A Visit to Nagasaki, the Catholic Heart of Japan

Nagasaki is a very Catholic city, and it’s a city that has paid a high price for its faith.

A statue in Nagasaki marks the nuclear attack of Aug. 9, 1945.
A statue in Nagasaki marks the nuclear attack of Aug. 9, 1945. (photo: Photo by Shaun McAfee)

I’ll cut right to the chase: Go to Nagasaki, Japan.

If you’re considering where to take your next vacation, Nagasaki is charming. If you’re considering going on a special pilgrimage, let Nagasaki top your list of potential locations.

My family is getting ready to move from Okinawa, Japan to Italy very soon. I’ve traversed almost all the local area to include the outer islands of Okinawa and the Minami Prefecture Islands, which offer an incredibly relaxing escape for beach-going lovers of tropical weather and sun, but I had not yet traveled much of the mainland Japan, which is called Honshu.

Honshu is huge. With a north-to-south length that is about the same span as northern Washington to southern California, there is a lot to see, eat and do. Having such a short time left and wanting to make the most of it, my decision was simple: see historic Japanese sites, and see the epicenter of Christian history in Japan (indeed much of Asia). Anyone wanting to see ancient Japan goes to Kyoto. But anyone wanting to see Christian history in Japan goes to Nagasaki, without question.

I went to Kyoto as a tourist, but I stayed in Nagasaki as a pilgrim. It was an experience I will always talk about, and always remember.

I stayed in a small Airbnb toward the northern part of the city, in what should be identified as “Urakami.” This is the site where the second atomic bomb exploded on Aug. 9, 1945. A densely-populated place of industrial and civil productivity, there are many sites to see as commemorative reminders of the event that occurred more than 70 years ago. The “hypocenter” was a heartbreaking area. A small corner of a park contains a single rectangular column marking the exact spot of the blast’s “hypocenter,” encircled by rings, further apart from each other as they move away from the center. To stand in this place was almost indescribable. The exact spot where the world was changed forever, where the greatest war ever seen essentially ended, where 74,000 people died, where 75,000 were injured, where 135,000 more were left homeless—the weight of this little place made me feel small and insignificant, prayerful and thankful at once.

To the left of the hypocenter marker is a gigantic statue (pictured at the top of this article) of a young mother holding a baby, clearly disfigured, charred and burned to death. It’s horrible to see. To the right of the marker stands the original column from the entrance to what was Urakami Cathedral, in which the intact statues of St. Francis Xavier and companions had miraculously survived. Remarkable, because the church was just 500 meter from the blast. Walking this distance that day and seeing how almost nothing was left (in photographs) in this vicinity made my gaze upon them all the more extraordinary.

The place was quiet. Eerily quiet at first, but then prayerfully. The monuments, markers, and signposts around the city are dedicated to point out a statistic or remaining ruin, and each end with the same epitaph: “This was erected for the repose of the souls of those who died in the blast.”

I also visited the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum and the Nagasaki Peace Park. Both uncompromisingly communicate the significance of the event and are committed to a message of preventing the use of nuclear arms. However, the centerpiece statue in the peace park is devoted to a divine message, with the Master’s left arm pointing to the hypocenter of the blast, and his right hand pointing to the way of peace (Heaven).

Nagasaki is a very Catholic city. And it’s a city that has paid a high price for its faith, so the rest of my stay was committed to discovering what Christian treasures the city has preserved.

It was getting late on my first day, but I still strolled the 500-meter walk down the road to the Urakami Cathedral. The old cathedral was of course destroyed, with little remaining (which old photographs crystalize in one’s mind). In the 1970s, though, the parish council acted on a question that had been asked since 1945: “Should we rebuild?” Immediately after the destruction of the cathedral, a small chapel was erected, and built up a little thereafter. The Government of Japan was in support of a new site, preserving the ruin as a testament to history, even offering land to the parish. But the overwhelming support of Nagasaki Catholics was to rebuild this glorious Cathedral, just as they rebuilt their city. And so they did.

You must understand, I call Nagasaki the Rome of the Far East, and as the real Rome, here in Urakami especially, it is the site of the greatest of Christian persecutions since the great emperors of Rome brutalized the primitive Church. It was here in Urakami that the faith candle was lit in the Far East, and though hidden, was never completely extinguished. It was here in Nagasaki that the famous “Fumi” interrogations had taken place. If you’ve never seen the movie Silence by Martin Scorsese, this is where the movie’s central plot events took place in real life. Shortly over a couple mountains to the southeast are the “hells” of Unzen, boiling pits of spring water where Christians were tortured and boiled alive for their faith, also featured in the graphic movie. In the front of this Cathedral I saw the church’s “torture stone,” which was used for 300 years by local governors to intimidate Christians into apostasy. The signpost reads of one such Christian woman who, in the middle of a cold Japanese winter, was stripped bare and made to sit on the rock. By seven days, she was up to her waist in snow, but survived there for a total of 18 days until her death. That stone, the very land I was walking on, was paid for with countless lives. Of course the locals were going to rebuild! That’s what Catholics do! We claim the places where our faith was greatest, and erect the world’s most beautiful art and places of true worship.

I was in awe as I walked around the Japanese gardens and cathedral walls, reading of its history, and seeing the signs of persecution and faith, war and hope.

But I did not get to go into the Cathedral until the next day. Just as you might see a group of schoolchildren running around as the parents talk to one priest in the parking lot around 5-6 p.m. at a parish in the United States, so I saw a familiar sight. I approached the priest, “Kombanwa, father, gomen nasai. Mass deska, ashata?” (Good evening, father, I am very sorry. Is there Mass tomorrow?” He was a little puzzled because I said a couple more things than this, but the children immediately answered, “6 a.m.!”

“Aregato gozaimasu! Ashata, 6 a.m.”

“Hai!” screamed all the kids with cheer.

I went home, slept, woke up for Mass, and walked the 30 minutes to Urakami Cathedral. This 6 a.m. weekday Mass was well-attended, and completely in Japanese. The novus ordo was generally familiar, though I was a little lost a couple of times. I was the only gaijin there, so I appreciated that when I approached the priest for Communion, he uttered “The Body of Christ” in perfect English.

After Mass, I took myself on a tour around the pews and grounds once more. This cathedral is spectacular. Pope St. John Paul II visited in 1981 for its opening, so the site commemorates his visit. More to see is the original north-side bell tower, which stands about 20 meters away by a stream, where it fell following the blast of the atomic bomb. The recovered parts of statues of angels, saints, crucifixes, and altar pieces are noticeable at every vantage point. Inside, there is, in a case mounted high on a wall, the famous head of Mary, which survived the blast, too. Burn marks on her right cheek, and eye holes blasted out, I had wanted to gaze upon this for the longest time.

From the Cathedral, I went to the Dr. Takashi Nagai museum, as recommended to me by Karl Keating. If you didn’t know, Dr. Takashi is a survivor of the blast, a Catholic convert, and a radiologist who contracted leukemia months before the blast. Though he was bedridden until his death years later, he wrote 17 books, including best-sellers like The Bells of Nagasaki, and his works have been translated to numerous languages. He is a Servant of God, and after learning of all his great and meritorious works, I hope to see his canonization in my lifetime. The Christians in Nagasaki built him and his two children a small hut he named “Nyokodo” or “as to oneself” after the Golden Rule, because this is the place where he provided love in service of others. The hut is still intact as a reliquary, filled with personal artifacts of Dr. Takashi’s life and faith.

After this I walked for a while until I got to one of the most important sites in Christian history, Nishizaka Hill. Tertullian wrote, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church,” and the seed of the Church in the Far East was planted on Nishizaka Hill. Christians were persecuted down the way in Urakami, but they were martyred on this hill. A hill which, at the time, was like a gate to the city, from the hill one could (and still can) see all of Nagasaki and it’s beautiful rolling mountains—and likewise, all of Nagasaki could see this hill. So when an example needed to be made, it happened here. Beginning with the decrees of Toyotomi Hideyoshi and cemented by the Tokugawa Shogunate, and through the late-1800s, the Christian faith was outlawed—and if Christians were captured who would not renounce and apostatize, they were killed here. And so, this is the site of thousands of martyrdoms. Particularly, this is the site of the 26 of Japan (1597) to include Paul Miki and Companions, the 188 Martyrs of Japan (1639), and countless others.

There is a museum for the 26 Martyrs here that is truly world-class. Original letters from St. Francis Xavier, the original documents sent to Rome confirming the martyrdoms and works of the 26 Martyrs of Japan, original signposts with the Toyotomi decrees outlawing Christianity, countless relics from the martyrs, Buddhist-looking statues of goddesses and gods used to pray while in hiding, replicated Fumi to include the actual Fumi tablet used in the movie Silence, Bibles owned by the martyrs, the actual crosses used to crucify them, and numerous other priceless artifacts. This museum remains one of the highest-rated things to do in Nagasaki, perhaps for its outstanding quality. But to me, it was a breathtaking journey to the site, setting and circumstances of these Christians who paved the way for a vineyard in the Far East with their glorious blood.

Next to this museum on the hill, there is the Church of St. Philip, which is certainly one of the most distinctive-looking Churches I’ve ever seen in pictures or in person. It’s made of cement with two columns looking like they were driven out of the earth, and covered completely in objects like cracked bowls and plates, seashells, and other odds and ends. I haven’t found anything to explain the artistic appeal, but the inside was exactly what I pilgrim much as myself was looking for: a glorious chapel with relics, art, and historical items unique to Nishizaka Hill.

In Nagasaki there is also a Lourdes Grotto, the gorgeous Church of the 26 Martyrs of Japan a bit further south (which is a minor basilica) and several other gorgeous churches in Nagasaki. It would probably take another two visits before I would discover everything this city has to offer—and that’s just for the Christian pilgrim in me.

Nagasaki has incredible charm. The city is one of the nicest and cleanest I’ve seen in Japan, which is saying a lot, considering Japan is famous in the minds of tourists for its cleanliness. It’s relatively small and easy to get around with a trolley, bus system, subway and rail. The people of Nagasaki, like all of Japan I’ve seen, are amazingly pleasant. Once home to 300,000 Christians, and the site of more than 300 years of persecution, Nagasaki is one of the most important places in Christian history, and should the among the top of all lists for Catholics searching for a faith-inspiring pilgrimage. I sincerely invite you to go.