Although a city, Minami-shimabara is more like a grouping of sleepy coastal towns and villages, having been formed in 2006 by the merging of eight settlements. Each retains its own distinctive character, making the area a truly diverse and unique destination.
Visitors can stroll the network of walking paths, visit fascinating museums, explore the bustling ports or relax on the white-sand beaches.
Domestically, Minami-shimabara is most renowned for its seafaring heritage. Located on the southern tip of Nagasaki Prefecture, the peninsula became a hub for sailing centuries ago and is still home to more sailors (both active and retired) than any other place in Japan.
Due to its rich relationship with the sea, the city offers opportunities to join dolphin-watching cruises or fishing trips, and the hotels and eateries serve some of the freshest fresh and seafood in the area. And Minami-shimabara has a lot more besides:
Meditate over a silent breakfast
Not far from Kuchinotsu port, atop a small hill, lies Gyokuho-ji, a Zen Buddhist temple that offers a morning meditation experience. As the sun rises and fishermen ready their boats below, the temple’s head monk, Chiken Taizui, leads visitors in 10 minutes of guided meditation in the main hall.
Afterwards, monks serve a simple and healthy breakfast of porridge, pickles and green tea in the style of mokushoku (silent eating). Participants must not only avoid all conversation but also make no sound when lifting the dishes or silverware. Requesting and receiving an extra serving is indicated simply by tapping the appropriate dish with a finger.
Silent eating is practiced widely in Japanese Buddhism as part of mindfulness and is offered to guests as an interesting and helpful way for them to extend their relaxation while in the temple.
Uncover the port’s story
Kuchinotsu has a rich history and enjoyed three “boom” periods, largely thanks to its wide and deep port. In the 17th century, the port town began to prosper thanks to the considerable trade with Portuguese and Dutch traders who used the port. In the 19th century, Kuchinotsu’s population swelled in size as it became a relay port for the overseas export of coal mined in Nagasaki Prefecture. And, in the past 100 years, the town became the site of the Japan Agency of Maritime Education and Training, resulting in an influx of sailing experts.
Kuchinotsu’s two museums of history and folklore—one (new) in the bay and one over the red bridge—detail this fascinating story with a wide range of interactive exhibits. Be sure to check out the displays of items from daily life over the years, each presented as they would have been in shops, kitchens, farms and so on.
There is also an intriguing display about the first Japanese immigrant to Canada, Manzo Nagano (1855–1923), who departed from Kuchinotsu in 1877. He began his new life in British Columbia, where he fished for salmon on Fraser River before setting up a salmon-salting production facility and, later, a company engaged in salmon exports as well as a restaurant and a shop selling Japanese goods. In recognition of his pioneering efforts and contribution to Canada–Japan relations, Mount Manzo Nagano in British Columbia was named in his honour.
Walk the coast
Minami-shimabara is a great place for a stroll as it is home to a Kyushu Olle, a network of courses that criss-cross Kyushu and are designed to enable visitors to enjoy the island’s nature with all their senses.
The Minami-shimabara trail is considered intermediate, covering 10.5 kilometres and requiring 3–4 hours to complete. But it’s possible to start midway and cover the parts of most interest to you. Highlights include the path over Mount Hoka, which skirts fields of potatoes and other agricultural produce, and the heart-shaped sculpture overlooking Sezumesaki Lighthouse. Ringing its bell is said to bring love and good fortune.
And nature lovers are sure to enjoy walking the impressive basalt coast, formed some 4.3 million years ago by a volcanic eruption and part of Unzen Volcanic Area UNESCO Global Geopark.
Explore a key site in Japan’s history using AR
Minamishimabara’s Hara Castle was the site of the Shimabara Rebellion, an event that shaped the course of Japan’s interactions with European traders centuries ago.
In the mid-1630s, misgovernment, high taxes and food shortage created unrest among residents of the Shimabara peninsula, most of whom were recent converts to Christianity. Peasants, fishermen, craftsmen and merchants joined with ronin (samurai without masters) to rise up against the local lord in December 1637. The last stand of the 40,000-strong group was Hara Castle, where they were bombarded by more than 200,000 men representing the shogunate government. By April 1638, the rebellion had been suppressed and the castle razed.
Believing that Portuguese traders had supported the Shimabara Rebellion (due to the involvement of Christians), the shogunate expelled Portuguese traders from Japan, tightened the country’s national seclusion policy and more severely enforced the then-ban on Christianity, resulting in the rise of Japan’s “Hidden Christians.” Meanwhile, as the Dutch East India Company supplied the shogunate with arms to supress the rebellion, Dutch traders gained the trust of the authorities and gained a monopoly on European trade with Japan.
Today, signboards at the site of Hara Castle, which was named a World Heritage Site in 2018, outline this tumultuous history. Visitors can also use a tablet that, when held over the ruins, shows images of the original castle using augmented reality (AR), which really brings the site to life.
Hit the beach
Maehama Beach in Kazusa is a great place to either relax or enjoy some seaside activities. The white-sand beach sits in a sheltered bay, allowing for great swimming as well as some shade from pine trees. Various water sports, including surfacing and SUP, are on offer during warmer months. Hot water showers, toilets and sheltered resting places are available for a small fee.
Overlooking the beach is Mejima-san, a small hill with an observatory offering panoramic views of the bay. Although the path is a little overgrown in parts and steep on the approach to the peak, the climb is worth it for some time relaxing at the pleasant seating area at the top.
Minami-shimabara is most easily reached by boat. Take the ferry from Kumamoto Ferry Terminal to Shimabara Ferry Terminal (about 60 minutes) before taking a bus bound for Arie, Kuchinotsu or Kazusa (all part of Minami-shimabara City).