, the white flag with the red cross marks the St George's Cross of England.
Credit: Image sourced by Isaac de Graaff, distributed under a CC-BY 2.0 license.

The viewpoint from Anjin Rose Garden.

   A short walk around Hirado’s waterfront leads to an ancient staircase and wall, remnants of the Dutch presence here and their much more profitable enterprise. Their factory, or merchant house, was where they plied their trade with the Japanese and its has been painstakingly recreated on its original site aside the sea. Immediately behind here in a park on a hill is William Adams’ grave. Always lovingly tended to by the locals, from here views stretch over the sea and to Hirado Castle, the seat of the Matsura clan, sitting atop another hill dominating the town and its port. Beyond is the vibrant red suspension and box-girder bridge that connects Hirado to the Kyushu mainland over narrow straits. Here the currents run fast and strong either greatly speeding or hindering the passage of ships that navigate these waters each day. Small ferries sail to and fro to nearby islands announcing their arrival and departure in Hirado’s small port with blasts from ship horns that echo over the town. Even smaller, one man operated fishing boats linger in sheltered waters away from the rip currents and eddies seeking a local delicacy, ago flying fish.

Shrine dedicated to Zheng Chenggong.

   Quiet flag stone streets and narrow alleys thread their way through the compact town centre providing a delightful way to explore Hirado on foot. Sited on a rise up a flight of steps is the Matsura Lords’ family home which has been turned into a homely museum exhibiting their exquisite heirlooms. It also includes a section on Zheng Chenggong, also known as Coxinga. Zheng was born in Hirado to a Chinese merchant and Japanese local lady in 1624. Zheng travelled to China at the age of eight and is celebrated in China to this day for his loyalty to the Ming dynasty and for the liberation of Taiwan from the Dutch.

The rest of the island of Hirado is gracefully rural with paddy fields, sandy beaches and several churches, which remind us of the Christian communities that practiced their faith under pain of death if discovered during the years of samurai ascendency. Ikutsuki, a neighbouring island is well worth a visit for the soaring basalt cliffs on its west coast where ospreys breed and its museum about the history of whaling that once occurred in the surrounding seas.

18th Century painting by Isaac Titsingh of the ground-plan of the Dutch trade-post on the island Dejima at Nagasaki.

Credit: Photograph by Jan Arkesteijn, distributed under a CC-BY 2.0 license.

Further afield is the fascinating city of Nagasaki, which usurped Hirado’s international trading preeminence after it became first the Portuguese and then, in 1642, the Dutch traders base of operations. Dejima, a crescent-shaped man-made island, has largely been restored to its appearance when the Dutch remained here throughout the Edo Period. Of course, Hypocenter Park and The Atomic Bomb Museum are must see, if sobering, places to visit. However, Nagasaki’s many centuries as Japan’s sole gateway to the rest of the world has given it a vibrant history and culture making it one of, if not the most unique places in Japan. Other places to visit in neighbouring Saga Prefecture include the pottery towns of Arita, Imari and Karatsu. The latter was where Jacques Mayol, whose life was the inspiration Luc Besson’s 1988 film Le Grand Bleu a.k.a. The Big Blue, first learned to dive.

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