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Voyage to Nagasaki

Henk bij de Weg

Already long before my wife and I left, we looked forward to it: our second trip to Japan. And this time it would not be just a very special tour. No, we would go to Nagasaki.

For most people in the world, the name of Nagasaki refers to the second atomic bomb dropped on the town. But for a Dutchman it is more: Nagasaki stands for the centuries long lasting relation between the Netherlands and Japan. For more than 200 years the Dutch were the only westerners allowed coming to Japan, and they were allowed to stay only on the tiny artificial island of Dejima in the harbour of Nagasaki. As a consequence, for more than two centuries everything the Japanese learned about Europe and most of the rest of the world was mediated by the Dutch and the persons in their service. And everything the West learned about Japan passed also first the Dutch filter. The Japanese policy of isolation lasted till the midst of the 19th century when the country was forced to open its borders under threat of an American warship. Until then, Nagasaki was the Japanese window on the world with Dutch coloured glass.

We had thoroughly prepared our trip. We had read about Japan and Nagasaki, we had visited exhibitions and I had even learned a bit of Japanese, including a few characters. It was not much, but it appeared to be the grease in our communication with Japanese people and it enabled me to read not too difficult legends.

Our way did not lead immediately to the town. We had first a warming-up by means of a tour through Kyushu. And actually, Japan did not start with our landing on Kansai, Osaka, but in the waiting room of the gate on Amsterdam Airport. Despite that we had booked with a Dutch air company, more than 90 percent of the passengers were Japanese.

In the minshuku of Yufuin, we were warmly welcomed by our hostess. We knew already the ritual of changing shoes and slippers when you enter a house or hotel, so we could pass the explanation. The woman brought is to our room and we could at once sit at the dinner, for we were late. It was the Golden Week, so when we walked to the hot springs next day, the streets were very, very crowded. But we were in Japan, not in the Netherlands. Everyone behaved quietly and in a disciplined way and to our feeling it would have hardly been different, had we walked there on normal afternoon.

The car we had rented for crossing Kyushu for the days to come was a bit a problem. It was the classical situation of misunderstandings between people who speak two different languages and cannot make themselves understood. But in the end we left for the Yaminami Highway and for Kurokawa, where our next lodge was. We past the beautiful landscapes of the vast Aso crater. Somewhere on a parking place we met friendly Japanese who gave us something to drink, and in the shops nearby we experienced how cheap Japan had become since our trip eleven years ago. Were it not for the cost of the flight, we would go every year.

It was a bit difficult to find the ryokan in Kurokawa, but also here we were warmly welcomed, now by five boysan and girlsan. One brought our car to the parking place; the others helped us with our luggage and changing shoes for slippers and led us to the reception desk. Magumi brought us to our apartment. Before our eyes she opened a world of luxury. Three rooms in Japanese style, two bath rooms, two televisions and much more. For the days to come, she would be our dedicated personal servant. Sometimes it is good that another person makes choices for you. In this case it was our travel agent that had done. We would never have chosen this exorbitant ryokan ourselves, but we enjoyed it. What we also enjoyed was the lavish dinner in 19 courses in our room, served by Magumi.

The next morning a girlsan brought our shoes and our car was driven up in front of the ryokan by one of the boysan. Todayīs destination was the Aso crater, the widest caldera in the world. The Aso as such has become extinct, but now there are five new little volcanoes within the caldera and one is active. Being volcano lovers, the Aso crater was a "must see" for us.

When we were not far from the Naka-dake a poisonous sulphurous vapour stimulated our noses. A red light warned us that it was forbidden to approach. When the green light flashed again, we walked with the other visitors to the brim of the volcano. Deep under us, we saw a green-bluish boiling lake with a fog rising into our direction. When it reached us, we started to cough, and the guards urged us quietly to leave the site. The red flashlight was again turning around. At least, we had survived it, for not everybody does.

The next day, when we left our ryokan in Kurokawa, we were waved goodbye by the boysan and girlsan. In Kumamoto we returned our car. This time our language problems were solved with the help of a friendly girl from a nearby shop. In the meantime, we became already a bit excited, for Kumamoto was our last stop before Nagasaki. We inquired directly after our arrival where and when the bus for the harbour would leave.

When we were waiting at bus stop 21 two mornings later, the bus did not come. We became nervous, for being late is something unusual a Japan. Then, ten minutes over time, bus number 7 arrived with the sign "Kumamoto Harbour" on its front. We were in confusion. Did I read the Japanese characters well, for hadnít it to be bus 21? The bus was about to leave again, and quickly we took our place, for the next bus could be too late for the boat. In order to reassure myself, I asked the driver. Happily, it was the right bus, and then we realized that a bus that stops at bus stop 21 needs not have the same number, of course.

More than an hour later, the driver could not change our 5000 yen note with which we wanted to pay the fare of an odd 200 yen. The man ran from the bus to the harbour building, but half way he was stopped by a friendly lady who gave him the exchange. With a bow, I excused for the delay we had caused.

The bus was the first of many different kinds of public transport we had to use this day. The next one was a ferry. When we had arrived in Shimabara on the other side of the bay, our eyes were immediately caught by a poster saying "Welcome to Nagasaki". We were surprised: it showed Dutch canal houses in front of a steeple rising to the sky that was clearly the cathedral tower in Utrecht. I was the more surprised, because I live almost at the foot of this tower. Is this Nagasaki? I put my wife in front of the poster and took a picture.

The dilapidated railway station for the local train was almost opposite of the harbour station. In spite of this, it was a bit difficult to find it. After 20 minutes a train arrived. Was it bound for Isahaya? The conductor could not read the Latin letters on the paper that I showed him, but when he saw my ticket, he affirmed that it was okay. One station after another passed by and we would have needed many hours in order to reach our destination, were it not that in Isahaya we could change for a luxurious express train.

And there it was: Nagasaki! But before we went to explore the town, we had to find our ryokan. It was very nearby according to our map, but after half an hour straying through the quarter opposite the railway station, we decided to take a taxi. "Oh, itís behind that building over there", the driver said. Even the idea that we should take his car, did not arise with him, and so we walked again a few minutes, and indeed, there was it.

It was closed. We ringed and a man in a dressing gown opened the door. It appeared to be a restaurant with the same name. He pointed where the ryokan was and decided then to bring us to it.

Immediately after that we had put our baggage in our room, we left again. For we were in Nagasaki and we wanted to see Dejima in the first place! After only 15 minutes walking we saw its simple wooden houses partly surrounded by a canal amidst of high modern buildings. We were about to pass the canal, when we saw a little plate saying that His Royal Highness Prince Willem Alexander of the Netherlands had been here a few years before us.

We entered the gate, bought tickets and then we stood in the main street lined with old looking houses to the right and left. In fact, they were new, for the present Dejima is a recent reconstruction. The last part that had remained of it had been tore to the ground more than 100 years ago. Also the water around it had been filled in. Till in the 1990ís the idea came up to restore the old situation as far as possible. For Dejima had been a major fact in Japanís history, and also a minor but fine one in the Dutch past. And so half of the original Dejima stood there again: the store buildings, the dwelling houses, and what else had been there. The little village was now a museum, presenting as good as possible the life of the centuries of closure of Japan, showrooms that gave an idea of how the people lived, videos of their way of life, images, exhibitions. Much must have been unknown for the Japanese visitors seeing Dutch 17th and 18th life for the first time, but for us it was familiar. In many respects it was as if we roamed through a Dutch museum. We thought that the 2 Ĺ hours left till closing time would have been enough for us, but it wasnít. So, gradually we had to increase our pace. It was very, very interesting. Also the souvenirs were different. Not the knickknacks that you see everywhere in the world, but objects that really had an original taste of the place where they were bought, objects that could have been bought only in Nagasaki. Cups with images of Dutchmen with a pipe or telescope in their hands, old maps and drawings of Dejima, "Hollander" sitting around a table and dining, playing games, talking. And not to forget Titia Bergsma, the woman that had stayed only four months in Dejima and had to leave with the first ship again, as Dejima was forbidden for western women. Why had she made such an impression on the Japanese, while she has been only such a short time in the country? For everywhere in souvenir shops in Nagasaki, we saw her image. It was with some sorrow that we had to leave Dejima, because the gate was to be closed.

For the next day we had planned to visit Huis ten Bosch, but when we got up it was raining. We changed plans and decided to continue our exploration of Nagasaki, looking for Dutch traces. However, first we wanted to visit the place where the atomic bomb had been dropped and see the monuments that are now there.

Until now we had seen hardly any westerners on Kyushu. It was as if this beautiful island had been forgotten by them. I do not want to say that the tram leading to the Hypocentre Park was crowded with people from Europe and North America, but at least there were some of them. When we got off, signs showed us where to go to the place of calamity. After 100m, a large space surrounded by a park lay open for our eyes. The drizzly rain made our sad feelings increase. So, here it was where that cruel explosion caused so much misery and devastation. I could not help looking at the sky, but I saw no airplane dropping something, but only a grey sky. Rain drops wetted my spectacles. That was all.

In a corner of the square a pillar pointed up. This Hypocentre Monument stood exactly under the place where the bomb exploded 63 years ago. Behind the pillar we saw colourful twists of cranes hanging down. A few metres further on a part of the wall of the Urakami Cathedral, once hailed as the largest Christian church in the Far East, rose up. In another corner there was a statue of a mother with her baby in her arms and with the date and time: "1945 8.9 11:02í ". We walked around the square and went downstairs to the level where the surface of the soil was at that time. The debris has made that the square is now a few metres higher.

In the museum, a gradually sloping turning gangway led to the exposition rooms. A clock ticked and made us keep silent. In a dim light, the first room showed objects destructed by the explosion and having traces of the immense heat and radiation. Some people talked when entering the room, but not for long. Nobody could escape the impression everything made.

The dark room led to a room showing the "facts", as far one can call misery a fact, since these facts were as much emotion. Emotion was even more on the foreground when we entered the space with witness reports. The last room contained an exposition on the development of nuclear weapons and the age after the drop of the first A bombs. It was almost a repetition of the books that I have at home, so we skipped it. After a short visit to the little museum shop, we left the building. The still drizzling rain was a good expression of our mood.

We walked to the Peace Memorial Hall for the Atomic Bomb Victims, where I left my Peace Message, and then we went to the Peace Park, standing still near the other monuments there. A statue of a man with outstretched arms, the right arm pointing up, the left arm pointing sideward, the eyes are down-turned. The wall of a prisonersí camp. The Peace Fountain. The Monument for the Unclaimed Remains of Victims. Behind them the new Urakami Cathedral.

As if it had been planned somewhere above our heads, the sky cleared when we left the park. We took the tram back to the centre. Still with our thoughts somewhere else, we took the wrong one. Because this line led to the Siebold Museum, we decided not to get off. Von Siebold was a German doctor in Dutch service in the 1820s. His influence on Japanese medical and biological science has been very big. On the other hand, his research in Japan and his interest in Japan have been important for the knowledge in the Western world about the country in his days. It was the second Siebold Museum we visited, for before we left for Japan, we had been to the Siebold House in Leiden, as part of our preparation of the trip.

The street leading up from the tram stop to the museum was called Siebold Street. Just before it ended in front of the museum it passed the place where once von Sieboldís House had stood. The museum was small but interesting. All informative texts were in Japanese, unlike in the museum in Leiden where the texts had been in Dutch, English and Japanese. However, we had received a small sheet in English with background information, and with our knowledge about von Siebold and the Dutch objects, booklets, sheets and the like used by von Siebold that were presented in the display cases we could follow his life and activities well.

Our next stop was the Glover Garden, a residential quarter with houses in western style. The road leading up to it appeared to be lined with souvenir shops. We could not refrain from walking into them, one after the other, looking for "Dutch" souvenirs: souvenirs remembering the past Dutch presence in Nagasaki. It was not difficult to find them. When we stood finally in front of the gate of the Glover Garden it was too late to enter it. But with our harvest of interesting, typical Nagasaki souvenirs, we were not too disappointed, and we walked to our last purpose of our Dutch tour this afternoon, the Dutch Slope.

We reached it by walking through the Holland Street. In fact, the Dutch Slope is more than a street leading up; it is a whole residential quarter. Moreover, "Dutch" like "Holland" in Holland Street does not refer here to the Dutch as such but to people from the western countries. Everywhere in the Holland Street we saw Dutch symbols in the street like tulips on drain covers and old ships on signboards. And the quarter where it leads to is really quite un-Japanese with its western houses, built in the 19th century.

Some time ago a Japanese businessman was so impressed by the Dutch heritage that he decided to build a complete Dutch town not far from Nagasaki, with copies of real Dutch buildings and houses on real scale. It was something not to be missed by a Dutch visitor of Nagasaki.

We were prepared for what we could expect, but when we left the train after 90 minutes in Huis ten Bosch we could hardly believe our eyes: Before us rose an exact copy of the famous Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. We crossed the bay that separated the railway station from Huis ten Bosch on a bridge paved with typical Dutch bricks and we entered the park through the gate of Nijenrode. Nijenrode is a medieval castle that I often pass on my bike rides around my town. Once in the park, we could choose between taking bikes and walking. We preferred to walk. And it is true, everything we passed was real Dutch. Even the cables had been laid underground. Only the combination of the houses and buildings was weird. The cathedral tower of Utrecht behind the gothic town hall of Gouda. Hundred metres from there, we saw the Watergate of Sneek. From Friesland we walked to Kinderdijk. I can go on and on and nobody in the Netherlands will believe it.

Of course we visited the building of Huis ten Bosch, the Royal Palace in The Hague, which have given its name to this artificial Dutch town. So, what we couldnít do in the Netherlands, we could do at least in Japan: to pay a visit to the Queen, or at least to her house! And we went to the top of the Cathedral Tower. In Utrecht we had to climb the several hundreds of steps long ago. Here we had the service of a lift.

In the train back to Nagasaki, we actually did not have the feeling to have seen new things, but we did have the new experience of having seen a surrealistic reality.

When we left the town next day, it was with melancholy, for probably we would see it never again. As we felt it, our tour could have ended here. But maybe that would have been too abrupt and we had yet to see the sadness of Hiroshima before we went to the relaxing Miyajima, and then back to Kansai.

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