One thing comes to mind instantly when you think about Nagasaki. Destruction. A city left in ruins after the devastating atomic bomb was dropped on it on August 9, 1945. It was the final straw for the ailing Japan who were already on their knees following a similar attack on Hiroshima three days earlier. So while the effects of that dark day do play a key role in the city’s history, there is much more to modern day Nagasaki than just a former nuclear waste-ground.
I’d been to Japan before, but never made it as far as the south island of Kyushu. During a previous trip I’d spent time further north in Hiroshima, Kyoto, Nagano, Fuji, Koyasan and, of course, Tokyo, but not to this wonderful region.
Nagasaki is the largest city of its prefecture and one of the country’s main ports. During the 16th Century it was the sole port used for trade with both the Portuguese and Dutch. Like a lot of Japan, it has a way of combining the old with the new. Temples and shrines appear throughout the landscape just feet away from new restaurants and shopping areas. It’s an eclectic mix of traditional and 21st Century.
Now I love Japan for a number of reasons. First of all the people are some of the friendliest and warmest you’ll meet anywhere in the world. Nothing is too much trouble for them. I’ve had total strangers stop what they were doing to walk me in the opposite direction and help me find where I’m trying to get to. An extension of that is just how punctual everything and everyone is. If a train, for example, is due to leave a station at 13.07 then, by god, it leaves at 13.07. No exceptions!
Also the food is amazing. There are so many variations of Japanese cuisine that it’s almost impossible to sample it all within a two week trip.
Finally, the country has so many fantastic fun, cultural and awe-inspiring sites to visit that you can travel there on numerous occasions and see something different on each visit. Put simply, Japan is amazing!
During my most recent trip – this time with a close friend of mine – we were due to stay in Nagasaki for three nights (having spent the previous week in South Korea) during an October. The summers in Nagasaki can be extremely warm with highs in August reaching the mid 30s. In October it is slightly cooler but still temperatures reach the high 20s. During our stay it was sunny for the entire trip and we did not see a single sign of a rain cloud. So make sure you pack appropriately.
Next thing to note is that if you are coming from the UK, then you can expect prices to be similar to what you’d expect to pay for things back home. At the time of writing £1 would get you around 130 Japanese Yen. Another thing to note when it comes to money is around the act of tipping. For those coming from western countries (especially the US), the prospect of not giving a tip for a meal, or for someone carrying your bags into a hotel room, is something quite extraordinary. Not so in Japan. Tipping is not customary and, in fact in some circumstances, can be considered quite rude and insulting. Also many restaurants require the customer to pay at the front counter rather than by leaving money on the table. In these cases it is usual for the money to be placed on a small tray and not directly into the hands of the cashier. Where money, or credit cards, are passed from person to person, it is often done two-handed and with a slight bow of the head as a sign of respect.
Finally, if you are travelling within Japan and not just staying in Nagasaki, then you are likely to be using the super efficient railway system. Most railway networks within Japan are run by The Japan Railways Group – known as JR Group. This group run the famous Shinkansen (or bullet trains) that are known worldwide. For foreign travellers, I’d strongly advise purchasing a JR Pass which, once purchased, can provide the user with unlimited use of the national network for a set period of time. To give you an idea of its value, two ordinary 14 day passes (that don’t include the super fast Shinkansen) that I purchased for my original trip to Japan cost £634. If you are using the trains regularly in that period you’ll get your money’s worth easily. Shorter options are also available from the JR Pass website. Once purchased online, you then pick your pass in Japan by showing your Exchange Order and Japanese entry visa that will be in your passport.
It probably goes without saying – although I’m going to anyway – that the best way to get from the UK (or most places in the world) to Japan is by air. And like any major nation, Japan has huge numbers of airports spread across the four islands.
Most travellers will probably expect to fly into one of Tokyo’s two main airports; Narita or Haneda. Then once in Tokyo, catch the train down to the south island and into Nagasaki. To get to Tokyo I’d suggest you fly with British Airways. It’s a long flight – between 10 and 11 hours usually – so prepare to bed in. While you will be fed at least twice on this flight (as I was when I did this journey for my first trip to Japan) make sure you have a selection of other snacks and drinks with you as well as some good entertainment. There will be a selection of films and games available on board, but better to have more than you need to occupy yourself right? To give you an idea on price, a solo traveller with British Airways can expect to pay around £650 for a return flight to Tokyo from London Heathrow in October.
Now getting to Nagasaki. It’s true that Nagasaki has an airport but, currently, there are no direct flights from anywhere in Europe to it. However, you can get to Nagasaki Airport by taking a flight to Tokyo and then changing for the short hop down the country.
However, there are other options to get to Nagasaki. I’ll talk you through my route which – albeit – is not the easier nor conventional way, suited my plans well.
When I travelled with my friend, we started in Busan on the south coast of South Korea. We had spent a week or so travelling around South Korea and were making the short one hour flight over to Japan for another week. We boarded an early Asiana Airlines flight from Gimhae International Airport and flew directly to Fukuoka Airport for £150 (which included a return from Fukuoka to Seoul Incheon). If you were to just fly from Gumhae to Fukuoka you could get a ticket for as little as £50!
Once at Fukuoka (well after a couple of days exploring the area) we caught a train from the centrally located Hakata Station – a huge and confusing metropolis of identical walkways containing all manner of shops – to take the two hour train journey south to Nagasaki. Despite the language barrier, buying tickets it pretty easy, although I’d advise you to search on Google before you go for the train times you want to get as it makes it easier to explain your plans if you have exact trains to point at. From memory, I think the train from Fukuoka to Nagasaki is direct so there is no need to change during your journey.
Where to stay
Across Japan there are plenty of hotels and hostels to stay in and Nagasaki is no different. One thing to note about Japan in general is that there has been a bit of a backlash against AirBnB by the hotel operators which has led to restrictions on the number of places available via this ever-increasing accommodation provider.
During my three-night stay in October, I plumped for the centrally located Richmond Hotel in the heart of Shiambashi (about two minutes walk from the Shiambashi tram stop).
This three-star accommodation is set back just off the main road (Harusame Street) in the pretty quiet Motoshikkuimachi. This cost me £232.95 for a deluxe double room, non-smoking, for two adults for the three nights. However, breakfast is not included in this price.
The positives about this hotel were plenty. Upon arrival, after walking down the rather secluded and not so obvious entrance walkway to the hotel lobby, we were met by a very friendly and helpful receptionist who checked us in promptly. The lobby area is modern and stylish and there is a small restaurant that serves breakfast and dinner just beside the entrance.
The room was well equipt too. A comfortable double bed welcomed you and the bathroom was perfectly suitable with a modern, clean shower.
While the hotel is in a quiet the area during the day time, it can be a bit rowdy at night. Basically, it appears to be in the heart of the red light district of Nagasaki. Saying that the street still, somehow, didn’t actually feel that seedy. While there were obvious ‘establishments’ lining the road with women standing nearby, there was not the Amsterdam feel about the area.
Anyway, back to the hotel itself. One thing I cannot comment on here is the restaurant, other than to give you the reasons we didn’t eat here. Basically, it appears to be a little costly for what is on offer. Given there are so many good places to eat and drink nearby, it felt a waste to stay in our hotel and have dinner. Also we didn’t bother with breakfast here either as we chose to eat on the go. There is always a vending machine to grab a hot coffee or a Lawsons to grab a melonpan – a type of sweet bun – from. That’s something I really love about Japan. The variety and options available are just incredible.
While Nagasaki is a relatively small city – well in comparison to say Tokyo anyway – there are a variety of ways you can successfully travel around its many streets. Perhaps the best method is to walk them. Some of the best walks that take in some of the city’s many temples and shrines are along the river and across its many bridges (more on one of those later on). Also you can take a stroll all the way down to the dockside where a series of boat tours take place from. This walk will take around 15 minutes from Shiambashi.
You can also take a longer walk north to explore the site of the atomic bomb hypocentre as well as the fascinating Atomic Bomb Museum. Be warned, however, that it’s a long walk from the hotel area to the museum and Peace Park and, depending on fitness, will take up to an hour to cover the approximate 4km. However, there are plenty of places to stop along the way to grab a tasty snack and bottle of water.
There are quite a few hills and mountains in Nagasaki (fortunately a cable car known as the Nagasaki Ropeway takes you to the main viewing spot high up on Mount Inasa) so be prepared for your legs to feel the burn after a long day out exploring.
If the idea of walking doesn’t excite you a lot then there is a superb tram service running through the city.
Nagasaki is serviced by four tram lines. Operated by the Nagasaki Electric Tramway, the tram lines provide easy access to most of the city’s main attractions. You can usually get on board a tram pretty quickly as they run every five to eight minutes. You enter through the rear door of the tram and pay the 130 yen (about £1) for a single journey, no matter how far you are travelling. Then when you reach your stop you exit the tram via the front door near the driver.
If you are entering the tram, as I did, at Shiambashi tram station then you can either pick up Tram Line 1 (blue line) taking you up to the Peace Park, Atomic Bomb Museum, Nagasaki Train Station and near the Nagasaki Ropeway for Mount Inasa, or Tram Line 4 (yellow line) taking in the bridges along the river.
For those arriving into Nagasaki, or leaving it, then Nagasaki Train Station on the Nagasaki Main Line – operated by Kyushu Railway Company (JR Kyushu) – is probably your best bet. Located centrally to the city’s attractions, the train station is only a few simple stops, via the tram, to pretty much any location.
The station is quite compact and houses just a few platforms with trains taking you back north to stops that can get you to other locations on Kyushu such as Fukuoka and Beppu. Make sure you buy your tickets for the exact train you want from the ticket office as you’ll be allocated a seat. Top tip here is to book your train tickets for the day you are leaving when you arrive at the station, helping avoid any issues of the train already being full when it’s time to leave.
You can’t think of Nagasaki without thinking about the end of the Secord World War. So it’s impossible to go to the city without paying a much needed visit to the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum and Peace Park. Entrance to the museum is extremely reasonable at just 200 Yen (about £1.50) per adult and you can also get an audio guide for an extra 157 Yen (about £1.20).
The museum is as harrowing as it is interesting. The sheer scale of the destruction of the Atomic Bomb ‘Fatman’ bought about to the region is astounding. In total around 150,000 people either died, or were injured, on the morning of August 9, 1945 when the bomb exploded 500m above the city.
As you are guided from exhibit to exhibit by the tape, you’ll get to grips with just how badly Nagasaki suffered. There are countless items salvaged from the wreckage on show, including bottles that melted together under the extreme heat, clothes that were peeled-off the victims backs, a lunchbox still containing the remains of a rice lunch a young child was taking with them the day the bomb hit and a life-sized replica of the bomb itself. It’s a truly fascinating and sombre place.
I remember walking silently around the exhibition with my friend, exchanging glances with one another as we went, trying to get our heads around the actions of that day. A feat I don’t think I will ever achieve.
Outside the museum you’re just a short walk to the Nagasaki Peace Park and Peace Statue. This statue, is a large 10m tall man with his right hand extended skywards to the threat of nuclear weapons and his left extended symbolising peace. The walkway is also surrounded by fountains which add to the overall atmosphere of the area. Nearby, in the Hypocentre Park, you’ll come face-to-face with a monument symbolising the exact spot the bomb exploded 500m up. Incredibly, just metres away from this is the one-pillar Torii – the remaining part of the traditional gates that are synonymous with Japan – that has stood firm since the bomb went off until this very day.
On your way out also make sure you pay a visit to the National Peace Memorial Hall – also situated next to the museum and Peace Park – to fully get the whole experience and to understand what this area means to Japanese people.
This next location may look familiar to film fans. Hashima or Gunkanjima Island also known as Battleship Island was used in the James Bond movie Skyfall as a backdrop to one of its scenes. It’s a deserted mining island about 19km off the coast of Nagasaki and you can only get there through a tour company. Fortunately there are quite a few of these.
Hashima Island appealed to me due to my interest in urbexing. Imagine a whole island with deserted buildings that you can look around! Sounded like an opportunity too good to miss. Sadly when I went in October the sea conditions meant it was too dangerous to dock, so we could only view the island from the water. Bear this in mind when you visit, as docking on the island can change day-by-day and in certain seasons (e.g. the autumn and winter months), docking is less likely.
Meeting at Nagasaki Docks the tour sets off around 9am. There are lots of tour companies to choose from including Gunkanjima Cruise and Yamasa Line. From our trip, we opted for Gukanjima Concierge at a cost of 4,000 Yen per person or around £30.
The trip takes about two hours in total if you are not stopping on the island. However, even from the water it’s still well worth the time and money. Make sure you queue nice and early also as premium seats with the best views onboard go very quickly!
The island itself has an interesting history. Nicknamed Battleship Island due to its shape, the island was not really the focus of anything until a coal mine was established in 1810. Years later, a large settlement was established on the island and saw many families move there despite its small size. To accommodate the workers and their families, around 30 apartment blocks were built as were a primary and junior high school, pachinko or gambling shop, hair dressers, a movie theatre and even a pub. At its peak over 5,000 people lived here.
However, in the 1970s, energy shifted from coal to gasoline and the mine closed. With no mine came no work and the families quickly left the island for dead.
If you are lucky enough to get onto the island during a visit then you’ll enjoy seeing the sites mentioned above. However, safety rules do dictate that you won’t be able to enter large parts of the island so don’t be disappointed that you can’t climb the deserted apartment blocks.
The next must stop during a stay in Nagasaki is that of Mount Inasa Observation Platform and Ropeway. You can reach the foot of the ropeway by tram and once at the top you get the best views of Nagasaki from anywhere in the city.
Much loved by locals, Mount Inasa sits in Mount Inasa Park and rises 333m above sea level. A round trip ticket costs 1,200 Yen per person (around £9). The short ropeway journey, up the mountain, allows you to enjoy the scenery on the move before arriving at your destination. At the top, from the all round viewing platform, the natural beauty of the coastline and mountains are to be enjoyed.
My top tip here is to head up the mountain around an hour before sunset. This way you’ll get the views of the city in the daylight while also experiencing the setting sun disappearing in the distance.
Back towards the centre of Nagasaki you’ll find one of its most photographed landmarks.
Meganebashi Bridge /Spectacle Bridge may look like any number of bridges that cross the winding streams and rivers in Nagasaki, but this one provides a fun optical illusion. From a distance and with the sun shining, the two arches of the bridge reflect in the water to look like a pair of glasses.
Take a few moments here to join the queue of, what seems like endless Japanese schoolgirls (surely they must have taken that photo hundreds of times already?) and wait for your turn to step onto the stepping stones across the water to get a central location for your photos. If you ask nicely enough, you can get one of the other visitors to take your picture for you. The bonus here is that as it’s a functioning bridge, so there is no need to pay any money to see it.
Interestingly, when my friend and I arrived at the site a lot of the other local visitors were more interested in taking our picture with the bridge in it than their own!
Once you have all the photos you want of this site (and everyone else has all the pictures of you they want as well), just a short walk down the stream you’ll come across huge numbers of koi carp in the water. They are literally everywhere and they are huge.
We were so taken by this that we went to a local Lawsons and bought a loaf of bread each and went back to feed them. The fish were so keen on the food as well that they would literally come up and take the bread from your hand. Incredible opportunity here to get up close and personal with the local wildlife.
Finally make your way to the Suwa Shrine. Nagasaki and indeed Japan in general are home to hundreds and thousands of shrines. They are everywhere you go. So it is unlikely you’ll need to visit them all in Nagasaki especially if you have been elsewhere in the country already.
However, I would advise making the walk to Suwa Shrine as it is not only a beautiful example of Japanese architecture and an extremely peaceful place, but also affords stunning views out across Nagasaki.
The shrine itself is a Shinto shrine dating back to the 1600s, and it is also the home of the Nagasaki Kunchi or festival. Like most shrines it is free to enter the grounds but guests can make donations. One way to do this is to buy a fortune (Omikuji). This type of fortune comes in a slip of paper and is divided into multiple sections from ‘good luck’ to ‘worst luck’. I remember getting one of these when I was at the Shrine and to be honest was less than impressed with its predictions for my future! However, I’m sure you’ll get a better one than I did. Also, fun fact, Suwa Shrine was the first Shinto shrine in Japan to do these fortunes in English.
Where to avoid
First thing to say is that, from my experience, Japan is an extremely safe country. Safe to the point, in fact, that you can feel pretty comfortable using your bag as a means to reserve a table in a fast food diner. Honestly, I’ve never been anywhere in the world that the people are as helpful, friendly and nice as the Japanese.
So if I’m really pushed for something to avoid I’d have to say the general area of Shiambashi at night. As previously mentioned, this area is basically part of a red light district and while it appears to be a mild mannered one it may make some visitors feel uncomfortable. I’ll be honest, it did come as a bit of a surprise to my friend and I when we saw it the first night we were there as it didn’t really fit with our preconceptions of Japanese culture. Guess the world’s oldest profession is alive and well even in countries that don’t like to flaunt sexuality overtly.
Main problem I can see with my own advice here though is, if you’re staying in the same hotel as we were, then it will be impossible to avoid the area completely. However, those soliciting certain services have obviously got an eye for who is in the market and who is just passing through and more often than not, if you are clearly foreign, then they will simply turn their back on you. Problem solved.
Great places to eat
There are hundreds of great places to eat and drink in Nagasaki. Seriously, you’ll be falling over places and have more difficulty narrowing the choice down to just one restaurant. As you’d expect being Japan, there are lots of restaurants serving sushi, sashimi, tempura, udon, okonomiyaki and ramen. So you can feel pretty safe that, wherever you pick, you’re going to get an authentic taste of the region.
Three suggestions I will put forward, however, are worth rooting out. The first, while I have not got the exact name, is a great area to grab a drink on an evening out. Located near Shiambashi tram stop, along Harusame Street, are a number of small bars. Each one will only seat a few people (no more than 10 maximum) so space is a premium. Some don’t have seats either and you simply stand at one end of the bar and work your way down it as more people enter. Basically, you only stay in these places if you are drinking. No drink, then the bartender will politely ask you to leave to make space for paying customers. Make sure you order at least one round of Sake; Japanese rice wine.
So one night, I think it was our last in town, my friend and I stopped off in a bar in this area run by a friendly Australian. We spent a good few hours in his bar having drinks and chatting away with him about our travels. Sadly, I can’t remember the bar’s name, but if he is still the owner of it, and you are looking in the right area (see the map I’ve put below) then you’ll hopefully find where I’m talking about. Failing that, the other bars along this street are all excellent too.
My next suggestion is one you’ll be able to find all over Nagasaki. That’s the fast-food store Mr Donut. During a stay in Nagasaki make sure you buy at least one of these treats as they will give you that sugar-rush energy boost you’ll need during a long day walking. Also the donuts are extremely tasty and very cheap.
Finally my favourite place to relax in Nagasaki is Café Beans Coffee Shop. This wonderful family owned coffee house is situated down a set of outside stairs of Rua Luis Frois in the Nigiwaimachi area of Nagasaki.
The coffee house is quite hard to spot. Like many Japanese restaurants and shops, the outside is just a door leading to a set of stairs. Go up the stairs and you’ll enter the shop. It really feels like you’re entering someone’s house and you basically are.
The man who owns and runs the shop is a real coffee enthusiast. He loves the stuff and takes great pride in what he does. Don’t go here if you are looking for a quick cup of coffee on the go – Starbucks style – as you’ll have to wait a while for it to be brewed properly. But trust me, it’s worth it. You’ll also want to order some food from here too as the owner makes a small selection of lunch time snacks for his guests.
When my friend and I stopped here we were the only guests at the time and the owner was almost apologetic for the length of time he took to serve us (which was a lot quicker than you’d get in most restaurants anyway).
Also you’ll notice here the rather interesting décor. Lining the walls, and the shelves, are hundreds of old records, CDs and cameras. He’s clearly an avid collector of these items and enjoys showing them to all his customers. This is the type of establishment that allows you to relax and remove yourself from your busy life. It’s a place to enjoy a coffee with friends or on your own.