In this second installment of the multipart series introducing my favourite Japanese moorage ports, I introduce three places in western Kyushu.
Narao, Goto Islands, Nagasaki
The Goto Islands are a beautiful area, worth spending a week or two to explore the many impressive natural and cultural sights. There are dozens of islands, large and small, some connected by bridges and all connected by ferries. Cruisers can meander through the narrow channels and go deep into well-protected bays.
The Goto Islands are perhaps best known for being a major refuge for “Hidden Christians,” who secretly practiced their religion for over 250 years after Christianity was banned in the early 17th century. With Japan’s opening to the outside world in 1868, they gradually came out of hiding, although some not until the 1980s (when I cruised the area, I had the privilege of talking with a woman who told me about how afraid she was when, as a young teenager, her family publicly declared their Christianity and had to adapt to the rituals and practices of “modern Christianity”).
With the ban on Christianity lifted, they delighted in being able to have their own churches where they could worship openly. The Goto Islands are now dotted with many charming churches built in a variety of architectural styles. Recognizing this history, UNESCO granted World Cultural Heritage Status to many of these churches (as well as to some on the Kyushu mainland).
There are many secure anchorages and ports in the Goto Islands. In Part 1, I introduced Taira in Ukujima, the northernmost of the Goto Islands. Another good moorage spot is in Narao Port at the southern end of Nakadori Island. There is a floating dock on the south side of the main commercial port (32°50.8198’N, 129°3.5032E) – the western side of the dock is occupied by a fishing boat but the eastern side is generally open (it shallows quite sharply there so mooring at the outer end is recommended). In addition, smaller boats (under 40’) can usually moor on the inner south side of the ferry dock. Moorage at both spots is free.
There are toilets in the ferry terminal and a hot-spring bath about a ten-minute walk from the dock. The town (a 15-20 minute walk), like most Japanese fishing ports, is dying, but one can find a few small shops and restaurants. It is interesting, in a melancholy sort of way, to walk through the alleys winding along the steep hills above the old port and imagine what life was like when the town was flourishing and children used to scamper up and down the steps.
It is strongly recommended to get a rental car to explore Nakadori Island and nearby islands. There is a car-rental office in the ferry terminal, but be sure to ask for a small car – the roads are narrow! In addition to the many churches, places worth visiting include beautiful Hamaguri Beach and the whaling museum. For the adventurous, it is also possible to find remnants of Wako Pirate lairs dating back 500 years. As for food, Nakadori Island is famous for its udon noodles.
In contrast to the extensive Goto Islands, Ikeshima is a mere speck of an island just 15NMs northwest of Nagasaki City. It sits on top of a major underwater coal seam and so, like several other islands in the same area, was the site of a large-scale coal-mining operation, starting in 1959, to literally help fuel Japan’s post-war economic expansion. (The most famous of these coal islands, Hashima Island or Gunkanjima [Battleship Island], had at its peak the highest population density in the world; one can take guided tours of Gunkanjima but cannot visit on one’s own boat, unlike Ikeshima.)
At its peak in the 1980s, about 8,000 people were packed onto Ikeshima. The availability of cheap coal from overseas, however, led to the closing of all these offshore coal mines, with Ikeshima being the last to shut down, in 2001. Today, only about 100 people live on the island, all former mine employees and their relatives. The mine itself is now used as an occasional training center for coal miners from Indonesia and other countries.
The island’s little harbor is manmade, created to accommodate the ships that came to pick up the coal. Cruisers can tie up on the north side of the ferry dock, which is on one’s starboard side as one enters the harbor (32°53.2843’N, 129°36.2850’E). No fee. There is a toilet in the ferry building, a public bath that is open a couple of hours each day, and a small restaurant that is open sometimes.
The main reason to visit Ikeshima is to explore the abandoned townsite and coal mining facilities (making use of the electric bicycles available for rent is highly recommended). It’s fascinating to go past the shuttered store fronts, the empty school playgrounds, the “modern” (for their time) western-style high-rise apartment buildings, and the crumbling port facilities and imagine when the island was buzzing with activity. If one books at least three days in advance, one can also join a daily tour of the coal mine itself.
Amakusa, on the west coast of Kyushu, is a beautiful area of inland seas and many islands. Most cruisers pass by it on the way to Nagasaki and beyond, but it’s definitely worth a detour to soak up the scenery and the history.
Like the Goto Islands, Amakusa played an important role in the early history of Christianity in Japan. And, like the Goto Islands, it was home to many “Hidden Christians,” who built numerous impressive churches in the late 19th century, several of which now have UNESCO World Cultural Heritage designations.
Amakusa was also the location of the 1637-38 Shimabara Rebellion against the ruling Shogunate. With support from the Dutch, the Shogunate suppressed the uprising, which was led by disaffected samurai and Catholic priests, and subsequently massacred 37,000 rebels and sympathizers. The Rebellion marked the end of any significant challenge to the power of the Shogunate until Western pressure in the 1850s.
The Amakusa area is a great place to explore for a few days. Cruisers entering and cruising the Amakusa area, though, need to pay careful attention to the strong currents that run through the narrow passages between the islands, sometimes reaching seven knots in places.
In addition to many anchorage spots, there are several good marinas in the area. The best is probably Fisherina Amakusa (32°32.3403’N, 130°23.8660’E). It has 280 meters of visitor dock space, power and water on the docks, a 25 ton TravelLift, repair staff and facilities, and a comfortable clubhouse with washrooms, showers, and WiFi. Moorage rates are reasonable (about $40/night for boats over 36’). It’s a good base from which to explore the Amakusa area, and it’s also an excellent place to sit out a typhoon.
In addition to the several UNESCO-designated churches, Amakusa sights worth taking in are the Christian Museum in Hondo and the Shiro Amakusa Memorial Hall and Museum on Oyano Island. If one is really lucky, one can come across traditional utase fishing boats – dating back 400 years, they gently drift downwind as their nets gather up shrimp and various types of fish.