By Shinji Senda / Yomiuri Shimbun Senior WriterHIRADO, Nagasaki — The sun set and the sky turned deep blue. Around 8 p.m., the white stone wall was illuminated and rose up in the darkness.
The Hirado Dutch Trading Post was a gateway connecting Japan and overseas in the early Edo period (1603-1867). I admired the restored three-story building, its reflection on the water’s surface and the beauty of the flickering streetlights.
Hirado is located in the western end of Kyushu near mainland China. Making the most of its geographical advantage, it had active exchanges with foreign countries from early on.
Portuguese ships arrived here for the first time in 1550, during the Sengoku warring period from the late 15th to late 16th centuries. British ships also came, and in 1609 ships from the Dutch East India Company appeared.
Tokugawa Ieyasu permitted them to do business with the support of William Adams (Miura Anjin) and the Matsuura family, who were the lords of the Hirado clan. Later, the Dutch trading post was built at the entrance of the port as a base for exchanges between Japan and the Netherlands.
The merchant house was destroyed as a result of the ban on Christianity and the Shimabara Rebellion perpetrated by local people, including Christians. After that, the functions of the merchant house were transferred to Dejima in Nagasaki in 1641. The gateway of Hirado, which had been open to other nations, remained closed.
In modern times, the location was designated a national historic site as the grounds of the Hirado Dutch Trading Post, and excavations were carried out.
Of a merchant house that once consisted of two warehouses, residential areas and other facilities, the Hirado municipal government restored the warehouses so as to pass the history of overseas exchanges on to future generations. The warehouses opened in September 2011 as a museum.
The roofs of Western-style stone buildings are made of Japanese tiles as they were in those days. I felt the fusion of Japanese and Western architectural cultures.
The merchant house introduces the history of Japan-Netherlands exchanges. On display are a replica of a Shuinjo official letter that Ieyasu sent to the Dutch envoy, and Nanban lacquerware that was made for export at the time.
I noticed there was a hoist on the window on the third floor of the building.
“The technology in the pulley of the winder was also used in the pulley to pull whales up to ships in Ikitsuki [present-day Ikitsukicho in Hirado] in the Edo period,” said Yoshiharu Okayama, 57, director of the merchant house. The technology acquired through the Japan-Netherlands exchanges was utilized in the lives of ordinary people, he said.
I walked along the streets of Hirado. A stone monument stood at the former site of the Kamiya Inn where Yoshida Shoin stayed when he visited Hirado to study the military science of the Yamaga school. On the sidewalk, there are small statues of Miura Anjin and Francis Xavier, who propagated Christianity in Hirado. Each takes us back to old times.
I recalled that even after the ban on Christianity, there were hidden Christians who continued to practice Christianity secretly. Kasuga Village and Sacred Places in Hirado is included as a component in Hidden Christian Sites in the Nagasaki Region, which was registered as a World Cultural Heritage site in 2018. There are many Christians and 14 churches in the city, including the Hirado Xavier Memorial Church.
The town has an exotic atmosphere with beautiful churches and the remains of the merchant house, maintaining the aura of the castle town. It feels like you’ve gone back 400 years in time.
Hero of Taiwan and China
The Zheng Chenggong Memorial Museum is located in Kawachicho, Hirado. It’s the birthplace of Zheng Chenggong, who continued the Ming Dynasty revival movement and worked hard to liberate Taiwan from the Netherlands. He’s also known because of the ningyo johruri puppet play “The Battle of Coxinga” by Chikamatsu Monzaemon, which is based on his career.
He was born in 1624 to a Chinese sea merchant and Matsu Tagawa in Kawachicho. Kazuyoshi Oka, 69, director of the museum, said: “Many people come from Taiwan and China. He is the hero of Taiwanese and Chinese.”
Rice with fresh sea bream
You can enjoy fresh seafood in Hirado, which is surrounded by the sea. Tai chazuke, a local dish in which hot tea is poured over sliced sea bream on rice, is widely eaten home cooking. There are many restaurants in Hirado that serve tai chazuke with dashi soup instead of tea.
Shunsenkan (Tel: 0950-22-4857), a restaurant run by a local fisheries cooperative in Hirado Port, is also proud of its chazuke (¥700). The raw sea bream, which was slightly cooked by the hot tea, went well with the sesame flavor.
Hirado is also famous for flounder, of which it has one of the largest volumes of landings in Japan. You can also enjoy a natural flounder set meal (¥1,500) at Shunsenkan if there’s been a recent catch. At the Hirame Matsuri flounder festival held from mid-January to March every year, wild flounder dishes are served at restaurants in the city.
It takes about 1 hour and 50 minutes from JR Hakata Station to Sasebo Station by limited express. From there, it takes about 1 hour and 20 minutes to get to Tabira-Hiradoguchi Station on the Matsuura Railway. There is a bus service from the station to the Hirado Dutch Trading Post.