Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Spontaneous Perfection: An Overnight Trip to Nagasaki

Heiwa (peace)
Chains of 1,000 paper cranes (senbazuru) behind are a
prayer for peace
Image: CJN

A friend I worked with in Japan recently mentioned her regrets for not keeping a blog while she was there. I told her she could always update in retrospect. These adventures would already be in the past tense, even if written about immediately after completed; they do not expire. I have been meaning to pick my Japan blog back up for ages. So many of my favorite moments are still unrecorded. Perhaps I can take my own advice... Let's go back to October of 2009.

A few months into working in Japan, I got a couple of unexpected days off, at the last minute. I decided to make the most of them and take a quick trip. I now recall it as one of the best vacations I have ever taken. Looking back at my journal, I said "it was a mini-vacation, but I did so much, it felt like a maxi-vacation!" (And that, kids, was before they were saying 'maxi-skirts').

I decided to go to Nagasaki. Of course, there was the obvious (the Atomic Bomb Museum and Peace Park), but I was unaware of what one should do in the area. (Except for eating champon). This lack of prior knowledge might have kept me from going, but the spontaneity made for adventure. 

I packed a change of clothes in an oversized purse, and went off to work on Monday, as usual. With Tuesday and Wednesday off, I refused to waste time. After not finding a hotel during my lunch break, I decided to uncharacteristically get one upon arrival. (I know, I sound like a real adrenaline-junkie, but this was the first time I ever traveled by myself without having a reservation.)

From start to finish, the trip was perfect. I left work, and went straight to Nagasaki. It only took about two hours. The view of the sun setting on the Ariake Sea from the train was beautiful.

As soon as I de-boarded the train, I saw a tourism bureau. As I looked at hotel brochures, they offered to help me find one. The service was available in a few different languages. They found one in my price range, gave me directions and I was off.

Unfortunately, after settling into my hotel, it was late. I would have plenty of time for sightseeing the next day. Regrettably, it was too late to do anything the evening of my arrival–or was it?

As I left the tourism bureau earlier that day, I grabbed a brochure of city highlights. I found the few that were still open and headed out. I walked around Megane-bashi (Spectacles Bridge). It acquired the moniker because it looks like a pair of eye glasses. If you are able to do so, it is nicer (at least for photo ops) to look at during the day, but it was beautiful at night. There were no crowds, and I could walk around at my own pace.

Sasebo Burger Drops
Image: CJN
Next, I went to Chinatown for dinner; just a 10 minute walk from the bridge. I had an amazing plate of cashew chicken, one of my favorite meals from home. It was the first time I had Chinese food since I left Michigan.

 I wandered around a few of the shops. Amidst the usual tourist doodads, were some more unusual fare. For example, there was Sasebo Hamburger Drops Candy. Mmmm, nothing tastes like Sasebo. Actually, I never tried the candy, but I did take pictures of the packages, amused by the concept. Sasebo is a nearby city which is notable for its beef, hence the hamburger candies. I passed on experiencing the flavor for myself, but the tins of beefy sugar drops made for great gifts.

After a fun night in Chinatown, I went back to my room. I was hoping to kick back with some TV, but assumed there would be nothing on. While channel surfing, I did a double take "Hey! Isn't that Walter Matthau?"
The end to an already great evening, 'Charade,'  was playing on TV. I had never seen it, and it would become one of my favorite movies.

All of that was just between 7-12.

The next morning, a full day of sightseeing awaited. My first stop was the Christian Martyr's Shrine, simply because it was right by my hotel. It was a bit of a sad start to my day, but, then again, I am talking about an itinerary which included the Atomic Bomb Museum...

Glover Gardens was my second goal, but I found a lot of interesting things on the way. I passed Oura Church, the oldest church in Japan, and first western building to be declared a national treasure. If you enjoy architecture, I suggest checking out the beautiful building.

As I continued walking around Nagasaki's pedestrian-friendly tourist areas, I found a children's book museum (sorry, no English site). The whimsical museum was filled with items from books I read as a child. A quick trip through left me in a wonderful mood. I purchased The Jolly Postman (one of my favorite childhood books) in Japanese.
The Jolly Postman in Japanese
Image: Amazon.co.jp

Inori-oka Picture Book Museum, Nagasaki
Image: CJN


Finally, I found the glorious Glover Garden, where the oldest surviving western-style house in Japan stands. It was built for Scottish merchant Thomas Blake Glover who was a key figure in the industrialization of Japan. Sadly, despite the legend, it seems unlikely that events from his life inspired Puccini's Madame Butterfly. If you are an opera fan, you can enjoy the statues of Puccini and Tamaki Miura, regardless. 

With bright sunshine and a cool breeze, my stroll through the gorgeous Glover Garden was immensely enjoyable. The atmosphere, with the view of Nagasaki Harbor, the colorful blooms and charming period homes made for a relaxing and invigorating afternoon. I have seen guidebooks suggest setting aside an hour, but I spent two and a half hours there. Continuing to enjoy the beautiful walking weather, I then went to Oranda Saka (or Hollander's Slope), the former Dutch section of Nagasaki. 

Of course, what followed was the Atomic Bomb Museum. Considering my lighthearted morning, it would have made sense to go the other way, but I did not know Nagasaki in terms of direction. I simply followed the most logical directional path that suited my needs.

I had already been to Hiroshima a few years before. People have asked me "How was Hiroshima?" and for both there and Nagasaki, I have had trouble coming up with an adjective. I have known that when people ask that, they have typically been asking about the atomic bomb museums. There are not really any words to describe them, just a heavy feeling upon exit. Going to those museums are like going to Holocaust museums. It's important to do so. You should do go–you should go more than once–but you will not leave feeling like you left some tourist attraction.  

Senbazuru at the Hypocenter
Image: CJN

I left, feeling as I had suspected. Things picked up, however. The Peace Park was uplifting in and of itself. Then something beautiful happened. A young man, perhaps 10 years old, saw me, and bowed, deeply at the waist. I was so moved by his gesture. His parents and I smiled at and bowed to one another. 

Peace Statue at Peace Park, Nagasaki
Image: CJN

By the time I finished, I had a couple of hours left. I bought thank you gifts for some locals who had shown me the ropes since reaching Ogi. Then, there was merely one activity left to make my Nagasaki trip complete: champon hunting. To the victor went the spoils. 

My entire trip was just 26 hours and 25 minutes. 


  1. I remember how elated you were after this trip and I can tell this spur of the moment decision became one of your best memories. I'm glad you finally shared it!

  2. Thanks! I can't believe you remember that! It's great that you did!