Web Japan > Trends in Japan > Food & Travel > Nagasaki


Cross-cultural Port City


View from atop Mt. Inasa in Nagasaki, called a “Ten million-dollar night view.” At the “Night View Summit” held in Nagasaki in 2012, it was certified as one of the “New Three Great Night Views of the World” along with those in Hong Kong and Monaco. © Nagasaki Prefecture Convention and Tourism Association

Nagasaki is a port city on the western tip of Kyushu, the southernmost main island among the four major islands of Japan. It is open to the Asian continent and has been a center of Japan’s trade with Asia and Europe for many centuries. Even during the period of Japan’s closed-door policy under which the nation limited exchanges with other countries, Nagasaki was the center of not only physical distribution but also advanced scholarship, prospering as the only port open to the Western world. Colorful, exotic festivals, a church along with a cobbled street on a hillside and a gorgeous, banquet dinner which pleases the eye as well as the palate — every scene and custom of Nagasaki make you feel the city represents a marriage of Japanese and foreign cultures.

Port Open to World


“Glover Garden” adorned with flowers of the season. The former residence of Scottish merchant Thomas Blake Glover is designated as an important cultural property. The opera masterpiece “Madame Butterfly” by Italian composer Puccini was based on a novel whose model is Glover’s wife Tsuru. © Nagasaki Prefecture Convention and Tourism Association

Enlarge photo

From high above it looks like a crane spreading its wings, Nagasaki Port used to be called “the Crane Port.” In a hilltop former foreign settlement, from where you can have a full view of the port, you will find “Glover Garden” in a quarter spotted with churches and former consulates built in the second half of the 19th century. Standing elegantly in the garden that covers some 30,000 square meters are the former homes of Western merchants, including Thomas Blake Glover (1838-1911), a Scotsman who founded companies in Japan when the country was on its way to modernization. He engaged aggressively in shipbuilding, coal mining and other businesses. These sturdy Western-style buildings are reminders of the days when Nagasaki thrived as the center of foreign trade in Japan.

On the same street as Glover Garden is Oura Church (Oura Tenshudo), which is said to be the oldest Western-style building now standing in Japan and the only Western-style structure designated as a national treasure. The Gothic-style wooden building in the medieval European style boasts many interesting features such as colorful stained glass, Western arches made with Japanese bamboo and other finely worked details. This is a famous site, often referred to as a place of the “discovery of the faithful” in which Christians who had kept their faith in secret for some 250 years during Japan’s ban on Christianity came forward.

photo photo
Left: Oura Church (Oura Tenshudo), the oldest Western-style building in Japan built in 1864.
© Nagasaki Prefecture Convention and Tourism Association
Right: Man-made island Dejima, being restored amid office buildings

Surrounded by mountains on three sides, which sheltered it from the wind, Nagasaki is an excellent natural port that allows big vessels to navigate freely as the seabed falls steeply from the land. From its opening in 1570, it kept close contact with Western countries such as Portugal and the Netherlands as well as with China. While Japan restricted foreign trade and overseas passage for more than 200 years from 1639, the only window open to the West was a man-made island called “Dejima” (protruded island) in downtown Nagasaki.

Excavation work is now in progress at the site of Dejima. In 1641, a Dutch trading post was located on Dejima, and it was through this spot that not only merchandise but also academic expertise such as medicine and sports, like badminton, was introduced to Japan. After a landfill, full-scale reconstruction work has been conducted since 1996. So far, 10 houses, including the residence of the Dutch trading mission’s chief, have been restored, allowing visitors to look back on ways of living in those days at a life-size scale.

Culinary Cultural Exchange: Birthplace of Champon

Cultures and goods brought in through cultural and trade exchanges with foreign countries have spawned a unique culture in Nagasaki. Culinary culture which enjoys a wide variety of dishes is one of its faces. Impressive is Shippoku ryori, a stunning banquet dinner of dishes with Japanese, Dutch and Chinese influence served on a large, round table (in contrast to a low, square traditional Japanese tray served for each person). Even today, it is considered the best meal to entertain guests with and is a regular feature of any celebration. “Nagasaki champon,” now one of Japan's nationally favored dishes, was also born in Nagasaki. It features more than 10 ingredients, including cabbage and shrimp off the Nagasaki Coast. Slurp them together with thick noodles and rich broth, and you will find it very tasty with flavor and texture different from that of another Japanese favorite, ramen(Japanese noodle dish made with Chinese-style noodles). Japanese sponge cake kasutera is of Portuguese origin (from Castella) and is now a leading souvenir item in Japan.

photo photo photo
Stunning banquet dinner Shippoku ryori, born from the fusion of Japanese, Chinese and Dutch cuisine (Photo courtesy of Nagasaki Shippoku Hamakatsu [Ringerhut Co.])
Nagasaki champon noodles at Shikairo restaurant, known as the originator of the dish.
Kasutera, a sponge cake, is one of popular souvenir items from Nagasaki (Photo courtesy of Bunmeido)

photo photo
Left: A workman blowing glass to make Nagasaki bidoro (Photo courtesy of Rurian Glass Studios, Inc.)
Right: A reproduction of the traditional sake, server Nagasaki chirori. It was said to be difficult to reproduce the thin, long spout which stretches from the full, round body made of blue glass. (Photo courtesy of Rurian Glass Studios, Inc.)

The technique of blowing glass, called bidoro in Nagasaki, was introduced from China and then spread across the country. At glass studios in Nagasaki City, art works such as Nagasaki chirori, a unique wine server invented when Nagasaki had a thriving glass industry, are being reproduced in a quiet but steady manner.

Gunkanjima Cruise

photo photo
Left: During the Nagasaki Lantern Festival, 15,000 Chinese lanterns fill the city with stunning colors. © Nagasaki Prefecture Convention and Tourism Association
Right: Nagasaki Kunchi Festival © Nagasaki Prefecture Convention and Tourism Association

In speaking about tourist sites in Nagasaki, one should not forget its colorful festivals and events. Starting with the Nagasaki Lantern Festival in February, in which 15,000 Chinese lanterns and other big objects fill a downtown area with a sea of bright colors, Nagasaki is bustling all year round. Other major festivals include the “Peron Championship Race” in July, in which long, narrow, wooden dragon rowboats introduced from China race against one another, and the Nagasaki Kunchi Festival in October, which features unique dances and performances in which Chinese and Dutch cultures are mixed into the local culture. These festivals turn the whole city into a celebratory mood.

In the evening, if you take a ropeway to an observation station on Mt. Inasa 333 meters above sea level, you can see homes filling slopes of what looks like the inside of a gigantic bowl with a sea of lights. You can also see tourist sites lit up beautifully and the illumination of commercial districts reflected on the surface of the sea. You can enjoy the art of lights thus created to your heart’s content.

photo photo
Left: Hashima Island, with coal mines on the seabed, once boasted the highest population density in Japan. Today, it is called Gunkanjima, or Warship Island, for its bizarre shape formed by the ruins of concrete buildings and natural reefs. In 2009, it was listed as one of assets making up a World Heritage provisional list. (Photo with cooperation of Takashima Traffic Advisory)
Right: You can land on Gunkanjima to get an up-close look at the deserted buildings that are now ruins. The multistory ferroconcrete apartment building in front was said to have also served as an embankment to keep away seawater from the open sea when people lived there. (Photo with cooperation of Takashima Traffic Advisory)

Another tourist attraction that has been drawing attention in recent years is a “Gunkanjima cruise” to visit islands which once thrived because of their coal mines at the bottom of the sea. Since 2009, it has become possible to land on one of the islands, uninhabited Hashima Island, 19 km off Nagasaki Port, which from a distance looks like a gunkan (warship) or fortress. Around 5,300 people lived on this tiny, 6.3-hectare island at its peak, boasting the highest population density in Japan. However, after the mines were closed in 1974, the island turned into ruins. The ferroconcrete multistory apartment houses, the first in Japan and built in 1916, and other structures are now exposed to the sea breeze, decaying from day to day. Because of their bizarre appearance and the ruins of homes, the island was used as a model for an enemy hiding place in the latest 007 film series “Skyfall” released in 2012, and it has since become the talk of the town.

Feeling a pleasant sea breeze on deck, you are sure to feel a special emotion different from when you tour well preserved historic sites.

(March 2013)

Page Top

Related Articles