The final stop on our travels through Kyushu was Nagasaki, famous for housing one of the first ports that opened Japan to the outside world for international trade in the 16th century. Unfortunately, it is also well known for the atomic bomb that hit Nagasaki during the second world war. After having visited Hiroshima exactly one year ago, we were curious to see how the city’s sad history is represented in Nagasaki.
Spending three nights in Nagasaki gave us a good timeframe to explore what Nagasaki has to offer and to get a feel for its rich history, especially with regards to Chinese, Dutch and Portuguese living in Nagasaki when it started its international trade.
Getting to Nagasaki from Kumamoto
Those of you who’ve been following our journey through Kyushu will have read that our previous stop was in Kumamoto. There are three distinctively different options to travel from Kumamoto to Nagasaki: either take two different shinkansen and another local train (most expensive option) along the coastline; or get a ferry from Kumamoto over to Shimabara and take a train from there; or take the express bus (cheapest and simplest option). I think you can guess at this point which option we went for (and also I would like to mention here that apart from us there were only two other people on the bus!).
If you find yourself in Nagasaki and are not quite sure which sights to visit, we would like to highlight five places that we found of high interest as they allowed us profound insights into Nagasaki’s rich history.
Nagasaki Museum of History and Culture
On the day of our arrival in Nagasaki, it was pouring rain and we decided to pay this museum a visit. It was a perfect introduction to the city and we learned so much about the old Chinese quarters back in the days when the first Chinese people were allowed to stay in Nagasaki for trading, but also about the Portuguese and Dutch who began international relations with Japan. To round off our cultural knowledge, we visited a nearby restaurant and tasted a famous dish called ‘champon’ that was inspired by Chinese cuisine and invented in Nagasaki by a Japanese chef. It was very tasty, but did not remind us of authentic Chinese cuisine.
Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum
“At 11.02 a.m. on August 9, 1945, the sky above Nagasaki was filled by a white flash, and all the clocks stopped.” (Quote from the official website) Upon entering the museum, you will discover a clock on display that stopped exactly at 11:02 when the atomic bomb hit Nagasaki. Somehow, the message was relayed even stronger here than we had felt it in Hiroshima and walking through the museum and reading survivors’ poems and stories not only fills your heart with sadness but also makes you hope that this history will never be repeated. After visiting the museum, we walked through the Peace Park that offers water for the souls of the victims who died in the fires. The museum is situated on ground zero and a 20-minute tram ride away from the city center. Looking back on our stay in Hiroshima, we felt that everywhere we looked in Hiroshima was a reminder of the atomic bomb and its victims, whereas in Nagasaki as it was further from the city center, it felt that the long history of international trade was highlighted more. However, that was just a superficial feeling from a 3-day stay, we would love to hear from you what your sentiments were in Nagasaki compared to Hiroshima.
Sōfukuji Temple & Kofukuji Temple
These Buddhist Zen temples that were built for Chinese citizens in Nagasaki, felt distinctively different to other temples in Japan. In fact, we were impressed to see that some of the architectural elements have been imported from different cities in China in the 16th century. You can walk from one temple to the other past many other small temples, graveyards, hillsides and parks, which makes it a great half-day activity. When we visited, it was raining, once again, but that didn’t bother us as it brought out the distinctive red colours of the temple buildings even more and created a peaceful and relaxing atmosphere.
Did I already mention that it was raining the whole time while we were in Nagasaki? Nevertheless, we enjoyed our visit to Glover Garden. You can easily reach it by foot from the city centre, walking past the famous Hollander Slope with Dutch buildings, a famous Roman-Catholic church and other local sights. We spent a long time in Glover Garden walking through the old residences of a Scottish family that lived in Nagasaki in the late 18th / early 19th century. The grounds are on a hillside and you have marvellous views over Nagasaki, it’s harbour and beyond!
Gunkanjima Digital Museum
Have you watched the James Bond film ‘Skyfall’? One of the scenes uses a model of the so-called Battleship Island for dramatic scenery effects. Gunkanjima is a once thriving industrial and now abandoned island that is open for tourists to visit (only to a certain point though) or as in our case when the sea was very rough, you can visit the island’s digital museum to learn about how the people lived on the small coal-mining island. My two favourite takeaways: it was the most densely populated place in Japan and the first one with concrete buildings to withstand the taifuns. We have so many mixed emotions thinking back to our visit to the Gunkanjima Digital Museum. On the one hand, we loved experiencing walking through the island by virtual reality and the fact that one of the staff was a former Gunkanjima citizen. On the other hand, we were shocked that they did not mention the fact that there were Koreans working as forced labour on the island; but on the contrary there was a video of former citizens stating that this isn’t true. The museum also only projected the positive aspects of Gunkanjima’s close community, whereas we imagine it must have still been a hard existence for many of the miners working on a crowded concrete island.
We are writing down our Nagasaki memories while heavy rain pours down on Japan amidst its rainy summer season and Kumamoto prefecture is in the news for severe flooding. The people affected by the heavy rains and flooding are in our thoughts and we hope they will be rescued and safe soon.