Towards Nagasaki

All night I was troubled by the sight of the palm tree out the window, which sometimes looked ghostly, like an after image of a catastrophe, and at others like something seen in a mirror of the same disaster. It was changing as the exterior or interior lighting at the hotel changed and I kept thinking I should get up and try to photograph it; but I didn’t. Or not until morning, when all I managed was a conventional shot of a palm standing before the sea, lit by yellow dawn light.

There was a public swimming pool, using thermal water, ‘out of the ground’, nearby so we decided to go there. We have been in and out of water a hundred times over the last few weeks but we haven’t done any laps. The pool was set up high on a low hill, looking over flat farm land to the sea. There were children doing lessons inside and various aged souls gathered in the foyer, awaiting the official 10.30 opening and their turn in the water. The woman at the desk explained everything in great detail, including how to work the shower in the men’s (she showed me) and the way to mop the floor if I happened to drip any water upon it. These tutorials are common everywhere and the only way to deal with them is to submit gracefully and wait.

I ended up using the wrong shower – there was one just before you went through to the pool – as a couple of genial old fellows pointed out; but I showed them my wet hair and skin and they decided not to insist. Once they ascertained that I was going to be swimming freestyle they indicated which lane I was to use and off I went, in the warm, slightly cloudy water. It was a twenty-five metre pool so that meant, to do my usual kilometre, I had to complete forty lengths; which I duly did. Mayu joined me after a while and we swam happily back and forth together until we were done. After we got out one of the oldsters said I swam well and asked how old I was? After she told him 71 he said he was 81, and that he swam well too. I really liked the enthusiasm for living that these people had, and their pride in their fitness too. There were stained glass windows over the main pool and afterwards I tried photographing them, from the outside, with mixed results. I think I might be trying a bit hard with the photography too.

We drove through fields of potatoes on our way to the second ferry, which would take us off Amakusa and on to the Shimabara Peninsula, which is really just the surrounds of another enormous active volcano, Unzen. We could see it glowering across the water from the ferry terminal. At the edge of the carpark a green tanker truck was parked, with its engine running, in front of a line of small cypress trees, and I finally took a photograph I was happy with. I think perhaps the more I do it the higher my standards become and the meeting of them, concomitantly, rarer.

We disembarked at Kuchinotsu, once a significant port in the days of the Portuguese and the Dutch; there was a set of old European buildings, now a folk museum, on the left as we came into the harbour, linked to the rest of the city by a bridge with a splendid red arch. Mayu had been here before, when researching her play ‘You’ve Mistaken Me for a Butterfly’. By the nineteenth century Kuchinotsu had become an important coal port and also the place where young women might stowaway on the freighters in order to go to other lands, including Australia, where many of them ended up working as prostitutes. Her play concerned one of these who had ended up in a small town in Western Australia. Some of the girls were sold by their families to traffickers; they were effectively indentured labourers and would have to pay off their passage before being able to earn money for themselves. Of course the ships’ captains usually knew what was happening; one of the strategies to get the girls safely aboard was to light fires on the hills to divert the attention of the local officials.

Kuchinotsu is a sleepy place; the main port now is further up the east coast. In that direction, too, is the fort where the final massacre of the Christians happened. There was a statue of their leader, a very young man, at the ferry terminal at Amakusa, where he was from. We went the other way, up the west coast, and along the road came across Futagoiwa Rock, with its eerie resemblance to one of the Easter Island Mo’ai. There used to be another, more celebrated rock next to it, with a pine tree growing from its summit, but it fell over in an earthquake. Even Futagoiwa has been strengthened, recently, with concrete.

After that it was an uneventful drive, first by the sea, then inland, then via a freeway, into the city of Nagasaki. I did not expect to find that it resembles Wellington: built on hills around a harbour, with steep streets running upwards from narrow coastal flats. Our hotel, the Glover, is in Ishibashi, on the eastern flank of the harbour, to the south, near the Glover Garden and the Oura Cathedral, said to be the first church built in Japan. Nearby is a substantial Buddhist temple and a large Shinto shrine; the three faiths, people say, existing in harmony, side by side.



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