The capital city of the island of Kyushu, Nagasaki made headlines when it was targeted for the second atomic bombing of WWII. The city has a rich history as one of the few ports to allow foreign trade during Japan’s period of isolation and a beautiful location tucked among hills surrounding the bay.
A Quick History of Nagasaki
Nagasaki began life as a tiny fishing village. Things changed in 1570, when a Portuguese ship sailed in to the harbour. Western trade started to flow in to Nagasaki and a Jesuit mission was set up; this did not last long as the shogun feared that Christianity was a precursor to military invasion. Many of Nagasaki’s Christians were persecuted and all missionaries expelled from the city.
While the rest of Japan closed to foreigners in 1633, trade continued in Nagasaki. Chinese and Portuguese merchants were restricted to the tiny island of Dijima. However they too were expelled in 1639 following fears that western trade had contributed to the Shimabara rebellion. By 1641 Dejima had been reallocated to Dutch traders, although they were subjected to tight regulations. Dutch and Chinese goods slowly filtered in to Japan via Nagasaki; Dutch text books were decriminalised in 1720 making Nagasaki a destination for Japanese scholars looking to learn about western sciences.
Nagasaki opened up for free trade with other countries in 1859, alongside other ports such as Yokohama. The city developed in to a major port and centre for shipbuilding. Nagasaki was targeted by the second atomic bomb in August 1945, just three days after a first attack on Hiroshima. Nagasaki is built on hills so although the Nagasaki bomb was more powerful, the city suffered less damage. Post-war rebuilding changed the city significantly, although some of the ruins from the bombing have been preserved as a memorial such as a one-legged torii gate.
Nagasaki airport is about 40km from the city centre on an artificial island. Limo buses take an hour to reach the city and tickets are good value at ¥800.
Kyushu is linked to Honshu by bridges so it’s possible to get to the island by road and rail. Shinkansen trains travel to Nagasaki from the hub at Hakata, and the main train station is just north of the city centre.
Long distance buses also stop at the train station or at the bus station just opposite.
Where to Stay in Nagasaki
Nagasaki’s geography makes it quite spread out and difficult to navigate on foot. Trams make getting around the city easy, but it’s worth choosing your accommodation carefully to ensure you are near to where you plan to spend the most time.
The area around the station is convenient for travel as most buses and tram-lines pass through this area; it’s also got a good selection of cheap business hotels. If you plan to spend some time exploring the city centre and Dijima, the southern section around Chinatown and Dutch Slopes is better placed.
If you are on a tight budget, the area around the A-Bomb Hypocentre in the north of the city has some good cheaper options.
Must See Nagasaki
Atomic Bomb Museum and Peace Park
North of the city in the Urakami district was the spot above which the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki exploded. The museum covers pre-war Nagasaki, the effect of the bombing and the development of nuclear weaponry, with good captions in English. Opposite the museum is the Hypocentre Park with memorials and a hall of remembrance. Further memorials and statues are located in the Peace Park further up the hill.
Nagasaki Museum of History and Culture
Free audio guides in English take you around this museum dedicated to Nagasaki’s role in bringing western culture and knowledge to Japan. There are interesting models of historic Nagasaki and artifacts from foreign traders, such as a Japanese-English dictionary compiled by local translators.
There are many western style houses and buildings in southern Nagasaki, but Glover Garden is a good starting point to find out more about Nagasaki’s foreign settlers. There are several European style buildings in the garden and exhibits about the merchants and sailors that built them.
Built over several hills, Nagasaki is full of good viewpoints. The cable-car ropeway takes you 333m above the city in just 5 minutes. The city is particularly panoramic in the evening as the lights come on.
The island of Hashima around 15km out to sea was once one of Japan’s biggest coal mines and a dense high rise city was built on the island to house the miners and their families. From a distance the island looks like a ship; hence the nickname of Gunkan-jima (“Battleship-Island”). The collapse of the coal industry in the 1970s lead to the island being abandoned. Guided boat tours take visitors to the island to look around the cinematically decaying city; the island served as an inspiration for Raul Silva’s hideout in “Skyfall”.
Find out more about Nagasaki at their official tourism website.