With my plans for Miyajima washed away in the rain, I returned to Hiroshima Station earlier than originally planned and continued my journey west across Japan. From Hiroshima I took a shinkansen (bullet train) west to Hakata Station in Fukuoka and then I got on a regional express train to Nagasaki. I remember reading online somewhere that in a decade or two a shinkansen line will link Fukuoka and Nagasaki, but for now you still have to take a regional train between them. The train that I got on was really crowded and for 2/3 of the ride I had to stand in one of the areas right by where the train cars connect. I didn’t have much of a view during that time and standing around wasn’t all that comfortable, but in the grand scheme of things this wasn’t anything worth complaining about and as people steadily got off the train at various towns along the route I was finally able to snag a seat for the final 1/3 of the ride.
I was renting a room in a house for my stay in Nagasaki and my host met me at Nagasaki Station. He only spoke a few words of English but we both had translation programs on our phones so we’d just use those to communicate. Once again I was impressed with how well Google Translate’s microphone function worked. It doesn’t perfectly translate English to Japanese and vice-versa, but it’s close enough that I could understand what a Japanese person was trying to say and they could understand me. The house I was staying in was just a bit north of Nagasaki Station and up on the slope of one of Nagasaki’s many hills. Needless to say, I’d be getting a small workout each time I climbed up to it. Recently I checked Google Maps on my phone and I realized that I still have a GPS marker for the house’s location. It was a little inconvenient to reach, and with all the stairs involved in going to and from the house I wouldn’t recommend it for anyone with roller luggage, but it was also interesting to be off the beaten path and navigating those narrow roads and footpaths through a less touristy part of town. When we arrived at my host’s house I momentarily tricked his wife into thinking that I spoke Japanese, because I had memorized the proper way to introduce myself and by that point in my journey I had gotten fairly good at mimicking the way that Japanese is pronounced. Of course I don’t actually speak Japanese, but for second there she looked genuinely surprised. Hopefully I didn’t overly disappoint her when the facade fell away. After settling in I went back down to the train station area and bought some food from a grocery store. I couldn’t help but notice while there, and during the rest of my time in Nagasaki, that there weren’t as many Westerners in this part of Japan as in some other regions of the country. There were plenty of Chinese, Korean, and other Asian tourists, but Westerners weren’t around in the same numbers as they had been in Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka. It seems like the farther away you get from that central region of Japan, roughly the area from around Tokyo to Osaka, the fewer Westerners you run into.
After dinner I went out for the night and walked down the hill, crossed the Uragami River, and made my way to the ropeway station at the base of Mt Inasa. Like Hakodate, Nagasaki has a famous nighttime view from the observation deck on top of Mt Inasa, but unlike Hakodate you can’t capture the whole city in a single photograph because Nagasaki is much larger. Cloud cover obscured most of the sky during the time I was up there but the moon managed to burst through a few times. Taking decent photos proved trickier than anticipated that night since I couldn’t find a good place to mount my small GorillaPod to keep my camera steady but on the plus side the Mt Inasa observation deck wasn’t nearly as crowded as the one at Mt Hakodate. I spent a little over half an hour outside on the observation deck before quickly checking out the rest of the area up there and then returning to the ropeway station to come down the mountain. Back at the house I uploaded some photos to social media before going to bed just after midnight.
My next day in Nagasaki was spent sightseeing around the city and began with the day’s main event: the Nagasaki Kunchi Festival. When I was planning out my journey across Japan I somehow hadn’t noticed this festival and it actually wasn’t until my host mentioned it to me a few days before my arrival that I even knew about it. The Kunchi Festival is held every year in Nagasaki from October 7-9 and has had a number of purposes over the preceding centuries. Originally in the late 1500s it was an autumn harvest festival, and then in 1642 it became a shrine festival for the city’s Suwa Shrine. During the period when Christianity was outlawed in Japan the festival was also an opportunity for government agents to try to find Christian influences and people who were secretly Christian converts, as it was customary for people to open up their homes for community inspection. These days the Kunchi Festival is Nagasaki’s biggest annual festival and celebrates both the city’s history and the influences that Chinese, Europeans, and others have had on the city. The big thing that everyone comes to see at the Kunchi Festival is the performances that are put on by residents from Nagasaki’s various city districts. The performers move around the city throughout the day and I caught up to them at an outdoor plaza near the train station just after the show had started. I believe the opening act that I missed was the Chinese-inspired dragon dance. A pair of shaded sitting areas had been set up in the plaza and the people in them had the best views of the performances but the seats were for VIPs only and I thought it best not to press my luck this time. Instead I found a place to stand among the rest of the crowd. While I could see everything I would have to hold my camera high above my head to get any decent photos or videos and by the time all the performances were done my arms and shoulders were exhausted. I remember there were seven performances I saw that morning—three involving very large and ornate parasols/umbrellas with long drapes that are called kasabokos and four with floats that looked like ships. There were also two or three quick ceremonies that happened between the main performances and I’m not sure what they were about but they appeared to be for giving local children some sort of recognition. Before each main performance starts the people involved would present themselves to the local elders who were sitting at the far end of the plaza. The kasaboko performances involved teams of five or six guys, with one man guiding the performance and the others taking turns carrying the kasaboko, which obviously was quite heavy. For the float performances there were teams of men pulling the floats around while groups of children sitting in the floats would play musical instruments and provide the beat for the men to follow. Each float had a unique look and represented a story from either mythology or history. Perhaps most notable was the float that looked like a Western ship. That performance was meant to represent Japan’s first contact with the Portuguese. Although all the floats looked different, the basics of each show were the same. The floats were pulled back and forth across the plaza while people chanted and then the tempo would be ratchet up several notches with the men pulling the floats as fast as they could, then bringing them to a stop, and sometimes spinning the floats around in circles (I could be wrong, but I think when they spin the floats it’s supposed to represent a ship caught in a storm). During all the performances there were also times where volunteers would lead the crowd in chants. I had no idea what the chants translated to but I joined in and shouted along with the crowd. When all the shows were done the performers left the plaza and the crowd started to disperse. There was a shrine at the far end o the plaza that I quickly examined and then I found a place to sit down for a few minutes. After all that standing and holding my camera above my head I needed a quick rest. It was also a warm, humid day, so any level of physical exertion was more taxing than usual.
Five minutes later I was feeling better and I then started moving south, checking out all the food stalls and other things that were set up for the festival along the way. Across the waterway I could see Mt Inasa, where I had been the night before. After leaving the festival area I passed through Dejima, which used to be an artificial island in Nagasaki’s harbor. In the 1600s Dejima was the site of Nagasaki’s Portuguese trading post but it was given to the Dutch when all the other Europeans were kicked out of the country and Japan began its period of isolation. The Dutch could continue doing business with Japan, but they were kept segregated from the Japanese on Dejima. If I remember my history correctly, the Dutch were allowed to stay because they were Protestant and the shogun was really scared of Catholics; he had heard of this guy called the Pope who had the power to make Catholic nations work together and feared they’d all team up to invade Japan. The English almost were allowed to stay in Japan, but the Dutch tricked the shogun into thinking the English were Catholic, and consequently the English got the boot too. These days Dejima is no longer an island due to the area around it being reclaimed from the sea in the 1900s. As I continued on from Dejima I made my way to Nagasaki’s Chinatown but just before I got there I ran into the Portuguese Ship float that I had seen in the performances earlier in the day. The team of men and children were doing mini-performances in front of certain businesses and I’m guessing that the owners of those shops had helped fund the festival. I took a quick photo of the float and then moved on to Chinatown. Like the Dutch, the Chinese had heavy restrictions placed on them during Japan’s period of isolation and the place that is today’s Chinatown used to be a reclaimed island. I personally didn’t find Nagasaki’s Chinatown to be all that remarkable but it’s worth a quick five-minute visit if you have time, and from what I’ve seen online it’s probably at its best if you happen to be in Nagasaki during the annual lantern festival.
I then continued on further south to see more of the city’s Western-related sites and first came to the Dutch Slope. After Japan ended its period of isolation this part of Nagasaki became home to a fair number of Westerners that moved into the city. Locals referred to this area as the Dutch Slope because the Dutch had been the only Westerners that the Japanese had been in contact with for the previous 200 years and they had developed a habit of referring to all Westerners as Dutch, regardless of where they were actually from. Most of the houses from that era are now gone but you can still see a few if you look for them. Not too far from the Dutch Slope is Oura Church, the oldest standing church in Japan. The church was built in 1864 by Catholic missionaries and is dedicated to the memory of the 26 martyrs who were executed by the government in 1597. If you’ve ever been to the great cathedrals of Europe you’ll see that Oura Church is pretty basic by comparison, and I’ll admit the admission fee is surprisingly high, but it’s probably Japan’s most famous church and if you’re a history buff you’ll likely want to check it out. Almost next door to Oura Church is Glover Garden, an open-air museum that is home to several houses and other buildings that belonged to prominent foreigners who moved into the city. Many of them played important parts helping Japan modernize during the Meiji Restoration period. Glover Garden is up on a hill but thankfully there are escalators to make the ascent easier. The main attraction of the garden is the house that used to belong to Thomas Glover, a Scottish merchant for whom the garden is named. From the top of Glover Garden you have a half-decent view of Nagasaki and when you leave the garden the last thing you’ll do is pass through a small museum that holds some of the floats from previous years of the Kunchi Festival.
When I came down from Glover Garden it was the late afternoon and I started making my way back towards the festival area. Before getting there I detoured into Nagasaki Seaside Park. A lot of people, locals and tourists alike, were hanging out and enjoying the outdoors. A school marching band was standing around near their buses and all their instruments were laying on the ground. Right behind them was a cruise ship and to the south I could see an absolutely massive cruise ship that partially blocked the view of the distant Megamio Bridge. Once I had passed through the park I was soon back in the festival area and I checked out the various stalls and booths as I slowly made my way back north. I couldn’t help but notice that one of the stalls was serving Turkish ice cream, something that I hadn’t seen since 2015 when I was in Istanbul and I didn’t expect to find out in Japan. Vendors of Turkish ice cream are constantly churning it, like the ice cream is going to harden if they let it sit for too long (sort of like adamantium). In another part of the festival there were a few tents set up with people selling hand tools, knives, gardening equipment, and other stuff, and I had a brief moment where I jokingly considered whether or not I was in need of some hedge clippers. Most of the festival stalls, however, were what you’d expect: food from across Japan, games, and an assortment of trinkets and gifts for sale. When I got to the north end of the festival area my legs were thoroughly beat from walking all day and I bought some food before lugging my tired self up the steps to the house. Taking a shower that evening felt great and I also washed two of my sweaty shirts. I needed to rest so there would be no heading out that night.
The next morning I loaded up my backpack and left it at the front door of the house while I went out for a few more hours of sightseeing. A tram took me north to the Nagasaki Peace Park, which is similar to Hiroshima’s peace park in theme but the Nagasaki park has a number of outdoor statues and other monuments that have been donated to it over the years. I remember there was an old man standing nearby a bell with a pair of drawings depicting the horrific aftermath of the atomic bomb being dropped on the city. An English/Japanese description below the drawings had a quote from a person who had narrowly survived the blast because he was standing behind a thick, heavy column when the bomb detonated. The old man spoke in Japanese so I couldn’t tell if he was the survivor who was quoted or someone else, but judging from his age my guess is that he might have been a child when Nagasaki was hit. A few minutes walk from the Peace Park is Nagasaki’s Hypocenter Park. A single black column marks the exact center of the blast. A few steps from the column is a damaged pillar from Urakami Cathedral—a church that was a few hundred meters away from the hypocenter. The pillar is one of the few parts of the cathedral that was still standing in the aftermath and it was moved to the park in the years after the bombing. As an interesting historical note, Nagasaki’s bomb actually missed its intended target area, hence why the hypocenter is in the northern part of the city. Nagasaki’s hilly terrain also shielded parts of the city from the worst of the blast, so even though the plutonium bomb that hit Nagasaki was more powerful than the uranium bomb that hit Hiroshima, there were fewer deaths in Nagasaki.
Boarding a tram headed south towards the train station, I originally was going to go back to the house and grab my backpack but I decided to do a final short visit back to the festival area. Because trains going between Nagasaki and Fukuoka leave very regularly this only delayed by departure by a single hour. I walked around the festival one last time, and I even bought something that I’ve never had in America: the ice cream of the future, Dippin’ Dots. They actually tasted fairly good, but they’re just as expensive in Japan as they are in America. On the plus side it was good to get something cold in me on a hot day like that one. Near the train station I once again ran into the Portuguese Ship float, though this time it was sitting around for public display.
When I was done at the festival I made my way to the house and climbed those stairs one last time. I toweled off my sweat and said goodbye to my host as I pick up my backpack and started the descent towards the train station. Nagasaki was as far west as I would be going in Japan and in a few more days I’d be flying to Korea, but I still had two more places to quickly visit before that. My next destination was the town of Itoshima, where I’d really get off the Gaijin Trail and see a part of the country that few other outsiders do.