Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Nagasaki

It's a long, long way to Nagasaki. Not to mention expensive: return tickets for the shinkansen (bullet train) were around 40,000 yen for a return - that's about 200 pounds in the Queen's money. On the other hand we did get to travel on the "Nozomi", the fastest train in Japan, which travels at a top speed of about 300 km/h. It was absolutely incredible, like riding in a very low-flying plane weaving in and out through the mountains. It was so smooth and quiet too... man, it's going to be such a shock to go back to England and travel on those noisy old rust-bucket trains again.

Anyway, we travelled to Nagasaki for the Kunchi Festival, which is rightly regarded as one of the three best festivals in Japan. For three days the entire city is entirely taken over by teams of dancers who wander the streets, pausing to perform outside shops and businesses and generally make lots and lots of noise. Our first taste of the chaos happened in a bar just by the station - we were treating ourselves to a well-deserved beer after seven hours on the train, when a dragon wandered down the street and poked its head through the door, accompanied by a small army of children playing cymbals and drums. And things only got weirder from there...

The best thing about the Kunchi Festival is the variety of the performances. Most Japanese festivals stick to the same kind of formula: a bit of traditional dancing, some shrine carrying and a spot of karaoke for good measure. However, Nagasaki was the only place in Japan which was open to the west during the country's period of isolation from 1635 to 1853, and the festival draws on the many foreign influences that form the city's history. As a result some of the performances have a distinctly Chinese flavour, such as the dragon and the lion dancing, whilst the city's Dutch heritage can be seen in the "Hollander Boat" (a miniature sailboat which is dragged around the city flying the Dutch flag). It's all absolutely crazy stuff - I highly recommend you to go to the festival next year if you get the chance (if you're interested, you can find an interesting account of the 2000 Kunchi Festival, along with some good pictures, here).

We also took some time to wander around the Atomic Bomb Museum and the Peace Park in the north of the city. The museum was fascinating, although incredibly depressing. The bomb was dropped on Nagasaki on August 9th 1945 - three days after the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Out of a population of about 240,000, 73,884 people were killed and 74,909 were injured, with many suffering from horrific burns - in severe cases the skin came off in sheets, revealing the bones underneath. Almost everything within a 1km radius of the blast was completely flattened, and bottles and coins melted together in the intense heat, whilst humans were instantly carbonized. Looking around at the city now, it's almost impossible to imagine the destruction that took place there 60 years ago.

I think the Peace Park and museum were a fitting monument to those who died in the bombing - there was definitely a tangible sense of reverence in the air. I wasn't too sure about the main statue in the Peace Park though (see photo below) - in a way I kind of like it, but at the same time it has none of the impact that the A-Bomb Dome in Hiroshima has (you can see a picture of the A-Bomb Dome on Sam's blog).

I really enjoyed Nagasaki - the European and Chinese influences on the city are pretty obvious as you walk the streets, giving the the whole place a cosmopolitan feel which is missing in most other Japanese towns and cities. That's not to say Asahi is totally lacking in cosmopolitan feeling of course - we do have " Native American Factory HOPI". For what it's worth.

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