It doesn't take a seasoned scholar of Japan to tell you that Christianity has always been something of a fringe religion in the Land of the Rising Sun. Kyoto, that citadel of traditional Japanese culture is notably nicknamed 'The City of 1000 Temples'- Buddhist temples- and according to a recent article in The Japan Times, Japan's native Shinto shrines substantially outnumber even the country's ubiquitous convenience stores (Hoffman, Michael. "Does Contemporary Japan Need Religion?" The Japan Times. N.p., 4 Feb. 2017. Web. 9 Feb. 2017.). These facts make Nagasaki's relative abundance of Christian churches all the more noticeable. The city's whole history is uniquely and inextricably tied to the West, starting with its establishment in the latter half of the 16th century by the Catholic daimyo Omura Sumitada, as a safe harbor for both Jesuit priests and Portuguese ships. There are still plenty of Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines in Nagasaki, but every major turning point in the city's history seems to be marked by a church, particularly by these three:
St. Phillip's Church
Although built in a modern style, this church marks the site of one of the earliest major turning points in Nagasaki's history. In February 1597, 20 Japanese Christians and 6 foreign priests were crucified on Nishizaka Hill on the orders of warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who had begun to vigorously enforce his decade-old anti-Christian edicts, which had up until that point largely been ignored. Until this point Christians in Nagasaki had prospered in relative peace, and the city had even been under the administration of the Jesuits for a time. After this act of persecution, however, the religion would never fully regain its old security. There would be a brief reprieve in the chaotic years between Hideyoshi's death and Tokugawa Ieyasu's final victory at Osaka Castle in 1615, but once the dominance of the Tokugawa Shogunate was secured, the Christians of Nagasaki would suffer the full force of the new government's wrath. After the bloody failure of the Shimabara Rebellion in 1637 and the subsequent beginning of Japan's isolationist 'Sakoku' policy, the faith would be forced to go fully underground and remain there for more than two centuries.
-St. Phillip's Church is a 5-minute walk from Nagasaki Station, across the street and behind the APA hotel. A monument and a museum dedicated to the 26 Martyrs are adjacent to the church. The Nagasaki Museum of History and Culture is a 10-minute walk away, and and excellent source of information about Nagasaki's early history.
Built on a hillside on the south side of Nagasaki, Oura Cathedral is the oldest existing church building in Japan, and a vital relic of Japan's 'Bakumatsu' period, when the Tokugawa Shogunate fell and was replaced by the Meiji Restoration. Although the Dutch had been allowed to operate a small trading post on Dejima Island in Nagasaki harbor throughout the period of 'Sakoku' isolation, after Japan's somewhat forcible reopening to the world Nagasaki was designated as a 'Treaty Port' and a larger area for foreign settlement was set aside in the modern Minamiyamatemachi area. The wooden cathedral was finished in 1864, and shortly thereafter was site an event that western Christians would name 'The Miracle of the East'. On 17 March 1865 the newly arrived French priest Fr. Petitjean was stunned when a small group of Japanese peasants came to the church and stated "We are of the same heart as you" and asked to see his statue of the Virgin Mary. They were a Christian congregation from nearby Urakami village that had survived and remained hidden for 200+ years. The discovery that small pockets of Christianity had survived the Tokugawa persecution caused an international sensation at the time, and in 1981 Pope John Paul II commemorated the event by visiting Oura Cathedral.
-Oura Cathedral is a 2-3 minute walk from the Ouratenshudoshita Tram Stop on Nagasaki's #5 streetcar line. Nearby is Glover Garden, a beautiful area with a number of homes built by foreign merchants in the late 1800's, and an excellent place to learn about the economic and technological changes brought to Japan during the Bakumatsu and Meiji Restoration.
Given that it was Christians from Urakami who first revealed themselves in the 'Miracle of the East', it is perhaps no wonder that there should be a noteworthy cathedral in the area. The seminal event in this Nagasaki cathedral's history would not be be an act of faith, however, but an act of war. Urakami cathedral was a mere 500 meters from the hypocenter of the blast caused by the atomic bomb on 9 August 1945. The brick structure was almost entirely destroyed, although a column with the statues of a number of saints on top managed to survive. The column was later moved to the site of the hypocenter of the blast in modern Nagasaki Peace Park, and numerous other artifacts from the original cathedral, such as rosary beads melted by the heat of the explosion, are kept in the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum. The current Urakami Cathedral was built on the site and in the style of the original, and contains its own relics of the blast, most notably the 'Bombed Mary': the head of a wooden statue of the Virgin Mary which somehow survived the bombing, although not unscathed- much like Nagasaki itself. This church is a poignant reminder of Nagasaki's destruction and its rebirth.
-Urakami Cathedral is a 10 minute walk from the Matsuyamamachi tram stop on the #1 streetcar line. Other nearby attractions include Nagasaki Peace Park, and the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum.