A dramatic story lies behind these cosmopolitan islands.
Hirado, a city in northwestern Nagasaki prefecture, consists of three islands (Oshima, Ikitsuki, Hirado) and a part of mainland Nagasaki (Tabira). It’s a bit out of the way, but worth the trek to discover a historic city with a fascinating backstory, and a beautiful sweeping landscape to boot.
Hirado Port had long been the setting for international trade. First conducting business with other Asian countries like China during the Nara period, Hirado began expanding its trade partnerships to include western nations in 1550 after the arrival of a Portuguese ship. The Dutch followed, establishing the Dutch Trading House in 1609, and then the British came in 1613.
Although later forbidden from landing at Hirado Port due to Japan closing its borders, these countries influenced Hirado so strongly that some remnants of their time here can still be seen today.
Hirado’s Christian history stems from the work of St. Francis Xavier. After arriving with the Portuguese ship in 1550, the missionary began spreading the religion. Post-Shimabara Rebellion, Christians become personae non grata and went into hiding. Referred to as “Kakure Kirishitans,” some of these “Hidden Christians” continued practicing their religion in secret on Hirado’s Ikitsuki Island.
Hirado’s culinary arts were also influenced by foreign traders, which you can still try today. There’s casdous, a sponge cake, whose recipe arrived alongside the now signature Nagasaki dessert castella with the Portuguese. From China, there’s gobomochi, a rice cake that resembles burdock. You should also sample some of the locally raised beef and freshly caught seafood – Hirado is especially known for its flounder, Ikitsuki smelt, slipper lobster, and flying fish, among others.
A primary feature of the city is Hirado Castle. The grounds, overlooking Hirado Bay, were originally home to Hinotake Castle from 1599 to 1613. The Hirado Castle that you can see today was completed in 1718 and reconstructed with concrete in 1962.
For panoramic views, take a hike along the Kawachi Pass.
Stretching out over 30 hectares of rolling hillsides, you can see as far as the Tsushima and Iki Islands from the 200-meter high series of grassy hilltops.
Before heading to Hirado, you’ll want to see if your trip correlates with one of Hirado’s memorable festivals. In February, they have a “Crybaby” Sumo event, pitting two costumed babes against one another. Held by their mothers in a cushioned ring, the first baby to cry wins.
In August, check out the Tabira Jangara, a traditional harvest dance where performers keep their faces hidden. The dance is listed as a National Intangible Cultural Property.