Out of the ashes, Nagasaki is reborn with vibrant history and delicious cuisine.
Nagasaki is famous for tragedy, but the city was known for its history well before it was hit with an atomic bomb at the end of the Second World War. Nagasaki is a large city on the southern island of Kyushu, lying on a peninsula and enjoying subtropical temperatures throughout the year. It is about a two-hour drive from Fukuoka, or a 2.5-hour ride by train from Hakata Station through scenic mountains, past bays and harbours. Since its near-complete destruction in 1945, Nagasaki has rebuilt itself with a firm grasp on its history as a trading port serving Portuguese explorers, Jesuits, and Dutch, British and Chinese traders, and looking forward to its future as a shipbuilding centre, while continuing to advocate for the importance of peace throughout the world. The city is home to many famous landmarks, from the Peace Park to Hollander Slopes, the Nakashima-gawa bridges to Glover Garden, and from Chinatown to Dutch theme parks.
Located near the hypocentre where the atomic bomb was dropped, the Peace Park is a serene memorial to the damage caused by the 1945 attack. There are beautiful gardens and numerous statues advocating peace that were donated by countries and regimes, many of which no longer exist: the USSR, the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) and Czechoslovakia, among many others. Towering 14 metres above the park is a statue whose hands point up towards the continuing threat of nuclear weapons and forward towards peace. Past the statues, there is a sombre monolith marking the point below the detonation of the bomb, where plaques explain the destruction caused by the bomb and its aftermath. Nearby stand the ruins of Urakami Cathedral. A short walk from the hypocentre brings us to Sannō Jinja, home to the one-legged torii and to two camphor trees that managed to survive the destruction of the bomb, a testament to the resilience of nature.
A medieval town with a European edge
The city enjoys a long history beginning in the Middle Ages, when it was a small fishing village. Portuguese explorers and traders began visiting the city in the 1500s and spread not only trade goods, but religion as well. Several churches were built, the largest being Ōura Cathedral (大浦天主 堂). After some time, British, Dutch and Chinese traders joined the Portuguese explorers and Jesuit missionaries. Eventually, the local daimyo (feudal lord), concerned about maintaining order, herded the foreigners into segregated areas, which are now known as Hollander Slope and Chinatown.
Today, you can walk along the Hollander (or Dutch) Slope with its cobblestone steps and ivy-covered walls, and stroll past the Ōura Cathedral. The people of Nagasaki once referred to all non-Asians as “Hollanders,” which afforded the area its name. The area was home to British, Dutch and Portuguese immigrants during the 18th and 19th centuries, and the architecture reflects their heritage. Visit Glover Garden (グラバー園), where European-style homes built for foreign traders and diplomats were relocated after the Meiji Restoration. A day trip to the theme park Huis Ten Bosch is an interesting excursion that shows off the Japanese take on Dutch-style architecture.
Take a scenic walk along the Nakashima River (中 島川) and through the centre of town, where cafés and shops line the street. The river is known for its collection of ten 17th-century bridges, including the famous Megane-bashi Bridge (眼鏡橋), named for the way its reflection on the water makes it look like a pair of glasses. Watch koi swim past while you skip across the river on strategically placed stones.
During the summer, Hashima, or Gunkanjima (Battleship Island), is worth a visit. A small island abandoned in 1974, Hashima is now a ghost town. Take a ferry to the island, wander around the ruins of this former mining city and recreate scenes from James Bond’s Skyfall as you wish. Note, hopping fences is strictly frowned upon.
Nagasaki is also home to many temples, several of which survived the atomic bombing at the end of the Second World War. Located atop a hill, Suwa Jinja (諏訪神社) is a shrine dedicated to Suwa-no-Kami, a spirit of valour and duty. The grounds are protected by statues of lion-dogs (Koma-Inu, 狛 犬) and water-sprite dogs (Kappa-Komainu, 河童 狛犬). Legends say that when you tie a piece of string or paper around their legs, they will give you strength to stop a bad behaviour (such as smoking). It is a popular spot for locals to meander around the grounds and walk their dogs.
Nagasaki’s eats and treats
A visit to Nagasaki wouldn’t be complete without sampling the local cuisine!
Get a taste of the city’s trading-port origins in its unique, multicultural fare. And for those seeking omiyage (souvenirs), castella cakes are a popular choice to take home.
Champon: Originally made for visiting Chinese students, champon is a Chinese-style ramen comprised of seafood, pork, vegetables and ramen noodles in a chicken-and pork-based broth.
Castella: These honey cakes were originally made popular by Portuguese immigrants. They can feature extravagant decorations and are often flavoured with seasonal ingredients.
Satisfying the soul and the stomach
Not far from Suwa Jinja are two famous Buddhist Zen temples, Sofuku-ji and Toumeizan Ko-fuku-ji, located on opposite sides of Kazagashira Park. Sofuku-ji (崇福寺) was built in 1629 and its architecture is inspired by the Ming dynasty. Maso, the goddess of the sea, is enshrined in the temple, and it is a popular destination during the Obon festival (お盆) for Chinese expats living in Japan. The temple offers a simplified tea ceremony with traditional matcha and sweets. The oldest Ōbaku Zen temple in Japan, Toumeizan Kofuku-ji (東明山興福寺), was built in 1620 for the Chinese sailors and merchants frequenting Nagasaki, and like Sofuku-ji it also features a Ming-dynasty-style red entrance gate.
With its coastal location and trading-port tradition, the cuisine from the city is representative of the city’s unique geography and its long-time visitors. From castella, or Portuguese honey cakes, to sara udon and champon (traditional Chinese-style dishes comprised of seafood, pork and noodles), to karasumi, a type of salted fish roe similar to mentaiko, and toruko, or Turkish rice featuring a curried pork cutlet on spaghetti, Nagasaki offers dishes to entice anyone’s tastebuds.
All photos © (一社)長崎県観光連盟 長崎県企画振興部文化観光物産局観光振興課