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.

Nagasaki 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.

August 9, 1945

In the early twentieth century Nagasaki became an important naval base with huge munitions factories, which made it an obvious target for America’s second atomic bomb in 1945. Even so, it was only poor visibility at Kokura, near Fukuoka, that forced the bomber, critically short of fuel, south to Nagasaki. The weather was bad there too, but as the Bock’s Car B-29 bomber flew down the Urakami-gawa at 11am on August 9, a crack in the cloud revealed a sports stadium just north of the factories and shipyards. A few moments later “Fat Boy” exploded. It’s estimated that over 70,000 people died in the first seconds, rising to 140,000 from radiation exposure by 1950, while 75,000 were injured and nearly forty percent of the city’s houses destroyed in the blast and its raging fires. Horrific though these figures are, they would have been higher if the valley walls hadn’t contained the blast and a spur of hills shielded southern Nagasaki from the worst. An American naval officer visiting the city a few weeks later described his awe at the “deadness, the absolute essence of death in the sense of finality without resurrection. It’s everywhere and nothing has escaped its touch.” But the city, at least, did rise again to take its place with Hiroshima as a centre for anti-nuclear protest and hosts many ardent campaigns for world peace.

Battleship Island

Jutting out of the sea about 15km off Nagasaki lies the city’s newest attraction, and perhaps its most fascinating. Properly known as Hashima, it’s more commonly referred to as Gunkan-jima, or “Battleship Island”; this may sound like a board game or pirate film, but the reality is far more interesting.

Gunkan-jima was once one of Japan’s most important sources of coal, and from 1890 to 1974 was inhabited by hundreds of miners and their families. This dense concentration of people gave Japan a sneak preview of what it has become today – Gunkan-jima boasted the country’s first ever high-rise concrete buildings, which together with the island’s high sea walls make it appear from a distance like some huge and rather monstrous ship, hence the name. For a time it functioned quite well, with just enough schools, shops and housing to keep its tiny population satisfied. However, mainland Japan soon raced ahead development-wise, giving this brave attempt at urban utopia a relatively improverished appearance. Its fate was sealed when the domestic coal industry collapsed in the mid-1970s; the island was abandoned and left to decay.

Gunkan-jima was only opened up to tourism in 2009, and it is now possible to visit on half-day trips, organized through the tourist office. It’s wise to book at least a couple of days ahead, and trips can be cancelled in bad weather. There are two tours available – a three-hour one which includes a brief stop on the island (¥4300), or a two-hour version which merely scoots around it (¥3300).

Madame Butterfly

Puccini’s opera, written in the early twentieth century, tells the story of an American lieutenant stationed in Nagasaki who marries a Japanese woman known as Madame Butterfly. Whereas she has given up her religion and earned the wrath of her family to enter the marriage, Lt. Pinkerton treats the marriage far less seriously, and is soon posted back to the US. Unknown to Pinkerton, Butterfly has given birth to their son and is waiting faithfully for his return when he arrives back in Nagasaki three years later. Butterfly pretties up her house and prepares to present her child to the proud father. Pinkerton, meanwhile, has remarried in America and brings his new wife to meet the unsuspecting Butterfly. When he offers to adopt the child, poor Butterfly agrees and tells him to come back later. She then embraces her son and falls on her father’s sword.

The opera was adapted from a play by David Belasco, though some attribute it to a book by Frenchman Pierre Loti who wrote Madame Chrysanthème after spending a month in Nagasaki in 1885 with a young Japanese woman called Kane. Whatever its origin, the opera was not well received at its debut and Puccini was forced to rewrite Pinkerton and his American wife in a more sympathetic light. Efforts to trace the real Pinkerton have led to a William B. Franklin, but there are many contenders; it was common practice in the late nineteenth century for Western males stationed in Japan to “marry” a geisha in order to secure their companion’s faithfulness and reduce the spread of venereal disease. In return, they provided accommodation plus some remuneration. As soon as the posting ended, however, the agreement was considered null and void on both sides.

The Atomic Bomb Museum

One enters the Atomic Bomb Museum (長崎原爆資料館) via a symbolic, spiralling descent. Views of prewar Nagasaki then lead abruptly into a darkened room full of twisted iron girders, blackened masonry and videos constantly scrolling through horrific photos of the dead and dying. It’s strong stuff, occasionally too much for some, but the most moving exhibits are always those single fragments of an individual life – a charred lunchbox, twisted pair of glasses or the chilling shadow of a man etched on wooden planks.

The purpose of the museum isn’t only to shock, and the displays are packed with information, much of it in English, tracing the history of atomic weapons, the effects of the bomb and the heroic efforts of ill-equipped emergency teams who had little idea what they were facing. There’s a fascinating video library of interviews with survivors, including some of the foreigners present in Nagasaki at the time; figures vary, but probably more than 12,000 of these were killed in the blast, mostly Korean forced-labour working in the Mitsubishi shipyards, as well as Dutch, Australian and British prisoners of war. The museum then broadens out to examine the whole issue of nuclear weapons and ends with a depressing video about the arms race and test ban treaties.

Just outside the museum is Hypocentre Park, where an austere black pillar marks the exact spot where the bomb exploded 500m above the ground. The neighbouring Peace Memorial Hall, also buried underground, is another place for quiet reflection, its centrepiece a remembrance hall where the names of victims are recorded in 141 volumes.

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