Exploring historic Nagasaki

by Mandy Bartok

The gate in front of me once opened to the world. Steps — now long gone — formerly led down from there to a quay in Nagasaki’s sheltered harbor where, in centuries past, visiting trading ships tied up.

It was here that European mariners — many malnourished and sick from the four-month voyage to the Far East — would unload their provisions and catch their first glimpse of a country that was shrouded in mystery in their homelands.

For many, this was all they ever got to see — the small, artificial island of Dejima off the coast of Nagasaki.

By the time Tokugawa Ieyasu came to power in 1603 as the first shogun of a unified Japan, Nagasaki was already a village with ties to the West. This followed the accidental arrival of storm-driven Portuguese sailors in southern Kyushu in 1542, which led to the founding of a European enclave here on the island’s western coast. But these Iberian merchants, with their “heretical” Catholic religion and outspoken missionaries, soon came under fire from the increasingly short-tempered shogun.

Thus, construction on a crescent- shaped island just offshore was begun in order to corral and rein in the proselytizing Portuguese.

Tokugawa’s patience with the European troublemakers ran out before the island’s completion, however, and the entire Portuguese population was expelled. The Dutch, Protestant traders who had kept their heads down in the scramble for religious converts, were the next targets of the shogun’s ire, and Dejima soon welcomed its new tenants.

For the next 200 years, Dejima would be Europe’s sole link with the fabled Land of the Rising Sun.

Today, Nagasaki’s trams — which themselves look like relics of a bygone era — stop right outside this former portal to the Western world, though the fan-shaped island is isolated no more. Surrounded by the urban sprawl of Kyushu’s second- largest city (after Fukuoka), modern Dejima is — on first glance — just a collection of unassuming European buildings fronting one of the city’s many canals. According to the historical site’s excellent tour guides, however, future plans involve the clearing out of the surrounding city blocks and a return of the “island” to its former water-bounded state.

I walk along the gravelly main street, peeking into storehouses and marveling over the roomy quarters of the Chief Factor, the Dutch representative to Japan.

The extra few meters of space might seem a luxury, but information panels remind visitors that the dozen or so permanent residents of Dejima were rarely allowed to leave the tiny island. Additional space at the foot of the bed suddenly seems a small tradeoff for what must have been their feelings of claustrophobia.

At the far end of the island, a grassy square occupies what was once the community’s vegetable patch. Hearty European legumes were grown here not only to grace the residents’ dining tables, but to feed the cows, pigs, goats and other creatures brought to the island by visiting ships, mostly as food sources themselves.

When the tiny Dutch community celebrated its New Year with a carnivorous feast, the mostly vegetarian Japanese invitees (translators and shogun-appointed trade liaisons) were said to have wrapped up the meaty morsels to share with curious family and friends in town.

A few tram stops to the south, the story of Nagasaki’s European legacy continues up the slopes of Glover Garden. Named for the Scottish businessman Thomas Glover (1838-1011), who became one of Nagasaki’s most influential importers after arriving there in 1859, the manicured grounds of the verdant park cover the area once demarcated as the city’s foreign settlement.

Today, a collection of residences dating from the mid to late 1800s — many of them relocated here from other neighborhoods — highlight the unique history of Nagasaki’s immigrant communities.

Although the houses yield interesting explorations, it’s the view from the balcony of the Mitsubishi Second Dock House on the crest of the hill that makes the climb up the slope worth the effort.

Of course, if you’re like me and feel more inclined to take an easy way up, a handy moving walkway offers a serene ride to the scenic viewpoint to reveal its stellar city views without the sweat.

Far below, ferries cut through the brilliant blue waters, headed to the Goto Islands off the western shores of Nagasaki Prefecture. It was to this remote outpost that many of the Portuguese missionaries’ converts fled when the shogun began to persecute Christians in deadly earnest. The few that stayed behind took their religion underground, enduring the 200-year isolation of Japan from the wider world.

Then, as the shogunate’s power was on the wane in the mid-19th century, French priests were permitted to build a Catholic church in the area that now abuts the base of Glover Garden. I wander down from the heights of the garden for a glimpse of this structure where, just a few years after construction was finished in 1864, the community of faithful that had hidden for two centuries showed up on the doorstep, shocking nearly everyone.

I admire the bronze relief in the narrow courtyard that illustrates that momentous occasion before braving the steep steps (there being no alternative) to Oura Church itself. Wooden-framed and decked out in a seemingly fresh coat of white paint, it would seem out of place in any other Japanese city. Here, amid the clutter of European-inspired edifices, Japan’s oldest church feels quite at home.

Back down on the main street, I board a tramcar again and we jerkily cut our way across the city. I hop off near the end of the line and follow signs to Temple Row (Tera-michi), a winding path that takes in nine temples and the odd shrine or two along its wooded way.

The plan is to visit Chinese-style Kofuku-ji, but it’s growing dark and the lure of food is enough to tempt me into one of the cozily lit restaurants that line the alley. Inside, the soft glow of the entrance hall perfectly frames kimono-clad Chigusa Nakano, the cheerful and impeccably quoiffed hostess of Karaku, one of Nagasaki’s popular shippoku restaurants.

Just like the city’s heritage and architecture, Nagasaki’s homegrown shippoku cuisine is a melting pot of various styles. While the food itself draws on Chinese, Western and traditional Japanese influences, the actual ingredients are of little importance. The main characteristic of shippoku cuisine is the collective sharing of the multi-course meal.

Though I’ve only managed to drag along one dinner companion, Nakano isn’t fazed by the size of our party and expertly guides us through a recommended tasting menu that has us feasting on various dishes featuring vegetables, noodles, tofu and fresh fish — all with a unique blend of flavors and sauces. Meanwhile, in a private tatami room off to our left, a large party downs continuous pints of beers and does shippoku the official way — communally.

Stuffed from our supper, we bow our way out the door of Karaku and amble back towards the brightly lit main drag. By chance, an open bakery offers the perfect post-meal treat and we emerge minutes later clutching small bags of “baby castella,” Japan’s popular sponge cake of Portuguese origin.

Say what you will about seeking out “traditional Japan,” Nagasaki would be a whole lot duller without its international influences.

Nagasaki’s all-day tram passes (¥500) make it very cheap to get around the city. The Dejima historical site is open daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. (¥500). Access to Glover Garden (¥600) is from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. (or later in summer).