Nagasaki Past and Present - Japan
I love train journeys. As a child, chugging across India from Mumbai to the Bay of Bengal I watched the bleached landscape slide past; moonlit rivers, sleeping figures on station platforms like shrouded corpses. Years later I boarded the old Orient Express to Istanbul, for nearly four days, to find no food or drink on the train after Paris. In the Peruvian Andes a man came through the carriages offering gulps of oxygen to fainting passengers. On Amtrak I was trapped in snowdrifts in Chesapeake Bay…
So a visit to Japan that included a day of several hours by train with three tricky changes was good news.
As the Nozomi “super-bullet” arrowed its way into Hakata, where I had seven minutes to make a change, I realized we were more than a minute late. Unheard of! Bullet trains are never late, let alone super-bullets. I scrambled off the train tugging my wheelie through the crowds, frantically searching for signs to Nagasaki, now with just four minutes to spare. A young businessman hurried past and I waved my Nagasaki ticket at him beseechingly. A nod and he was off, beckoning me to follow. We raced up an escalator, past rows of platforms, and there was my train. I hurled myself and my wheelie on board and yelled “Arigatō! thank you!” as the doors closed.
I had a special reason to visit Nagasaki: it was a place I knew intimately though I had never been there. I was at home with the layout of the town, the bay with its amphitheatre of low, encircling hills. This place had been part of me for three years, while I researched and wrote a novel about the girl we know as Madame Butterfly. In Puccini’s opera, Nagasaki was the home of Cho-Cho, an orphan of fifteen sold into the sex trade, who fell in love with her first client, lieutenant Pinkerton of the US navy, remaining faithful, waiting for that “one fine day” when he would return. Tragic story, wonderful music. But what about the town itself?
I had travelled through Japan, knew its mountains, its castles, towns and villages. I was familiar with Nagasaki’s past. But I had delayed going there because my novel, “Butterfly’s Shadow” takes up the story where the opera ends; I wanted to know what happened to those characters. As an added challenge I set it in the twentieth century, from 1923 through to World War Two, so I had to avoid learning anything about its more recent history to escape the oops factor of anachronism. With the book finished, it was safe to go.
For two hundred years this port was Japan’s window on the world; visitors stepped ashore in this harbour when the rest of Japan was closed off to foreigners. And the waterfront was my first shock: In the past it was a maze of narrow alleyways with open sewers running down unpaved streets. Stalls sold everything from fishfood to silver bracelets; rickshaws and bullock carts jostled pedestrians. What lay before me was an immaculate landscaped park: lawns, flowering shrubs, families with children playing on the grass. At café tables, visitors lingered over a cappuccino or a sushi snack.
Nagasaki today is a modern city. On August 2nd 1945 at two minutes past eleven, an atomic bomb fell out of the sky and blasted the town and its people to what could have been oblivion. Instead, it proved a horrific moment of rebirth. The Nagasaki Atomic museum tells the story, and celebrates the survival of the human spirit: the people of Nagasaki overcame that day of devastation to build a vibrant city which reaches out to visitors.
Some precious buildings survived the explosion. A charming 17th century double-arched stone bridge still spans the Nakajima river, and Tera-Machi – a complex of calm and beautiful grey Zen temples, withstood the blast. On the upper hillside, Hollander Slope is lined with mansions where Europeans lived. I glided up the hill on an outdoor esclator to the famous garden built by a Scotsman, Thomas Glover in 1863, and came upon a statue of Madame Butterfly in a shady corner.
Centuries of foreign influence have shaped Nagasaki, a place unlike other Japanese towns; more outgoing, the cultures mixed – a thriving Chinese neighbourhood; Portuguese restaurants; a street-market three stories high; traditional seafood eateries; girls in minis and platforms. And for eccentrics like me, at the other end of town, the railway station waits…
- For information on all aspects of Japan visit the Japan National Tourist Organisation’s website: www.seejapan.co.uk
- Independent-minded travellers can buy a Japan Railpass for 7 or 14 days and create their own itinerary. Buy online at www.japanrailpass.net (The Railpass must be purchased before arriving in Japan and validated on arrival at Osaka or Tokyo. Travel on the Nozomi super-bullet requires a supplement.)
- The town is easy to navigate on foot, or by the cheap and convenient streetcar system. Taxis are reasonable and easy to pick up.
Lee Langley with photograph courtesy of Southtopia.
Butterfly’s Shadow by Lee Langley is now available in paperback, published by Vintage. To buy a copy from your nearest independent bookstore visit www.localbookshops.co.uk