Don’t Skip: Nagasaki, Japan

Sofuku-ji Roof Tiles

Intro to Nagasaki

Fishing village to busy port

Modern visitors to Nagasaki may not realize there’s a lot more to the city’s history than its sad title as one of the places an atomic bomb was dropped in 1945. Nagasaki was once a sleepy fishing village. When the Portuguese arrived in the 16th century, they soon began to build up a busy port here. As churches were built and converts Christianity increased, local warlords became more distrustful of the foreigners, and Christianity was eventually banned entirely. The Portuguese were dispelled, and all foreigners were banned to a small island called Dejima (the Dutch were the only ones allowed to trade) where they could be more easily controlled. It was through this small island off Nagasaki that all European trade and contact with Japan happened from the mid 1600’s until Commodore Perry and his Black Ships arrived at Tokyo Bay. (Dejima continues to be developed to showcase its historic past). In the late 1850s Nagasaki was one of the first ports to receive foreign ships when Japan was re-opened to foreign trade. Certain areas of the city were earmarked for foreign settlement, and remnants of this history remain. A residence was built for Thomas Blake Glover, an infamous Scottish merchant in the 1860s. The western style house later became a landmark, one of the few remaining buildings of this type from when Nagasaki thrived as a free trade port. Crowds are still drawn to the beautiful Glover Garden.

Urakami Cathedral Ruins at Hypocenter Nagasaki

Urakami Cathedral Ruins at Hypocenter Nagasaki

World War II

Most of us have been taught something about the World War II bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but being there, hearing people’s stories and realizing the magnitude and permanence of the damage has a completely different and personal kind of impact. Almost 70% of the victims in Nagasaki were women, children or elderly. Many of those who survived the initial impact died a painful death within hours or sometimes days or months. Cancers related to radiation resulted for many years after. Visiting Nagasaki can be painful, but remembering what happened here is important too. Nagasaki is not all about its dark past though. The city that emerged from the ashes is a strong symbol of hope.

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Museums and Memorials

The Peace Memorial Hall for Atomic Bomb Victims includes lots of information, but is geared toward prayer and the contemplation of peace. The mission is to “convey the reality of the atomic bomb damages to people both in Japan and abroad, to inform future generations, to learn from history and to build a peaceful world free from nuclear weapons.” The Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum (長崎原爆資料館, Nagasaki Genbaku Shiryōkan) is located just north of the Peace Memorial Hall. There is a Statue in Memory of Schoolchildren and Teachers between the two museums. The Hypocenter (the exact spot above which the bomb detonated) is in a park just across the road from the museums. It’s a wide, open space that many use for prayer and meditation. Heiwa-kōen (Peace Park) contains sculptures donated by nations around the world as well as the main Nagasaki Peace Statue.

Nagasaki Temples and Churches

There are fourteen temples and two shrines along Tera-machi-dori (which translates as something like Temple Town Street). One of the most famous is a Chinese-style temple called Kofuku-ji, the oldest of this style in Japan. There were many Chinese living in Nagasaki in the early 1600s when the city was a busy international port. There is a therefore a high concentration of these Chinese style temples here, a noticeable difference from other famous Japanese temple cities like Nara and Kyoto. Suwa Shrine and Sofuku Shrine are others to keep an eye out for.

In a different part of the city, one of our favorite spots was Fukusai-ji, which includes a 60 foot tall Kannon statue riding on the back of a giant turtle. The basement of the temple houses the end of a 25 meter Foucault Pendulum, which demonstrates the rotation of the Earth as it swings. The original temple here was totally burned to the ground with the bombing. There are trees outside that show their 65-year regrowth, with a charred section at the bottom where they too burned! The temple bell here is rung at 11:02 am every day, the exact time the atomic bomb exploded over Nagasaki. If you’re lucky, there will be someone around to show you around inside the temple, as the charismatic 85-year old caretaker did were when we visited.

Churches and Christian Sites

There are a dozen or sites around Nagasaki that teach something about the complicated role of Christianity in Japan. They are collectively known as the Churches and Christian Sites of Nagasaki, and are under consideration by UNESCO for designation as a World Heritage site. Probably the most famous of these is Oura Catholic Church, built by a French priest in the 1800s in the Gothic style, and dedicated to the 26 Martyrs of Japan. These were 6 European missionaries and 20 Japanese followers who were executed in Nagasaki in 1597 under the government’s prohibition of Christianity. Much of the French stained glass was damaged in the bomb blast, but some has been restored.

Spectacle Bridge Nagasaki

Spectacle Bridge

Bridges of Nagasaki

There are many small shops along the Nakashima River, and it’s a great place to walk and people watch. There are a number of stone bridges crossing the river. The historic Megane (Spectacle) Bridge dates back to the 17th century, and is said to be the oldest stone arch bridge in Japan. It’s famous for the resemblance of its 2-circle reflection, to a pair of glasses. The Fukuro bridge has steps going down to the riverside.

Where We Stayed

We were able to cash in some hotel points and stay in the Nagasaki Comfort Hotel (a Comfort Inn, part of the Choice Hotels Group). Rooms are small but comfortable. There’s free WiFi and you can take advantage of guest laundry (not free). Breakfast is included, and the spread is ample enough to fill you up for many hours of walking. The Japanese offerings (soups, rice balls, salad, steamed rice, warm selections) are better than the Western which consist mainly of cereal, donuts and pastries. There are plenty of restaurants within walking distance, including a really fun rooftop beer garden with views of the bay. It’s located on the top floor of the New Tanda Hotel, and you pay a flat fee for all you can eat (buffet with hot and cold snacks) and drink (beer and chuhai) for 2 hours.

About the author

Tamara and Donny have wandered together since 2004, with no cure for their insatiable wanderlust. They write about discovering new destinations including beautiful photography, plus budget travel tips and how to give back through travel.