Nagasaki – Phoenix Rising from the Ashes

Written by Nawan Poovarawan

Edited by Michael Laidlaw and Cassie Lim

Nagasaki – Phoenix Rising from the Ashes

On 9 August 1945, Nagasaki City’s famous port was hit by an atomic bomb just three days after the first surprise bombing of Hiroshima. It was a day to be remembered and it was a day that turned an important page in history, as it marked the end of the World War II and the genesis of a new dawn. This particular moment in history shaped the international relations and the national approach that Japan took to bring the country to where she is today.

Today, Nagasaki weaves for the world multi-faceted and inspiring stories that will resound eternal. The city itself has morphed from unimaginable destruction to the realms of prosperity. Nagasaki’s journey is one of courage and determination; one that is truly worth celebrating.

Underneath the scenic landscape, embraced by the harbour and mountains, lies the timeless window of Nagasaki, which stands for versatility, love, faith, openness and peace. The people of Nagasaki represent the pathway from the past to the future, from the war to humanity and from Japan to the rest of the world.

The New Wave – Isolation and Integration

Throughout this period of change, Nagasaki has displayed how Japan has ridden new waves, one after another. Many historic landmarks narrate how Nagasaki struggled through the divide of culture and the clash of intolerance to reach its current appreciation of different cultures. Over 200 years of Japan’s isolation in the Edo era, trade with The Netherlands was done through Dejima, a significant part of Nagasaki’s landscape and history. A man-made fan-like shape island at the tip of the peninsula, Dejima served as Japan’s only window to the outside world. Today, taking a leisurely stroll in Dejima reminds us of the period of clear separation from the West and the rest of Japan. Being surrounded by numerous low rise traditional Japanese-style homes in Dejima gives you an idea of the protected sphere, where western merchants stayed in comfort and safety whilst being seen from the government office on the adjacent hills.

After Japan’s isolation, Nagasaki became a new-found home for many ambitious foreign merchants who not only made themselves a fortune, but also contributed greatly to Japan’s modernisation. This integration period merged Japan’s elite talents into Western education, a transformation that later enabled the country to selectively apply the best technology to contribute to Japan’s industrialisation.

Thomas Blake Glover stood out among many recognized foreign merchants. He was well-honoured for his contribution to the economic development. In return, Japan gained his respect as he harmoniously formed a family and built a conglomerate and business empire that provided the city with great esteem and affluence. He made Japan his home, and this is where he spent the remainder of his life until he died peacefully. Glover’s home or Glover Garden, known to be the first wooden western-style house in Japan, took us back through over 100 years of rich history, reminding us of how Nagasaki welcomed and continues to welcome newcomers to integrate with the Japanese.

The Sweetness of All

If Nagasaki was a person, she would be a combination of a tough warrior, wise philosopher and a romantic poet. With light breezes from the ocean and a sparkling sprinkle of lights that outline the picturesque mountain by night, Nagasaki City’s night view is breath-taking. This is also the reason why Nagasaki earned its place amongst one of Japan’s most romantic places to visit and one of the top three night views in the world.

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The sweetness of Nagasaki is not only reflected in the picture-perfect scenery, but also in its cuisine. Having the advantage of the trading port at her feet, Nagasaki enjoys the abundance of fresh food and the constant supply of sugar just like times gone by.

Sweetness is very important in Nagasaki’s culture. The sweeter the cuisine is, the wealthier the household. Everything from a simple soup to the traditional Nagasaki dish, Shippoku, combines Chinese and Western influences. The Castella sponge cake, the city’s best known sweet, was introduced to the city by the Portuguese a few hundred years ago. These dishes are far sweeter than typical Japanese dishes from other parts of the country. One can imagine the sugar trade road from Nagasaki to other parts of Japan. The further away the town is from Nagasaki, the less sugary the feast becomes. Nagasaki cuisine boasts a distinct taste of delectable sweetness with a clear Western spin.

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Faith and Openness to All

Nagasaki would not enjoy the acceptance of multi-cultural society today if it hadn’t gone through rejection and ignorance. Western influence in the 16th century made Nagasaki a place where people welcome differences in faiths and religions. Christians were the minority, but they still managed to integrate into Japanese society harmoniously, even in the early days. Christianity reached its peak in 1600, before the ban of Christianity forced many Japanese Christians to go underground.

When Japan gained her religious freedom in 1865, it surprised the world of how the Christian faith still remained strong in Nagasaki. The practice itself was secretly passed on from each generation of believers to the next for over a period of 250 years. Today, Nagasaki has a higher proportion of Christians compared to the rest of Japan. Various historic churches that survived the war can be found in many cities and towns in and around Nagasaki. A number of the churches are humble in their materials and size, but rich in the message they preach to the world. It’s a message of how strong faith and love can persevere through hardship and persecution.

Nozaki Island – The Upcoming World Heritage

For the first time in history, Japan nominated Nokubi Church on Nozaki Island as Japan’s representative for the UNESCO World Heritage in 2016. Nokubi Church has a unique charm and its position in the heart of the uninhabited island is somewhat mysterious. In Nozaki Island, the hiking trail leading up to the church, together with the roaming wild deer, offers a feeling of great calm and respite. The world reclaimed heritage value of the church was not about the architecture, but about the symbolic significance of faith, openness and acceptance.

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Industrialisation on Hajima Island (Battleship Island / “Gunkanjima”)

Because most of Nagasaki was destroyed in 1945, a lot of the developments were “reborn” after the war. One development that continued through the pre-war and post-war periods was a seabed coal mining operation in Hajima Island, commonly known as “Gunkanjima” (Battleship Island). The abandoned island is just a ferry ride away from Nagasaki. For 80 years, the island grew threefold through land reclamation. It was then developed into a full-blown productive coal mining operation of that era; the green fishermen’s island turned into a well-structured high-density concrete jungle which even surpassed the density of Tokyo at one point. There were spaces for schools, hospitals, entertainment and residences, but not for greenery. The children only learned what vegetables and blooming flowers look like through man-made gardens that can be found on the buildings’ rooftops. The limitation of space and climate triggered a new way of life from how the family functions in a close-knit community to the adaptation of baseball rules.

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After 80 years of operation, the mine was closed in 1974. Abandoned in the sea for 40 years, the island survived the sun, sea and typhoons, leaving fragments of heritage for us now to witness. Greenery overtook the island, growing in and on the concrete buildings that were once so full of life and activity. The sight reflects the battle of existence between a man-made mini city and Mother Nature. Co-existence of both made the island dynamic, riveting and mysterious. Although it no longer has any industrial value, the concrete graveyard on Battleship Island inspired many art forms from international film settings to the recent opening of the Gunkanjima Digital Museum, where the stories are brought to life through digital narration and virtual reality. Despite the island’s recent popularity and UNESCO status, it still has rather limited access which made the trip to the island an experience to be savoured.

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A Hidden Gem – Ojika Island

The opposite extreme of Gunkanjima is Ojika Island. Unlike Gunkanjima, where the island has been completely built up, Ojika Island is distinctive because of its moderate well-paced life. A visit to Ojika brings you closer to nature. At the same time, life on the island has the comfort and amenities of the modern world.

The island is famous for its world No.1 people-to-people programme that offers the best experiences through a homestay with the locals. Even a stroll to the island’s busiest streets is mesmerising. While children of Gunkanjima in the past experienced nature through an intentional design of the rooftop green, children of Ojika today can experience nature everywhere. The locals care for nature and strive to preserve it, evident in the sustainable modes of travel and lifestyle. There is currently only one traffic light on the entire island; not because the island needs the traffic light, but because its elders want to ensure the children understand the modern rules of traffic and how it operates. People of Ojika are welcoming and keen to share their anecdotes with visitors and their hospitality adds to the charm of the island.

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Hope, Peace and the Future

To experience Nagasaki is to understand Japan’s connection and relevance to the world we live in. Today Nagasaki chooses to remember, but not to cling on to the past. Nagasaki opts to maintain Japanese tradition, while respecting the cross-cultural differences in the form of arts, architectures, cuisine and religions, and preserves nature in unseen islands whilst also embracing the digital era. The people of Nagasaki have the strength of the surrounding mountains, an openness of the harbour and the hope of the ocean. Despite its deeply scarred history, Nagasaki reveals a story of recovery and an earnest hope to achieve a world of peace.

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