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An Insider's Guide to the Best Things To Do in Nagasaki

With its stunning setting and layers of history, Nagasaki rewards a deeper look
With its stunning setting and layers of history, Nagasaki rewards a deeper look | © Anthony Brown / Alamy Stock Photo
For many, Nagasaki remains a byword for tragedy. But a visit – far from being a wholly sombre experience – will introduce you to one of the liveliest, most vibrant cities in Japan. With its stunning setting, compact layout, layers of history and thought-provoking museums, Nagasaki rewards a deeper look.

Explore a distinctive fusion of cultures, uncover the legacy of the city’s secret Christian communities, visit the home of Madama Butterfly or try the unique shippoku cuisine on a trip to Nagasaki, which has been the world’s gateway to Japan since the 19th century. Although the city suffered terribly in the 20th century, its culture of openness and inclusion remains undimmed. This is one of Japan’s most welcoming cities and so much more than just a memorial.

Delve into Nagasaki’s tragic past

On 9 August 1945, Nagasaki became the second city to experience the effects of an atomic bomb, after Hiroshima – 40,000 people were killed immediately, and 40% of the city’s material fabric was destroyed. Three days later, Japan surrendered to the Allied Forces, ending World War II. In the months that followed, thousands more died from burns, injuries, radiation and malnutrition. At the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum, a 15-minute tram ride from the train station, you can learn about the attack’s devastating impact on the city through both the stories of survivors and the physical legacy of the explosion – one of the most affecting displays is a watch forever stopped at the exact moment of detonation. Connected to the Atomic Bomb Museum is the impressive and moving Nagasaki National Peace Memorial Hall, which contains the names of every single victim of the bombing.

Learn about the A-bomb’s devastating impact at the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum © Wire.Dog / Alamy Stock Photo

Take a moment to reflect at the Nagasaki Peace Park

Follow up on your visit to the Atomic Bomb Museum with a walk to the tranquil Nagasaki Peace Park located adjacent. The park marks the point of the bomb’s detonation, and at its north end is the 10-metre-tall (33ft) Peace Statue created by Nagasaki sculptor Seibo Kitamura. The statue’s right hand points to the heavens, and the threat of nuclear weapons, while the left arm is extended out in a gesture of peace. The park is quiet at most times of the year, with just a scattering of people praying, meditating or silently reflecting. The exception is August 9, when a peace memorial ceremony is held, in which visitors are encouraged to participate.

The 10-metre-tall Peace Statue was created by Nagasaki sculptor Seibo Kitamura © Porames Rojanatreekoon / Alamy Stock Photo

East meets East: Get an insight into Japan’s earliest immigrant cultures

Chinese traders had been active in Nagasaki since well before the Edo Period, and their influence on the city remains significant. Some estimate that the Chinese made up 15% of the population of Nagasaki in the 17th century. For much of this time, however, Chinese residents were confined to a small district surrounded by walls; Japan’s first Chinatown. Today, the district stretches over approximately one city block of densely packed intersecting lanes, narrow alleys and arcades containing some 50 Chinese restaurants and shops. Each of the exits – north, south, east and west – have a vermilion gate crowned by a god from Chinese legend. While wandering the bustling streets, take the opportunity to try Nagasaki’s signature dish, champon. This peppery noodle soup is a delicious mix of pork, seafood and vegetables, and is usually served with a side of crispy gyoza. Kozanro, in the heart of Chinatown, has been serving the stuff since 1946 and is reckoned to be the best in the city. Fortunately, the restaurant’s capacious interior means it is usually possible to get a table, whatever the time of day.

Chinese traders were active in Nagasaki for centuries, and their influence on the city remains significant © David Parker / Alamy Stock Photo

Investigate the city’s secret Christian history

In 1549, Portuguese missionaries journeyed to Japan in the hopes of Christianising the country. Operating out of Nagasaki, the Portuguese were more successful than they could have imagined, and Christianity flourished. But in 1614, the Japanese government outlawed the religion and launched a brutal crackdown. Foreign missionaries were deported, churches torn down and converts ruthlessly persecuted. More than 100,000 Christians went underground and began to practise their faith in secret.

The Twenty-Six Martyrs Museum, on Nishizaka Hill just behind the main station, commemorates the Franciscan missionaries and Japanese followers who were crucified on the slope in 1597. The museum has a fascinating collection of historical artefacts including original statues of the Virgin, disguised as Kannon, the Japanese goddess of mercy, and the images of Christ that converts were forced to stomp on to renounce their faith. The origins of the largest festival in Nagasaki, Kunchi, which is held every year between October 7–9, lie in the ritual search for hidden Christians in the city after the ban on Christianity. For a deeper look at the UNESCO-listed history of Christianity in Nagasaki, consider a guided walking tour.

The Twenty-Six Martyrs Museum has a fascinating collection of historical artefacts © christian kober / Alamy Stock Photo

Go Dutch in Dejima

When Japan shut its doors to the rest of the world in 1641, the Dutch stayed on as the country’s sole European trading partner. They were restricted, however, to the confines of an artificial island called Dejima in Nagasaki Bay. For more than 200 years, this tiny island became Japan’s window to the world. Located just five minutes by tram from Nagasaki Station, the island today features a number of reconstructed warehouses that contain captivating displays about the history of European traders in Nagasaki. The most imposing building on the island is the Chief Factor’s Residence, which offers a glimpse into life for foreigners during the Edo Period as well as regular free live musical performances. If you are visiting in April, be sure to take part in the colourful Oranje Festival.

For more than 200 years, the island of Dejima was Japan’s window to the world © Philipp Zechner / Alamy Stock Photo

Art of the city

A five-minute walk from Dejima is the Nagasaki Prefectural Art Museum, which was designed by the renowned architect Kengo Kuma. Spanning both sides of a canal and connected by an enclosed glass walkway, the museum’s permanent collection focuses on modern art created by Nagasaki artists or with a Nagasaki theme. The museum also boasts the largest collection of Spanish art in Japan. This is the legacy of a former Japanese Ambassador to Spain who amassed a collection of some 2,000 pieces of Spanish art. Visitors should check out the stylish but affordable café on the roof, which offers a great view out to the sea.

The Nagasaki Prefectural Art Museum focuses on modern art created by Nagasaki artists or with a Nagasaki theme © LatitudeStock / Alamy Stock Photo

Room with a view

For design buffs looking for somewhere to stay, there can be few places better than the sleek Garden Terrace Hotel, which was also designed by Kengo Kuma. Situated halfway up Mount Inasa, this prize-winning building offers panoramic views out over the city from every room. If you are lucky enough to secure a room at this popular hotel, take advantage of the location by climbing to the top of Mount Inasa for even more spectacular views of the city and bay. For those on a tight schedule, the ride up in the cable car is quick, affordable and fun. Tickets cost ¥720 (£5.35) one-way or ¥1230 (£9.10) for the round trip.

Experience the true taste of Nagasaki

With Japanese, Chinese and Western merchants living side by side in Nagasaki for hundreds of years, it was inevitable that an exchange of cuisines would follow. The gastronomic consequence of this mixing is called shippoku ryori, and it is one of Nagasaki’s premier claims to fame. Today, the cuisine includes a unique range of dishes, such as buta kakuni (braised) pork, nanbanzuke (the technique of marinating in vinegar), hikado (originally a Portuguese soup, now made with a kombu dashi stock), goren (fried chicken), soboro (chopped meat over rice) and umewan (a sweet bean porridge). If you can afford to treat yourself, consider heading to historic landmark Shiseki Ryotei Kagetsu, which has been serving customers in its exquisite tatami-matted rooms since 1642. Reservations are essential.

An exchange of cuisines over centuries of trade has given an international influence to Nagasaki’s cuisine © Tanya_F / Getty Images

Go bar-hopping in Shianbashi

Like any port city, Nagasaki has its share of bars, saloons, clip joints and pubs. Most of the nightlife is focused in the labyrinthine backstreets of Shianbashi, next to the station. This maze of narrow streets and arcades is a delightfully shabby mix of restaurants, pachinko parlours, watering holes and red-light establishments. For a relaxed evening out, try Crazy Horse. Every new visitor is photographed by the owner and their photo pinned to the wall of the bar, guaranteeing that while Nagasaki will leave its mark on you, a small memento of your visit will endure there, too. Things get going around 9pm – expect to stay out late.

Most of Nagasaki’s nightlife is focused in the labyrinthine backstreets of Shianbashi © Taro Hama @ e-kamakura / Getty Images

Learn the real story that inspired one of the world’s greatest operas

For a spectacular view of Nagasaki Bay with a cultural twist, take a trip to the Glover Garden on the Minamiyamate hillside overlooking Nagasaki harbour. This beautiful park hosts the home of the 19th-century British merchant, Thomas Glover, who is reputed to be the inspiration for Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. Statues of Puccini and diva Miura Tamaki, famed for her role as Cio-Cio-San, stand in the gardens of the house. For some refreshment and a taste of Nagasaki, exit the garden and take a short stroll down the hill to the Minamiyamate Café where they sell excellent castella cake, a popular treat originally introduced by Portuguese missionaries some 400 years ago. The Japanese may have kicked out the Portuguese long ago, but they kept the cake.

Glover Garden hosts the home of the 19th-century British merchant reputed to be the inspiration for Giacomo Puccini’s ‘Madama Butterfly’ © Hemis / Alamy Stock Photo

Hop on a boat to tour some of the eeriest ruins in Japan

If you’re looking for an interesting tour near Nagasaki, consider a visit to Gunakjima (battleship island). Once the most densely populated area on earth, it’s now a desolate ruin. Until 1974, the 500-metre-long (1,640ft) island was a working coal mine and settlement onto which more than 5,000 residents crowded. When the coal reserves ran out, the mine was closed, and its residents soon left. Today, travel to this moody set of typhoon-lashed industrial ruins takes just under an hour. This UNESCO-recognised island can only be reached by boat, and there are a number of tour operators running trips to the island from the city. Tours depart from the Nagasaki Port Ferry Terminal near the Ohato tram stop. Along the way, guests will have the chance to take in impressive views of Nagasaki’s vast shipbuilding facilities, as well as stunning vistas of the city from the water.

Once the most densely populated area on earth, Gunakjima is now a desolate ruin © Daisuke Kishi / Getty Images