A word of advice: If you haven’t been to Nagasaki, go.
Since my time as a JET in Hyogo Prefecture in 1998, I’ve been on something of a mission to visit every prefecture in Japan at least once. Last year, one of the remaining spots high on my list was Nagasaki.
I’d planned to visit on several occasions in the past but never made it–I was finally inspired to book a ticket after reading David Mitchell’s fascinating novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, which is set in the region at the turn of the 19th century.
The timing of my visit last October turned out to be very fortuitous. A friend from Nagasaki told me that I would be there during the Okunchi Festival and that a friend of hers would be able to show me around town.
Upon arriving in Nagasaki by train from Fukuoka, the first thing that struck me about the city center was its amazing ugliness, which is of the “what could they possibly be thinking?” variety. I was hard pressed to find a corner not marred by some rusting hulk, dilapidated structure or tacky signage left over from the 1970s. For a city with such a significant history, the lack of beautification and preservation efforts is stunning.
Fortunately, I very quickly found a wealth of redeeming features: hospitable people, nuggets of history waiting to be discovered around every corner, and fantastic views of the sea–and of course, the festive atmosphere of Okunchi.
Okunchi is held around the same time each year, but the participating teams, which are composed of young men from 49 local neighborhoods, change every year and a full rotation of teams takes seven years. This year there was an especially large crowd due to the popularity of the teams and their decorative floats.
I fought my way through throngs of tourists from the station to the harbor area to meet up with my friend outside the main festival venue. After sampling some street food, we went to Dejima, the tiny island where the Dutch were allowed to trade during the period of isolation (sakoku) imposed by the shogunate. The island, which serves as home to the protagonist in Mitchell’s novel, is now being restored to look like it did several hundred years ago and houses several worthwhile exhibits and artifacts from the period of isolation.
In the evening, I was treated to a delicious sushi dinner in the Douzamachi entertainment district by my friend’s parents. The restaurant was cozy and the chef explained the different varieties of local fish to me over a leisurely couple of hours. At the end of the meal, my hosts surprised me with a ticket to Saturday’s main festival event—one of their friends couldn’t make it and I was lucky enough to be offered the seat (each year the venues are booked months in advance).
I arrived casually late to the venue on Saturday morning to discover, to my great chagrin, that the event was nearly over. All was not lost, however, as I managed to enjoy the performances of two out of seven teams: one team carried a float that resembled a Dutch trading ship, the other was a gong- and firecracker-wielding group representing early Chinese immigrants.
In the main festival arenas, the crowd participates in the festivities by shouting words of encouragement and begging the teams not to leave the venue. When the teams finally do make their exit (following innumerable threatened departures), they spend the rest of the day parading through downtown Nagasaki and stopping at various locations to dance and show off their floats. The stamina required for this feat, which lasts all day and involves carrying, spinning and throwing massive structures, is unfathomable.
Completely exhausted from a day of sightseeing, I met up with my friend in the Shinanbashi district for dinner. She and a group of school friends were having their annual Okunchi reunion at a traditional izakaya. I sampled local cuisine (including miniature pickled blowfish) and shochu, and learned some festival trivia, including that there is a yearly competition to select the most photogenic men to act as the lead float-bearers (apparently the plainer guys are left to toil anonymously at the back of the line).
As much fun as Okunchi was, the highlight of my trip turned out to be a Sunday afternoon cruise to Hashima, popularly known as “Gunkanjima” or “Battleship Island,” and so nicknamed because of its uncanny resemblance to a warship. The island, previously owned by Mitsubishi and used for coal mining from around 1900, was once the most densely populated spot on the planet, only to be abandoned virtually overnight in 1974, closed off to visitors for decades, and recently taken over by the city in 2005 to be used as an outdoor museum.
Gunkanjima is a haunting 20th century ruin and a testament to the limits and consequences of intensive resource extraction. The tour, which included a cruise around the harbor and a short walk around the island itself, was excellent, with somber commentary from the knowledgeable guide.
He noted the perils and inconveniences associated with life and work on the island, but also that many former residents have returned on the tour with a great sense of nostalgia. It seems that quite a few wanted to remain, but all were forced to leave on short notice once the mine was closed.
After the tour and dinner at a home-style izakaya, a friend drove us to the top of Mount Inasa for a panoramic view of the port, hills, river harbor and islands that make up Nagasaki. The yakei (night view) was impressive, serving as a velvet cover for the rusty buildings and other blemishes to the landscape, and starlight (something not often seen in Tokyo) cast shadows on the silent waves in the distance.
On my last morning in Nagasaki, I decided to visit one of the city’s top attractions, Glover Garden and Estate (charmingly pronounced Grubba-en in katakana). The area, with spectacular views of the harbor, is where the highly influential merchant Thomas Glover and several of his industrialist associates settled at the turn of the 20th century. From Nagasaki they profoundly affected major industries in Japan, from beer brewing to shipbuilding and coal mining.
While the various installations and signs in the park left a great deal to be desired, the original homes themselves, as well as the gardens, spoke volumes about a time when there were only a handful of Westerners in Japan, all of whom essentially lived like royalty.
My tour of the gardens complete, I left Nagasaki feeling that I had managed to accomplish a great deal of sightseeing in three days, but what I saw made me eager to go back for more.
Visit Nagasaki’s Prefectural Tourism Federation site at www.nagasaki-tabinet.com/mlang/english.