March 19, 1995

Nagasaki Now Curiosity Seekers Are More Than Pleasantly Rewarded By The Beauty Of This Comeback City

Jon Krakauer Universal Press Syndicate
 

Nothing about the place seems particularly remarkable.

A small oasis of open space called Hypocenter Park, it sits inconspicuously beside the main thoroughfare a few minutes north of downtown Nagasaki. Shade trees arch gracefully above neatly trimmed hedgerows, offering a welcome respite from the clatter and congestion of the surrounding city. It is a place of peace and quiet. But at the northern margin of the park stands a slender column of stark black stone that commemorates an event of great and terrible significance to the course of human history.

Fifty summers ago - on Aug. 9, 1945 - an atomic bomb fell from the belly of an American B-29, the Bock’s Car, and was detonated 1,650 feet directly above what is now Hypocenter Park. The bomb was dropped to hasten the end of World War II. It did. But the citizens of Nagasaki paid an appalling price.

In the blink of an eye, three square miles of the city were obliterated. Two-thirds of the 240,000 residents were killed outright or hideously injured. Half a century after the fact, the mind balks at taking measure of the suffering and devastation that ensued; it is impossible to picture this park, this verdant plot of earth, at the epicenter of a scorched and lifeless landscape.

More than a million Japanese a year visit Hypocenter Park and the adjacent Atomic Bomb Museum, where they stare at graphic photographs of the destruction and contemplate such grim relics as a steel helmet cradling fragments of a skull, or the remains of a human hand fused inside a blob of glass.

But beyond the borders of Japan, Nagasaki has received scant attention - it has become the “forgotten” Ground Zero. Because Hiroshima was bombed three days earlier than Nagasaki, the former has always eclipsed the latter in the minds of most Americans. But the destruction of Nagasaki was no less tragic or portentous.

Within five years, at least 140,000 people died. After measuring levels of residual radiation throughout the city, technicians from the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey determined that much of Nagasaki would remain barren of plant and animal life for 75 years.

They were wrong. Seasonal rains and powerful tides cleansed the land and harbor of fallout much faster than anyone predicted. Within two months of the holocaust, the first seedlings began to sprout from beneath the rubble.

Five decades later, the obelisk marking Ground Zero is shaded by a copse of tall, robust trees. Aside from a handful of prominent artifacts - a wrecked stone arch known as the “One-Legged Torii”; eerie fragments of religious statuary; a famous church bell, rung morning and night, that somehow emerged from the devastation unscathed - there is little to alert the casual observer that not so very long ago Nagasaki lay in radioactive ruins.

Nagasaki manages to project considerable appeal despite a blight of drab, modern buildings. Although curiosity about the bomb is what brings most visitors here, one soon discovers that the resurrected city of 450,000 is a worthy destination in its own right.

Nagasaki is blessed with an extraordinary natural setting that rivals Hong Kong or San Francisco. Steep hills and ridges overlook a fjordlike harbor. Besides providing stunning views and backdrops, the convolutions of the local topography shielded many neighborhoods from the atomic blast in 1945, thereby preserving an array of ancient Zen, Shinto and Confucian shrines - as well as the oldest Christian cathedral in Japan, the Oura Catholic Church.

As these religious institutions suggests, the city has a rich cultural history. In 1542, upon the accidental arrival of a Portuguese ship that had sailed off course, Nagasaki became the principal link between intensely xenophobic Japan and the outside world.

Dutch, Chinese and Scottish traders and missionaries arrived soon after the Portuguese, transforming the city into a nexus of wealth and cosmopolitan refinement. The beloved Puccini opera, “Madame Butterfly,” was set in Nagasaki. By the early 20th century the city had grown into a booming industrial center.

Nagasaki is no less vibrant or fascinating today. In the heart of the city is the Maruyama entertainment district, a maze of narrow, twisting alleys jammed with bars and pachinko parlors - pachinko being a form of gambling, similar to pinball, that is a national obsession. Tantalizing restaurants beckon throughout Maruyama, ranging from boisterous, inexpensive sidewalk grills called robatayaki, to pricey establishments specializing in fugu - a poisonous fish, considered a great delicacy, but deadly if improperly prepared.

A few blocks from Maruyama, a series of comely arched bridges - including Spectacles Bridge, built by a Chinese monk in 1634, the oldest stone bridge in Japan - spans the Nakajimagawa Stream. At the southern end of the city, museums, fountains, and the rebuilt mansions of 19th-century expatriates sprawl across a bucolic hillside park called Glover Garden.

When the weather is clear, the summit of Mount Fugen is visible on the eastern horizon, belching sulfurous plumes of ash. This steep volcanic peak juts from Unzen National Park, 20 miles from the city as the crane flies, a pristine expanse of steaming hot springs and alpine woodlands criss-crossed by hiking trails (if you’re feeling lazy, Unzen’s heights can also be reached by aerial tram).

As an American visitor, I was concerned that the local citizenry would respond with hostility to a son of the nation that dropped the bomb on them. But I didn’t have to worry: At no time during the week I spent in Nagasaki did I detect so much as a flicker of ill will.

There might well have been some residual bitterness, of course. But the Japanese abhor confrontation and are famously polite to gaijin, as foreigners are called, so any animosity was kept tightly under wraps.

American tourists are sufficiently scarce in Nagasaki that encountering one still seems to be considered an enjoyable novelty for many Japanese. It was not unusual for me to be approached on street corners - shyly, accompanied by prodigious bowing - and asked if I would mind engaging in conversation.

Three times in a single afternoon I was asked by groups of giggling Japanese schoolgirls if they might practice their halting English on me.

One of these groups, on a field trip to Nagasaki from the distant city of Gifu, hailed me in a flurry of peace signs, then presented me with a handmade “peace message.” Inside its paper covers, a girl named Sachiko had written, “Thousands of peoples lost their life when the bomb was thrown on Nagasaki. That’s why Peace I’m hoping for. I don’t want war to come again.”

MEMO: Jon Krakauer writes for Smithsonian, National Geographic, Outside, Playboy and other magazines. His most recent book, “Into The Wild,” will be published in August by Villard/Random House.

This sidebar ran with story: IF YOU GO Getting there: Several airlines offer direct flights from American cities to Osaka’s new Kansai Airport; from there it’s a short flight to Nagasaki on Japan Airlines or All Nippon Airlines. Lodging: Accommodations range from the posh Hotel New Nagasaki ($200 per night) to cheap youth hostels ($25 per night). Food: The food in Nagasaki reflects the city’s diverse Japanese, Chinese and European influences. Fare runs from inexpensive noodle shops ($6-$12 per person) to posh sushi bars and shabu-shabu houses (shabu-shabu is like Japanese fondue: bitesize chunks of beef, fish tofu, and vegetables, dipped in hot oil; $30-$50 per person). Most restaurants have plastic replicas of their meals on display - to order, all you have to do is point. McDonald’s, Mister Donut and Kentucky Fried Chicken are now in Nagasaki, too; expect to pay about twice what you would in the United States. Weather: Nagasaki lies at the same latitude as Savannah, Ga., and has a similar climate: hot and steamy in summer, cooler in fall and winter - but never cold. Bring an umbrella. For more information, including advice about visiting Japanese families or bomb survivors, contact the Japan National Tourist Office, 360 Post St., San Francisco, CA 94108; (415) 989-7140.

Jon Krakauer writes for Smithsonian, National Geographic, Outside, Playboy and other magazines. His most recent book, “Into The Wild,” will be published in August by Villard/Random House.

This sidebar ran with story: IF YOU GO Getting there: Several airlines offer direct flights from American cities to Osaka’s new Kansai Airport; from there it’s a short flight to Nagasaki on Japan Airlines or All Nippon Airlines. Lodging: Accommodations range from the posh Hotel New Nagasaki ($200 per night) to cheap youth hostels ($25 per night). Food: The food in Nagasaki reflects the city’s diverse Japanese, Chinese and European influences. Fare runs from inexpensive noodle shops ($6-$12 per person) to posh sushi bars and shabu-shabu houses (shabu-shabu is like Japanese fondue: bitesize chunks of beef, fish tofu, and vegetables, dipped in hot oil; $30-$50 per person). Most restaurants have plastic replicas of their meals on display - to order, all you have to do is point. McDonald’s, Mister Donut and Kentucky Fried Chicken are now in Nagasaki, too; expect to pay about twice what you would in the United States. Weather: Nagasaki lies at the same latitude as Savannah, Ga., and has a similar climate: hot and steamy in summer, cooler in fall and winter - but never cold. Bring an umbrella. For more information, including advice about visiting Japanese families or bomb survivors, contact the Japan National Tourist Office, 360 Post St., San Francisco, CA 94108; (415) 989-7140.


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