Shimabara (pop. 40,000) has one of the largest castle keep in Japan, built after the famous Christian rebellion that resulted in Japan's closed door policy for the next 230 years. The volcanic activity of Mount Unzen also make of Shimabara one of Japan's prime destinations for hot springs.
Shimabara has a rather secluded location on the east-side of the Shimabara peninsula, roughly half-way between Nagasaki and Kumamoto, as the crow flies.
The name Shimabara is known to historians for the Christian peasant uprising of 1637-38. The Christians were decimated by the shōgunal forces after 80 days of resistance at Hara-jo Castle, in the South of the peninsula. 37,000 peasants, including women and children perished in the events.
The rebellion led to the expulsion of Portuguese missionaries and the suppression of Christianity in Japan. The country then secluded itself for two and half centuries, preventing the intrusion of foreign ideas and beliefs. Japanese travelling abroad (except Korea and China) during this period faced death penalty if they returned to Japan. Some argue that the Shimabara rebellion's consequences still affect Japanese people's mentality in the duality "Japanese vs Foreign" created by the seclusion.
In 1618, daimyo Matsukura Shigemasa started the construction of the enormous Shimabara Castle, which was completed in 7 years later. It played an important role in the Christian rebellion and was eventually destroyed. The current building is a 1964 reconstruction, but is well worth seeing as it is one of Japan's biggest and most impressive castles.
A few samurai houses have survived feudal times in the Teppo-chō district, just north-west of the castle, and are now open to visitors.
Not happy with having one of Japan's largest castle, Shimabara can also pride itself on having the largest reclining Buddha (8.6m in length and 2.1m in height), known as Nehan-zou (涅槃像, literally "Nirvana statue" in Japanese). The statue belongs to the Kōtō-ji Temple (江東寺), in the southern part of town.
The local Matsudaira lords have also left the Honkō-ji and Gokoku-ji temples to posterity.
5 km outside the city rises Mount Unzen-dake (雲仙岳), a 1359m high volcano. Mt Unzen erupted in 1792, destroying most of Shimabara and killing 15,000 people. It erupted again in 1991, leaving 38 people dead.
The hotspring at Unzen has "onsen jigoku" ("hellish hotsprings") like in Beppu or Hakone. As much as it is fun for the modern tourist to watch these muddy boiling springs, they were in fact used to execute local Christians during the Tokugawa era. Note that Unzen also has the oldest golf course in Japan, founded by Western businessmen from Hong Kong and Shanghai in the late 19th century.
How to get there
Shimabara is pretty isolated. It is best reached from Nagasaki, but even from there it takes almost 2 hours, using the Shimabara Railway till Isahaya, then changing to the faster JR Kamome Limited Express. The journey cost about ￥1,800. The nearest airport is also Nagasaki.