Not particularly ancient, nor possessing any absolutely compelling sights, NAGASAKI (長崎) is nevertheless one of Japan’s more picturesque cities, gathered in the tucks and crevices of steep hills rising from a long, narrow harbour. Nagasaki’s appeal lies in its easy-going attitude and an unusually cosmopolitan culture, resulting from over two centuries of contact with foreigners when the rest of Japan was closed to the world, and cemented by its distance from Tokyo.

Nagasaki would probably have remained little more than a pleasant, attractive city with a bustling harbour if a chance break in the clouds on August 9, 1945, hadn’t seared it into the world’s consciousness as the target of the second atomic bomb dropped on Japan. It’s the A-Bomb hypocentre and nearby museum, as harrowing as that in Hiroshima, that brings most people to Nagasaki, yet the city has much else to offer. Successive communities of Chinese, Dutch, Portuguese and British have left their mark here, building colourful Chinese temples, Catholic churches and an array of European-style houses gathered in Glover Garden, as well as imported cuisines and festivals. Despite efforts to stamp out another European import, the Catholic faith, Nagasaki remains Japan’s centre of Christianity, claiming one-sixth of the country’s believers. It’s possible to cover the two main areas – the hypocentre and around Glover Garden – in a day, but Nagasaki deserves at least one extra night’s stopover to explore its backstreets, soak up some atmosphere and sample a few of the city’s culinary treats.

Some history

Portuguese traders first sailed into Nagasaki in 1570, establishing a trading post and Jesuit mission in what was then a small fishing village of just 1500 inhabitants. For a brief period, Christianity was a major influence here, but in the late sixteenth century Toyotomi Hideyoshi, fearing the missionaries would be followed by military intervention, started to move against the Church. Though the persecutions came in fits and starts, one of the more dramatic events occurred in Nagasaki in 1597 when Hideyoshi ordered the crucifixion of 26 Franciscans.

After 1616 the new shogun, Tokugawa Hidetada, gradually took control of all dealings with foreigners, and by the late 1630s only Chinese and Portuguese merchants continued to trade out of Nagasaki. The latter were initially confined to a tiny island enclave called Dejima, but in 1639 they too were expelled following a Christian-led rebellion in nearby Shimabara. Two years later, their place on Dejima was filled by Dutch merchants who had endeared themselves to the shogun by sending a warship against the rebels. For the next two hundred years this tiny Dutch group, together with a slightly larger Chinese community, provided Japan’s only link with the outside world. Dutch imports such as coffee, chocolate, billiards and badminton were introduced to Japan via Dejima.

Eventually, the restrictions began to ease, especially after the early seventeenth century, when technical books were allowed into Nagasaki, making the city once again Japan’s main conduit for Western learning. Nevertheless, it wasn’t until 1858 that five ports, including Nagasaki, opened for general trade. America, Britain and other nations established diplomatic missions as Nagasaki’s foreign community mushroomed and its economy boomed. New inventions flooded in: the printing press, brick-making and modern shipbuilding techniques all made their Japanese debut in Nagasaki. Then came high-scale industrial development and, of course, the events of 1945.

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