Nagasaki, Japan - The Escapist 2024 - Magazine | Monocle

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Sofukuji Zen temple
Fresh catch at a fishmonger’s

As soon as the doors open at 17.00, the seats in Shikairo, one of Nagasaki’s best-known restaurants, quickly fill up. Most of the students, families and lone diners here have come for one thing: champon, a hearty dish of chewy noodles, pork, shiitake mushrooms and green onions in a light, salty soup. Invented in 1899 by Shikairo founder Chen Ping Shun, an immigrant from China’s Fujian province, champon is now served at hundreds of restaurants around Nagasaki. Everyone has their favourite version but none can compete with Shikairo’s history or its elevated outlook. From its multistorey, Chinese-style building (this is a restaurant with its own museum), diners are treated to a sunset view over one of Japan’s most beautiful cities.

Shikairo encapsulates Nagasaki’s layered history. Set in a natural harbour and surrounded by hills on the western side of Kyushu, the city is indelibly associated with the atomic bomb that the US dropped on it in August 1945, a cruel irony for a place that had been unusually open to Western innovation for centuries. Nagasaki’s story is unlike that of any other Japanese city. The Portuguese were the first to arrive in the 16th century. From then on, Nagasaki was shaped by the presence of foreigners. Even when the country shut itself off for more than 200 years during the Edo period, merchants from the Netherlands were still allowed to do business here, from the confines of the tiny artificial island of Dejima (literally “Exit Island”), a lone portal to the outside world. The legacy of that interchange touches everything in Nagasaki, from its food to its architecture.

Nagasaki was (and continues to be) marked by its enthusiasm for whatever the world had to offer. Christianity took root here with such speed in the 16th century that the shoguns clamped down on it, fearing that numbers would become uncontrollable; cameras came here first when merchant Shunnojo Ueno obtained a daguerreotype camera from a Dutch merchant; his son set up a studio in Nagasaki and became Japan’s first professional photo­grapher. Coffee arrived with the Dutch vessels. And this was the Japanese city to be exposed to bowling, badminton and European cuisines. Opened by Joikichi Kusao, a chef at the Dutch residence in Dejima, Jiyutei is credited as the oldest Western restaurant in the country. (It remains open for business.) Nagasaki has a historic Chinatown too, with many families of Chinese heritage who have been here for generations. Chinese New Year is still marked with a festival and 15,000 lanterns.

View from Dejima Wharf with the Nagasaki Port Terminal, designed by Shin Takamatsu
Peaceful garden
Heading for the hills
Basilica of the Twenty-Six Holy Martyrs of Japan, a Catholic church built in 1864
Hideyuki Natsume at his jazz bar, Milestone
Crème caramel at Tsuruchan, founded in 1925

Kite-maker Akihiro Ogawa, 74, is part of the city’s textured story. “Kites have been a feature of Nagasaki culture ever since the Indonesian servants of the Dutch introduced them centuries ago,” he says in his hilltop workshop. “They’re a symbol of the city.” Nagasaki even has its own word for kites, hata (they’re called tako everywhere else in Japan). Ogawa’s grandfather started the business in 1907 and Akihiro took over from his father when he was 24 (photographs of his two forebears look down from the wall). There are others making kites in the city but only Ogawa assembles them in the traditional way with a bamboo frame and washi paper. He also uses the distinctive red, white and blue colours. Next to his workshop is Kazagashira Park, a sliver of greenery that hosts the city’s hata gassen (kite festival) every spring. In 2023 10,000 people came to enjoy the first full hata gassen since the pandemic began. Kite flying is a competitive sport in Nagasaki. “They’re tricky to handle but people here know what they’re doing,” says Ogawa.

The prefecture, which includes hundreds of small islands, is surrounded by sea on three sides and said to have the widest array of fish of anywhere in Japan: about 250 species. Depending on the season, menus here are filled with seafood from squid, mackerel and snapper to yellowtail, puffer fish and even whale. Yossou restaurant has been making chawanmushi (salty egg custard) since 1866. The city’s defining dishes are champon and sara-udon (thin, crispy fried noodles); Nagasaki restaurant chain Ringer Hut specialises in both. The city’s oldest coffee shop, Tsuruchan, has made a speciality of what it mysteriously calls Toruko raisu (literally “Turkish rice”, a dish consisting of pork cutlet, seasoned pilau rice and spaghetti on a single plate) and an icy milkshake topped by a glacé cherry, which it has been serving since the 1920s. At Kaniya, a boisterous spot that opened in 1965 on one of the maze of small streets in the night district of Dozamachi, people stream in for an after-dinner mackerel onigiri (rice ball) and a bowl of red-miso soup.

Castella cakes, sold in rectangular blocks, are another product of Nagasaki’s exchange with foreign cultures (in this case, Portuguese). Castella is sold all over Japan today but it was introduced to the country by Fukusaya in Nagasaki, which opened in 1624. Popular with the Tokugawa shoguns, it was served to US naval officer Matthew Perry during his negotiations to open up Japan in 1854. Fukusaya’s secret is in the way that it mixes carefully selected eggs, sugar, thick rice syrup and flour by hand. Sugar crystals give the soft sponge an added crunch. There are queues outside the main shop, a delightfully old-fashioned affair with a small window for the cashier and a display of historical artefacts.

Third-generation kite-maker Akihiro Ogawa
Nagasaki Peace Bell, close to the blast site of the atomic bomb

Despite the steep hills, it’s well worth taking to the streets in Nagasaki to see its old clapboard buildings, double-arched Meganebashi (Spectacles Bridge), Chinese monuments and many Buddhist temples such as Kofukuji, a 17th-century Zen temple whose first nine abbots were Chinese. On a hill overlooking the port, you’ll find the Victorian home of pioneering Scottish trader Thomas Blake Glover. Now one of Nagasaki’s most popular attractions, its dining-room table is set for tea and scones. The city’s Scottish connection was cemented in 2016 with an official Nagasaki tartan, a dark green and heather check.

Nagasaki’s Christian history is another remarkable tale. Jesuit priest Francis Xavier arrived in 1550 and began missionising with such success that Nagasaki quickly became known among foreign traders as Little Rome. By 1587 the panicked shogun ordered the expulsion of Catholic priests from Japan and then banned Christianity outright in 1614, leaving many of the faithful with no choice but to worship in secret. One of the most famous literary works set in Nagasaki is Silence, a 1966 novel by celebrated Catholic writer Shusaku Endo. Set in the 17th century, it tells of the persecution of the secret Christians and a young Jesuit priest from Portugal. It was adapted into a film by Martin Scorsese in 2016.

Nagasaki’s open-armed acceptance of outside cultures didn’t save it from becoming the target of the second atomic bomb on 9 August 1945, three days after the US destroyed Hiroshima. Tens of thousands died instantly; others lived on, often with disfiguring injuries. Today, Japanese schoolchildren visit the harrowing museum that documents the city’s agony, pass the spot that marks the bomb’s hypocentre and walk through the Peace Park, posing for group photos in front of a sturdy 9.7-metre-high figure sculpted by local artist Seibo Kitamura.

Peace Statue by Seibo Kitamura
Inside Sofukuji temple
Making tracks
Nagasaki Prefectural Art Museum, designed by architect Kengo Kuma

Hideyuki Natsume knows the story well. His parents were both hibakusha (atomic-bomb survivors), a club that nobody wanted to be part of, whose members were often stigmatised as living reminders of a period that most people wanted to forget. “We were almost forbidden from talking about the war,” he says. “The US was in charge and the focus of education was [and continues to be] all about peace.” The mellowest of men, Natsume runs Milestone, a jazz bar in Tsukimachi that he opened in 1986. “I went to university in Tokyo,” he says. “I used to love folk music but once I was introduced to jazz, that was that. Jazz kissa [coffee shops] were huge back then. Inside, you had to sit in silence and listen to the music. Records were expensive to buy so we would put in our requests and maybe buy them after we had heard them.” From his perch at the bar, he chats to people from all over the world with the sound of Johnny Griffin or Miles Davis oozing through his giant jbl 4343b speakers (“the speaker of choice for the jazz kissa”, he tells monocle). 

Nagasaki’s unique culture is so dense and has so many influences that it would take a lifetime to unpick it. Today the city remains as open as ever. Cruise ships the size of tower blocks deposit Chinese tourists here. The island of Dejima has been recreated with film-set precision (it is interspersed with some genuinely old buildings) and is popular with schoolchildren, who buy souvenirs and rent traditional garb for the day. The nearby Dejima Wharf waterfront area has been given a makeover and is home to the striking Nagasaki Prefectural Art Museum, designed by architect Kengo Kuma.

In many cities, residents can often be defined by broad-brush character traits but things are not so simple in Nagasaki. “We are modest and don’t like to show off,” says Natsume, when pressed to describe his home city. “But we often got things first in Japan and we like to take care of people. I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.”

Nagasaki address book

Garden Terrace Nagasaki Hotel & Resort
Kengo Kuma-designed urban resort with a swimming pool and great ocean views overlooking Nagasaki’s port and rolling hills.
2-3 Akizukimachi

eat & drink
Champon, Nagasaki’s celebrated noodle soup, was originally created as cheap fare for Chinese students. This multistorey restaurant is where it all began and features a gift shop and museum. 
4-5 Matsugaemachi

Tarafuku Asa 
The daily menu at this bustling izakaya (Japanese bistro) shows you which fish are in season. Winter favourites include yellowtail, puffer fish and flounder.
2-6 Aburayamachi

Higashi Yamate 13 House
Enjoy a coffee in this wooden house, which was once the French consulate and is one of several 19th-century Western buildings in the Higashi Yamate neighbourhood.
3-1 Higashiyamatemachi

This shop has been making castella, Nagasaki’s Portuguese-inspired sponge cake, since 1624.
3-1 Funadaikumachi

Ogawa Hata-ten
Third-generation kite-maker Akihiro Ogawa hosts workshops in his hilltop studio and sells his traditional bamboo-and-washi-paper hata (kites).
11-2 Kazagashiramachi

Kofukuji temple 
Nagasaki’s teramachi (temple town) has many historic Buddhist temples such as Kofukuji, which was founded circa 1620.
4-32 Teramachi

Nagasaki Prefectural Museum of Art
This museum, designed by Kengo Kuma, shows art from the region and hosts visiting exhibitions. Head to the roof for an excellent view of the city.
2-1 Dejimamachi

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