The Chapel of Saint Maria: Stories of the Martyrs of Tsuwano マリア聖堂、乙女峠

At the beginning of the 17th century, Shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu issued edicts that closed Japan off from the world. Foreigners were forbidden to enter, and Japanese people were forbidden to leave. Despite the country’s new isolation, however, a fear of foreign influence and possible foreign conquest remained. To combat some of this fear, the Shogunate outlawed Christianity, which had found great success in converting people, particularly around Nagasaki. In the following decades, thousands of Christian converts were killed or tortured in an attempt to force them to renounce their beliefs. Some Christians managed to evade discovery, and for the next 250 years, they practiced their faith in secret.

Then, in 1868, the Shogunate government fell. The Meiji Restoration, Japan’s period of modernization, began. A number of hidden Christians came out of hiding, believing themselves to be safe. However, they were wrong. During the first five years of the Meiji Restoration, 3,394 men, women, and children who had revealed themselves as Christians were captured and sent to prison camps around Japan. Here, they were tortured continuously in a final attempt to force them to renounce their faith.

One such camp where these atrocities occurred was in Tsuwano, a small mountain town in Shimane Prefecture. 154 Catholics were sent to this town, and 37 died during the first five years of the Meiji Restoration.

Today, the town of Tsuwano has not forgotten those who died. If you walk from the center of town to the outskirts that meet the mountains, following the signs for Otome Touge Chapel, you’ll come across a wooded grove with a small waterfall and a paved trail. Follow this short trail up the hill, and you’ll come across the Chapel of Saint Maria, built on the site where the 154 hidden Christians were held in Tsuwano.


The Chapel of Saint Maria (or Otome Touge in Japanese) was built in 1948. It was built for the specific purpose of remembering and memorializing all of those who were brought to Tsuwano, and particularly those who died. A sign posted on the chapel door reads in Japanese that anyone is free to enter the chapel at any time. However, there are many insects and animals in the woods, so make sure the door is shut tightly when you enter and when you leave.

The inside of the chapel is small with only a few pews. On the altar is a mural of Jesus and the Virgin Mary watching over the captives during their torture.


Six stained-glass windows adorn the walls of the chapel, each depicting the story of a martyr, or a significant historical scene. One window in particular tells the story of six-year-old Katarina Mori. When she was dying of starvation, one of her captors brought her sweets, saying he would let her have the sweets if she gave up her faith. Katarina replied to her captor, “Heaven tastes better”.


The area around the chapel memorializes the martyrs of Tsuwano as well, and keeps painful memories of the martyrs’ experiences alive. Next to the chapel is an old well where captives prepared their food. Amounts of food given to the Christians held in Tsuwano were small to begin with, but with time they were gradually reduced more and more. To the left of the well is a small pond. In the winter, this pond would freeze over, and the Christians were stripped naked and thrown into the icy water.

To the right of the old well is a statue depicting one of the martyrs, Yasutaro, locked in a small square prison known as a sanjakuro. Standing above him is the Virgin Mary.


Yasutaro was often locked in the sanjakuro. Before his death in this small prison, many of the captives worried about him because he was weak from sharing what food he had with others. One night, two of Yasutaro’s friends, Senemon Takagi and Jinzaburo Moriyama, went to visit him, hoping to give him comfort. Yasutaro told them, “I am not lonely at all in this sanjakuro. For just after midnight, a lady appears, clothed in a blue gown and wearing a blue veil just like the image of Santa Maria. She tells me stories so I am not lonely at all. But please do not tell anyone about this while I am still alive.” Yasutaro said that the Virgin Mary came to visit him every night from the 7th to the 19th of January, 1869, just before his death inside the sanjakuro.

Senemon Takagi and Jinzaburo Moriyama survived the five years in Tsuwano. They kept notes about their experiences and the experiences of others. Today, these notes are preserved as accounts of the Martyrs of Tsuwano and what they endured during the first five years of the Meiji Restoration.

In the sixth year of the Meiji Restoration (1873) the prohibition of Christianity was officially lifted. The Christians in Tsuwano and the other prison camps around Japan were set free, and many returned to Nagasaki. Every year on May 3rd, a procession ending with a solemn mass at the Chapel of Saint Maria is held in Tsuwano to remember and honor the Martyrs of Tsuwano. Catholics and Christians from other denominations of the church from all over Japan make a pilgrimage to this procession each year.

The Martyrs of Tsuwano are also remembered and honored at the Tsuwano Catholic Church, which sits on Tonomachi Street, Tsuwano’s main street. Inside this church, visitors can find information in English about the Martyrs of Tsuwano and other hidden Christians. Visitors can also find cards with prayers in English written on the back, asking for the Martyrs of Tsuwano to be canonized into the Catholic church.





Experience Iwami Kagura: Community Love of Traditional Arts

Care has been taken to remind you where you are. Though this building next to the shrine is modern, all audience members find places to sit scattered around on tatami mat floors. To the left of the stage is a fabric tapestry depicting Inari, the Shinto deity of foxes and agriculture, flying above the town of Tsuwano. Up on the stage itself, hangs a second tapestry and a square canopy full of zig-zag-shaped paper streamers. The performance will happen beneath this canopy.

The first few notes of music skip through the air and a chorus of flute, cymbals, and drums follow closely; slowly at first, and then growing faster and faster. The youngest musician is a fifth grade elementary school student. The oldest has gray hair and plays his taiko drum as fluidly as water. The drum quiets for a moment, and a few warbling lines are sung. The adults in the room seem to hold their breaths. The kids in the room stand in their parents’ laps, looking around in anticipation. The music resumes, and suddenly, there is a figure behind the tapestry on stage. The figure steps forward carefully, holding the tapestry so that the face behind it is not revealed until the proper moment. The Iwami Kagura has just about begun.

Kagura is a traditional Japanese dancing art inspired by the gods of Japan’s Shinto religion. In essence, these elegant dances depict stories of gods defeating monsters and demons. Traditionally, these dances have been used to pray for good harvest, ward off natural disasters, and tell stories. No one knows for sure when kagura actually started, but some people believe that the earliest performance might go all the way back to the Kojiki, Japan’s oldest text, written about 1,300 years ago. Today, there are various styles of kagura that can differ greatly even within a single prefecture.

My first experience with kagura came thanks to one of my coworkers. She invited me to see a performance that her husband was taking part in! On the day of the performance, we headed into the countryside about 20 minutes outside of Izumo City. We hadn’t even been outside of the city for two minutes before the landscape changed drastically. Houses and apartments were replaced with lush, green mountains, and though many rice fields  and gardens existed within Izumo, suddenly every stretch of level ground boasted some kind of crop.

Soon, we can to a wooded shrine on a hill. My coworker told me that this shrine was dedicated to protecting against fires. Just next to the main shrine building, a space had been cleared, and the dancing had already started.

At the time of watching this particular dance, I didn’t understand nearly as much about kagura as I do now. If I had, I probably would have appreciated the art much earlier.

Since kagura performances usually happen at shrines, I assumed that only people connected to specific shrines could perform kagura, but the opposite is true. Like my coworker’s husband, many kagura performers are just regular members of a community who practice the dances on evenings and weekends. Historically, only men have been allowed to perform, but recently, women have begun performing as well. Many kagura performers actually begin practicing the art as children. Some schools in Japan incorporate kagura into their curriculum, and community kagura groups also exist. Those who choose to participate in kagura either as a dancer or a musician will perform at local festivals and community gatherings, hoping to bring good fortune (and some fun) to the areas they live in.

Like many classical arts, however, kagura has had to face challenges in the modern day. Kagura is rarely seen in urban areas, and because so many people in Japan now live in urban areas, it can be difficult for people to experience this art form. As a result of this, the image of kagura has changed from a common form of entertainment, to something akin to Shakespeare; historically and traditionally priceless, but hard for modern audiences to understand. Especially younger audiences.

Despite such challenges, kagura is by no means a dying art form. Some styles of kagura, in fact, have continued to evolve over the years in order to continue capturing the hearts of audiences. Iwami Kagura of Western Shimane Prefecture is one such style.

Iwami Kagura is best known for its elaborate costumes, fast-paced music and dancing, and simple stories. It is one of the prides of Western Shimane, and a network of over 130 active kagura organizations ensure that this art is an established part of daily life in the area.

There are several venues where visitors can experience Iwami Kagura. The venue I happened to visit was Taikodani Inari Shrine in the small town of Tsuwano (also known as “Little Kyoto”). I wasn’t sure what to expect from this performance since my only experience with kagura up to this point had been the one dance outside of Izumo. The moment the performance began, though, I was completely enchanted by the experience. It was unlike the dance I had seen before in all of the best possible ways. I could attempt to go into detail about how everything was different, but I think this video sums it up better.


This was actually the third time one of the dancers had come into the audience. The first couple of times, no one was eaten, but the performers were so convincing in their roles as monsters that some of the younger kids in the audience started crying! Even when the performers stayed on stage, though, they had our complete attention. In ever step they took, you could see their years of experience. The precision, emotion, and beauty of their dances made it literally impossible to look away from them. Unless, of course, a second dancer happened to be sneaking up from behind the audience.

The time after the performance was just as fun as the performance itself. Audience members were allowed to stay afterwards and try on some of the costumes, including the gods’ robes and the serpents’ heads! Trying on one of the robes gave me a whole new appreciation for kagura dancers. Those costumes are heavy! In the case of Iwami Kagura, four people can spend up to one month making a single costume. All costumes are handmade, and real silver and gold thread is used for embroidery on the robes. One robe can weigh up to 20 kilograms or about 44 pounds! Even lighter costumes made of paper like the serpents in the video can be bulky and difficult to maneuver, but you would never guess that watching the dances. Each performer makes their movements look so easy, and yet as soon as you try on one of the costumes, you understand how much dedication it takes to master this art form. It is truly incredible.

If you ever want to experience a piece of real Japan, I can’t recommend kagura, especially Iwami Kagura, enough. These dances are the products of regular people’s sheer love and dedication to traditional arts. The stories these dances tell are based on the founding mythology of Japan, something that has influenced art and culture in Japan for centuries. Not to mention it’s fun and can be really cheap to watch. The performance I watched at Taikodani Inari only set me back 500 yen (about 5 dollars).

The two characters used in writing the word, “kagura”, literally mean, “entertaining the gods”. Trust me when I say that a night spent watching Iwami Kagura is a night you will never forget.


Credit: AKIKAKU, Katy Manning, “Iwami, Exploring Unfamiliar Japan”, “Iwami Kagura”