Nagasaki is my favorite city in Japan.
Despite the fact that my government decided to incinerate it with an atomic bomb in 1945, a lot of the city looks much older than other parts of Japan. Our hostel was on a narrow cobblestone street split by a river with an old stone bridge on every block. Two streets behind us was a row of temples and shrines, both Japanese and Chinese style, flanked by a sprawling graveyard. Newer high rise apartment buildings crowd around the monuments to Nagasaki’s long history, but the concrete often stops where the low stone walls and clay tiled roofs begin. As the city developed, they were careful not to just pave it all over.
On our first night we took a short walk to a dense nightlife district overflowing with 20-something couples and very drunk middle aged businessmen. I fully condone hard drinking with coworkers, but at a company where you evidently have to wear Armani suits to work I wondered if they would catch any crap for it the next day. Anyway, we found a good izakaya with a tatami section and sake’ed ourselves out.
We did take care of some more serious business and paid a visit to the Atomic Bomb Museum and Peace Park. The most striking exhibits were the walls of buildings they had saved because they still bore the shadows of the people who were standing in front of them when the first wave of radiation hit. The heat from the initial blast turned the stone white, except in places where people and objects had been. Most of the city’s clocks also stopped during the blast, and they are scattered spookily around the museum, all frozen at 11:02 AM.
Next up, the historian in our group suggested a trip to Dejima, the old Dutch trading village on the bay. After a bad experience with the Portuguese trying to sneak Catholicism into the country along with their traded goods, the Japanese threw them out and gave their trading post over to the Dutch. To accommodate the Dutch traders while discouraging them from interacting with society (Japanese isolationism at its most hardcore), they set them up on their own private landfill with nice houses and gave them servants, and possibly also comfort women (classy). What remains is a good portion of the wooden houses with some European-style furniture still intact in the rooms. While isolationism, as an option that countries have, has crumbled completely in the era of global capitalism, it is fun to see first hand how all you had to do from 1600-1900 was prevent some dinky wooden ships from docking too close to your city.
I thought of this again that evening when we walked up the hill behind our hostel to get a view of the city at night. Nagasaki has a bridge that immediately reminded me of San Francisco’s Golden Gate. It spans the only gap in the bay, connecting a piece of land that resembles hilly green Marin on one end and a section of the city that looks like the Presidio on the other. It’s not orange, but it gives the same feeling as the Golden Gate; A feeling of us being inside of a place and the ocean and the rest of the world being out there.