Amakusa is a chain of Japanese islands, sixty kilometres southwest of Kumamoto City, to the west of Kyushu, comprising three main islands and hundreds of islets.
Mostly rural, and with a landscape made almost entirely of lush greenery and thick forests, Amakusa translates to ‘Heaven’s Grass’. Designated as one of the fourteen national Geoparks in Japan, the island chain has produced some incredible fossils, dinosaur prints and stunning geological formations, namely the huge rock face on Maejima Island.
This means a trip to Amakusa is a journey back in time, with a choice of excellent archaeological museums and fossil collection sites. However, the most eye-catching features on Amakusa are the whitewashed churches contrasting with the emerald hills. In the early Edo Period, from the seventeenth century, Christian missionaries managed to convert a great number of locals, before the religion became forbidden, owing to the islands’ isolated location. This led to many Christians seeking refuge here, hiding from persecution while concealing their crucifixes and Virgin Mary figures inside Buddhist statues.
The largest islands: Shimoshima, Ueshima and Oyana are interconnected by a series of bridges collectively known as Amakusa Gokyo. Although these structures afford brilliant views of the ruggedly beautiful coastline, it’s on the waters where you’re likely to spend most of your time; Amakusa is one of the finest places in Japan for dolphin watching. Sailing past thirty or so islands, guided boat tours can be organised for spotting pods of the aquatic mammals, and for marvelling at the five enormous bridges along the way.
The best time to visit these idyllic islands is during the Summer Festival, held from late July to early August. The celebrations include roughly four thousand inhabitants performing local dances dressed in colourful clothing inside the Hondo Citizen Center and Suwa Temple, as well as magnificent firework displays, so it’s definitely worth going to see.
Ferries link the Amakusa Islands of Hondo and Matsushima a few times a day, with an average journey time of just thirty five minutes. They’re also easy to reach from mainland to Japan, with regular crossings from Misumi ferry terminal, to the southwest of Kumamoto City.