A Steep and Narrow Place
The hills of Nagasaki are remnants of a painful history
By: Stephen Mansfield | Nov 1, 2007 | No Comments |


This is not a city for the old. Its demanding slopes are not for calcium deprived bones. But the elderly do live here, somehow surviving like the few old wooden houses up on the hills, many haunted by memories that have a painful persistency.

Nagasaki’s history is emblazoned across its geographical form. Its western bay, accessible to China, Korea, the Philippines and Southeast Asia, made it an obvious choice for foreign trade. The Portuguese were the first to land in 1543, introducing Bibles and firearms in a familiar but ultimately unsuccessful pattern: the church softening up the ground, the military hardening it. Francis Xavier, proselytizing with groups of Jesuits did, however, initiate a stream of conversions which, by 1600, had reached a staggering half million, when the population of the country stood at little over 16 million.

Those who refused to recant in the subsequent purges against Christianity died after terrible tortures: Nagasaki is still Japan’s center of Christianity, with one-sixth of the country’s believers living here.

The best way to enjoy Nagasaki, to feel free from its past, is to pay early homage to the atomic sights, and then move on. The Atomic Bomb Museum tells the story in detail.

In the nearby Peace Park, the Peace Statue evokes different, but sometimes identical responses. Everyone agrees that it is “muscular.” Overcome perhaps by the gravity of the place and the event responsible for its existence, some visitors have lapsed into flippancy. Nancy Phelan, in her 1969 travelogue Pillow of Grass, found the colossal figure “a bronze monstrosity… with one arm up and the other outstretched like a traffic cop.” Perhaps the novelist Kazuo Ishiguro had read the book. “Seen from a distance,” he wrote, “the figure looked almost comical, resembling a policeman conducting traffic.” Simon Richmond, quoting Ishiguro in a more recent look at the statue, acknowledged the resemblance, but added that “when some elderly figure pauses on the way past, head bowed, it’s not easy to be cynical.”


The Peace Park left me less moved than I expected. Perhaps it was the young couples who have turned the grounds into part of their “romantic course” through the city. You see girls in micro-skirts, snapping pictures of themselves, squealing at the digital images in front of the statue or the somber black pillar that marks the bomb’s hypocenter. It was as depressing as the stories of Japanese tourists visiting Tinian Island in Micronesia, where the H-bombs were loaded from their bunkers, for its blackjack tables and slot machines. The lack of connection was depressing.

Nagasaki’s other sights are easily covered on foot or by streetcar, a charming old system that still manages to keep a few prewar vehicles in service. The hillside of Nishizaka is a good place to start, with its 26 Martyr’s Memorial a moving tribute to the mostly Japanese Christians who perished here. Nearby Fukusai-ji, a Zen temple, is a pale imitation of the original, but the little-visited Shofuku-ji, rebuilt in 1715, miraculously survived the war. A time capsule of shady trees, carved gates and eaves, the temple is deserted for much of the day.

I took instantly to this weathered, determinedly under-maintained temple. As I stood in its grounds, littered with leaves from the previous autumn, an elderly priest shuffled back and forth, fussing with window latches and altar offerings. The man, clothed in shabby, olive green robes, sallow and bent, looked like he had dressed from a closet full of Buddhist paraphernalia. His robes gave off a whiff of incense every time he passed by—the dry, acrid type favored by temples, rather than the plumier, sweeter variety burnt at home.

Sofuku-ji, Nagasaki’s foremost Chinese Zen temple, lies a stone’s throw east of Chinatown and is worth a peep for its fine Ming Dynasty-style architecture, but the visually more rewarding Koshi-byo, a Confucian shrine, merits a deeper look. Here, standing on solid flagstones, are statues of the philosopher and his 72 disciples. An old foreign quarter known as the Dutch Slopes winds its way through timbered houses and brick-walled lanes above the shrine, a surprisingly quiet district given its historical credentials.

The area is overshadowed by the better-publicized and appointed Glover Garden, named after Thomas Glover, a Scottish businessman and industrialist who built his house here. Walker House and Ringer House, both conceived in the colonial style with pleasant terraces, high-ceilinged rooms and louvered shutters, are two more distinguished and well-maintained residences here. Whether prompted by an innate sense of superiority, or just a desire to catch the cooler breezes, the British and French favored the higher elevations.

The views from the bluff, across the harbor to the surrounding hills, are stunning.

Travel Tips
Nagasaki Airport is on a manmade island in Omura Bay, a 40km bus ride from the city. The train station is located about 1km from the downtown area. Most of the long-distance buses (ie, from Tokyo) stop here. The Nagasaki Prefectural Tourist Federation, on the second floor of the bus station, is a great source for English-language travel information. Nagasaki’s Holiday Inn (Tel: 095 828-1234) is surprisingly elegant, with beautiful furnishings and well-equipped rooms. At a slightly lower point on the scale, the Minshuku Tampopo (Tel: 095 861-6230), is friendly and obliging, but the bathrooms are shared and the tatami rooms, though cozy, have seen better days. Chinatown is packed with tasty Cantonese and Fukien restaurants. For more earthy and affordable Japanese food, the area around the station has plenty of scope. See www.pref.nagasaki.jp/en for more information.

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