First-time visitors to Dejima, Nagasaki’s historic artificial island, are usually puzzled on arrival. Looking around for water, they find only a kitsch scale model of the island and several oldish buildings. Although Dejima’s front sea wall looks authentic enough, landfills have gradually enclosed the site, and the original contours of the island have disappeared. Even the last glimpses of harbor have been blocked by ugly urban developments.

Now an immense three-stage renaissance project is carving Dejima back into a semblance of its original shape, and the fabulous result of the first stage will be unveiled April 1.

Dejima deserves no less. The site was the only place where Western ships were received and their crews accommodated, and where foreign commercial and cultural exchanges carried out during Japan’s period of national seclusion (1639-1854).

Western medicine, art, technology and foods (such as chocolate and tempura) were introduced into Japan via Dejima on Dutch ships, the only Europeans allowed to trade in Japan after 1640. One historic painting in Nagasaki’s municipal art gallery even depicts an elephant and a giraffe being unloaded at Dejima as a gift to the shogun in Edo. Westerners were forbidden to go ashore except under special conditions, and the only Japanese to cross the island’s drawbridge were medical doctors, scholars and courtesans.

A stroll around Dejima leaves you with the feeling you’ve entered a compact historical grove, especially if you ignore the looming office blocks nearby and the rumbling of trams along the island’s original boundaries. An impressively weathered stone gate stands where Dejima’s main bridge would have been, and the graceful arc that is Dejima’s front sea wall is mirrored in the river below. Fortunately the river escaped becoming another landfill, and today Dejima has a waterline on at least one of its original four sides.

Despite several restorations made during the last 100 years, the public have remained unenthusiastic about Dejima. A proper restoration demanded not only re-creating buildings from scratch but actually repurchasing land that had fallen into developers’ hands, and digging canals that would evoke the island’s former fan-shape.

That is precisely what this latest project has set out to do. However, final land purchases and the construction of buildings and canals for the second stage of the project will not be completed until after 2010.

“A hodgepodge of buildings existed on this site, dating from as early as 1636 to as late as 1903, and it was quite a task separating what excavations went with what buildings,” says Nobue Yokomura, the no-nonsense, high-spirited architect who directed most of the construction work. A thorough analysis of paintings, photographs, excavation findings and other materials was made before work began in 1996, but many debates remained as to how authentic the re-creation should be.

“The buildings had to have automatic shutters for security, electric lighting and, in one or two cases, even elevators,” says Yokomura, indicating the compromises that had to be made between purism and practicality. The buildings were elevated so as not to disturb the precious original foundations, now displayed beneath glass panels in the new floors.

Re-creating the original wooden buildings means valuable paintings or artifacts cannot be displayed there because of security and fire risks. Instead, displays consist mostly of imaginative, descriptive graphics of a highly educational content. English signs are widely used, and much thought has obviously been put into maintaining the island’s mood as an urban park. People can drop by Dejima freely, whether just to sit under the old cherry trees or visit the inexpensive museums.

Sections such as the kitchen and First Ship Captain’s Quarters will exhibit original and replicated 19th-century furnishings. The Dejima Museum’s main building and annex contain a sizable selection of materials and archaeological finds depicting life in Dejima. It is fascinating to see how the city has changed over the centuries, and what items of trade and manners of conduct took place during a time when each culture was entirely foreign to the other.

“Dutch sailors took home a host of mementos from Japan, and left many of their own here. These collections are like 17th-century time capsules,” says Yokomura with enthusiasm.

Many new insights have been gained. For example, it was observed that Europeans were not perhaps the bone-chewing barbarians they are often made out to be.

“They probably didn’t eat meat every day, but the vegetables they grew on a rented field in town,” she says, adding that new dishes were also created by local cooks who fused elements of Eastern and Western cuisine.

Tourism in Nagasaki has declined in recent years, despite the city’s popular image as one of Japan’s more exotic cities. Today, more visitors come to Nagasaki for its relatively young Lantern Festival, a two-week visual and gourmet feast inspired by the Chinese New Year, than for the city’s definitive O-Kunchi festival, a 400-year-old celebration of its colorful history in three days of richly costumed parades, music and dance.

With this renaissance project, signs are positive that local enthusiasm for the city will catch on further afield. I, for one, am quite convinced it will.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.