Kyushu, the most southerly of Japan’s four main islands is not yet a popular tourist destination and has never been in the forefront of Japanese history. As my wife and I have already savoured many choice tourist attractions in the more visited regions of Japan, we came to Kyushu recently and were completely captivated by its varied charm and robust allure. Happily for tourism, it is richly endowed with well-preserved Edo-period (1603-1868) towns and villages, delightful hot springs, haunting volcano landscapes, historic cities and monuments, diverse places of interest and rugged scenic splendour.
Among the several fascinating places covered in our itinerary, the city of Nagasaki has made the deepest impression on us because of its colourful history and its horrendous fate during the WWII. Japan’s first encounter with the West in 1543 occurred here, when the Portuguese sailors landed on its shores. This was followed by Portuguese merchants and Jesuit missionaries who were the only Europeans permitted by the Shogunate to trade and preach Christianity there for a time. Chinese traders, mainly from the southern provinces of Jiangsu, Zhejiang and Fujian, also established a foothold in Nagasaki during the 16th century. As they became prosperous, their numbers grew and many became permanent residents. The rest of Japan was closed to all foreign trade until the reign of the visionary Meiji Emperor who in mid19th century opened up the country to foreigners. In doing so, he changed the course of Japanese history.
Nagasaki became the country’s first open port and consequently a European settlement sprang up and became affluent and influential in the life of the people. It has largely retained its unique hybrid indigenous, Chinese and European imprints which permeate its customs, cuisine and way of life. Its name is now known around the world because America’s second atomic bomb was dropped there on 9 August 1945, three days after its earlier bomb had utterly destroyed the industrial city of Hiroshima. Out of a population of 240,000, the Nagasaki blast killed almost 74,000 initially and devastated a significant part of the city. Another 75,000 were injured or contaminated by the explosion. Tens of thousands of these subsequently perished and the death-toll continued to mount until well into the 1980s. Many survivors are still living in the psychological shadow of the bomb in their old age.
Our visit to the must-see Peace Park, the epicentre of the explosion, was an intensely emotional experience. Two imposing statues, one for peace and the other to commemorate those killed, have either symbolic or touching messages exhorting the visitors not to forget this catastrophic happening and hoping that it would not be repeated elsewhere. Groups of disciplined students, with sombre expressions on their faces, were seen bowing in unison in front of these statues and laying floral bouquets before departing. An anti-nuclear bomb organisation has a permanent stand there and was collecting public signatures in support of its ongoing campaign. Scattered in the park were the flattened remains of the once standing buildings, clusters of private properties, civic institutions and public amenities.
At the nearby Atomic Bomb Museum, we viewed the superbly produced exhibits depicting the daily life in Nagasaki, both before and after the devastation, and we were palpably moved and saddened by man’s inhumanity towards his fellow men. The unimaginable and unendurable sufferings inflicted by the deadly bomb and its aftermath were vividly captured in the detailed diary of a heroic Japanese medical professor. He had treated numerous patients, who were injured or exposed to the blast, between 1945 and 1951 when he himself finally succumbed to the contamination.
In stark contrast to the depressing scene at the Peace Park, the sprawling European Settlement called Glover Park, with its 19th century western-style dwellings, civic buildings and tastefully landscaped gardens, has enhanced the cosmopolitan ambience of the city. Sitting on a hillock, it commands a magnificent vista of the lovely harbour, the impressive cityscape, the distant mountains and the picturesque countryside. This park is named after Thomas Blake Glover, a leading British merchant there. Its other attractions include Glover’s sumptuous residence, an elegant Catholic church, two museums showcasing a treasure-trove of artefacts and a myriad of everyday things covering the different phases of Nagasaki’s history. Glover Park’s romantic setting, coupled with the flamboyant life-style of Glover, who married a Japanese geisha, are said to have inspired Puccini’s immortal opera “Madam Butterfly”, which is a fictitious figure.
To round up our brief but enlightening stay in Nagasaki, we toured the two nationally renowned and well-preserved 17th century Buddhist temples, which were commissioned by the Chinese there. Kofukuji, founded in 1620, is the oldest Japanese-style Obaku Zen temple in Japan. It was the last Chinese Buddhist sect to enter the country. Chinese abbots helmed this temple until the 18th century. Sofukuji, established in 1629, is a wholly Chinese-style Obaku Zen temple built for the specific religious needs of the Fujianese community. Constructed by Chinese artisans from Fujian, its architecture style is similar to the older Buddhist temples in Singapore. One of the ancient gates of Kofukuji used to lead to the bustling old Chinatown, which has since moved to its present site. The latter is a lacklustre one-street town, with many Chinese-operated restaurants, pastry shops and provision stores. Most expatriate Chinese had opted to return to China after WWII.
The present day Nagasaki truly reflects the proverbial phoenix that has proudly risen from the ashes of destruction to join the ranks of the modern and prosperous Japanese cities. Its manifold attractions and historical legacies have much to offer both domestic and international visitors. The best times to visit Nagasaki and the rest of Kyushu are between spring, and autumn when their natural beauty is at its most vibrant in brilliant hues and colours.
Five things to do:
- For non Japanese speakers, it is much more convenient and economical to join a package tour offered by the two Japanese airlines and other tour operators here. For independent travellers who prefer more flexibility, be prepared to incur substantially higher costs, even if you simply duplicate the tour itinerary in its entirety.
- Apart from Nagasaki, other interesting places to take in should include:
- Yufuin, a perfectly preserved Edo era town famed for its shops and secluded traditional Japanese onsen(hot spring) inns, like the pick of those shown on the “Japan Hour” television programme.
- Kumamoto, which has one of the three most beautiful castles in Japan and an ideal spot for cherry blossom viewing in spring.
- Kagoshima has unsurpassed scenic wonders, and famous for its onsens and a close-up view of Sakurajima, one of the world’s most active volcanoes.
- Indulge in an unique hot sand bath in the vacation resort of Ibusuki.
- One’s holiday in Kyushu should include at least a night’s stay in an enchanting traditional Japanese ryokan or onsen inn where one sleeps on a comfortable tatami floor with mattress, relaxes and eats in the adjoining living room and admires the surrounding scenery from one’s own veranda. An onsen bath is de rigeuer and therapeutic.
- The most economical and practical way to enjoy a specialty meal of a town you visit is to buy a takeaway bento lunch which is readily available at food outlets at railway stations, food kiosks or convenient stores.
- Do bring along adequate amount of Japanese currency needed for the trip because credit cards are not commonly accepted in most retail establishments. Also, ATM machines may not be always available when you need them urgently.
As well as two don’ts:
- In well-ordered Japan, never jaywalk at traffic light junctions. Be patient, and wait for the traffic light to turn in your favour before crossing. Any such violations will show you up in a bad light, or may even invite contemptuous stares from the locals or being scolded by them.
- Not many Japanese there speak English. Knowing a few useful Japanese words or phrases will be of great help to you at your lodgings, shops, restaurants, railway stations, with taxi or bus drivers or when asking for directions.
Lam Pin Foo