Once again apologies for the lack of updates. I have had the busiest two weeks of my entire stay in Japan so far at work and they have just ended. Also this post was a little bit of a mini-epic as you can see. I hope you all enjoy it anyway.
Nagasaki Day 1
The first part of our wonderful stay in Nagasaki involved getting there. Sadly Kyushu is not mainland Japan. There are no lovely super rapids that bisect the island and let you cross from one side to the other in a hour. Instead your options are ride all the way around the edge of the island or take a bus through the middle.
Being both cheaper and quicker bus it was. And it was a really, really nice bus too. Big comfortable seats and a TV screen at the front. Of course the telly was in Japanese but it was playing the weirdly fascinating “20th Century Boys” which one of these days I’m going to have to read/watch.
A slightly odd start to the trip though was this statue of some kind of zombie nurse that I snapped just as we passed by it. Apparently it was advertising some kind of bandage/trauma clinic thing. There is no way in hell you’d be able to get away with displaying that on the street in England; and with good reason. I was freaked out by it and I am hardly squeamish.
Just before lunchtime we pulled into Nagasaki and I got my first impression of the place.
It is hot and it is bloody hilly.
I mean that applies to everywhere in Japan but to Kyushu even moreso. The city seems to consist of a harbour, the area around the main station and then nothing but hills, hills and more hills. And steep ones at that.
Gamely trenching up the first of many hills we emerged, sweating, tired, hot and hungry at our hotel. A traditional Japanese ryokan run by a lovely and enthusiastic little man who spoke not one single word of English. Not even hello.
Divesting ourselves of bags we set off in search of food and stumbled upon this place.
Yes, that is a suit of armour and no; that isn’t even remotely the weirdest thing associated with this café. On the outside it was decorated with suits of armour, masks, fake fruit, statues and Buddhas. On the inside it was festooned with dozens of statues and antique plates, cups, pots and kettles. It was a real Aladdin’s cave, a mix of dozens of different things with no attempt whatsoever to match styles or features. It was in short awesome.
The people running it were even better. The main guy in charge was really friendly and talked to us about all the antiques he’d gathered. How he likes to go out to antique fairs to collect them, etc. He was showing off some bargains, some especially old things he’d grabbed and one or two particularly pricy pieces. A bit all over my head I’m afraid but it was nice to just listen to a man talk about something he was passionate about.
He was also passionate about tea! Something which will serve a man in good standing in my book. Most places here serve basic “kocha” but he had an honest to god tea menu, with different blends, leaves and countries represented. I just plumped for a standard British blend but it was really nice. Easily the best cup of tea I’ve had in Japan that I didn’t make myself.
The rest of his family were all in the café too. At the counter his son or possibly grandson was sat doing his school homework. His wife was doing the cooking and chatting occasionally and she was a marvellous cook (if a touch slow for the café crowd). I had a spicy pork and rice stir-fry that was basic but good. Chinese food is rightly famous in Nagasaki because it absolutely delicious. Not greasy, not slimy, not covered in MSG just tasty and wondrous.
All in all it was the perfect first impression of people in Nagasaki and it was yet another reminder that people in Kyushu are unbelievably friendly.
Full up of spicy ginger stir fry we made our way up the mountain to check out some of the many temples in Nagasaki.
First up was Kanzen-ji, which had a big tree.
Not to disparage the tree, which is pretty damn big, and right smack dab in an urban area to boot. But well, trees can only hold my interest for so long so off we toddled to Shofuku-ji.
Shofuku-ji was really quite lovely, although our enjoyment of it was hampered a bit by rain which suddenly sprang from nowhere and forced us to shelter under the arches of the temple.
Shofuku-ji, like many temples in Nagasaki, displays a mixture of Chinese and Japanese architectural styles. I’m no expert on architecture and I would be hard pressed to explain to you what this means in practise but I have seen enough temples on the main land to know that something about Shofuku-ji was very different to a regular temple. Small touches such as a geometric wooden pattern on the gates or a slightly different style of arched roof might not seem like much but they gave the temple a feeling of novelty that made going to look at temples interesting again.
Yes, after three years in Japan it is possible to become bored of looking at temples. Heck, it took my brother about two days when he visited.
It doesn’t hurt that Shofuku-ji is extremely handsome, with beautifully laid out gardens and wonderful views of the city below. It also had some beautifully detailed gargoyles, including a wall covered in nothing but ogre and gargoyle designs (the onigawara).
However my main memory of Shofuku-ji is of the very nice gentleman who decided to explain the history of the temple to us. I have mentioned in earlier posts that we visited Kyushu during Obon. Traditionally during this time Japanese families go and visit their parents and grandparents and then visit temples and shrines. Obviously this elderly gentleman was out visiting temples with his family. Equally obviously he was bored to tears with them because he decided to abandon them and instead talk to two foreigners. Whilst he explained in Japanese I had no hope at all of understanding about the history of the temple his family watched us suspiciously from some distance. At some point a small child was entrusted to come over and summon Grandad away to stop bothering the poor people. But he was having none of it and continued to regale us with stories and ask questions about England.
Eventually we convinced him to rejoin his family and with a somewhat sad expression he trundled off and we made our way elsewhere. People, especially old people, in Kyushu are awesome.
Next up on our tour was Fukusai-ji Kannon. A temple built, I kid you not, in the shape of a giant turtle with a Buddha standing on its back.
No, seriously, giant turtle. Here are some pictures.
I know I talk about Gamera a lot on this blog* but come on. That thing looks like its about to rear up and fight Godzilla. Maybe the next time America tries to bomb Nagasaki it will.
*Gamera is a giant turtle with tusks that can fly and breathe fire. He is also “a friend to children” which is perfectly logical.
Awesome turtle aside, we were a bit disappointed to find out that the temple was shut. We had a shufty around the outside of it all but we couldn’t find a door that wasn’t locked. Oh well we thought, at least we got to see the giant turtle.
Just as we were leaving, however, an incredibly old, but surprisingly spry woman started sprinting towards us. Turns out she was the caretaker and she was happy to show us around.
So we ended up with our own personal tour of the temple. Since we were the only people there we were treated to some extra special benefits, such as;
Getting to bang the drum used for services.
Posing with the big bell outside that is used to call in the faithful.
Whilst the turtle was fantastic the inside of the temple was full of some really cool touches as well. Our guide took us through many of them demonstrating such things as secret cabinets built into the walls and altars where Chinese residents used to hide things during the war.
Best of all was a massive Foucault’s pendulum underneath the temple. The string reaches right up into the Buddha’s head and is connected to a ball pendulum which measures the rate of rotation of the earth. It is one of the biggest such pendulums in the whole world, only beaten by three others. However I think it may need resetting a little bit as the intervals between the rods falling down were not regular.
Fukusai-ji was followed up by the Ouranda (Holland) Cathedral and the 26 Martyrs Memorial.
Nagasaki is a somewhat unique city in Japan due to the wide mix of different cultures that coexist here. Primarily it is the most Chinese influenced city in Japan but there is also a strong influence of Portuguese and Dutch culture. This is because for a long time Nagasaki was the only port in the country that was open for westerners, principally those from Portugal and the Netherlands, to trade in. The Dutch settled here on the “Dutch slopes” and in a small city within a city which initially represented the only place they were legally free to move around in. With their settlement they brought sunflowers and tulips, coffee, different kinds of cake, tobacco and a whole range of goods.
They also imported Christianity (although actually the first missionaries had arrived sometime earlier), and that’s where the problems began. Buddhism and particularly the Shinto variant practised in Japan places an emphasis on venerating authority figures and paying respect to them. Every man, woman and child in the land was legally obliged to attend Buddhist ceremonies. Through the temples and the shrines the Shogunate extended quite a lot of their power. Anything that was a threat to this order would have to be controlled and Christianity presented a definite threat.
So it was then that Christianity became illegal in Japan. This ban didn’t apply to the foreigners who lived and traded in Nagasaki but it did apply to the Japanese residents of the city. However due to their contact with the Dutch, Portuguese and Spanish many Japanese residents began to convert to Christianity.
So it was that on February 5th 1597 Toyotomi Hideoyshi executed 26 Christian priests, 2 of them children, 20 of them Japanese, 4 Spanish, 1 Mexican and 1 Indian by crucifixion.
The memorial that stands here commemorates the site at which they were crucified.
Whilst an interesting history lesson the whole area made me sick to my stomach with anger at what madness and barbarism man does to his fellow man all because of religion.
It was a nicely done memorial though. And the church with its crazy mosaics and abstract angels was a striking and impressive sight.
Our final tourist attraction that evening was Glover Garden. This is a garden (surprisingly) and a series of old houses in a western style dating back to the Victorian era/ Meiji-restoration. It’s situated up a hill (also surprisingly) overlooking the harbour below.
Being westerners and westerners that have seen plenty of Victorian architecture at that we weren’t too interested in visiting Glover Gardens. What attracted us there was an advertisement for a Beer Garden. Beer Gardens in Japan aren’t the back bit of a pub but rather a short lived attraction in the summer offering all you can drink booze and all you can eat buffet food in an open air environment. Stuffing ourselves in a Victorian garden with fantastic views of the harbour definitely appealed to Fran and I. Sadly the beer garden was cancelled for the day due to rain, although whilst we were there it was a balmy summer night and never rained once.
I am glad we went there though because the buildings served as an excellent and very informative museum about Glover Garden and the area around it. Basically this was the area where all the expats used to live back in the Meiji-era when expat meant Victorian industrialist. What I had no idea about was how influential and important these British industrialists were to the development of Japan. Thomas Glover, whom the area is named for brought the first steam locomotive to Japan and built the first steam ship. In fact the company he founded to manufacture steam ships eventually became the Mitsubishi Corporation. Even better then that Glover was the founder of the first ever brewery in Japan, a brewery that eventually underwent a name change and became Kirin Breweries; the makers of Kirin beer.
See the moustache on that horse, supposedly that is a little tribute to glover and his own quite iconic moustache.
Glover wasn’t alone in his endeavours either. The area around him was full of western style houses all the former abodes of industrialists that built ships, founded breweries, imported tea back to England (god bless those men, sniff, it makes me tear up a little) and worked tirelessly to bring Japanese culture to the west and vice versa.
The fact that they all clung together, had clubs together and built houses that tried to recapture home really spoke to me. These people had no internet, no television and no British radio. They were in a properly alien culture which they clearly loved but they missed home in ways I can only imagine. The strange compromise of half one lifestyle and half another will resonate with anyone who has ever been an expatriate. It was quite touching to realise that I had something in common with these people and quite fascinating to see what British comforts seemed to be important to them (fireplaces, beds and baths seemed to be the main ones and I can sympathise with all three).
Glover Garden also had some small curiosities such as this statue of Puccini and another statue of the famous heroine of his opera “Madam Butterfly”. Apparently the Soprano it was based on lived and worked in Nagasaki.
Oh yes and this brilliant monument marking the place where bowling was first introduced to Japan. I think that may be the best historical plaque I have yet seen. Particularly the stained glass bowling pins.
Finally one of the best things about going to Glover Garden was getting to meet these guys, Jan and Steven. Fran had spotted them talking at the entrance to the Garden in Dutch. Now Fran used to live in the Netherlands and speaks Dutch pretty much fluently. She thus likes to point out to me when she notices people speaking Dutch.
Can I just say that for a small nation, and a language that is only spoken in that one nation, Dutch speakers really get around. I have heard them (or rather had them pointed out to me) in Italy, nearly every major city in Japan and Newcastle. Dutch folks like to travel it seems.
Jan and Steven asked us a question about directions which we were happy to help them with, Fran pointed out the Dutch connection (the cheesier sequel…see what I did there) we got to chatting and we ended up hanging out for the rest of the evening.
Nice guys. They were in Japan with their company as part of a project. The project was over and they were headed on a whirlwind tour of Japanese destinations they had missed before they had to return home. It was fun introducing them to things they didn’t know and swapping ex-pat stories.
We wandered around the garden with them and then eventually into a small museum which contained replica boats. These are used in Nagasaki’s major festival. I particularly like the evil looking whale.
We also headed out to dinner with them. I had been itching to try out some Nagasaki Chinese food since it was supposed to be the best Chinese food in Japan. In particular I wanted to try some Champon, a kind of ramen made with a very salty soup and loaded up with literally every kind of topping imaginable. Fishcakes, carrots, cabbage, beansprouts, mushrooms, etc, etc.
At first we tried a Chinese restaurant that was recommended by our guidebook. No luck, it closed at 9 o’clock. So off we trudged to Chinatown.
Shut, shut, shut, shut. It seemed that every restaurant we tried was shut at 9 o’clock. What was that all about? Do people in Nagasaki not eat late? In most Japanese cities restaurants are full up until midnight with salaraymen leaving work and grabbing a quick bite. I personally have eaten at 4 in the morning in 2 major Japanese cities in quite nice cafes. Are there no salarymen in Nagasaki? What was going on?
Eventually we found a restaurant that was open and dug into 4 bowls of Champon and 3 massive beers.
The champon was good too. There were so many conflicting flavours that it was basically a flavour mess, although a predominantly salty flavour mess. But it was greasy, salty, loaded with MSG and went down nice and easy with a cold beer. Real comfort food and just what I needed.
Finally, bidding Jan and Steven “sayonara” and full up of Chinese we set off home. At which point the rain we had been promised started.
As you can see, it was quite a heavy rain.
Three things you must know about Kyushu. The old people are awesome. It is very hilly and hot. When it rains, you absolutely know that it has been raining.