Nagasaki: Land of the Smiling Sun

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Now, nearer, he saw that the single-story building was part Japanese, part European. It was raised on pilings and surrounded by a high rickety bamboo fence in a plot of its own, and much newer than the hovels that clustered near. There was no gate in the fence, just a hole. The roof was thatch, the front door stout, the walls rough-boarded, and the windows covered with Dutch-style shutters. Here and there were flecks of light from the cracks.

The singing and banter increased but he could not recognize any voices yet. Flagstones led straight to the steps of the veranda through an unkempt garden. A short flagpole was roped to the gateway. He stopped and stared up at it. A limp, makeshift Dutch flag hung there listlessly and his pulse quickened at the sight of it. – James Clavell’s Shogun

If there’s anything that distinguishes Nagasaki Prefecture, it is its inhabitants’ openness to foreign cultures. Indeed, they’ve had a longer history of it over any other place in Japan, spanning more than a few centuries of it. This openness subtly infuses Nagasaki’s artwork, literature, economy, cuisine, entertainment and customs, with an elegance and practicality as only the Japanese can execute. Although I have visited various Japanese cities over the years, I have never encountered anything that looked or felt like Nagasaki. So sit back and relax, let me show you around…

Hirado – City of Beginnings

Originally known by the Portuguese as Firando, the city of Hirado has had some of the oldest dealings with the West, stretching back more than 500 years. Since then, Hirado has flourished into a splendid potpourri of ancient temples, castles, churches, museums and shops surrounded by gently sloping mountains and lush vegetation. Although considered a city, Hirado seems more like a sleepy little town, and many of its districts are charming and offer folks who wish for a less hectic locale the solace they crave.

I stood before a predominantly white building with peaked tiled roofs and European-style doors and shuttered windows – this turned out to be the Hirado Dutch Trading Post Museum. Inside, the newly minted structure smelled of fresh cedar and oak, which were used to recreate the original building that was used as a warehouse by the Dutch more than five centuries ago. Inside is a spartan but tasteful collection of Rembrandt-esque paintings, models, maps and a suit of Dutch armor altered by the Japanese to grant more flexibility and mobility.

My next stop was the house of William Adams, the reallife inspiration for James Clavell’s protagonist John Blackthorne in his novel Shogun. Known as Miura Anjin (The Pilot of Miura), Adams managed to become a key advisor to none other than Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the Tokugawa shogunate, and one of the first non-Japanese to attain the rank of samurai. His home in Hirado is rather staidly known as Miura Anjin’s House and, from the outside, looks as it did in the 1600s, but inside is a bakery and sweetshop called the Tsutaya Cake House. Their specialty is a Portuguese sponge cake called casdous, made with large grains of sugar, lots of egg and milk.

Afterwards, I went further eastward to the home of the Matsura clan. They were the masters of Hirado for almost three hundred years, and their stately home is now the Matsura Historical Museum. What I found most insightful is how their exhibits embodied the spirit of acceptance of foreign culture in the region. Delicately painted screens showed scenes clearly painted by Japanese artisans of people of other races and nationalities, a Frenchman here, a Dutchman there, an Indonesian to one side and even something known as a Luzon-jin, or an insulares (a Spaniard born in the Philippines). The museum also attests to Hirado’s prosperity as many of the lacquered boxes, suits of armor, norimono (shoulder-borne litter), and the previously mentioned screens are inlaid with gold leaf.

The museum also has a teahouse known as the Kan-un-tei. Constructed in 1893 by the 37th Matsura daimyo (lord) as part of the villa compound, Kan-un-tei is primarily used for Chinshin-ryu tea ceremonies, which I had the honor of experiencing. Unlike the usual tea ceremony, which requires some trappings, such as the carefully structured admiration of one’s teacup, the Chinshin-ryu seems a bit more relaxed. Also, casdous cakes are served in place of the usual anko (red bean paste) or mochi (glutinous rice) cakes.

Now, if you wish to see where they held sway, look no further than Hirado Castle. Although not as large as Osaka Castle or as faithfully preserved as Himeji Castle (to be fair, one of the only faithfully preserved castles in the land), Hirado’s feudal seat of power is a lovely place, accessible by a shady path lit by stone lanterns and hidden by swatches of thickets. Inside is a choice collection of swords, guns, armor and documents spanning the Matsura’s reign of the domain. At the very top is the best view of the entire city in all its placid glory.

Unsurprisingly, foreign relations in Hirado aren’t merely of the sort set up during the Feudal era. If you’re yearning for a taste of the Wild West, look no further than SeaView Ranch. Founded and run by Toshio Matsuishi (who was formerly a horsemaster of Akira Kurosawa’s epic, Ran), SeaView is an excellent place to kick up them heels and ride a feisty filly or young buck ’til you’re saddle-sore. And I hear the steaks are great, too.

Sasebo – City of Delight

Most folks come to Sasebo for the same reason that they come to Orlando, Florida – the theme parks. Unlike the parks in Orlando, the Sasebo parks won’t have some cartoon mouse or coiffed princess in a ball gown to greet you. But that’s okay – you’re still bound to have a great time anyway, especially if you take pleasure in sea life, nature, flowers, European food and architecture, dancing and out-of-thisreality 3D-special effects.

Those that don’t come to this amicable city for the theme parks are usually there on business, particularly that of a maritime nature – Sasebo is home to a US naval base and the Sasebo Heavy Industries shipyard. Interestingly enough, Sasebo is the westernmost station on Japan’s ubiquitous JR train line.

One of Sasebo most renowned features is Kujukushima National Park, a string of ninety-nine islands (well, actually there are 208 – ninety-nine according to the park’s guides seemed like a nice, round lucky number to tack on) that are part of a protected wildlife sanctuary and national park. Inside Kujukushima is the Saikai Pearl Sea Resort, Sasebo’s own version of Seaworld – except you can also do pearlpicking from real oysters. I managed to sail on the Mirai, a mostly electric-powered (and slightly wind- and solar-powered) ‘pirate boat’ through the islands, while the ship’s crew told me about the conservation efforts that were being done to protect the wildlife in the ninety-nine (really 208) islands in the area. Of note is the Kujukushima Aquarium that has a plethora of aquatic fauna only seen in the prefecture’s seas, including rare (and quite hefty) sea turtles and some of the most alluring and eerie jellyfish specimens I’ve ever seen.

Huis Ten Bosch is something of an oddity among theme parks. Originally designed as a replica of a Dutch city, the property was purchased by a travel agency that decided to transform the place into a more adult version of Disneyland. Now before your thoughts go all red-light, let me clarify the term ‘adult’ – Huis Ten Bosch originally catered to an older market with more mature concerns. The area is a popular dating place, as the many bars and hotels inside the park can attest, and they stay open until the wee morning hours – something most kid-oriented theme parks don’t normally do. Huis Ten Bosch houses the Soara Healthcare Resort that offers rejuvenating treatments, such as Thermo Baths, Ayurvedic Body Treatments and various holistic therapies. There is a hi-tech diagnostic center manned by doctors and other trained professionals that uses various devices to measure everything, from spinal curvature to blood chemistry. Once properly diagnosed, the staff can offer a large selection of supplements for managing various ailments.

That said, Huis Ten Bosch has since widened its selection of diversions to appeal to children of varying ages. Among the various attractions are a five-story maze, a digital horror house, a dome theater/interactive video game, and a ride based on One Piece, an immensely popular comic and animated series. What blew me away, however, was the SMTown Hologram Concert, a 3D show with the latest K-pop boy and girl bands to hit YouTube. The screens are designed so that they appear 3D even without special glasses, and the resolution was so clear I could swear those Korean girls were dancing live right in front of me. Combined with wow-inducing CGI and visual effects that craftily simulated movement, it was like being on a roller-coaster with the Pussycat Dolls directed by Peter Jackson.

Nagasaki – The Open City

The prefecture’s capital bears its name, and with it, a rich history combined with an atmosphere much more relaxed than Tokyo and less conservative than Kyoto, albeit less freewheeling than Osaka. Nagasaki City is smaller than her more eastward siblings, but has many charms and merits to share that are all her own, such as a rich industrial heritage brought about by international trading, seafaring and shipbuilding.

Dejima is a fan-shaped artificial island, constructed in 1634 for Portuguese traders by Shogun Iemitsu. What makes this place special is its history – most people with a passing familiarity of the Japanese Feudal Era know that sometime around 1630, most foreigners were ordered out of the country by the Tokugawa Shogunate. Dejima was the exception, as the Dutch were permitted to live and trade on this tiny island. Dejima has since undergone slow but steady reconstruction, and the little island community looks as it did four hundred years ago, with some notable artifacts and curios on display. If you want to go for the full time-travel experience, check out Hi-Color Kimono Rental where its clever costumers can dress you up as a samurai or geisha in under ten minutes – no mean feat, considering you could spend the whole day learning how to put on the whole ensemble.

For lovers and opera fans alike, Glover Garden is a fragrant haven of hydrangeas, daffodils, roses, lilies and other enchanting flowers, all zealously maintained and ardently cared for. The grounds have fountains and ponds where couples can enjoy the serenity and quiet of the place. Built by Scottish industrialist Thomas Blake Glover, the garden still has Glover’s original residence intact, the first Western-style house ever built in the country. Inside the house are kimonos and costume jewelry belonging to Kiba Teiko, a notable opera star of that time who played Madame Butterfly. A statue and bas relief of the opera’s composer, Giacomo Puccini, stands watch in a fountain, together with Miura Tamaki, another diva that reprised the role.

Next door to Glover Garden is the Nagasaki Performing Arts Museum, a haven for more local artistic pursuits. This museum is specifically devoted to the O-Kunchi Festival, a lavish, kaleidoscopically riotous pageant of shoulder-borne floats and pole-hoisted dragons. The O-Kunchi is one of the most awaited festivals in the Prefecture, with each major city given a chance every seven years to put on a dazzling display of visual artistry and grueling physical performances, spending a sizable portion of that city’s annual municipal budget in the process. But it’s all worth it – the festival alone is reason enough to go to Nagasaki, if you can still find a hotel or book a flight by that time.

For a more general perspective on the region’s florid past, I trotted over to the Nagasaki Museum of History and Culture. This very modern, educational and kid-friendly museum lives up to its name as a repository of the prefecture’s rich exchanges with Korea, China and the Netherlands. The museum’s façade is made to appear as a 16th century bugei or magistrate’s office, and the ground floor reinforces this – the interior is designed to look like an authentic Feudal government office, complete with tatami mats, writing desks and function rooms and even has actors re-enacting trials and courtroom scenes on weekends. Other levels of the museum showcase artifacts, such as imported porcelain and interactive dioramas highlighting day-to-day life in the prefecture during various points in its history. Inclusive is a delightful, although temporary exhibit entitled Piece of Peace, an assortment of various dioramas and models of Nagasaki’s most notable heritage sites (and some from other parts of Japan and from all over the world) recreated in Lego bricks.

For an awww-inspiring view of the city and its environs, Mt. Inasa Observatory is hard to beat –indeed the observation deck boasts one of the three best nighttime views in the world, alongside Hong Kong and Monaco. Despite it being a cloudy day, I managed to spot various sites that I had already visited, such as Glover Garden and the Mitsubishi Giant Cantilever Crane, a 110-year-old crane used until now by the venerable shipbuilding company to load and unload ship engines and other forms of heavy machinery back and forth from the Akunoura Pier. Definitely a great place to bring a date, aside from Glover Garden.

In recent years, Gunkanjima (a.k.a. Hashima or Battleship Island) has been making some waves internationally. This deserted warship-shaped island was a former coal-mining facility that peacefully housed more than five thousand workers for almost seventy years and was a prime producer for the Mitsubishi Mining Company until its closure in 1974. Left abandoned to the elements for decades after, the island’s vast building complex fell victim to merciless tsunamis and typhoons, the results of which were both haunting and poignant.

Since then, Battleship Island has since experienced a rebirth – it was reopened in 2009 and was nominated as a possible entry in the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. It has also been chosen as one of the key film locations for both the James Bond movie Skyfall and the soon-to-be-released live action adaptation of the popular manga and anime series Attack on Titan. Tourist interest has spiked sharply since then, and many visitors come to Gunkanjima for its fascinating history, its potential as a UNESCO site and its cinematic significance.

Here are our choices for places to stay in the Prefecture:

Hirado Kaijyo Hotel

From the outside, the Kaijyo looks like any regular hotel, but inside, the ambience is painstakingly made to feel like a ryokan or traditional Japanese inn (no shoes allowed, tatami mats, futons, etc.). This hotel also has onsen (hot spring pools) with exquisite views of the bay.

Hotel Okura JR Huis Ten Bosch

Opulent and immense, the Okura fits quite in the Huis Ten Bosch verve with its Dutch Renaissance-style facade and grand ballroom. The Okura sports six restaurants of varying cuisines and an onsen that the guests can use to sooth cramped muscles and relax after a long day of exploring the theme parks.

The Best Western Premier Hotel

Classy and luxurious, the Best Western lives up to its name as the most posh address in Nagasaki City. Their sumptuous bedrooms and penthouse dining areas have some rather inviting views of the city.

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