Shimabara shi is the largest town on the Shimabara peninsula
. It lies on the Eastern shore of the hanto on the Ariake Sea
ken. There are several tourist attractions in Shimabara and it is also a stop on route to Mount Unzen
as well as locations on the opposite shore. Shimabara's main attraction, however, is what it lacks: the chaos
and crowding of other Japanese cities. Shimabara is the place to come to for a taste of what Japan
might have been like several hundred years ago.
Shimabara-jo, or castle, lies in the northern part of the city, close to the main train station and is the city's most famed attraction. Built in 1624, the castle played an important role in the Shimabara uprising. It was rebuilt in 1964 and currently houses three museums. The first is dedicated to the Christian uprising that led to the execution of most of the peninsula's population. The second museum is a permanent display of the works of Seibo Kitamara, who sculpted Nagasaki's Peace Statue. The final museum, contains pictures and displays related to Fugen-dake and its eruptions throughout the ages. The castle is open daily from 9-5 in the winter and until 6 in the summer months. Admission is 540¥.
Teppo-cho, several blocks north-west of the castle, is a neighbourhood of samurai houses. Admission is free and visitors can wander through the reconstructed homes at leisure. They are surrounded by beautifully kept gardens and there is a cheerful stream that runs through the center of the dirt road in between them. The stream is one of hundreds that run through the city and give it distinct charm; one is never far from a natural spring fountain as run-off from the surrounding mountains, flows under the city into the Ariake Sea. This means that you can find better-than-Evian water freely flowing every third or fourth street corner.
Close to the samurai houses and in the direction of the downtown area, are several carp streams. These run along the edges of several small roads and are teaming with yellow, gold, red and black carp that are more than happy to eat whatever you throw to them. Standing along one of these roads, you can close your eyes and hear nothing by the gentle flow of the water and occasional splash of an energetic fish. It is easy to imagine what life must have been like here centuries ago.
Shimabara is also home to Japan's largest reclining Buddha, the Nehan Zo or Nirvana Statue. The statue, which lies in a small cemetery north of the city's central shopping arcade is short in comparison to ones in Thailand or Burma. None the less, it is a lovely site to visit.
Shimabara is the best place on the hanto for dining out and coffee. There are several western style restaurants and bars for local expats looking for a taste of home. Other than Mr. Donut, however, there are no fast food chains to be found here and a trip to Nagasaki is required to satisfy that Big Mac craving. There are some wonderful local spots that outdo such competition. The Blue Barber Shop, two blocks north of the main train station is the best place for coffee. Situated in a fully refurbished barber shop, the mom and daughter team who run the place are spectacular. The price of the coffee is steep (400¥ for the first cup; 200¥ for refills) but well worth it; it's not instant! Another small and friendly place is Salle a Manger in the shopping arcade. Aside from banana and chocolate crepes, there is no French food on the menu and the woman who owns the cafe knows no French. The name might be misleading but it doesn't matter; it's a great spot for lunch. Shimabara's specialties, raw stone-fish, Taira-gane crab and guzoni can be found at many of the local restaurants.
Shimabara hosts a spectacular Obon festival on August the 15th, and it is reputed, by the locals anyway, to be the best in all of Japan. Families build large boats out of straw and decorate them in lanterns. They walk down in a procession to the water front to the loud bangs of firecrackers and set the boats to sea. It is the noisiest night of the year and you can expect to be awake well into the night if visiting at this time. August 27th is the annual fireworks festivals, one of the biggest in the country.
Shimabara shi can be reached by the Shimatetsu line form Isahaya. There is an express train twice a day and the city can be reached in a little over an hour. Tickets cost 1300¥. Shimabara can also be reached by ferry service from Kumamoto.