Nagasaki and Kumamoto

I have a night’s stay in Kumamoto after cycling across Kyushu through Aso National Park. I choose a budget hotel, though this one has an onsen on the top floor. I’m getting very used to having hot public baths in Japan after long days in the saddle. Etiquette is important. It’s polite to shower off and wash before you use the bath, and in my case it’s nice to watch a layer of grime, chain oil and bugs drain away. My favourite thing has to be hopping in the sauna (if there is one) straight after, followed by a few minutes plunge in the cold bath. Through the hotel bath’s window, there’s a view of Kumamoto Castle as the sun sets beyond the mountains behind. It’s a lovely introduction to the city.

A view of Kumamoto Castle

Horse sashimi in Kumamoto City

In the evening I head out to try the local delicacy, basashi i.e. horse sashimi. It’s a bit tough and not exactly delicious, but it’s worth a try. At the izakaya I’m eating at, I overhear the same conversation I hear anywhere. Sometimes in Japanese restaurants or bars, as soon as a westerner sits down at the counter, the conversation around them turns to foreigners, worries about speaking English, whether they’ve ever been abroad or had experiences with foreigners etc. It’s a bit hard to just blend into the background and eat your meal. As soon as you speak a little Japanese though, the others brighten up a bit. The guy next to me asks where I’m from, and once I mention I’m English, he starts raving about The Who. Compared to other cities and prefectures so far, I’ve noticed people from Kumamoto are certainly a bit louder and more forthright. With a belly full of horse, I try to get an early night.

Basashi (horse-meat sashimi)

The next morning, I have an early dip in the bath then set out on my journey to Nagasaki. First thing, I cycle around the castle but don’t go inside. Kumamoto Castle is a concrete reconstruction, like so many others in Japan. They’re still pretty, but the castles in Disneyland are often older. There are several genuine historical castles still standing, so I intend to spend more time at those if I can. After this, I have a brief stop in the Josaien castle town, an Edo-themed shopping area next to the castle. I have some ikinari dango and a Kumamon meat bun then hit the road. I’m sure there’s a lot more to Kumamoto than can be seen in one stayover, but I just don’t have the time to see it all if I’m to make any progress.

Josaien castle town
Kumamon, the city mascot, as a meat patty

From the city, I cycle several kilometres west to the port and hop on a ferry to Shimabara. Heading along the easier northern coastal roads, I briefly stop to see the City of Swimming Carp – several lanes with koi fish swimming in the gutters, ponds and canals. There’s also Shimabara Castle (another reconstruction). There are more interesting sites if you head south along the volcano and the mountainous roads, but I have a long way to go in one day. I need the easier ride. It’s a relatively tiring and dull cycle, once again with the wind against me. It gets hilly as I get closer to Nagasaki, and as it starts to get dark, I stop off to try some chanpon. I finally arrive at my hotel near to central Nagasaki, ready for a few days sightseeing and waiting out the rain… again.

Carp swimming in the gutters
Shimabara Castle
Nagasaki chanpon

Sightseeing in Nagasaki

Compared to some of the places I’ve visited so far, Nagasaki has a lot of unique places and things to see. Not just in terms of its WW2 history, but in many other ways. As one of the few places in Japan open to foreign trade (and the world) during the sakoku period (when the country was closed-off), there’s a strong mix of Chinese, Dutch and other influences in terms of its architecture, food and local culture. The area has a high Christian population and many of the local fast food joints are built to resemble churches, complete with steeples. I begin my sightseeing by heading to Meganebashi and the bridges of Nagasaki. There are many lovely stone bridges near to the city centre that survived the atomic blast, the most famous said to resemble a pair of spectacles, hence Meganebashi. Next up is Sofukuji, a temple with Ming-inspired architecture and one of the few examples of its kind in Japan. Afterwards, I wander over to the chinatown to try out sara udon, another local dish. It has crunchy thin noodles and I much prefer it to chanpon.

Meganebashi bridge
Sofukuji temple
Lots of Chinese influences
Nagasaki Chinatown
Sara udon

Last up is Dejima, the former site of the Dutch enclave in Japan during the Edo period. Excavated in previous decades, many replicas of the old town have been rebuilt complete with artifacts and exhibits. There’s a lot of information on ceramics and how Japanese pottery and ware made it to the west from this port. This region is famed for its ceramics as well. I spend an hour wandering the historical town and learning about Dutch trade and living in this period.

Dejima, sealed off by a bridge once more
The main thoroughfare
Dutch culture

Nagasaki peace park and the atomic bombing

It rains non-stop the next day, which creates an apt atmosphere as I’ll be visiting the atomic memorials in the north of the city. The Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum has a primary aim to advance the cause of peace and push for a nuclear-free world. It’s a rather harrowing experience. Tattered uniforms, broken clocks stopped at the time of the bombing, shadows cast on wood, melted objects and a replica of Urakami Cathedral’s frontage at the time of the blast. There’s also video testimonies from survivors, including Australian POWs who were being held in Nagasaki at the time. The museum also includes a section on the buildup to the bombing, with displays on the war situation and Japanese atrocities. There are also opposing viewpoints from those who believe the bombings were just and a necessary evil. There’s also some more general information on nuclear weaponry and the Cold War.

A replica of Urakami Cathedral
Fatman replica

Next door is the Nagasaki National Peace Memorial Hall for the Atomic Bomb Victims, a place to commemorate and pray for those who died. It’s a peaceful place and includes a folded crane from Barack Obama on display. Heading out into the rain, I visit the hypocentre (the point at which the bomb detonated) and the Peace Park. Looking around me, there’s a large urban area, part of a huge city full of shopping malls, apartments and hotels. It’s hard to imagine much of it reduced to ashes, a testament to how quickly everything was rebuilt in the postwar boom.

Quiet, with the sound of water falling all around
Obama’s crane
Peace park

I take some time to relax and enjoy myself for the rest of the citybreak. I eat well and go to the cinema too. Next I’ll be on my way north, headed to Fukuoka…

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A Japan-enthusiast from the UK, with a particular interest in history and the language, as well as cycling, writing and rock climbing.