“Are you here to see the church?” she asked skeptically.
She spoke slowly, clearly unsure if we would understand Japanese.
We smiled and replied that yes, we were indeed headed across town to the Sakitsu Church.
We continued walking past, giving an ‘ok’ sign to show her that we knew where we were headed, but she didn’t take the hint. Shuffling her feet at the speed of a jog, she followed us down the street, repeatedly warning us that the church might be closed and that the priest was often very busy.
Despite our assurances that all of those concerns were okay – we would be satisfied to simply see the church from the outside if necessary – soon another local woman was enlisted by the first to replace her and follow us.
We began to understand. Amakusa wasn’t just proud of Sakitsu Church. They were protective of it. It is a village treasure.
When we arrived at the gates of the church and got an up-close look at the building, we were still accompanied by a local, who had taken it upon herself to follow us and make small talk. As we walked about, taking in the landmark from different angles, and reading the signs explaining its history, she talked behind us about the church, its priest, and how many people came through town looking for it.
In the two hours or so we were on the church property, at least two other pairs of travelers stopped and joined us in exploring.
Sakitsu Church is a small church by comparison to those one might find in modern, Christian-majority countries. It’s built in a simple, gothic style and foregoes unnecessary flair or decoration.
The church’s façade is made of stone with the backside covered in plain white siding. Its windows are stained glass, but have no icons of Jesus or saints in their design. They consist mostly of simple squares in a variety of pastel colors.
While it may be plain, it’s pleasant to behold, and its iconic steeple, crowned with a large crucifix, gives it a splash of personality.
The Western architecture stands out in the middle of an ancient, Japanese fishing village. But the interior of the church is distinctly Japanese.
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Worshippers must remove their shoes before stepping in and walking on the traditional tatami flooring that covers the worship area. It’s an eccentric decision – tatami is never used in modern churches. But in Sakitsu, it contributes to the East-meets-West spirit of such a culturally significant house of worship.
Outside the church, tucked into the side area of the porch, is a small stamp and ink pad. The stamps can be seen at other UNESCO landmarks, but I had never seen souvenir stamps offered at a church before.
These items are traditionally left out for travelers to Japanese shrines and temples for tourists to mark their diaries or stamp books and keep track of the landmarks they’ve visited.
Sakitsu Church must have inherited the stamp practice from its religious neighbors of other faiths.
A distinct feature of Sakitsu Church are the two other houses of worship within walking distance. On the hill overlooking Sakitsu Church, a Shinto shrine is tucked among the trees. Not far from either of those is a Buddhist temple.
Local residents of all three religions see this coexistence as a testament to the Japanese people’s progress in religious tolerance. Less than 200 years ago, such a tolerance was unthinkable, and where the church now stands, Japanese Catholics were being forced to apostatize on threat of torture or death.