Field Report: Nagasaki (07 April 2013)

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Where Diego goes to church, rides the rails, confronts the bomb – and meets a hero.

This being a Sunday, the first order of business was to find a church and attend Mass. Fortunately, Nagasaki has a wealth of beautiful churches serving the local Catholic community, so my problem was less about trying to find one and more about choosing which one of many to head for.

I settled on Nakamachi Church, a fine 19th-century Gothic structure located a few minutes’ walk from Nagasaki Station. As for logistics, the church was quite easy to reach on foot from my hotel; more importantly, there was a 6:30 AM Mass listed on the parish website, which suited my preference for an early schedule.

A spot of light rain (and a general lack of photo-worthy sights along the route) kept my camera in its case for the duration of the walk. When I arrived at the beautiful church, seen here in a quick snapshot taken right after Mass . . .

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. . . I was rather surprised to see wooden storage shelves, a box filled with room slippers, and a couple of shoehorns – the typical entrance-way accoutrements of a place that requires one to remove one’s shoes before entering. It’s quite common to encounter these by the entrance of Japanese houses, old castle buildings, historic structures and the like, but it’s the first time I’ve seen them outside a church. (The ones I’ve visited during my previous stays in Japan were just like churches back home, where shoes are kept on.) In deference to local custom, I slipped off my footwear and headed inside.

No photographs of the interior. I believe there were signs posted at the door warning against picture-taking, but even if this were permitted, I’d have refrained from doing so as there were already people inside and I wouldn’t have wished to cause the slightest disturbance. (Besides, I had no business snapping pictures when I should be on my knees praying in preparation for Mass.) To describe the interior in a few words: solid Gothic architecture, simple but very dignified, with a massive sculpted wooden reredos dominating the sanctuary area. It all looked very classic and ancient, which was why I was rather shocked to learn later that the church had been heavily damaged in the 1945 atomic blast and is mostly a post-war restoration. I admire the local community for rebuilding their parish church in a suitably authentic and timeless style, rather than replacing it with a soulless modernist building that might seem avant-garde for a few days but would quickly date into insignificance.

After Mass, I returned to my hotel for a spot of breakfast, then headed for the Nagasaki-ekimae tram stop just in front of the train station. I boarded one of Nagasaki’s iconic trams en route to my next destination of the day.

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Some might view the city trams as a rather dated method of getting around, but it’s actually quite good fun, especially if one happens to board an older model. Sure, they can be rather slow, and they need to stop at traffic lights just like buses since their tracks run along the streets, but for a tourist not pressed for time there’s a bit of retro entertainment value to be derived. I should also point out that the network’s not just some pre-war relic kept for sentimental reasons. This is a proper public transportation network: the extensive tram lines cover quite a lot of ground, they run more or less on time, and for commuters not keen on riding something their grandparents might’ve commuted to school in, there are also some very modern-looking models amongst the rolling stock.

Here’s a travel tip: if you plan on using the trams a lot, purchase a 500-yen day pass for unlimited rides from the tourist office in the train station. With each ride costing a flat 120 yen, the pass pays off from the fifth boarding onward, and the convenience of not having to dig around one’s pockets for exact change might make it a tempting prospect even for fewer trips.

About ten minutes or so from Nagasaki-ekimae, I disembarked at Matsuyama-machi and set off on a short walk to the entrance of my next destination of the day: the Peace Park.

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At the top of the stairs/escalators, there’s a memorial fountain and a promenade lined with well-intentioned – though (in many cases) perhaps artistically lacking – sculptures gifted by various countries from around the world.

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More interesting than the donated memorials are the remnants of buildings that once stood in the area before being obliterated by the atomic bomb. The Urakami Branch of the Nagasaki Prison once stood on the site of the Peace Park, and some of its ruins have been preserved for posterity. 134 people in the prison compound (including staff and inmates) were killed by the blast.

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Anchoring the far end of the park is its most iconic symbol, the Peace Statue.

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This hulking memorial has been much interpreted, venerated, joked about and reviled – a long discussion I see not much point in wading into. Like it or loathe it, and whatever its debatable symbolic significance might be, the most appropriate attitude to take would probably be one of respect: not towards the statue itself, but to those who were affected by the tragic event that led to its creation.

On either side of the statue stands a small stone-clad memorial chapel, each filled with long strings of paper cranes.

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My time in the park done, I set off towards my next stop of the day. En route, I spied another relic of the bombing: a preserved section of wall from the destroyed prison that once stood on the site.

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A featureless but pleasant stroll through the streets north of the park . . .

. . . brought me to the doorstep of a rather plain-looking concrete building . . .

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. . . in front of which was a small wooden hut.

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The hut, known as Nyoko-dō, was once the home of Nagai Takashi (1908-1951), a doctor, scientist, Catholic convert, and atomic bomb survivor whose books – including the internationally well-known Nagasaki no Kane – form one of the most enduring and inspiring records of the catastrophe that befell Nagasaki. Severely injured, stricken with the loss of his wife and the destruction of his home, Dr. Nagai nonetheless laboured tirelessly to aid other victims of the explosion. Even when he became bedridden from the effects of the bombing, the indefatigable scientist made his own body the subject of his research into radiation poisoning. His writings and reflections about the disaster and on the broader subject of peace gained him many admirers, including Helen Keller (who personally visited Nagai in 1948), and he continued to write almost up to the moment of his death at the age of 43.

The memorial building behind the hut contains a library (the direct descendant of a collection first put together by Dr. Nagai for the benefit of local children), as well as a small but very nicely designed and organised museum.

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From the museum, I walked towards Urakami Cathedral, the spiritual centre of Nagasaki’s Catholic community and a witness to the terrible events of 9th August 1945.

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The church was nearly levelled by the blast, which was so strong that it knocked the dome clean off one of the bell towers. Before heading for the church itself, take a moment to walk just off to one side of the hill and see this massive reminder of the power of the atomic bomb that devastated Nagasaki.

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Now for the cathedral itself. Work on the first structure began in the late 19th century and ended just two decades before the war. After being destroyed, the church was rebuilt in 1959 on the same spot, though in a much less elaborate style that was retouched in 1980 to bring it a little closer to the original design. Regrettably, the splendid interiors of the old church were sacrificed in favour of a more sterile modern design, though one must of course bear in mind the less favourable circumstances under which the reconstruction was built. (Perhaps we might hope that one day, the cathedral will be restored to exactly how it was before the blast.)

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Just outside the church are remnants of the original structure. A large fragment was also transferred to the memorial park near the hypocentre.

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From here, a series of maps and street signs led me to the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum.

Whilst perhaps smaller and less dramatic than its counterpart at Hiroshima (which I also visited about two years previously), it’s also very well done and some might even prefer it to its more famous sister institution.

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Close to the museum is the Peace Memorial Hall. Descend to the lowest level and you’ll encounter the hauntingly beautiful Remembrance Hall, where a column-like glass-walled cabinet holds records of the names of the atomic bomb victims (including survivors who have passed away). The light pillars and the cabinet are oriented such that they point directly towards the hypocentre of the blast, located in a nearby park.

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I walked to that site next . . .

. . . where a black pillar marks the spot above which the atomic bomb detonated on 9th August 1945.

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So it was that I ended the day where, in a manner of speaking, it all began.

Men and women of the world, never again plan war! With this atomic bomb, war can only mean suicide for the human race. From this atomic waste the people of Nagasaki confront the world and cry out: No more war! Let us follow the commandment of love and work together. The people of Nagasaki prostrate themselves before God and pray: Grant that Nagasaki may be the last atomic wilderness in the history of the world. (Nagai Takashi, The Bells of Nagasaki)

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