Two Days in Nagasaki: Cherry blossoms and atomic victims

I’m slightly disoriented…waking up from a less than ideal night’s sleep on an uncomfortable couch floating along the ocean will do that to you. Still, I managed to shake off the grogginess long enough to figure out where I was and were I needed to go.

Waking up on a ferry

Kagoshima is located in Kyushu, the most southwesterly of Japan’s main islands. It was from there that I had to find my way to Nagasaki, also located in Kyushu. Japan has one of the most state-of-the-art high-speed rail systems in the world (and certainly my favorite), the Shinkansen. It is also extremely expensive, especially for someone traveling on a backpacker’s budget.

It was for budgetary reasons that I wouldn’t be traveling in comfort and style, but instead by local trains. Since it was the holiday period in Japan, I was able to travel by Seishun Juhachi Kippu, a discount rail travel ticket. This ticket, although intended for students, can be purchased by anyone and costs all of ¥11,500  (roughly $150 US). By contrast, the bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto costs ¥13,720 for a one way trip.  The Seishun-18 allows you unlimited travel for up to five days within the holiday period. The only catch is you are only allowed to utilize the local trains (read: slow trains).

"Local" train station

My journey to Nagasaki, which would have been around four and half hours by bullet train, would end up taking me about 12 hours and I would have to transfer trains multiple times. The upside: at a slower pace, it enables you to enjoy the countryside you are speeding through. Much of this journey would be adjacent to the sea and the rest would be through a beautiful mixture of mountains and small towns.

By the time I arrived in Nagasaki, it was around 8pm and I had been traveling since 2pm the previous day, if you count the ferry trip as well. My Lonely Planet for Japan came to my rescue and I located a hostel not too far from the main train station.

Although it was a bit difficult to locate on the small backstreets of downtown, it was well worth the effort. It was not so much a hostel as a home converted into a guest house. An elderly couple ran the house-turned-hostel.

Each night at 10pm, all the guests, which generally numbers around 10, are invited to have a glass of homemade plum wine and mingle with the other guests. I met some wonderful Japanese people there. I happened to be the only non-Japanese speaker of the group, but everyone welcomed me warmly and those who spoke English were very interested in conversing with me. Conversations were cut a bit short though for it’s lights out for the entire hostel at 11pm, according to house rules.

I woke up early the next day to begin exploring Nagasaki. My first stop would be Peace Park, near the location of the epicenter of the atomic bomb that destroyed this unfortunate city. The cherry blossoms had already begun to bloom. Walking in the midst of this park, surrounded by breathtakingly beautiful cherry blossoms is so powerful that attempting to describe it is all but impossible.

Sakura in Nagasaki Peace Park

A plaque in the area contains the follow:

At 11:02 A.M., August 9, 1945 an atomic bomb exploded 500 meters above this spot. The black stone monolith marks the hypocenter.

The fierce blast wind, heat rays reaching several thousand degrees and deadly radiation generated by the explosion crushed, burned, and killed everything in sight and reduced this entire area to a barren field of rubble.

About one-third of Nagasaki City was destroyed and 150,000 people killed or injured and it was said at the time that this area would be devoid of vegetation for 75 years. Now, the hypocenter remains as an international peace park and a symbol of the aspiration for world harmony.

11:02am August 9, 1945

11:02am August 9, 1945

Here you stand in an area that had been completely flattened over 60 years ago. It was not known how long it would take for life and vegetation to resume from the after effects inflicted by the warhead. However, all around you nature and life have resumed, scarred, but no doubt more powerful than before.

Epicenter

The Peace Statue, created by Seibou Kitamura, opened on April 1, 1955. The statue’s right hand points in the direction of the threat from nuclear weapons and the left hand symbolizes eternal peace. Standing before this 10m high symbol sends you back almost 70 years in time.

Peace Statue

A short walk takes you to the Atomic Bomb museum. Having already been to Hiroshima the year before, I couldn’t help but making comparisons between the two cities and the two atomic bomb museums. Again, trying to describe the feeling of walking through the museum is difficult. I don’t generally visit a lot of museums. In fact, I avoid most museums at all costs unless the weather is bad and there is nothing else to do. However, the atomic bomb museums located in Nagasaki and Hiroshima should be a required visit for everyone today, especially those who still think the world is better off with the presence of nuclear warheads.

Whilst I felt that the Hiroshima museum had been more powerful and chilling, the Nagasaki museum is still difficult to walk through. Pictures of before and after the bomb are displayed throughout the museum. Seeing what kind of destruction the bomb caused, realizing that you’re no more than 100 meters from where the bomb had exploded, and then realizing that tens of thousands of extremely more powerful bombs still exist today is angering and scary. But most of all it is just sad.

Estimates of Active Nuclear Warheads

People lost their lives that day. Innocent people that had nothing to do with the war. People are still suffer today from other wars and conflicts with no greater rhyme or reason than the war that was happening at that time. When will humankind stop destroying her brothers and sisters all just for the sake of money and/or power?

When most people think of Nagasaki, they immediately think of the bombing. It is all the more sad considering what an interesting history Nagasaki holds. Nagasaki was a great center of culture during the 16th-19th centuries with influences from Europe enriching the city.

In the 16th century, Japan enacted Sakoku (locked country), a policy that made it illegal for foreigners to enter the country and at the same time illegal for Japanese to leave. During this time, Nagasaki remained as one of the only trading posts linking up Europe and Japan through the Dutch factory in Dejima, Nagasaki. Trade with China was also handled in Nagasaki.

Many Japanese moved to Nagasaki during this period in order to study European culture, which was completely inaccessible anywhere else in the country.

Entrance to Chinatown

Architectural and cultural influences from Europe and China are prevalent in certain parts of town. Roam around Chinatown and, in addition to the odd feeling of being in China when you are actually in Japan, you can try a bowl of Nagasaki Sara udon (a stir-fry mix served on top of uncooked noodles).

Sara Udon

I only really had one day in Nagasaki, so I didn’t get a chance to explore Dejima, the former Dutch trading post. However, Nagasaki also has its share of beautiful temples dotted throughout the area. As I explored around some of the smaller side streets, I couldn’t help but notice one of my favorite things about Japan: vending machines. Practically every corner has a vending machine, including the type which sells alcohol.

"The Liquor Shop"

How they stop children from buying tasty treats from here, I haven’t the slightest clue.

On top of the many other wonderful reasons to visit, Nagasaki also boasts great scenery. The main harbor is located in a valley. Take a stroll long the waterside at sunset if you get the chance. Just make sure to bring a jacket; it gets quite chilly as the sun fades.

Nagasaki Sunset

As it was far too cold next to the water and as I also remembered I would have to catch the first leg of my 16-hour train journey to Kyoto at 6am the next morning, I meandered back into downtown.

My second and final evening in Nagasaki was much the same as the first. I returned to the hostel to have another glass of plum wine and talk with the travelers at the hostel. I’ve traveled to many places and stayed in all kinds of lodging. Hostels will always be my favorite. In no other place will you find such a diverse gathering of people from around the world, each with his own story to share.

Often the best advice I can give you on the road is close your mouth and open your ears. You can learn so much just by taking in the thoughts and life experiences of those around you. Listen to everyone. Let their words mix into the words from the thousands of others you have met along the path. Tomorrow, it will be a totally different set of people in a different place inadvertently teaching you new lessons and perhaps far-off ideas. No book, no class and certainly no TV show or movie can provide you with the same information.

Old man contemplating life, or maybe just wondering where he dropped his pen

Soak it all in. This is traveling. This is what I live for.

Next time on This Is My Travel Blog: Kyoto: The Land of Dreams

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