I would imagine that most people would associate this city of Nagasaki with a single event that happened at 11.02am on 9th August 1945.
From afar it's easy to assume that such a catastrophe would lie embedded in a city's psyche, unable to be lifted no matter how much time passes. We could phrase it this way; that Nagasaki was the last city on the planet to succumb to an atomic bomb attack. But now, over 70 years later, it's really difficult to see much acknowledgement of the incident, aside from at the hypocenter and surrounding Urakami neighbourhood.
This is a place with a lot to offer, and that tragic day is just a chapter in the history, and future, of Nagasaki.
I had come to learn more about Nagasaki when I was reading the highly Japan-influenced British writer David Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. It is one of the first pieces of historical fiction I read, and I only picked it up because I had loved Cloud Atlas and Number 9 Dream. I didn't have a particular hankering to learn more about 18th Century Dutch-Japanese trade. It focuses on the Dutch merchants working at Dejima, a tiny, artificial fan-shaped island a few meters off the coast of Nagasaki, which was the only place in the whole of Japan where foreigners were permitted to exchange with the isolationist Japanese between 1641 and 1853.
It turns out this tiny little speck on what was then the coast of this small western-Japanese city played a major part in shaping the Japan we know and love today! For example, the first cameras were introduced to Japan via Dejima. And what is Japan good at these days? Making the best cameras in the world! Also, almost as pertinently, that cute little rabbit Miffy is actually the brainchild of a Dutch illustrator, although I had always thought it quintessentially Japanese. Yeah - this Dejima Museum covered a lot.
Look at a map of Nagasaki now and you will quickly understand that reclaimed land has surrounded Dejima, so it now represents a Central point of Nagasaki city.
Nagasaki is a laid-back town. I spent the whole day yesterday on the Wharf, looking out at the families playing in a park, and at the mountains that surround the city. These mountains were the reason that the more powerful 'Fat Man' plutonium bomb actually delivered less destruction than Hiroshima's uranium 'Little Boy'.
Streetcars amble around the city, stopping at stations just about 200m distant from one another. I haven't encountered much traffic within the city centre or when I made my approach via road. This fact, combined with the concrete, the wood, the large open spaces by the port, and naturally the plentiful supply of fresh fish remind me of some Scandinavian port-side city, a far-cry from the Shibuya street crossing flashing in our mind when we think of 'the Japanese city'.
My first day in Nagasaki, I woke at an uncharacteristic 6am, which I am more than happy to tell as many people as possible. Have you ever done that? That was the most jam-packed day full of stuff I've ever had in my life! Made it to the Peace Park at a particularly peaceful 7am. There are some unusual Japanese elevators up the hill to the Park, which are not so peaceful. I think they may have been experiencing some technical problems because the '-t-k-m-n-o-mashimass!' announcements were on repeat and interrupting each other in a very stressful din. I just wanted to include that small vignette.
The Peace Park is a collection of gifted sculptures from around the world contributing to Nagasaki's plea for world peace and disarmament, which they began about 10 years after the incident. It is located a short walk from the hypocenter - 500m above which 'Fat Man' detonated. This is marked by a tall black monument surrounded by concentric circles in a bricked park. It is pretty low-key, and contributes to my understanding that among the survivors of the attacks - the hibakusha - coming to a conclusion as to how to commemorate the incident was much disputed. I will hopefully be visiting Hiroshima next week, and the much grander and iconic Hiroshima Peace Memorial on display there was highly controversial.
There is also a Museum nearby, most of which is devoted to a detailed account of the attack and its aftermath, and the rest is advocating peace and denuclearisation. Some parts of this museum astounded me for many reasons. Firstly, the plane 'Bockscar' was originally flying to another Kyushu city named Kokura (now Kitakyushu), but was unable to drop the 'Fat Man' bomb because of cloud cover. So it flew to it's Secondary Target, where the cloud cover also wasn't favourable - until at the last minute, there was a break, and the bomb was dropped at a location 3km away from the planned Secondary target. Reading this applies to the incident a terrifying spontaneity at which lay the mercy of around 75,000 lives. On a similar note - I read that Kyoto, a potential target, was saved from destruction at the advice of American Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, who had been there on his honeymoon and couldn't bear the thought of the cultural heritage obliterated. When I see these decisions made in the minds of a single person, it absolutely terrifies me.
In the midday heat, I found my way to a cable car that took me up to Mount Inasa - supposedly voted one of the three best night views in the world (along with Monaco and Hong Kong). Well, I was there in the daytime, so I can't really say if that is accurate or not. But during the day, it presented me with the bay, along with some of the islands in the distance including 'Hashima Island', which was the island where James Bond meets Raoul Silver in Skyfall. The island used to be home to hundreds of mining families before it was abandoned.
The afternoon took me to some other points of interest; Dejima, Chinatown, 'Hollander's Slope' (a slope) and Glover Garden, where the ubiquitous British built some pretty gardens on the mountain overlooking the bay. I usually can't stand that kind of thing, but given the slightly less exploitative terms of their residence in Japan I could enjoy picturing how their lifestyle would have been unparalleled in 19th Century Nagasaki. A lot of the Japanese tourists were dressed up in rented period outfits and roaming around, which I thought was a satisfying and highly profitable touch.
I realised I had done pretty much everything in Nagasaki by the early evening, so went to the nightlife area. I realise how unfamiliar I am with the Japanese whenever I start talking to them. I was sat next to a man called Aichi at a little bar in Shiambashi called Iwi. He was gentle and chuckling at stupid stuff I was saying, he was helping me out by looking up times on his phone. He showed me a live webcam of a volcano erupting in Kagoshima. Most people at that bar were telling me Nagasaki is pretty boring if you live there, and I can see what they mean. It's a small city, and now on my third day here I don't really know what to do with myself. Perhaps you can judge that by the length of this blog post.