Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Kyushu, Japan: Castles, a Kamikaze Museum, and Volcanoes


From Nagasaki, we traveled east, first through the Shimabara Peninsula, which includes the Unzen-Amakusa National Park and the quaint little port city of Shimabara.  From there, we took a ferry across the narrow bay to Kumamoto and Kagoshima prefectures and drove all the way down to the city of Minamikyushu to see the Chiran Peace Museum for the "Special Attack Corps," also known as the kamikazi pilots of World War Two. On the way back to Nagasaki airport, we stopped briefly in Kagoshima City for a glimpse of the active volcano (Sakurajima) that sits right off the coast and dominates the city's skyline, and then headed up to Aso National Park, home of Japan's most active volcano and some beautiful meadow-covered mountains.

Shimabara Peninsula

The primary draw of the Peninsula, is the Unzen-Amakusa National Park, home of Mount Unzen, an active volcano, which last erupted rather violently in 1991, creating a pyroclastic flow that killed 43 people.  In 1792, the collapse of one its lava domes created a tsunami that killed an estimated 15,000 people.  The area also includes many onsens (hot springs) of the type you want to sit in, as well as  jigokus, which you do not want to sit in as they are essentially boiling hot.  In fact, one jigoku in the Unzen park area was used to execute 26 Christians back in the late 1500s.  The Peninsula is closely connected to early Christianity in Japan, including a revolt in the late 1500s.  The castle in the pleasant city of Shimabara included a very interesting history of Christianity in the area, as well as some pretty cool displays of samurai armor and weapons.  

View from the road headed up to Unzen.

Homes buried by the mud flow caused by the eruption of Mount Unzen in 1991.

Reconstructed castle over Shimabara.
The moat and stone walls are original and were constructed in the 1600s.

The castle keep.
Grounds of the castle.
The castle contained a very impressive museum.  A number of displays were devoted to the Christian history of the Shimabara Peninsula.

Shimabara town and castle with Mt Unzen in the background.
A Virgin Mary disguised as a Buddha.  Such was the life of a Japanese Christian in the 1500-1600s.

Depiction of the castle under siege during the Shimabara Rebellion in the 1630s.

Samurai armor.

And weapons.
Shimabara is also known for its Samurai Street, a narrow street flanked by a number of traditional homes that once belong to Japan's warrior class.

An original Samurai house.

Shimabara and Unzen from the ferry.
Chiran Peace Museum

That's the English name.  The full name of the place was the Chiran Peace Museum to the "Special Attack Corps." You might know the Special Attack Corps better as the kamikazi pilots of World War Two.  We drove four hours through the countryside of Kyushu to visit this museum and are very glad we did. It was well worth the trip.  Nice ride through the mountains to get there and a worthy destination.  Being kinda far out of the way, we expected it to be rather empty.  Instead, it was packed with visitors, probably because we were there on the same day (14 August) that Prime Minister Abe was giving his WW2 commemoration speech.  Fascinating museum filled with tributes to the 1,036 kamikazi pilots who died during the Battle of Okinawa.  More than 400 of these men flew out of the former Chiran airbase, the grounds of which now include the museum.  Besides the photos, memorabilia, and personal accounts of the pilots, the museum included vintage aircraft (including a Nakajima Ki-84 "Hayate,", a Kawasaki Ki-61 "Hien," a Nakajima Ki-43 "Hayabusa," and a late-model Type Zero "Hei") and other Japanese military equipment.  One grizzled old veteran was giving a lecture to a large audience while we were there.  It was too bad I could not understand him.  There was little English, but we were given headphones with English language capability, and a few of the displays included English language versions.  The individual stories of the pilots, particularly their last letters to family, friends, and loved ones were touching and certainly illustrated that no matter the country, the soldiers, sailors, and airmen all face the same fears.  Unfortunately, just like at the Yasakuni Shrine in Tokyo, we were not allowed to take photographs of the museum, just the grounds. An interesting contrast to the story of the A-bomb at Nagasaki where photos were encouraged.

Statue of a tokko pilot.
Remnants of a Zero fighter brought up in 1980 from a harbor where it crashed during the war.

Reconstructed building representing the barracks where the pilots would spend their final evening before going off to fight the American fleet off Okinawa.
According to the museum literature, the ladies who came in the morning after the pilots left on their missions said the pillows would be wet with the tears of the pilots.
Shrine to the pilots.

The museum grounds also included gardens and additional shrines to the tokko pilots.

The only photo inside the museum I was allowed to take before an attendant told me "no photos!"  It is a depiction of a kamikazi pilot being rescued from his burning aircraft by six heavenly maidens.  They are taking him to "a safe destination in the sky, Heaven."  Propaganda at its finest. 


Memorable for its great food and the imposing active volcano that sits right off the coast line.


On the way back towards the Nagasaki airport and our plane ride home, we headed into the mountains for a look at the Aso volcano, Japan's most active, which is part of a beautiful national park.  Aso is so active that it erupted less than a month after we were there. Check out the video here.  While there is a lift that takes people up to the rim of the volcano, it was closed because of recent activity, so we had to look at it from afar.  Besides the volcano, we were impressed by the meadow-covered mountains and the expansive views.


Rim of Aso from about a 1,000 feet below.