Nagasaki Pt. 2: West Meets East

As my Japan tenure comes to a close, it’s time for some final travel tales. In April, I visited Nagasaki for a few days, and found much more than a city victimized by the atomic bomb. Click here for part one.

11 April 2021

I’m sitting at a filigree, wrought-iron garden table next to a fountain, sipping a Kirin beer. Down the hill to my left is a path that leads to a fancy tea room and a kitschy costume rental. Up the hill to my right is a large koi pond in front of a nineteenth century European bungalow. Lilting Scottish music floats on the air throughout the place, piped through speakers hidden in the foliage. All is right with the world, if a bit surprising. It’s a beautiful Sunday afternoon, and we are touring Glover Garden in Nagasaki.

Nagasaki is markedly different from the rest of Japan. As the major port city in the southern island of Kyushu, it was the center of trade with the Chinese and Dutch in the 16th through 19th centuries, and even earlier it was the place from which the Portuguese introduced Christianity to Japan. In any other country, this trade with and influence from the outside world would be unremarkable. Considering Japan’s strict policies of isolation, and the fact that this was the only port in the country trading with other nations (and that Christianity was outlawed and Christians persecuted until 1873), and the unique quality of Nagasaki becomes clear.

While the city is still culturally Japanese, one can see this outside influence quite easily through the churches and historic western buildings, seemingly out of place compared to the Japanese ones they stand beside. In food too, one finds an interesting convergence, as most of the famous Nagasaki dishes are fusions, such as champon noodles, with roots in Chinese cuisine, and castella cake, adopted from the Portuguese. Nagasaki is one of three cities in Japan that boasts a Chinatown; the others are Yokohama and Kobe, also port cities. First-time visitors to Japan may not find Nagasaki that interesting, as it lacks the shrines and castles of other historic areas in Japan, but after living inn the country for nearly five years, I found it utterly fascinating.

We began our Sunday with a visit to one of Nagasaki’s most photogenic sites, the Meganebashi Bridge. Like any Japanese city worth its salt, running through Nagasaki is a network of small rivers and canals. Spanning the Nakashima River downtown is a series of old stone bridges, each which at one time led to a different temple. Easily the most famous is the double-arched Meganebashi, built in 1634. “Megane” means “glasses” in Japanese and, when you look at the bridge, the two arches reflected in the water do resemble a pair of glasses. In the late morning, it was already crawling with tourists clutching phones and cameras, but that didn’t make the scene any less picturesque.

The afternoon found us up the hill at Glover Garden, in the neighborhood where the wealthy foreigners built their mansions and sprawling bungalows in the 1800s, many of which have been preserved and are available to visit. Glover Garden is named for one Thomas Blake Glover, a Scottish merchant who played a big role in industrializing and modernizing Japan, helping to found and establish the companies that would eventually become the Mitsubishi Corporation and the Japan Brewing Company, later Kirin Brewing Company. As befits such a legend, his house is one of the biggest and the grandest at the garden. Unfortunately for us, the Glover House was undergoing renovation at the time of our visit, but we still were able to check out the other buildings on the property.

Glover Garden is a strange attraction. For the Japanese, the western-style houses and gardens, with their sweeping hillside views of the city and the port, conjure a romantic image, which is further Disneyfied by the out-of-place piped Scottish music and gigantic gift shop. While I didn’t see anybody utilizing the costume rental and flouncing about in pseudo-Victorian garb, I did see one couple taking wedding photos on the grounds, and the koi pond was mobbed with visitors feeding the fish. We had a different kind of romantic date; as an architect and a self-professed history nerd we were there to actually see the buildings! Upon closer examination, it is clear that most of the houses at Glover Garden have been preserved and not restored. Some are honestly a bit shabby, but it was interesting and a little jarring to see these sprawling English bungalows on a hillside in Japan. My favorite was the Ringer House, a hodgepodge of a bungalow, with curved Japanese tiles on the roof and granite from Russia paving the veranda.

That night, we had one of our favorite meals on the trip. Each region in Japan has its own local specialties, and one delight of traveling in the country is trying these regional dishes. However, for some reason none of the Nagasaki specialties looked very appealing to me. Champon and sara-udon are both noodle dishes served in a milky broth, which I found unappetizing; toruko rice (“Turkish rice”) has nothing to do with Turkey; and I’d heard that the retro milk seiki (“milkshake”) dessert was mediocre compared to its namesake. So we threw all that out and went to a local izakaya that was near our Airbnb and had good reviews on Google named Dejima Asa.

An izakaya is simply a Japanese pub, but beyond that there is a lot of variety. They can be divey and greasy or fancy and highbrow, but will all have a few things in common: a mix of counter and table seating accompanied by a large food and alcohol menu, serving mostly small dishes that are easy for sharing. I adore izakayas, and have had some of my favorite dining experiences within their walls. As a traveler, they are a great option, as all will have some standard Japanese pub grub such as sashimi and karaage (Japanese fried chicken) in addition to more unique local options.

Dejima Asa was a classy local chain with no English menu. Luckily there was one young waiter who spoke good enough English to help out and give us some recommendations. While my Japanese hadn’t gotten better during my tenure, my palette for sake had been developing, so I asked for him to recommend a local brew for us to drink. “This one’s very popular,” he said, pointing to the first sake listed on the menu, “but I like this one better.” He pointed to the second one. We got that, of course, and were served in tall, slightly fluted glasses that overflowed slightly into saucers below, an old-school gesture of izakaya generosity. He was right: it was very good, so good in fact that we had a second glass and even looked for it in bottle shops the next day, to no avail.

This was one of those meals where every dish was as good, if not better, than the one before: a sinuous arrangement of sashimi; homestyle rolled omelet served with grated daikon radish; a spread of heavenly snow crab on garlic toast; a light and fluffy mound of tempura; local Unzen pork roasted with miso that was to die for; and a crispy yaki onigiri, a rice ball spread with a soy sauce and sugar marinade and grilled to brown, crunchy perfection. Throughout, the sake kept flowing, our adorable bespectacled waiter took care of us, and we closed the place down.

We had needed a merry night, because the next day we had a grim task ahead of us: to visit the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum and Peace Park.

Safe and Happy Travels,

Mo