When you mention Nagasaki, Japan, most westerners immediately associate this port city situated on the island of Kyushu, with the August 9, 1945 nuclear bomb that killed over 100,000 people, forcing Japan to surrender officially ending WWII. But Nagasaki’s history is far more extensive than this tragic event that has emblazoned its name in the minds of millions.
Nagasaki played an important role in Japan’s emergence as a modern nation. Not only did it serve as a principal connection with the West, welcoming Dutch and Portuguese traders and missionaries, but due to its close proximity to the Asian mainland, the city prospered greatly from trade established with China and Korea. Unfortunately, Japan’s period of isolation significantly impacted Nagasaki’s prosperity and growth, restricting foreign contact in Nagasaki to a small Dutch enclave on the island of Dejima just off of Nagasaki Harbor. Through this small outpost, a trickle of Western science and culture found its way into Japan and by 1720 the city emerged as a prominent scientific and artistic center. When Nagasaki reopened to the West in 1859, it quickly re-established itself as a major economic force, dominating in the area of shipbuilding, which made it an allied target on August 9, 1945.
Approximately 40% of the city’s structures were completely destroyed or severely damaged by the nuclear bomb. The city has since been rebuilt and has become an important tourist center. There are several historic sites such as the Sofuku ji Chinese Temple dating back to 1629, the Glover Garden, the Peace Park, which was established under the point of detonation of the bomb, and The Roman Catholic Cathedral of Urakami, which was rebuilt in 1959 to replace the original 1914 structure destroyed by the bomb, just to name a few.
Sofuku ji was constructed by Nagasaki’s Chinese residents back in 1629 and is one of the best examples of Ming Dynasty architecture in the world. The temple is open to the public daily from 8:00 AM to 5:00 PM and admission is ¥300.
Glover Garden is Nagasaki’s top tourist attraction attracting nearly 2 million visitors a year. It features Japan’s oldest Western style house set in a beautiful garden overlooking Nagasaki Harbor. The house and garden were completed in 1863 by Hidenoshin Koyama for Thomas Blake Glover, who traveled to Nagasaki from Scotland in 1859 at the age of 21. Thomas Blake Glover prospered through his knowledge of ship building, coal mining and other economically valuable trades he used to help modernize these industries in Japan. The design of Glover Garden reminded many people of the scenes in the opera Madame Butterfly by Puccini and the Glover House came to be known as the Madame Butterfly House. Consequently, statues of Puccini and diva Miura Tamaki, who played Cio-Cio-san, were erected in Glover Garden. The garden is open to the public from 8:00 AM to 6:00 PM and admission is ¥600.
Established in 1955, the Nagasaki Peace Park commemorates the atomic bombing of the city in 1945 and is situated next to the Atomic Bomb Museum and the Peace Memorial Hall. At the park’s north end is the 32-foot Peace Statue created by sculptor Seibo Kitamura. The statue’s right hand points to the threat of nuclear weapons while the extended left hand symbolizes eternal peace. The mild face symbolizes divine grace and the gently closed eyes offer a prayer for the bomb victims’ souls. The folded right leg and extended left leg signify both meditation and the initiative to stand up and rescue the people of the world. Installed in front of the statue is a black marble vault containing the names of the atomic bomb victims and survivors who died in subsequent years.
Urakami Cathedral also known as St. Mary’s Cathedral was once the largest Catholic Church in Asia. It was completely destroyed when the bomb detonated just 1,640 feet away. The Cathedral was filled with Catholics celebrating mass as the Feast of the Assumption of Mary (August 15) was near. The resultant collapse and heat-wave cindered and buried all those present in the Cathedral that day. Statues and artifacts damaged in the bombing, including a French Angelus bell, are now displayed on the grounds. The nearby Peace Park contains remnants of the original cathedral’s walls. What remained of the cathedral is now on display in the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum.
Another Nagasaki attraction worth visiting is the Site of the Martyrdom of the 26 Saints of Japan. This monument and museum stand on the location where 20 Japanese Christians and six European missionaries were crucified in 1597. The martyrs were canonized as saints in 1862. The small museum, which stands behind the monument contains one of the best collections of Christian artifacts and paraphernalia in East Asia, including many original letters and documents dating from the time of St. Francis Xavier. The site is only 10 minutes on foot from Nagasaki Station.
If you want to see Japan’s sole contact with the west during the isolation period, visit Dejima, the site of the Former Dutch Factory located near Nagasaki Port Terminal. Dejima was built to keep the West away from the locals in order to prevent the spread of Christianity. While only a few pieces of the original building foundations remain, many of the buildings have been recreated according to what is known about them. You can walk inside the warehouses, quarters, kitchen and other rooms. The island also contains some 20 or so shops including restaurants.
For you James Bond fans, the 2012 movie Skyfall, featured Nagasaki’s next attraction, Gunkanjima(Battleship Island). It was once a mining city, which was abandoned in 1974. Regarded as the most densely populated place on earth, it’s now a ghost town, showing the decay of what society had left behind. Prior to 2009, no one was permitted on the island, but the ban has since been lifted and the island is now reachable by fery from Nagasaki Port.
Finally, there is a little known attraction on an uninhabited islet about 196 feet wide that is starting to garner more attention and attract more visitors. It is the Kojima Shrine, a Shinto holy site on Maekojima that is only reachable during low tide. Visitors approach the island on foot and then climb a path that leads through trees to the rear of the island, where the unmanned shrine stands. Shinto believers consider the island to be a sacred spot and visitors are asked to refrain from taking any leaves, twigs or pebbles as souvenirs.
So, whether you are interested in seeing the influence of Dutch, Portuguese and Chinese cultures in Japan, witnessing the devastation created during World War II or just familiarizing yourself with and enjoying another region in this wonderful country, Nagasaki should definitely be on your bucket list.