Not since my Adidas-donning days in my hometown Croydon (famous as the breeding ground of chavs) in southeast London, have I ridden trams around town, and even then it was only to pick up a Chinese take-away and buy the odd large hoop earring. So, when I visited Nagasaki with a couple of friends, touring a major city entirely on trams in a country where trains and buses are the primary mode of transport in city centers, it felt oddly nostalgic and slightly surreal. The fact that it cost only 500 yen for an all-day pass only added to the feeling that we had slipped back into the good times of old.

And indeed, most of the tourist sites in Nagasaki recall the city’s connection with the past, though the memories are not all happy.

Medieval Nagasaki was the only port opened for foreign trading until Commodore Perry arrived in 1853 to demand an end to the sakoku period (literally meaning “a country locked up”); and modern Nagasaki echoes this international atmosphere, displaying signs in Korean and Chinese as well as English. Yet, it is also a city in permanent mourning for those who suffered a more violent force from the Americans on Aug. 9, 1945, when the second atomic bomb ever to be used in warfare killed over 73,000 people and injured many more. There are peace memorial statues and exhibitions scattered around the city in connection with the bombing, but the must-see port of call is the Nagasaki Peace Memorial Hall.

Unlike the Atomic Bomb Museums of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, which invite hoards of visitors to read exhaustive displays of information, the Peace Memorial Hall stands in a quiet area of the city, and its aim seems to be that of intensifying this quietness and imposing it on the visitors with such emotional power and relatively little exhibitive information that they come out a little overawed and bewildered. Large empty halls are speckled with small panels of information and occasional exhibits behind glass, while an extravagant water display ironically points out that many of the victims died crying for water.

The final exhibition is an all-white expanse decorated with rows of tall columns, two of which are made of glass and display many books containing every name of those who died. For those who have personally followed up the story of the Nagasaki bombing since school history lessons, the eerie experience may be a satisfactory accompaniment to their knowledge and thoughts, but we came away with the feeling that a real appreciation of the fear and horror needs to come from more than just an atmospheric tug on the heart strings.

After a tour of the surrounding peace-memorial statues, our stomachs weren’t crying out for food, but a visit to a local restaurant was essential in order to try Nagasaki’s famous dishes. There was much ado about who would eat what: champon, a Chinese noodle dish served in broth with meat, shellfish and vegetables on top, which is said to have originally been served to Chinese students in Nagasaki for its nutritional value; or sara-udon (literally meaning “udon noodles on a plate”) with the same ingredients on crisp noodles topped with thick sauce. We diplomatically shared both dishes. We hopped back on the tram, well nourished if over-fed, to travel back further into Nagasaki’s eventful history.

More than 300 years before the atomic bomb fell, an artificial half-island, Dejima (meaning “jutting-out island”), became the home of Portuguese and Dutch traders who were the only Europeans permitted to trade in Japan until the Meiji Period (1868-1912), and many keen Japanese students traveled to Nagasaki to study “Dutch learning,” or Western science, from them.

Today Dejima is home to reconstructed traditional houses and prized objects that the traders brought to Japan, including the telescope. Models, graphics and actors in traditional costumes attempt to reproduce Dejima when it was the cutting edge of culture and commerce in Japan. It is entertaining and highly informative, yet the authenticity is less convincing when the low walls around the “island” exposed to our offended camera lenses more modern structures of commerce, namely the ugly office blocks around the city center.

Craving a change from bustling artificiality, we headed to the hills outside the city center to visit Glover House, the oldest remaining colonial residence built when Japan was finally opened to merchants of various nationalities in 1859. Its original owner, Scottish trader Thomas Glover, was a model gaijin beloved by the Japanese, whose efforts in ship-building and mining earned him the Second Class Order of the Rising Sun from the Meiji Imperial Government in 1908. The surrounding gardens, well exposed to the sun on the hillside, were beautiful and peaceful, yet contrived efforts again lessen the effect as six other Western-style residences from around the city have been dismantled, moved and reconstructed around Glover House to form a bizarre, massive cul-de-sac. But the extensive view of the Nagasaki harbor alone is worth the visit.

Authentic nature and peace are a bus ride away from Nagasaki at Unzen, Japan’s first national park, situated on a mountain about 700 meters above sea level. But perhaps “peace” is not an appropriate word, since Unzen’s primary attraction are the springs ominously named Unzen jigoku (“hell”). And they certainly give you a taste of what hell may be like, with sulfurous hot water with high acidity of pH2, temperatures of up to 90 C and dense clouds of steam exuding an inescapable smell that could only be reproduced by being buried inside a massive rotten egg. But when in Rome, bathe as the Romans bathe, and we hurried to join the locals for a dip in these stimulating waters.

Above hell is heaven, and after our bath a climb further up exposed us to an entirely different kind of steamy cloud. Fog settled not only above but around and below us, enveloping the area in a cold chill. Even in August the average temperature there is around 21.7 C, which is about how cool Sapporo is.

Once we descended back into the warmer, if smellier, comforts of the town, we found our own heaven in the local dagashi-ya (traditional cheap candy store), where we bought everything from sour-plum sweets to unidentifiable sticky goo in long paper packages. We sucked and gobbled all the way back to Nagasaki on the bus ride around mountain edges, childishly waving candy sticks at the exquisite scenery of sea and sky that Dutch ships and American planes had crossed to such dramatic consequences years before.

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.


Coronavirus banner