Before Aug. 9, 1945, Nagasaki was best known for its churches, Chinatown and a tasty noodle dish called champon, and but for heavy cloud cover that day over the nearby city of Kokura — which was slated to be the world’s second atom-bombed city — it would still likely be that way. However, moments after the U.S. bomber “Bock’s Car” dropped its payload over its backup target, Nagasaki, this city was branded indelibly by its instant devastation.
It’s a sad irony that Japan’s historically most open, international city should have been singled out to suffer the horror of a nuclear attack, but its location on the west coast of Kyushu, making it an ideal harbor for foreign trade, also meant it was a prime spot for a military shipyard, and therefore an attractive target.
The Portuguese were the first foreigners to arrive, when the Jesuits came in the late 16th century. However, the Tokugawa Shogunate later cracked down on these Catholics, whose suffering is commemorated at the 26 Martyrs Memorial. Near the main station, this marks the crucifixion in 1597 of 20 Japanese and six Portuguese who refused to renounce their faith.
Next to the memorial, a church houses a museum chronicling the history of Nagasaki’s often covert Christianity. Exhibits include tiny bibles hidden in bamboo, and statues of Mary disguised as the Buddhist goddess Kannon.
A true Kannon stands towering over a hillside near the memorial,on top of Fukusai-ji, a turtle-shaped Zen temple housing a 25-meter Foucault Pendulum swinging over the buried remains of 16,000 Japanese war dead, and a small exhibition of prewar artifacts and photos.
Dejima goes Dutch
The Portuguese were expelled in the 1600s, and thereafter trade was restricted to the Dutch and Chinese. After sending a warship to help quell a Christian rebellion in nearby Shimabara, the Dutch were rewarded with a compound in Dejima, from where they traded for the next few hundred years.
Dejima now features a reconstructed village of Dutch-style buildings, home to museums that detail the Western influence on Nagasaki, as well as one of Japan’s best eating and drinking strips. Wining and dining al fresco on Dejima Wharf you can almost imagine you’re in Europe.
China in Japan
For a more Asian experience, a small network of streets in the city center is home to Chinatown. Here you can enjoy champon, the local speciality. It’s a noodle-and-soup dish better appreciated here than in its generic form served at the fast-food chain Ringer Huts that are dotted around the country.
Nearby you can also, literally, visit China; the Confucian shrine of Kyoshi-byo is Chinese territory administered by the embassy in Tokyo. All the materials of this lavishly colorful shrine, lined with statues and histories of Confucius and 72 of his followers, were imported from China when it was recently rebuilt.
A short stroll away at the top of the Hollander Slope, a former foreign settlement, is Glover Garden, home to the restored houses of expat businessmen who lived here in colonial splendor after Japan opened up in the late 19th century. Named after Scottish rebel entrepreneur Thomas Glover, the gardens command a magnificent view, while the houses offer interesting insights into the lives of Glover and his contemporaries.
For an even better view, cross the Urakami River and take the ropeway up Mount Inase. From here you can really see how the narrow city has crept up the valley over the years and encroached further and further up the hillsides.
Getting around the sites of interest is made simple by the endearingly clanky tram system, affectionately known locally as the chin chin densha — after the sound of a bell, of course.
Autumn is a good time to visit, avoiding the oppressive heat of summer. And you can attend Nagasaki’s major festival, Kunchi, which is celebrated Oct. 7-9 and is definitely worth checking out.
Atomic Bomb Museum
Whereas Kunchi is a celebration of the positive influence of foreigners on the city, Nagasaki is sadly still best known for the destruction and death inflicted in 1945, when the United States dropped its second nuclear bomb, “Fat Boy,” here.
No first visit can be complete without a trip to the Atomic Bomb Museum, which not only shows the destruction wrought by the bomb, but also explains in graphic detail the lingering health problems caused by the radiation.
What sets Nagasaki’s museum apart from its counterpart in Hiroshima is its more balanced approach, particularly in the short movies you can watch in the final hall, which explain the context in which the attack took place. Japan’s aggressive expansion into Asia and wartime atrocities are not glossed over, and the museum wraps up with a sobering timeline and film focusing on the alarming proliferation of nuclear weapons since 1945.
After a visit here, you may want to see the nearby Peace Park, home to sculptures donated by countries around the world dedicated to hopes for global peace, as well as the Hypocenter Park, marking the point where the bomb exploded above the city.
Or, if you want to pay your respects more personally, you can ring the Peace Bell every day at Fukusai-ji at 11:02 a.m. — the time the bomb fell.
For foreigners in Japan, Nagasaki offers a lot to think about as well as a great deal to enjoy. From the Hollander Slope to Hypocenter Park, Nagasaki reflects the best and worst of this country’s interaction with the rest of the world, and as such a visit here may help you understand the ambivalent attitude in Japan to all things foreign.