So I am finally back in Singapore. Experiencing post-trip lethargy as usual. I figure I should get started on blogging now before it becomes impossible for me to return to my usual weekly schedule and I fall into the eternal dark void of procrastination.
Nagasaki was the first city in Kyushu I really visited, not counting a short transit at Fukuoka, and it was pretty awesome.
Nagasaki is a great place to visit if you are interested in Japanese history. The port city played an important role in the development of Japan leading up to and beyond the Meiji Restoration because it was more or less the only place in Japan that permitted foreign presence during more than two centuries of self-imposed isolation under the Tokugawa shogunate. Influence from Dutch and Chinese traders can be seen in many parts of the city’s culture and history.
Dejima was an artificial island used to house Portuguese traders and later Dutch traders after the Portuguese were barred from the country because their missionary efforts were stirring unrest. The island is more well-known for the period of time when the Dutch inhabited it and therefore it is also called the “Dutch Factory”. The senior Dutch trader in charge of Dejima was called the chief factor. lol.
I learnt about Dejima in school and thought it was kind of cool. In an age with limited means of communication, a physical moat was all it took to restrict cultural exchange between the foreign traders and the rest of Japan. But despite the forced isolation, Dejima and its Dutch inhabitants still managed to eventually influence the development of academia and knowledge in Japan, to the point that 蘭学 (rangaku, literally “Dutch study”) became a term for the study of science.
Still, I was kind of disappointed to find out that the original Dejima had been long gone by the 20th century after the opening of Japan. The sea around it was reclaimed into the modern harbor area and Dejima itself became just another plot of land. The current Dejima is a reconstruction that resulted from post-war excavations and research and it is a work-in-progress with many buildings not yet fully restored.
Also, I am reminded of that Dutch ambassador character from Samurai Champloo. Heh.
What is it with Nagasaki and squeezing people onto tiny islands, I wonder? A mostly artificial coal-mining island-city that once boasted the highest population density in the world, it is today a huge urban ruin and a nice sightseeing spot. Read more about it in my earlier post.
Nagasaki was a port for trading with China for centuries and features plenty of Chinese influences such as its specialty dish Champon. Therefore, it came as quite a surprise to discover that the city’s famous Chinatown is really just two short streets joined in a cross. Although I didn’t really like Yokohama’s Chinatown because it felt like an artificial gathering of tourist traps, at least it was pretty big.
On hindsight, this shouldn’t have been unexpected given that Yokohama has a population of more than 3 million while Nagasaki has fewer than 500 thousand. There are quite a number of wards in Tokyo that are more populated than that…
Although Christianity landed in Kagoshima first in the form of Francis Xavier, it was in Nagasaki where it really took off due to Portuguese’s mixing of missionary work and trade that eventually led to their expulsion. Initially permitted, Christianity was subsequently banned by the shogunate for inducing subversive sentiments. The converts went into hiding and became known as Kakure Kirishitan or hidden Christians. After the Meiji Restoration brought Western-style religious freedom, these communities came out of hiding and built various churches and Christian monuments in Nagasaki.
During the years of persecution, many of these Kakure Kirishitan carried with them small statues apparently depicting the Buddhist goddess Kannon carrying an infant in her arms. This was meant to be the Virgin Mary but made to look like Kannon in order to fool the authorities.
And in a somewhat ironic twist, the Urakami Cathedral, built after 30 years of hard work by former Kakure Kirishitan enjoying their newfound religious freedom and the largest church in East Asia at the time, was completely destroyed by the plutonium atomic bomb that detonated just a few hundred metres from its former location.
Unfortunately, Nagasaki always seems to play second fiddle to Hiroshima when it comes to atomic history, perhaps because Hiroshima was bombed first or perhaps because Hiroshima today is a much larger city. This difference is also reflected in the resources dedicated to their respective peace memorials. That said, the Nagasaki memorial and its associated museum are still very educational and interesting places to visit.
For some reason, the Peace Park near the memorial features a cluster of statures donated by countries that formerly belonged to the Communist bloc, including China, the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia and the German Democratic Republic. Perhaps it was some kind of Cold War up-yours attempt at reminding the world that as crappy as Communism may be, at least it wasn’t the side responsible for using nuclear weapons against civilians.
This slightly-weird looking stature is the main stature in the park meant to commemorate the bombing. It is rather huge. Its Japanese sculptor intended for it to evoke the features of both Jesus and Buddha. The stature’s right hand points at the threat of atomic bombs from above while its left hand gestures for peace.
Nagasaki’s night view from on top of Mt. Inasa is widely known as one of Japan’s top three night views alongside Kobe and Hakodate. I originally didn’t plan to go up there because the mountain is rather far from the rest of the locations, but a friendly taxi driver offered to take me and my friend up there and to a few other scenic spots for quite a good price. It was quite lucky of us because the view was really breathtaking.
Nagasaki city is located in by a bay surrounded by mountains. Other than the harbour area built on reclaimed flat land, the entire city is built on slopes. This is why almost nobody in Nagasaki rides a bicycle compared to most Japanese cities. Imagine the typical claustrophobic Japanese suburban streets that can barely fit one car. Now imagine them swirling around across the side of a mountain. Many of the houses in Nagasaki are not even accessible by cars and the inhabitants have to walk home from the nearest bus stop.
The flip side of this inconvenient city layout is the awesome night view. From atop Mt. Inasa, you look down towards a flat bay area, where the taller commercial buildings are. Other than the exit to the sea, the bay area is surrounded by mountain ranges and the sides of the mountains are littered with tens of thousands of household lights. Quite a different experience from the usual city night view comprising of high-rise buildings. Unfortunately, my crappy photos don’t really capture the awe-inspiring feeling.
My only real complaint about Nagasaki is that it is a bloody pain to access. The nearest Shinkansen station is Hakata, Fukuoka and it takes more than two hours by regular express train to get to Nagasaki station from there. The train ride is pretty bumpy and uncomfortable.
Still, a pretty awesome city to visit. Probably not so great to live in considering how hilly it is.