Travel | A Weekend In

A weekend in Nagasaki: Diverse, vibrant and a haven for history buffs

by Jesse Chase-Lubitz

Staff Writer

Nagasaki has all the charm and strangeness you would expect from a religiously, culturally and historically diverse Japanese port city. Situated in western Kyushu, Nagasaki is a window into the world of Japan’s early trade with the West and its Edo Period (1603-1868) isolation, and a time capsule for the consequences of the world’s second atomic bomb.

Nestled between two mountain ranges, Nagasaki (literally “long cape”) is named for its shape. Starting at Nagasaki Station, you will find yourself on a central road that runs from the top to the bottom of the city. It’s best to divide your trip by region. Look to the north, look to the south, think about the possibilities. And now look to Hamamachi and Chinatown in the east — because that’s where you’ll find dinner.

The Hamamachi area is divided into two experiences: a bright shōtengai (shopping arcade) with clothing shops and chain restaurants; and small, winding backstreets with dumpling restaurants and izakaya taverns. The latter is where you’ll find Houuntei (known for its dumplings) as well as Tsuruchan — Kyushu’s oldest cafe, open since 1925. This is the place to try the local favorite, “Turkish rice” (a pile of pilaf topped with tonkatsu pork and slathered with curry). Inside it’s dark but cosy, with carpeted floors, ornate tablecloths and antique lamps. Make sure to go hungry: the portion sizes are generous.

All aglow: Nagasaki is home to Japan's oldest Chinatown, with lantern festivals held several times a year. | OSCAR BOYD
All aglow: Nagasaki is home to Japan’s oldest Chinatown, with lantern festivals held several times a year. | OSCAR BOYD

South of Hamamachi is Nagasaki Shinchi Chinatown, Japan’s oldest Chinatown. The area is marked by ornate gates, each decorated with a god from Chinese legend. Go in late September for the Mid-Autumn Festival, in which some 1,000 illuminated lanterns decorate the streets. If you’re still hungry, grab a goma dango (rice-flour balls filled with red bean paste and covered in sesame seeds), a must in Nagasaki.

Japan with a dash of Dutch

If you’re staying in Hamamachi, sights such as Sofukuji temple and Yasaka Shrine are within easy walking distance. A rare instance of Chinese Ming dynasty architecture in Japan, Sofukuji was built in 1629 to serve Nagasaki’s Chinese residents.

From Sofukuji you can walk to Dejima, the island used to isolate Portuguese traders from Japanese society in order to curb the spread of Christianity. The island is shaped like a fan and accessible only by crossing a dramatic bridge over what is, effectively, a moat. Originally a peninsula separated from the rest of Nagasaki by a purpose-dug canal, Dejima is now landlocked after massive land reclamation efforts.

During sakoku (Japan’s 200-odd years of isolation), Dejima housed the only Westerners in the country. Though the Portuguese were ultimately expelled from Japan in 1639, three years later Dejima was designated as a Dutch Trading Post and the Dutch influence is still evident across the city. An entrance fee of ¥520 gets you access to the “island,” with its model streets and calming Dutch music: Visit the miniature version of Dejima for a bird’s eye view of the town and stop in the houses to see various exhibits.

You can find more Dutch heritage at Hollander Slope, where many foreigners lived once the city opened up in 1859. It’s a strange experience walking from a typical Japanese landscape to a European one, complete with Western-style houses open to the public and filled with period furniture.

Period property: Glover Garden is home to some of the oldest Western-style houses built in Japan, including Former Glover House. | GETTY IMAGES
Period property: Glover Garden is home to some of the oldest Western-style houses built in Japan, including Former Glover House. | GETTY IMAGES

For another blend of East and West, head to Oura Church. Sat between a Buddhist temple and Shinto shrine, it’s a rare triad of diversity for Japan. Completed in 1865, it is said to be the oldest church in the country and is dedicated to the 26 Martyrs of Japan (a group of Catholics crucified in 1597). It resembles a mountain reaching toward the sky and, for ¥1,000, you can explore its interior and visit a museum on the history of Christianity in Japan. If you’re in town on a Sunday, you can join a lively and welcoming international mass from 12:30 p.m.

Next door is Glover Garden, an open-air landscape museum featuring gardens and mansions of former foreign residents. Former Glover House (1863) is the oldest wooden, Western-style building in Japan and originally belonged to Thomas Glover (1838-1911), a Scottish merchant and industrialist who helped modernize Japan and assisted key players in the Meiji Restoration in 1868. Visit the house and its garden for the sweeping port views at sunset.

Remembrance and restoration

On day two, head north. The city is accessible via its retro tramway system that dates back to 1915. For ¥130 you can get pretty much anywhere. But if you’re looking for more exercise, try walking through the backstreets; you’ll find yourself hiking up a mountain before long — and stumbling upon some hidden treasures.

A hill of escalators leads to Peace Park: an open area with a fountain at its center and sculptures donated from countries around the world. Established near the hypocenter of the atomic bomb blast that devastated Nagasaki on Aug. 9, 1945, Peace Park signifies a global commitment to ending nuclear warfare.

Somber reminders: A one-legged torii gate stands testament to Nagasaki's destruction by the atomic bomb dropped in 1945. | JESSE CHASE-LUBITZ
Somber reminders: A one-legged torii gate stands testament to Nagasaki’s destruction by the atomic bomb dropped in 1945. | JESSE CHASE-LUBITZ

The main attraction is the Peace Statue, a 9.7-meter-tall bronze statue of a god-like man painted in blue, right arm pointed to the sky, signaling the threat of nuclear weapons, and left arm outstretched to symbolize tranquility and world peace. His right leg is crossed in quiet meditation, while his left is poised for action. His eyes are closed and his face is soft in prayer for the victims.

Urakami Cathedral is a five-minute walk away and worth the visit. The still-active church is also historical, notable as a site where Christians were once persecuted and for its destruction by the atomic bomb, which exploded just 500 meters away. Rebuilt on the same site, pieces of the original facade that survived the attack are placed in front of the cathedral. Nearby is a stone that Christians were, in darker days, forced to sit on for 18 days in the winter — naked — until they renounced their faith.

From there you can walk down to Hypocenter Park — ground zero of the atomic bomb. Concentric rings of circular, shallow steps lead to the center, giving the illusion of ripples, helping to illustrate the scale and effect of the bomb. Steps run down to a stream, where stones exposed to the bombing still sit. Hypocenter Park allows you to experience the tragedy for a brief moment — to take the event out of the history books and feel the vulnerability of Nagasaki’s citizens.

Close by, the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum displays physical remnants and artefacts from the bomb blast, exhibits to illustrate its reach and impact, and personal accounts of those who survived. Look for the image of a one-legged torii gate and take a picture of it; later, as you walk toward Sanno Shrine, you will see that same torii. The symbolic scene of this splintered Shinto structure offers a reference point for just how much Nagasaki had to rebuild after the bomb.

For dinner, find a place serving champon noodles — a local speciality that was invented to feed the influx of Chinese students in the late 19th century. Kouzanrou is the best rated on Japan’s Tabelog website, but you can’t really go wrong with any establishment in Chinatown.

Scenic standout: Nagasaki's shimmering 'Ten Million Dollar Night View' | OSCAR BOYD
Scenic standout: Nagasaki’s shimmering ‘Ten Million Dollar Night View’ | OSCAR BOYD

One last look

To wind up your weekend in Nagasaki, spend the evening at Mount Inasa Observatory, making sure to get there before sunset. It’s possible to drive up the 333-meter mountain, but taking the ropeway from Fuchi Shrine is more exciting and has less traffic. At the top, after sunset, you’ll get the shimmering “Issenmandoru no Yakai” or “10 Million Dollar Night View” of Nagasaki and its neighboring areas.

Looking down on the city from on high, it’s easy to muse on the contrast between Nagasaki’s past and present, its mixture of triumph and tragedy, a city once destroyed but now rebuilt as a cosmopolitan center of western Japan.

Day trips from Nagasaki

Have a few days to spare? Nagasaki is rich in accessible, interesting day trips.

Just 1½ hours by car from the city is Mount Unzen, an active volcano and a hot spot for natural hot springs. Take the ropeway or hike up the mountain and then relax in one of the many onsen (hot-spring baths) on the mountain. Unzen Jigoku (literally Unzen Hell), a veritable field of hot springs, provides a suitably fire-and-brimstone setting for a grisly history — Christian rebels were tortured to death in the boiling waters here after the (failed) Shimabara Rebellion (1637-38).

Another option is Hashima, aka Gunkanjima (“Battleship Island”). Used as a coal mine from 1887 until 1974, this tiny 6.5-hectare island, 15 kilometers from Nagasaki, was once home to 5,000 residents and holds the record for highest population density in history. While you can still see the remnants of the mini coal world — a UNESCO-approved symbol of Japan’s industrialization — following September’s Typhoon Tapah, tours ( ¥4,000) do not currently allow curious travelers onto Gunkanjima itself, but rather take them on a ferry ride around the island.

Accommodation

Accommodation in Nagasaki is generally much cheaper than in Japan’s bigger cities, though it is still worth booking in advance for the best rates.

Casa Blanca Guesthouse (cb716.jp; from ¥2,500/night) is a conveniently located low-budget hostel, just to the north of Nagasaki’s Chinatown. Choose between female, male, or mixed floors, as well as a few private rooms. There’s a common room downstairs where guests can enjoy free toast and jam in the mornings.

Hotel Monterey Nagasaki (bit.ly/hmnagasaki; from ¥5,000/night) is a more upmarket affair. Replete with Portuguese influence, this hotel is styled with black-and-white tiled floors, antique furniture and ornate ceilings. The hotel is located a five-minute walk from Oura Church and Glover Garden in the south of the city.

Getting around

Affordable direct flights run daily between Nagasaki and Tokyo, as well as other airports across Japan.

If you’re looking to make a few stops in the northern Kyushu region, an easy two-hour bus runs to Fukuoka for ¥2,570. Nishitetsu highway buses operate every 15 minutes between the Hakata Bus Terminal and Tenjin Bus Center in Fukuoka, and Nagasaki Station.

Once there, Nagasaki is extremely walkable, but if your legs are feeling tired, you can also hop on one of the streetcars for just ¥130. A one-day pass for unlimited travel on trams costs just ¥500. Buy a Nagasaki Smart Card to avoid having to carry around tickets — this can be used on the city’s street-car and bus network.