Shimabara’s Town of Swimming Carp

The city of Shimabara sits on the Ariake Sea in the shadow of Mount Unzen, the volcano responsible for creation of the Shimabara Peninsula (albeit several tens of thousands of years ago). The city has a long and diverse history, making it well worth taking a bit of time to explore.

Yet many travelers quickly pass through Shimabara, since it is also a ferry port that connects Nagasaki Prefecture to Kumamoto Prefecture. During the years I lived in Kumamoto, I did exactly that; quickly passed through Shimabara whenever traveling to Nagasaki.

But even for travelers who are just passing through, it’s worth it to make a brief exploration, especially for the water.

Shimabara styles itself as the city of water and with good reason. There are at least 70 natural springs inside the city limits spouting more than 22,000 tons of fresh water every day.

Many of these springs appeared after a major eruption of Mount Unzen in 1792 resulted in a landslide that struck the city and caused a tsunami to rush across the Ariake Sea, killing an estimated 15,000 people.

Vestiges of that 1792 disaster that can still be seen today include landslide scars on Mt. Maruyama behind the city, rocky protrusions in the bay, and fresh water bubbling from springs across the city to flow through streetside channels.

That water originally fell as rain on the flanks of Mt. Unzen. It then soaked into the mountain’s porous lava and ash and was pulled by gravity towards the sea until it emerged from the springs of the city.

Shimabara’s Shin-Machi district is a fun spot to enjoy all that water, especially to see water flowing from some of those natural springs into streetside channels, lovingly maintained by locals, that are home to beautiful colored carp (koi).

At Seiryutei, the visitor center on the north end of the district, visitors can browse among shelves of local produce and sweets, or simply relax with refreshments while watching the koi swim lazily in a pond. An interesting feature of the spring-fed pond is the way it extends below a portion of the visitor center that has a plexiglass floor to give visitors a different view of the fish and their world.

Wander south from Seiryutei, watching more koi swimming in the channels as you go.

On the right, look for the entrance to Shimabara Yusuikan, a well-preserved early 20th century house maintained by the city as a free public rest house (Open daily from 9:00 to 18:00). Freely wander through to enjoy the many beautiful features of the house. If you’ve made an advance reservation, you can make kanzarashi, a locally-popular sweet of rice flour balls in fruit-flavored syrup for a small fee.

Like many houses built in this neighborhood in the early 20th century, the site of Yusuikan was chosen because of a natural spring, which the family used for its water needs. Visitors can also see the spring and a small garden running alongside the house.

For a more dramatic garden watered by a spring, be sure to visit Shimeiso, just a few doors down. (Open daily from 9:00 to 18:00; admission: JPY310) Formerly the week-end villa of a Shimabara physician, there are multiple springs on the site, including one just inside the gate and another near the side entrance of the house. Look closely and you can see the sand dance as the water pushes through. It is said 3,000 tons of water emerges from these springs ever day.

The front garden of Shimeiso is dominated by a large spring-fed pond and beautiful koi.

Step inside the house to appreciate its design and especially the way it has integrated the garden views. Sit on the veranda and dangle your feet. This is a truly relaxing place to enjoy the beautiful clear water and the koi!

A friendly docent is happy to explain (alas, only in Japanese) the history of the house and the family who owned it as well as the geology that created Shimabara’s springs.

Perhaps this brief stop in Shimabara has refreshed you to continue your journey. Or perhaps it has just peaked your curiosity about this historic town and inspired you to linger. In case of the latter, head a few hundred meters northwest from Seiryutei to explore Shimabara castle and its exhibit on the 1637-38 Christian rebellion resulting from heavy taxation to fund construction of the castle, as well as the neighborhood of samurai houses below the castle. Here, too, you’ll find more of Shimabara’s sparkling water.

© 2021 and Vicki L. Beyer
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