My traveling companion and I could see the steeple of Sakitsu Church from more than a mile and a half away, after we drove through a mountain tunnel and over the large network of streams and lakes that slice up the Japanese city of Amakusa.
“Do you think that’s the right one?” I asked as we crossed over into the village. “There’s a lot of old churches in this area.”
We pulled into a large gravel parking lot filled with pick-up trucks and boat hitches owned by the local fishermen. We got out of our K-car and checked our map.
Parked next to us was a small commercial truck – on its side, a black decal of the church steeple we had seen as we entered, flanked by leaping fish and wild flowers.
“Yeah, this is it,” my friend said. He had seen the same logo online.
The iconic steeple depicted in that logo is the highest point of Sakitsu Church. It has also become a de facto icon for Amakusa, a tiny fishing town in the coastal mountains of Kumamoto. The little community is picturesque but largely unheralded – until recently.
In 2018, Sakitsu Church, the local place of worship for the practicing Christians in the area, was certified as an official UNESCO site, along with almost a dozen other landmarks important to the history of Christian persecution in Nagasaki, Japan.
Tourism has subsequently seen major boosts in these regions.
Sakitsu Church is the only site out of the 12 that’s not in Nagasaki, the capital of Catholicism in Japan. Sakitsu is in Kumamoto Prefecture, and its inclusion was a welcome surprise to the residents of the tiny fishing town that surrounds it.
The parish was established in 1569 by a Portuguese missionary, Br. Luís de Almeida, SJ. The local population took to the faith enthusiastically. They were fervent evangelists, and established a major center of Christianity in the area that lasted more than a century.
However, after the closing of Japan in the 17th century, and the restriction of foreign religions, Sakitsu Church and its congregation were torn apart. Amakusa Catholics were killed, went into hiding, or apostatized in front of government officials. Any remaining European missionaries were killed or deported.
Sakitsu Church was rebuilt in 1937 by a French missionary assigned to the town named Father Halbout. The French priest decided that the new house of worship – the first proper church for the village since the violence of centuries past – was to be built atop the former residence of the village headsman, the official responsible for the forced apostasy of Japanese Christians.
As we walked in the village, passing a takoyaki truck, a small general store, and rows of family houses, a local resident, an old woman whose back seemed perpetually bent at a 90-degree angle, approached us.
“Are you here to see the church?” she asked skeptically.
She spoke slowly, clearly unsure if we would understand Japanese.
We smiled and replied that yes, we were indeed headed across town to the Sakitsu Church.
We continued walking past, giving an ‘ok’ sign to show her that we knew where we were headed, but she didn’t take the hint. Shuffling her feet at the speed of a jog, she followed us down the street, repeatedly warning us that the church might be closed and that the priest was often very busy.
Despite our assurances that all of those concerns were okay – we would be satisfied to simply see the church from the outside if necessary – soon another local woman was enlisted by the first to replace her and follow us.
We began to understand. Amakusa wasn’t just proud of Sakitsu Church. They were protective of it. It is a village treasure.
When we arrived at the gates of the church and got an up-close look at the building, we were still accompanied by a local, who had taken it upon herself to follow us and make small talk. As we walked about, taking in the landmark from different angles, and reading the signs explaining its history, she talked behind us about the church, its priest, and how many people came through town looking for it.
In the two hours or so we were on the church property, at least two other pairs of travelers stopped and joined us in exploring.
Sakitsu Church is a small church by comparison to those one might find in modern, Christian-majority countries. It’s built in a simple, gothic style and foregoes unnecessary flair or decoration.
The church’s façade is made of stone with the backside covered in plain white siding. Its windows are stained glass, but have no icons of Jesus or saints in their design. They consist mostly of simple squares in a variety of pastel colors.
While it may be plain, it’s pleasant to behold, and its iconic steeple, crowned with a large crucifix, gives it a splash of personality.
The Western architecture stands out in the middle of an ancient, Japanese fishing village. But the interior of the church is distinctly Japanese.
Worshippers must remove their shoes before stepping in and walking on the traditional tatami flooring that covers the worship area. It’s an eccentric decision – tatami is never used in modern churches. But in Sakitsu, it contributes to the East-meets-West spirit of such a culturally significant house of worship.
Outside the church, tucked into the side area of the porch, is a small stamp and ink pad. The stamps can be seen at other UNESCO landmarks, but I had never seen souvenir stamps offered at a church before.
These items are traditionally left out for travelers to Japanese shrines and temples for tourists to mark their diaries or stamp books and keep track of the landmarks they’ve visited.
Sakitsu Church must have inherited the stamp practice from its religious neighbors of other faiths.
A distinct feature of Sakitsu Church are the two other houses of worship within walking distance. On the hill overlooking Sakitsu Church, a Shinto shrine is tucked among the trees. Not far from either of those is a Buddhist temple.
Local residents of all three religions see this coexistence as a testament to the Japanese people’s progress in religious tolerance. Less than 200 years ago, such a tolerance was unthinkable, and where the church now stands, Japanese Catholics were being forced to apostatize on threat of torture or death.
Fumi-e were images of Jesus Christ or the Virgin Mary which were presented to suspected Catholics across Japan. Those who refused to step on the image – an act that symbolized apostacy – were condemned.
Rumor says that the altar of Sakitsu Church was built directly over the site of the fumi-e ceremony.
We left the church after a brief tour of the interior. The priest had let us into the church despite it being well past its listed times for tours and we were grateful for the gesture.
As we crossed the bridge and headed back into the mountain tunnel towards Kumamoto City, the image of the altar built on the site of bloody persecution stayed with me.
To build the church and its altar in that exact spot was a late act of triumph for a Christian community that had known far more fear than happiness in the previous centuries – but it was a community that has survived long past its persecutors.
And while no one today remembers the names of the village headsman or the judges of the fumi-e tests, Amakusa cherishes every piece of Sakitsu Church, and the town has finally received the recognition it deserves from a global community that is eager to visit.
Timothy Nerozzi writes from Japan.