Weekend in Nagasaki

Our hotel, The Glover, was in the former International Settlement, to the south of the city, perched high up on a steep hill over looking the harbour. A very steep hill. Next door was a building site and on Friday morning I watched while the assembled workers, at 8 am sharp, gathered outside and went through a program of exercises under the tuition of someone I could not see. It was beguiling watching these fellows in boots, overalls and hard hats going through the motions – most without obvious enthusiasm, but dutifully, calmly, perhaps resignedly. I walked with Mayu to a nearby coin laundry then came back to the hotel to catch up with this diary, which has become, not so much onerous as complex. Like the laundry, you never quite catch up, and also you start to confuse what you do with what you will write about what you do, as if the two are not really distinct. And perhaps they aren’t. Writing was difficult because the internet supposedly wasn’t available in the rooms and, while we did have a connection, it was intermittent and needed constant refreshment. I wouldn’t have had that problem if I was diarising in a notebook, as I always used to do when I was travelling.

Mioko, Mayu’s sister, was joining us from Tokyo for the weekend so after lunch we drove the forty-five minutes or so to the airport to pick her up. She’d inadvertently booked a flight that went via Kobe but arrived on time. It had turned cold and rainy during the afternoon and by evening was really wintery. We were trying to find a taxi to go to Chinatown for dinner and ended up on a main road with buses and cars streaming by – but no taxis. In the end Mioko called one on her phone. As we drove down to Chinatown the driver rehearsed the chorus of a famous pop song set in this city. After a catalogue of the woes of love gone wrong comes the refrain: ‘And it’s raining in Nagasaki again.’ Afterwards, back at the hotel, we broached the bottle of sake we’d bought from Kikuchi: Five Daughters it was called and after a few glasses the Tominaka Sisters (sic) got a bit hilarious. There’s a Nagasaki delicacy called Castella (Kasutera), a kind of Portuguese sponge cake, and they remembered an old TV ad for it, with a jingle based on a tune of Offenbach’s and featuring five animated furry figures, cats or foxes, doing the can can. They did the dance and sang the song and then fell about laughing.

Thomas Glover, the man after whom the hotel was named, and the nearby Glover Garden, was a Scotsman, from Aberdeen, who was sent as a very young man from Shanghai to Nagasaki towards the end of the 1850s as an agent for Jardine, Matheson and Co., notorious for their involvement opium trafficking but also traders in silk, tea, cotton and other commodities. Glover soon went out on his own, in partnership with another Brit, and made a fortune selling tea to China. He diversified, as you do, particularly into coal and, as a good Scot, into ship-building. He also enriched himself in the arms trade, selling guns and ammunition, at least until the Meiji Restoration in 1868 imposed an inconvenient peace upon the region. He survived bankruptcy in the early 1870s, moved to Tokyo, after which he visited Nagasaki often but never returned to live. He had a son and a daughter with two different Japanese woman and lived with the mother of his daughter as his common law wife until her death in 1899, after which he expressed a wish to be buried with her when he too died – in 1911. In those early years he established himself in the Nagasaki community as a respected and influential figure. In the lead up to the Meiji Restoration, indeed, he gave advice to those in the Satsuma Clan who were advocating the kind of industrial modernism Glover exemplified in his own career. Businesses he was involved with included the corporation that became Mitsubishi and the brewery than now makes Kirin Beer. His house is extant in the gardens named after him; a kind of museum now. We had tea and cakes in a restaurant reputed to have been the first ever European style establishment in the whole of Japan. It had been dismantled elsewhere and re-assembled on site; it featured some beautiful stained glass.

Sight-seeing is exhausting and can seem a bit futile after a while. We had been over the church (no photography allowed) before visiting the gardens. When we got back to our hotel we had to move rooms and ended up across the hallway with a view of the harbour instead of the building site. There was a cruise ship moored below; we had encountered some Aussies and Americans in the Glover Garden, loud and anomalous as always; the ship left that night around seven and good riddance to it. They probably all had Covid too. Mayu had spent some of her coupon money on a couple of books and I became absorbed in one of them: The Nagasaki British Consulate 1859-1955, written by a Canadian professor of cultural history at the Nagasaki Institute of Applied Sciences and a former Zen Buddhist monk. Among much else I learned that here Dutch was the language of diplomacy for two centuries, that is, for the bulk of the period of the Tokugawa Shogunate.

We had a discussion that night over the remains of the sake: whether or not to visit Ground Zero the next day. Mayu had been before; Mioko hadn’t but didn’t want to go. She argued, reasonably enough, that for her there were many other and better reasons to remember Nagasaki than the bomb dropped on it by the Americans seventy years ago. In a way I agreed with her: Nagasaki seemed to me an elegant, sophisticated and cosmopolitan city, easy and graceful, which wore its past lightly but did not deny it either. There was, for instance, a wonderful collection of photography books in the lobby of the hotel I had been working my way through; photography, too, which has such a powerful tradition in Japan, began here. On the other hand, I was conscious of a kind of dull anger that this place had been bombed at all, in the arbitrary, indeed cynical way that it was. It wasn’t the original target and it wasn’t a major military target either, despite the big Mitsubishi ship-building works here: the Americans, having tested their uranium based device on Hiroshima, wanted to see what a plutonium bomb would do.

In the end, Mayu and I decided to go, on Sunday morning, before returning to the hotel for Mioko and taking her with us to Sasebo for lunch; from there she would get a bus back to the airport, which was out that way. We took a series of elevators up to Peace Park. At the head of the last one is the Peace Fountain, where a man and a woman stood with their hands clasped in prayer. He was about forty-five perhaps and he had his eyes squeezed tight shut: not tight enough to prevent tears silvering his cheeks. And it was like that. For no particular reason I found myself weeping too. The nearest public building to the point of impact was, it turned out, a prison: you could still see the lines of the foundations of its walls in the grass. How unlucky is that: to be in a prison they drop an atomic bomb upon? Beyond was the huge sculpture which is the centre piece of the park; it seemed to me outré; but then none of the sculpture (and there is a lot of it) looked right. On the other hand, this inadequacy, if that’s what it is, does not seem to require any explanation.

Ground Zero is an a separate, adjoining park. A simple black obelisk marks the spot and it was somehow cheering to see little children running around it, chasing each other and laughing. In another place you could look down, through glass, to see the actual rubble left by the blast on the ground in August 1945. The other public building destroyed that day, apart from the prison, was a church: the biggest and most elegant cathedral in East Asia at the time, in a city that was once said to have been ‘run by the Jesuits’. Some of the masonry survived and has been reconstituted and placed near the obelisk, with a statue of the ubiquitous Francis Xavier on the top. The bomb didn’t hit its original target; it landed about four kilometres further up the valley from where it was meant to go; and it turned out that the surrounding hills shielded the rest of the city from the worst of the blast. For some reason there wasn’t a firestorm afterwards either, as there was at Hiroshima, although there were many random fires. A bad painting, of the Twenty-six Martyrs of Nagasaki, which I saw at the other church was, a caption said, ‘damaged by the atomic bomb’, but it didn’t say how or where. This was the only reference I saw, heard or read about the catastrophe anywhere else in the city.

In Sasebo we had lunch in an Italian restaurant then saw Mioko off on the bus. Sasebo was the main launching point for the UN and US forces fighting in the Korean War. Millions of tons of ammunition, fuel, tanks, trucks and supplies flowed through during those years and there’s still an American naval base here. Sasebo is also the home port of the Japanese Maritime Self-Defence Forces. We could see the sinister gun metal grey American ships, with their round radar towers, moored up the harbour; and the (by comparison) tiny little patrol boats of the JMDF nearby. At a village outside the city Mayu wanted to do some more shooting. She is assembling a film to accompany a recording of eight songs by a Koto player she knows and this village is where Satsuki comes from. Mayu took footage of the primary school and the junior high school; of a shrine and a temple; of the house where Satsuki grew up; and of the river that flows through Sazacho.

After that we drove on to this vast hotel in Hirado, with its stunning views of the sea and its collections of mostly Dutch, or Dutch inspired, objets d’art, pottery, artefacts; and its beautiful glass and tile work. I am nursing a cold I picked up after our night out in Chinatown on Friday but it doesn’t seem too bad today. The sun is streaming through the window, the room is large and generous, the onsen hot, varied and convivial. There are lots of children and young people here, too. Some are playing croquet on the lawn outside the window.

17-19 March 2023


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