A reassuring musty smell emanates from infinite shelves of old books. The air conditioner bestows waves of refreshing salvation from the 100 degree heat. My window looks out onto the scintillating waters of Dejima Harbor. After almost a week in Nagasaki, the library at the 26 Martyr’s Museum is quickly becoming my regular haunt. Each book I read leads me deeper into my research, molding and narrowing my topic of interest. Research aside, I have had so many amazing experiences since leaving Tokyo. The fun certainly doesn’t end outside the big city. Let’s backtrack a bit.
On my way from Tokyo to Nagasaki, I was determined to spend a night at Koya-san, a remote Buddhist community in the mountains of Osaka. The only way to get to Koya-san is to take the Nankai Railway Line to the very last stop, then board a cable car to the top of the mountain, and THEN take a bus into town. Although getting to Koya-san is quite a hike, it is definitely worth the extra travel. After hearing my advisor rave about the place, I had high expectations, all of which were fulfilled. Upon arrival, I was stunned by the beauty of my ryokan, or Japanese style inn.
I was greeted by a host of smiling Buddhist students who brought my bags to my spacious Japanese style bedroom and reviewed with me a map of the area. The staff spoke little English, so if you plan on visiting Koya-san, it is a good idea to review some basic Japanese phrases before going. As I checked in around dinner time, the students ushered me up to my room, where a home cooked meal awaited me. The shoujin ryouri, Buddhist vegetarian food, was lovingly prepared by a woman known only as obaasan (meaning grandma).
When you aren’t gorging yourself on delectable soups, vegetables, tofu, and legumes, there are endless things to do on the mountain. Every morning at 6:00 am, you are encouraged to attend a Buddhist service. The low chanting of the monks lulled me into a peaceful and meditative state. Aside from the countless temples and museums that dot the ramshackle town of Koya-san, the most impressive site is Okunoin, a labyrinth of a graveyard which kept me occupied for hours. Although I strolled amongst the winding paths at many different times, I would recommend going at night. Lanterns illuminate age-old tombs; Okunoin is a very sacred place for the Buddhists living on Koya-san.
My feeling upon leaving the pristine and untouched haven of Koya-san was nothing short of heartbreaking. However, my final destination, Nagasaki, awaited me. My initial impressions of Nagasaki: bridges and cats. My hostel, Akari International Hostel, is located on the side of a beautiful river. Cobblestoned streets are interrupted by bridges every block or so. As for cats, there are slews of “wild” domestic cats here. I suppose cats are to Nagasaki as pigeons are to Boston. As an avid cat-lover, I am in heaven.
One of the great things about Akari International Hostel is that they provide daily tours of the city. Consequentially, I knew Nagasaki pretty well after only a few days. If you are into history, which I most certainly am, there are plenty of thrilling destinations. From Nyokodo, the impossibly small home of the famous Dr. Takashi Nagai, to the many Buddhist and Shinto shrines, there is something to see at the end of even the most modest ally.
As my research pertains to Christian history, churches are of particular interest to me. Urakami Cathedral, a stunning church built by Catholics who had endured centuries of unspeakable persecution, was destroyed by the atomic bomb. Today it has been rebuilt in Nagasaki, and parts of the original cathedral can be seen at the 26 Martyr’s Museum where, as I mentioned, I base my research. The 26 Martyr’s Museum, and accompanying monument and chapel, preserves the Christian history of Nagasaki. I was amazed at many of the items displayed, including the clothes that the martyr’s wore when they died.
The Atomic Bomb Museum is another must-see – sobering, yet inseparable from Nagasaki’s identity. Touring the museum is an eerie and moving experience. I was particularly disturbed by a clock exposed to the blast that had stopped at the time of the bombing. Another difficult display were hosts of glass rosary beads, melted into twisted tendrils from the extreme heat. After leaving the museum, shaken, it was a relief to visit the adjacent Peace Park. The many statues and the innumerable origami paper cranes that fill the park are a symbol of peace and hope for the future.
Perhaps my favorite place in Nagasaki is Dejima Harbor. The original Dejima was a man-made island built in the 17thcentury to house Dutch traders. During the period of Tokugawa isolation, foreigners were not allowed to leave the island, which was only a few blocks long. Today, you can visit a restoration of Dejima, complete with a typical Dutch home and costumed samurai.
However, the best part about Dejima is the harbor today. The boardwalk is lined with nice restaurants where you can sit outside and watch the boats come and go. There is also a big park, where I go at night to read a book or watch the pick-up soccer games.
My final note pertains to the food in Nagasaki. Because of the city’s history of internationalism, most specialty dishes have foreign origins: Portuguese castella (pound cake) and Chinese champon (seafood noodles) are two of the most well-known.
If you are planning a trip to Nagasaki, let me enlighten you to a few culinary gems. The big shopping malls here have wonderful restaurants, including okinomiyaki (savory pancake) joints where you can prepare the food yourself! My favorite food in the city can be found at Tia’s, a hole in the wall restaurant serving all you can eat organic Japanese food.
However, as amazing as Japanese restaurant food can be, eating out for every meal makes my stomach sad. A few days ago, I vowed to start making my own meals. Five minutes from my hostel is a magical place called the Shindaiku Market. This street is lined with organic food stands; it has become my custom to wander the stalls every morning and I am now on a first name basis with several of the shop owners. A word of warning: if you plan on cooking Japanese cuisine, do some research on Japanese ingredients. After innocently purchasing exotic looking vegetables, I prepared what I thought was going to be a delicious salad. It turns out that all of my veggies were actually pickles. Despite being a fan of pickles, I was a bit distressed.
Thanks so much for reading! Stay tuned for more about my 3 week stay in Nagasaki.