On our recent honeymoon in Japan, my wife and I attended Mass in a country where Catholicism is very much a minority religion.
YAMATOKORIYAMA CHURCH IS A 10-MINUTE WALK FROM THE TRAIN STATION IN YAMATOKORIYAMA, A CITY WITH FOUR SHINTO SHRINES, FIVE BUDDHIST TEMPLES AND ONE CATHOLIC CHURCH. PHOTOS COURTESY OF GREG HARDESTY
Most Japanese, traditionally, are of the Shinto or Buddhist faith.
PALM SUNDAY MASS IS CELEBRATED AT YAMATOKORIYAMA CHURCH.
As of 2021, there were only about 431,100 Catholics in Japan, or 0.34% of the total population, according to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Japan.
PARISHIONERS ATTEND PALM SUNDAY MASS AT YAMATOKORIYAMA CHURCH. PHOTOS COURTESY OF GREG HARDESTY
Compare this to Orange County, where there are 1.3 million Catholics – more than 40% of the population.
Not surprisingly, finding a Roman Catholic church to attend on a Sunday in Japan can pose some minor challenges – especially outside the megalopolis of Tokyo.
It can be a conveniently forgotten thing to do while traveling abroad, but it remained a must for us to experience in Japan.
CHERRY BLOSSOMS AND TRAINS
Midway through our trip at the height of cherry blossom season in late March and early April, we visited Nara, a popular tourist city known for its park of roaming deer. Nara is a 45-minute train ride from the ancient capital of Kyoto.
We found an 11 a.m. service at Catholic Nara Church. We got there early and visited the grounds of the attached elementary school.
As Mass time approached and we didn’t see a lot of people arriving, we found some friendly locals exiting the church office and asked them, in broken Japanese, if Mass would be held as scheduled.
No, a kind gentleman told us. The priest was filling in at another parish today so there would be no 11 a.m. service.
A Filipino woman and her daughter, longtime residents of Nara, happened to be there and told us in English they would be attending a 1 p.m. service in a nearby town that was about 20 minutes away by train.
After killing some time at a restaurant, we saw the two on a train to Yamatokoriyama, a city with four Shinto shrines, five Buddhist temples, and one Catholic Church. Yamatokoriyama Church is a 10-minute walk from the train station through a pleasant suburban area in a city known for its cultivation of goldfish, rice, strawberries and tomatoes.
The church has a monument that commemorates Nagasaki Christians who were caught as heretics in 1870 after the Meiji Restoration and were forcibly deported to the city. Among Japanese Catholics, especially revered are 26 martyrs who were crucified in 1597 in Nagasaki. It was Palm Sunday.
From 1989 to 1995, I lived in Japan in the Tokyo and Yokohama area. While an editor and a writer for The Japan Times newspaper, I visited the Goto Islands in the East China Sea. Located off the western coast of Kyushu and part of Nagasaki Prefecture, the five-island archipelago has numerous Catholic churches. Portuguese missionaries introduced Catholicism to the port city of Nagasaki in the late 16th century.
Some inhabitants of the Goto Islands are descendants of Kakure Kirishitan (“Hidden Christians”), many of whom were persecuted and tortured by Japanese shogunates for their faith until Catholicism was legalized in the 19th century.
The oldest and most famous church in the Goto Islands is Dozaki, built in 1868. Today, Japan has more than 950 churches spread throughout 16 Catholic dioceses.
WARM GREETINGS, MEMORIES
We walked into Yamatokoriyama Church and picked up palms that were neatly arranged on a table. Attendees signed a sheet to indicate where they would sit. The church appeared to be a converted meeting hall. With the weather still pleasant ahead of the heat of late spring and summer, a few small electric fans sat unused. The Mass was in Japanese, and there was no music. At one point, the priest introduced a visitor, a young seminarian.
“Since there are so few of us in Japan,” the priest-in- training told us after Mass, “we all study together in Tokyo.”
He is among the estimated 6,200 seminarians, clerics and religious in Japan.
Most of the congregants at Yamatokoriyama Church were seniors, although there were some children.
After Mass, the parishioners warmly greeted us. We told them how happy we were to have found a church to attend – especially during Lent. They said they hoped to see us again.
We saw many beautiful sights during our 10-day visit. The humble Yamatokoriyama Church couldn’t visibly compete with the majestic shrines and temples we saw in Japan, or the stunning gardens that were in full bloom.
But it’s a memory that will linger.
Catholicism may be relatively hidden in Japan. We were so happy to have sought out Mass. As tourists in Japan, we largely were hidden. For an hour-plus this Easter season, we embraced a wonderful gathering of the faithful – strangers, but so comfortingly familiar.
For a blip on our trip, we found our community.