We arrived in Nagasaki just as the late afternoon light began to slide down the mountain sides, reflecting off the long narrow harbour and casting the first shadows into the crevices of the steep hillsides clustered with dwellings.
This would be our final stop of a week-long exploration of western Japan. And in many ways, we saved the most unique city for last.
Nagasaki’s setting in the valley of the Urakami River and on the hillsides of the harbour makes it an extremely attractive place. But it’s also unusually cosmopolitan, because for over two centuries it was the only point of contact between Japan and the outside world.
Contact began between Japan and Europe when Portuguese traders landed in Tanegashima in 1543, but the seeds of conflict were planted with the arrival of the Jesuit missionary St. Francis Xavier in 1549. He started a campaign of systematic evangelization throughout Japan which spread Christianity and suspicion in equal measure.
This was an unstable time in the history of Japan, the Sengoku jidai or “warring states” period. The warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi was fighting to unify the country, and he was uneasy at the meddling political role the Jesuits had begun playing.
To cut a long story of conflict short, the Portuguese pushed Jesus on Japan and brought little else. Their efforts were seen to be undermining the Shogunate, and they were finally expelled from the country in 1614.
Christianity maintained an underground foothold, especially in the Nagasaki area. But the short-lived influence of Portugal quickly faded, and the only memorable traces to be seen today are the castella (a popular sponge cake, Nagasaki’s best known food), and a handful of words which made their way from Portuguese to Japanese, such as pan (the Japanese word for “bread”).
The expulsion of the Portuguese marked the beginning of Japan’s period of isolation, known as sakoku. For approximately the next 220 years, no foreigner could enter Japan, and no Japanese could leave, under penalty of death.
But this didn’t mean the total cessation of foreign trade.
The business-minded Dutch became the new favourite foreigner. Japan had learned it’s lesson with the whole Jesus nonsense, and they decided to isolate these hairy barbarians from the general population. Trade would still be directed to the port of Nagasaki, but the Dutch would be confined to a 15,000 square metre “prison island” which was built in the harbour.
You can still visit the site of Dejima today, and that’s what we did on a sunny southern afternoon. The trading centre has been largely reconstructed, complete with gate, period buildings and sword-carrying watchmen whose job was to keep Dutch people in and unauthorized Japanese out. Women were forbidden on Dejima too, but courtesans were allowed.
In the early years, this trade focused largely on physical goods. Sugar was a major commodity imported by the Dutch, but many new products were introduced to Japan by way of Dejima, including coffee, clover, badminton, billiards and beer. Exports to Europe were mainly gold, silver, copper, marine products and pottery.
But it was the spread of ideas which would leave the greatest mark.
In 1720, the Shogunate lifted the ban on Dutch books, and scholars streamed into the city to study what would soon be known as rangaku (“Dutch learning”).
Despite Japan’s strict isolation under the sakoku policy, Western advances in technology and medicine that were revolutionizing Europe at that time were quickly able to spread throughout the country, ushering in a period of rapid change.
It must have been a very exciting time to live in Nagasaki. A time when entire intellectual worlds were turning over. New tools and materials and manufactured goods were flooding in. And exciting works of art were incorporating both domestic and foreign aesthetics.
But Dejima isn’t the only site in Nagasaki that preserves the city’s important role in the creation of modern Japan. You’ll need to leave the flat lands around the harbour and climb the hillside in order to complete this picture. Like many hills in Japan, it’s a steep climb, but I promise the views will be worth it.
Japan’s period of isolation finally ended in 1858 and five ports — including Nagasaki — were opened for general trade. The city’s foreign community quickly increased, and foreign inventions like the printing press and modern shipbuilding flooded in.
This period is preserved in Glover Garden, a collection of late-nineteenth century Western style houses in a breezy park high up the hill overlooking the harbour.
We spent several hours wandering in and out of these homes, with their wide verandas, wooden shutters, and high ceilings, as the gentle Spring sunshine warmed our skin.
The park is named after a Scotsman, Thomas Blake Glover, who came to Nagasaki in 1859 at the age of 21. His house is the most prominent dwelling on the hillside, and his name seemed to come up constantly throughout our visit to the city.
Glover was a key figure in the rapid industrialization of Japan. He helped found the shipbuilding company which later became Mitsubishi. He played a role in the Meiji Restoration by selling guns to the rebellious Satsuma and Choshu factions, who toppled the Tokugawa Shogunate and restored the Emperor as the ruling power.
And he even influenced my choice of drink. Glover helped to establish the Japan Brewing Company, which later became the Kirin Brewing Company, the powerhouse that produces Kirin Ichiban, my usual choice for Japanese draft beer.
Not bad for a guy who sported a distinctive walrus moustache!
Nagasaki’s other foreign residents tend to be overshadowed by the influence of Glover, but men like Robert Neill Walker and Frederick Ringer left important legacies in shipbuilding, beverage manufacturing, tea, electrical power generation, fisheries, and more.
And the influence of this foreign contact can still be felt in Nagasaki today. The city retains a cosmopolitan feel, the people are open in a way that seems different from the normal reserve encountered elsewhere in the country.
And after a long day of wandering through the traces of this past, we sat down to consume it in the city’s Chinatown, in the form of a delicious bowl of champon noodles.