Nagasaki: the Japanese city that has mastered the art of reinvention | Travel

Jhe approach to Nagasaki is perhaps the most beautiful of all flights in Japan – a carefully threaded route between mountains and over towns, bays and islands that appear like dark balls on a turquoise sweater. The city is approached by air more than many others of its size as it does not yet have a high-speed train station and the Japanese have binding societal rules for travel (and many more) – in this case, only if the train takes you fly more than three hours. In Japan, it often feels like no one drives too far.

However, the remarkable view from the air will be enjoyed by fewer people starting this month, with Nagasaki finally scheduled to join the Shinkansen high-speed rail network on September 23. This will open up the city to more domestic travelers and, coupled with recent news that visitors to Japan will no longer need to be part of a strict guided tour, hopefully to more foreigners as well.

Awaiting them is a city that had to be rebuilt after the 1945 nuclear attack, but has always been one of the most diverse places in the country – where, even today, Chinese influence is present in temples and the cuisine, and where the surrounding mountains and islands have stories and legends of their own. As one of Japan’s westernmost cities, on the island of Kyushu, spring comes early and fall comes late, giving it a very different feel to Tokyo and its tragic sister city. , Hiroshima, on the main island of Honshu.

Shimabara Castle, Nagasaki


My guide, Miyuki Ogawa, has the unenviable task of condensing the deeply complex history of her hometown into the few days I’m with her. She begins the boat trip to the old mining town of Hashima, nicknamed Gunkanjima, or Battleship Island. “You’ll see, it’s very unusual,” she says as we ride the waves towards the peculiar island, which features among other things as the lair of the villainous Raoul Silva in the James Bond film. celestial fall.

Today, typhoons and salty air tear the island apart, but at its peak in the 1960s, more than 5,000 people lived here, so crowded that Hashima had a population density nine times that of Tokyo. Men were sent 600m down its mine shafts while above, their families led relatively normal lives, although kindergarten-aged children had to climb to the tenth floor of a skyscraper to get to at their school. There was a drunken tank, which endures, but there wasn’t much room for privacy, so neighbors heard celebrations, arguments and also mourning – before Mitsubishi Corporation closed its operations here in 1974, many of its workers died while mining coal.

Back in Nagasaki, we take a seat at a cafe by the water and order cappuccinos. The chocolate dusting has been stencilled to look like revolutionary Sakamoto Ryoma, who was assassinated in 1867. “High-level samurai walked around here just 150 years ago,” Ogawa says, looking the other way port. Before us, the mighty giant cantilever crane has stood here since its importation from Motherwell in 1908, improbably surviving the Second World War.

Museum guides in costume at Dejima

Museum guides in costume at Dejima


Japan’s 265-year isolationist period, known as Sakoku, was violently enforced across the country. It started here at the end of the 16th century, when Portuguese priests and missionaries, after explaining the crucifixion of Christ to the locals, suffered the same fate by unreceptive local authorities. It is said that their bodies were then hung above Nagasaki to warn other potential visitors to stay away.

Despite this, the city evolved into the only place where foreign traders were allowed to do business. In 1634 they had their own neighborhood, Dejima, which today is a living museum that aims to recreate the remarkable years when the Dutch and Chinese were the only people allowed to visit the country. As we walk from one period building to another, Ogawa gestures towards the architecture and says, “It was Japan’s first cosmopolitan city. The two-story wooden structures have replica rooms demonstrating fusion: pottery and Western furniture have been placed on tatami mats, guarded by delicate paper doors.

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The history of Nagasaki is one of development: the first exchanges with foreigners; the later arrival of industrialists such as Thomas Blake Glover, the Scotsman whose ornamental gardens still offer marvelous views over the city; and now the high-speed train marking another phase of openness and accessibility. And yet, despite all this progress, when it comes to foreign involvement in the city, it is impossible to ignore the arrival of Fat Man – the bomb that turned the city to dust, brought here by an airplane called Bockscar August 9, 1945.

The city’s recovery is so complete – it has gardens, parks and post-war buildings similar to those found throughout the country – that without concerted Japanese efforts to remember the atomic bombing , a visitor might never know it happened . The first nuclear device, Little Boy, had been dropped on Hiroshima days earlier, but the citizens of Nagasaki who died in the plutonium explosion would not have known what hit them.

Perhaps because fewer people died here (about 70,000, compared to perhaps double in Hiroshima), the bombing of Nagasaki is less well known of the two, but for some locals Fat Man’s shadow continues to hang. fall on the city. The Atomic Bomb Museum focuses on the details of that terrible day, with graphic photographs of victims and profound testimonies from witnesses. One, attributed to a Jun Higashi, reads: “All the words used to describe this horrible sight from this day forward have become, for me, inadequate.”

Ogawa discusses it with admirable neutrality, despite the fact that his grandfather has a miraculous near miss that day. While working in a factory just outside of what would soon become a no-survival zone, he saw a flash in the sky and instinctively hid under a table. Almost all of his colleagues are dead. Later, in shock and disorientation, he was lucky again when his wife, carrying their daughter, found him wandering away from the wreckage.

Away from the museum, the bomb is a constant psychic presence for visitors and residents. On the cable car to Mount Inasa – one of the many peaks that circle Nagasaki, which offers magnificent 360-degree views – a disembodied voice in a vaguely American rhythm said calmly: “To your left you can see the hypocenter of the bomb atomic. It is a singularly strange thing to hear.

Nagasaki Peace Park was built for contemplation and mourning, filled with memorials, fountains, and manicured plants. For Inosuke Hayasaki, it has also become a second home. Now in his 90s, he comes whenever he can in hopes of meeting strangers, telling them his amazing story of survival and discussing the need to ban nuclear weapons. None have been let loose on people since the Nagasaki attack, and he hopes that will remain true forever.

“I was 14 years old and I worked in a munitions factory,” he says. “The bomb exploded and I was thrown behind a pillar. There were 32 of us working that day; I was the only one who survived. I mean . . .”

As Hayasaki speaks, an incongruous and cheerful electronic alarm goes off at 11:02 a.m., as it does every day to mark the moment the sky exploded over Nagasaki. Realizing what it is, my pen falters and my eyes fill with tears. The survivor continues to speak. It’s possible he can’t hear it or somehow got used to its dreadful melody, but at that point, to me, it’s the only sound in the world.

Jamie Lafferty was the guest of Kyushu Tourism ( Thirteen nights’ B&B on Inside Japan’s Kyushu Adventure, which includes time in Nagasaki, from £2,660 pp, including car hire, transfers and additional meals ( Travel to Nagasaki via Tokyo

A bullet train passes Mount Fuji

A bullet train passes Mount Fuji


Four more bullet train tours in Japan

1. Travel by train across the country
If you love the sound of high-speed trains, how about a full-fledged rail adventure? Using a succession of locomotives, this small-group tour travels across Japan from Hokkaido to Kyushu via guided excursions to Tokyo and temple-filled Kyoto. Along the way, you can cruise a crater lake, watch a traditional tea ceremony, see Mount Fuji, and visit a peace park in Hiroshima.
Fifteen nights B&B from £5,495 pp including flights and transport (

A vine bridge in the Iya Valley

A vine bridge in the Iya Valley


2. Hot springs and vine bridges
Traveling through southern Japan, this group tour combines urban fascination with natural wonders. You’ll stop in food-obsessed Osaka and Nagasaki before departing the latter by bullet train to a remote, cedar-forested island. World-class art island Naoshima also includes, just like monkeys, hiking trails to hot spring baths, a village populated by life-size scarecrows, and Indiana Jones-style crossings of the lush Iya Valley. kazurabashi vine bridges.
Eleven nights room-only from £3,285 pp including rail pass and transfers ( Fly to Osaka

Learn to make sushi in Tokyo

Learn to make sushi in Tokyo


3. Japan for foodies
Starting in the bustling city of Tokyo and ending amid the sacred shrines of Kyoto, here’s a tailor-made itinerary focusing on Japan’s legendary cuisine. After browsing the markets, you’ll learn how to make sushi rolls and miso soup; A sake tasting, soba noodle-making lesson, and breakfast at a Buddhist temple after watching monks chanting are also promised. A culinary tour of Osaka is also offered after a bullet train transfer, as are fascinating geisha quarters and a traditional stay in a ryokan.
Eleven nights B&B from £2,655 pp including transfers ( Fly to Tokyo

4. Origami, monkeys and Mount Fuji

A bullet train journey is just one element of this culture-focused Japanese group tour with Wendy Wu. Ticking Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka, it also includes experiences such as a lake cruise under the Mount Fuji, traditional tea ceremonies and origami classes. You’ll also have a sake tasting, stroll through an 800-year-old shrine dedicated to the samurai god Hachiman, walk through towering bamboo forests, and meet hot spring-loving snow monkeys at their Jigokudani shrine.
Details Ten nights full board from £5,890 pp including flights and transfers (

Richard Mellor

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Dora W. Clawson