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Nagasaki: Your soul destination

MANILA, Philippines - For nocturnal creatures like me, 5 a.m. is an unholy hour to start a day. But something stirs my weary spirit and I bounce out of bed and get myself ready for a trip to Nagasaki, Japan in the company of three monsignors and two priests. It’s actually a pilgrimage, my first ever, to visit some of Nagasaki’s 130 churches, which have been included in the UNESCO World Heritage Tentative List.

This first wave of Nagasaki pilgrims, invited by the Nagasaki Prefecture Convention and Tourism Association, is composed of Msgr. Geronimo Reyes of the Minor Basilica and National Shrine of San Lorenzo Ruiz (Binondo Church), Msgr. Pedro Quitorio III of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, Catholic Travel chairman of the board Msgr. Roberto Espinilla, Fr. Ricky Villar of San Agustin Church, and Fr. Louie Coronel, UST/Dominican acting regent, with Nina Fernandez of Friendship Tours and Resorts Corporation and this writer.

The rainy season has come to Nagasaki so in her e-mails to us, Yukiko Taniguchi of Nagasaki Prefecture Convention and Tourism Association told us to bring a folding umbrella. But this group must be so blessed because powder blue skies smile on us as we set foot on Fukuoka’s soil one balmy Thursday afternoon. (Fast forward to five days later: Sunny skies make way for rain showers. As our super genki {Japanese for energetic} tour guide/English interpreter Keiko Arita observes, “Oh, the skies are crying because you’re leaving!”)

Our seven-member delegation prides itself on being the first pilgrims to undertake a spiritual journey to Nagasaki Prefecture, southwest of Japan, which boasts a rich Christian missionary history.

Back in 1550, Spanish Jesuit Francis Xavier arrived in Japan on his first mission to Hirado and Ikitsuki. It is said that the charismatic priest won as many as a hundred converts during his short one-month stay in Hirado, firmly planting the first seeds of Christianity on Nagasaki soil. Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who had unified Japan, first favored Catholic missionaries. But later, he was alarmed as the number of Japanese Catholics rose so fast. Facing a battle against the missionaries for the hearts and minds of the people, this warrior issued the first anti-Christian edict in 1587 declaring the expulsion of the foreign missionaries from Japan within 20 days. Then, in 1597, he ordered the crucifixion of 26 Catholics in Nagasaki. After Hideyoshi’s death, in 1603, Shogun Ieyasu Tokugawa (Tokugawa Shogunate) ordered the expulsion of foreign missionaries and the demolition of their churches.  This resulted in a revolt, joined by many Catholic farmers. To prevent any more uprisings, the Tokugawa Shogunate made it mandatory for every Japanese to register himself/herself at a Buddhist temple. To prove that they’re not Catholic, they were forced into fumi-e (trampling of religious images).

For 250 years, Christian families kept their faith and prayed to religious icons/objects cleverly concealed in the back of their homes (as in closets or storage rooms) while maintaining Buddhist and Shinto altars in the rooms used by visitors.

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And even with the public execution of the 26 martyrs of Nagasaki in 1597 (six European Franciscan missionaries, three Japanese Jesuits, 17 Japanese laymen, including three young boys aged 12, 13, 14, were crucified and pierced with spears as Christ was), the flame of the Christian faith continued to burn even brighter.  The so-called hidden Christians zealously guarded their faith with their lives and passed it on from one generation to the next. The 26 martyrs were canonized in 1862, becoming Japan’s first saints.

The most popular of these martyrs/saints is Paulo Miki who, says Fr. Renzo de Luca, director of the Twenty-six Martyrs Museum, was the son of a wealthy and powerful samurai. Paul chose to give up everything for his faith. He was known as one of the best preachers in Japan. On the long arduous trek from Kyoto to Nagasaki, even as he was bleeding from a severed left ear, he continued to preach every day. He gave his last sermon on the cross: “I did not come from the Philippines. I am a Japanese by birth and a brother of the Society of Jesus. I have committed no crime and the only reason why I am being put to death is that I have been teaching the doctrine of Our Lord Jesus Christ. I am very happy to die for such a cause,  and see my death as a great blessing from the Lord. At this critical time when you can rest assured that I will not try to deceive you, I want to stress and make it unmistakably clear that man can find no way to salvation other than the Christian way. The Christian law commands that we forgive our enemies and those who have wronged us. I must therefore say here that I forgive Taikosama (Hideyoshi). I would rather have all the Japanese become Christians.” (From Luis Frois’s Martyrs Records, 1597)

Christianity grew by leaps and bounds in Japan, which today boasts a rich harvest of saints.  After the first 26 martyrs came the 16 martyrs of Nagasaki, among whom were our very own St. Lorenzo Ruiz and two women — an Augustinian sister and a Dominican sister. The 16 martyrs were canonized by Pope John Paul II on Oct. 18, 1987.

Inspired by our indefatigable tour guide Keiko’s prodding to ichigo ichie (treasure every encounter or moment coz it might never come again), each day on this pilgrimage/familiarization tour is a precious lesson in faith, hope, and love. Next year is a good time to visit Nagasaki as it celebrates the 150th anniversary of the “Discovery of Christians.” Now, that’s no hidden secret. Among the religious sites and sights worth visiting are St. Francis Xavier Memorial Church in Hirado City, Tabira Yaiza Historical Park, Ikitsuki Island Museum, the martyrdom monument of St. Nishi Gaspar, Yamada Catholic Church, Matsura Historical Museum, Hirado Castle, Huis Ten Bosch (a picture-pretty reproduction of a medieval Dutch town, abloom with hydrangeas of all colors at this time of the year), Glover Garden (where stands a house on a hill where lived Thomas Blake Glover, father of Japanese beer, Kirin Beer), Oura Cathedral (the oldest church in Japan), Urakami Cathedral, Nishizaka Hill (where San Lorenzo Ruiz was martyred), Twenty-six Martyrs Museum, Nagasaki Museum of History and Culture, site of the former Santo Domingo Church Museum, Nakamachi Church (where you’ll hear the beautiful voices of an all-Filipino choir), and St. Kolbe Memorial Museum.

Pope John Paul II was a great fan of Fr. Maximilian Kolbe, who was Polish like him. A great devotee of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Fr. Kolbe brought his own printing press to Nagasaki and started publishing the magazine Seibo no Kishi (The Knights of the Holy Mother) to spread the faith via the printed word, not just by word of mouth.  As a young boy of seven, Our Lady appeared to Maximilian offering him a choice between two roses: a white one for purity and a red one for suffering. Maximilian chose both. When World War II broke out, he was put to prison in Warsaw. In the prison camp, a man who was about to be executed pleaded for his life, saying he had a wife and children. Fr. Kolbe stepped forward and volunteered to take the place of the prisoner. The Polish priest was stripped of his clothes and thrown into a cold cell where he was left to die. After two weeks, while all the other prisoners with him had died, his jailers found Fr. Kolbe still alive, a rosary in his hand. He was eventually put to death by lethal injection. The man he saved couldn’t thank Fr. Kolbe enough as he recounts a great story of love, of one man dying for another, in a video you will be privileged to see at the Kolbe Museum.

Of course, no mention of Nagasaki is complete without delving into the ignominious bombing of Nagasaki (and Hiroshima, three days earlier). A shattered wall clock, found in a house 800m from the blast’s hypocenter, had stopped to tell us the exact time it happened: 11:02 a.m. on August 9, 1945.

At the Museum are grim reminders of that fateful day. Like a life-size model of the Nagasaki-type atomic bomb (called the Fatman, it weighs 4.5 tons and measures 3.2m in length and 1.52m in diameter. It emitted a 3,000-4,000°C avalanche of heat in a short span of three seconds, causing 74,000 deaths including 6,000 schoolchildren, and reducing to rubble buildings and churches, including the Urakami Cathedral, hailed as the largest cathedral in the Orient).

Accompanied by the Mayor of Nagasaki, Senji Yamaguchi, a survivor of the atomic bomb who was severely charred, went to the United Nations to make an urgent plea for the banning of weapons of mass destruction. They carried with them a photo of a child lying on the ground with his body completely burned. Senji was barely a teen, delivering mail in his neighborhood when the bombing took place.

Even our hotels — Kishotei, Hotel Okura, and Hotel New Nagasaki, with their hot springs, cozy facilities and friendly staff, are tourist destinations, too.

Such a hectic itinerary is bound to make you tired and hungry. Fret not. If you love Japanese food in Manila, you’ll love it even much more in Japan where it all began. Like the Wagyu beef, the sooo fresh and oishi sushis, and the fragrantly flavorful ramen at the Ramen Stadium teeming with all sorts of ramen offerings meant for athletic appetites. You’ll find the green tea at the Matsura Historical Museum, served with mochi coated with white sugar, most tea-delicious. And maybe, just maybe, you might like the nato (fermented soybeans), too. Ask Fr. Louie Coronel about it and you may become a convert to this rare Japanese delicacy.

Surely, in Nagasaki, there’s something to satisfy the taste buds and feed the soul. Hai!

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For inquiries on the Nagasaki pilgrimage tour, call the Friendship Tours and Resorts Corporation, c/o Nina Fernandez, at 894-1124, 840-1060, 893-8183; e-mail info@friendshipmanila.com (Japanese), japantours@friendshipmanila.com (English). Visit www.friendshipmanila.com.

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