Nagasaki is one of the closest Japanese port cities to the Asian mainland and that location has played a big part in her history. Nagasaki is, however, mostly known as one of the two cities destroyed by atomic bombings during World War II. Many of the main things to do in Nagasaki relate to the atomic bomb, and they are well worth your time. It is, however, Nagasaki’s location and trading history that give the city a very much international culture flavour that will intrigue and perhaps surprise you.
Foreign visitors are well catered for here. There is signage in English virtually everywhere and it’s so easy to navigate. The tourist office provides discount vouchers for museums and clear instructions on how to use streetcars, and find your way around the city.
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History of Nagasaki
A short history of Nagasaki should give an understanding of what you should see, do and eat while you’re in Nagasaki.
Nagasaki was a small fishing village until 1543, when Portuguese explorers landed and the village grew on the back of regular trading, brokered by the Portuguese, between Japan and the Chinese mainland. You’ll see some of the remnants of these Portuguese traders in evidence in Nagasaki like the Portuguese sponge cake called a “Castella”
The Spanish Jesuit missionary St Francis Xavier travelled through Kyushu in 1542 and began a campaign of evangelisation, he left followers behind who converted Japanese feudal lords, one of whom, Omura Sumitada, set up a port in Nagasaki in 1571 for the purpose of supporting Portuguese trading ships.
Nagasaki became a Jesuit colony in 1580 and became a refuge for Christians escaping ill-treatment in the rest of Japan. While all missionaries were ordered to be expelled this was largely unenforced, especially in Nagasaki where the majority of the population were openly practising Catholics.
A shipwreck off the coast in 1596 led to the discovery that the Spanish were the head of a planned invasion of Japan and led to the crucifixion of 26 Catholics in Nagasaki the following year – known as the Twenty-six Martyrs of Japan. The Portuguese, however, were left to trade.
Catholicism was officially banned in 1614 and missionaries were ordered to leave and the Shimabara Rebellion of 1637 led to a National Isolation policy. The Portuguese, who had been living on a specially constructed island in Nagasaki harbour called Dejima, were expelled from Japan totally and Dutch traders were moved onto Dejima.
When the ban on Dutch books was lifted in 1720, Nagasaki became a major centre of Dutch Learning and as one of the few windows to the world in Japan. An incident during the Napoleonic Wars led to the strengthening of coastal defence and death threats to intruding foreigners.
It wasn’t until 1859 that Nagasaki became a treaty port as Japan opened her arms to foreign trade that growth and modernisation really began. Dockyards grew here, it became a major centre for the Imperial Japanese Navy and certainly, during World War II, the city was an important industrial city with many steel, engine, ordnance and arms plants based here. 90% of Nagasaki’s labour force was employed in these industries, perhaps sealing her fate with the atomic bomb Fat Man.
The original site for the second atomic bomb to be dropped on Japan was Kokura, however, Kokura was obscured by smoke and cloud, and so the bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. Between 70-80% of the industrial production in Nagasaki was destroyed by the bomb. The north of the city was destroyed and 35,000 people died instantly.
Nagasaki was rebuilt after the war, but the city was very different.
Top things to do in Nagasaki
Take a Walking Tour of Nagasaki
Nagaski Walks is a volunteer guiding organisation that provides English guides for tourists. With a variety of pre-set and personalized walks, the pricing of the walks are per person from 1,200 yen per person (children under 14 are free), you’ll get an introduction to the city of Nagasaki, a little history and someone to answer all your questions. More information here.
- Try a self guided audio walking tour of Nagasaki > Check it out here
- Explore Nagasaki with a local on your own customized tour > options here
Ride the Streetcars in Nagasaki – to get to Nagasaki attractions
The Nagasaki Streetcar system is a great and cheap way to travel around Nagasaki. Rides cost just 120 yen (Children are 60 yen). You can also buy a one day pass for 500 yen to save money. Passes are available at the Tourist Information Centre (ground floor JR Nagasaki station) – you cannot buy one day Nagasaki tram passes on the trains themselves.
Also called the Nagasaki tram, there are 4 regular lines. Board the Nagasaki tram from the rear door and leave via the front door. You pay when you exit, or simply show your one day pass to the driver. If you change trams, then ask for an “interchange ticket” when you leave, and you simply show that to the driver on your next tram.
Visit Nagasaki’s Peace Park
The Nagasaki Peace part commemorates the dropping of the atomic bomb on Nagasaki on August 9 1945. The Peace Park in Nagasaki comprises 2 parks and the memorial museum. Central to the park is the hypocenter of the explosion. Close by are the remnants of the original Urakami Cathedral
The Nagasaki Peace Park is fronted by the Peace Statue. This 10-metre tall statue is by local sculptor Seibo Kitamura. The Peace Statue of Nagasaki represents a mix of eastern and western art and a mix of religions. It is located behind a black marble vault which contains the names of victims of the atomic bomb.
The park contains many symbols of peace, donated from countries around the world – many are water-related. The fountain of peace, constructed in 1969 is a prayer for the souls of the victims, many of whom died searching for water. There are several lines from a poem written by a 9-year-old girl, Sachiko Yamaguchi. Carved onto a plaque by the fountain.
It reads: “I was thirsty beyond endurance. There was something oily on the surface of the water, but I wanted water so badly that I drank it just as it was.”
The symbolism of the Nagasaki Peace Statue
The left hand of the statue extends and symbolizes eternal peace, while the right points to the threat of nuclear weapons. The face is designed for divine grace and the closed eyes indicate a prayer for the souls of the bomb victims. The right leg, which is folder indicates meditation and the left leg, extended, is symbolic of the need to stand up and rescue the people of the world.
Visit the Nagasaki Hypocenter
Of all the memorials in Japan to the victims of the atomic bombs, this is what I found the most peaceful. At the centre of the Hypocentre Park in Nagasaki – marking the epicentre of the explosion – is a black marble monolith.
There were perhaps 10 people at the Hypocenter Park when we visited. Today we’d call it ground zero, but this was the location, where 600 metres up, the world’s second atomic bomb to be used against humans was detonated.
It is a wonderfully peaceful place, the black cenotaph shines with the reflected heat of the sun and there’s an air of quiet reflection that I feel throughout Nagasaki.
Urakami Cathedral Remnants, Nagasaki
Not far from the black monolith of the hypocenter memorial are the damaged remnants of the old Urakami Cathedral. It was completely destroyed in the blast. There’s also a small area here where you can take a look at layers of soil beneath the surface of the ground. You’ll see roof tiles and pieces of glass that remain from the explosion.
Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum
The Atomic Bomb Museum is a searing place to visit. Educational, informative, draining, emotional. This museum covers what led up to the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And even though you know how it ends, the sense of anticipation as you walk through excellent halls of information is terrifying.
The museum is just 5 minutes walk from the Hamaguchi-machi tram stop. The Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum is open from 0830 until 1700 and costs 200 yen.
We spent three hours learning about how an atomic bomb is made, to understanding testing then and now, to the impact that the bomb had on individuals and regular household items.
There is something fundamentally moving about touching a roof tile that was so close it bubbled and melted and taking the time to consider the impact that this had on the individual people who lived their lives here.
As we left the museum, there’s a short movie detailing nuclear testing, where from 1945 to the present day, the number of tests are detailed by country. Visiting the Atomic Bomb Museum both here and as one of the things to do in Hiroshima is a good way of contrasting how both cities approach the same topic.
The numbers ticking upwards are nothing short of terrifying. Walking up to the roof garden, the panoramic observation area shows a photo of the area immediately around about taken just after the bombing.
The most moving piece of the whole museum is a photo just by the exit. It’s of a small boy with a baby strapped to his back, looking for all the world as if he (the baby) is asleep in that way that children do, flopped over, boneless. The young boy is stood to attention, looking as though he might salute. The description of the photograph goes on to explain that the boy is stood in the area where bodies were cremated. When the soldiers were ready he gave them the body of his brother and watched, still stood to attention, biting his lip so hard that he drew blood, then he turned and walked home.
Nagasaki Peace Memorial Hall
It leaves us solemn as we make our way to the Memorial Hall, found underneath a running pool, with hundreds of lights that light at night.
Water is a constant theme of remembrance here in Nagasaki – as, the signage tells us that was the first thing that survivors asked for. So its bottles of water that you’ll see left on shrines and monuments of remembrance, not flowers and plants.
And there are monuments to be found in the Peace Park, where there are memorial stones from Soviet States that no longer exist, twinned towns and where you’ll also find the vault where the ashes of those who were not identified and those who had no family left.
Atomic Bomb Medical Museum, Nagasaki
This free admission museum is a central collection of information on those who survived the Atomic Bomb. The information details the effects of nuclear weapons on the human body and contains medical reports, literature, surveys, statistics and many photographs, films and documentary accounts from survivors. There is a blood-stained laboratory coat from a medical student of the time, a cock that stopped at the time of the attack and many medical records of the results of the bombing.
Open from 0900 until 1700 and free to enter, the museum is easily reached less than a 10 minute walk from the “Hamaguchi-Machi” tram station.
Visit Dejima, Nagasaki
This area was originally a man-made island in the harbour of Nagasaki, created in 1636 to keep the Portuguese traders separate from the Japanese. When the Portuguese were expelled from Japan the Dutch traders from Hirado were moved here and then restricted to there during the Japanese National Isolation policy which lasted for 200 years.
The area of Dejima isn’t an island, although, the canals are being redug to recreate the area as it once was. Dejima today is a series of replicas of buildings, restorations and an open-air museum to reflect the period.
The Dejima tram stop is just 5 minutes walk and entrance to Dejima costs 510 yen (children are 100 yen), with the site open from 0800 until 2100.
Learn to Cook Nagasaki Cuisine – take a Japanese Cooking Class
There’s no better way to experience local culture than with a local. Taking a Japanese cooking class in Nagasaki, at the home of a local is a great way to get to know the cuisine of Nagasaki. You can learn to cook Champon, step by step, and then sit down and eat it in the home of your host! A great way to get a good meal, local insight and learn a new dish to cook! Check out Japanese cooking class options here!
Read more about Japanese cooking classes and why they’re an awesome way to experience the culture of Japan here
Meganebashi Bridge – Spectacles Bridge Nagasaki
Nicknamed the “spectacles bridge” because the reflection from the arches makes this bridge over the Nakashima river look like a pair of glasses from the Meiji era. The Megane-Bashi Bridge is one of 10 bridges built across this river, and one of the 6 that were washed away on 23 July 1982 by a flood. All the stones were recovered and the bridge was restored.
The Megane-Bashi bridge was built by shopkeepers and monks in the period when Christianity was banned in Japan.
Glover Garden Nagasaki
The open-air museum that is Glover Garden was originally built for Thomas Blake Glover, a Scot who in the 19th century played an important role in the Meiji restoration. He was one of the founders of Kirin Beer, established Japan’s first modern shipyard and rang an arms-importing operation. He built the first train line between Tokyo and Yokohama too. He settled here, along with other western merchants after the end of the period of National Seclusion.
The primary attraction here is Glover House, a UNESCO World Heritage site. The gardens and other buildings are however still open.
Photo Glover House: 663highland [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)]
Glover House is Japan’s oldest wooden western-style building.
There are more than 20 houses here that can be seen – the Mitsubishi No 2 dock building was move here, Ringer House, and the Nagasaki Traditional Performing Arts Museum is also located in Glover Garden. Entrance to Glover Garden is 610 Yen for Adults, and 180 Yen for Children and comes with a map. Audio guides are also available for 700 yen (and are well worth it).
Oura Cathedral – a Nagasaki UNESCO World Heritage Site
Oura Cathedral was built in 1864 and is considered to be the oldest Christian church in Japan. It’s a working church and is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site because it is built and dedicated to the 26 Christian martyrs who were executed on Nishzaka Hill. Oura Cathedral is open from 0800 until 1800 and costs 1000 yen to enter. This entrance fee includes entry the Christianity in Japan museum
You’ll find Oura Cathedral on tram line number 5, just a 5-minute walk from the Ouratenshudo tram stop. It’s very close to the entrance to Glover Gardens.
Mount Inasayama – Best View of Nagasaki
The best views of Nagasaki are from Mount Inasa, whether you come during the day or the evening, it is one of the most stunning evening views of Japan. Inasayama is just 333 metres high and it’s close to the city centre of Nagasaki. You can drive up, take a bus or take the Nagasaki Ropeway. At the top, there is a domed lookout where you can have 360-degree views.
Urakami Cathedral, Nagasaki
In 1914 this was the largest church in Asia. Urakami Cathedral, Nagasaki is a Catholic church built in 1895 in the location where people were once forced to trample biblical images in an attempt to rout out secret Christians. You’ll find Urakami Cathderal just 10 minutes walk from the Nagasaki Peace Park and 500 metres from the hypocenter of the 1945 Atomic Bomb. The cathedral was rebuilt after the war and completed in 1959., it houses a statue of the Virgin Mary that was damaged by the atomic bomb and is home to a local legend. The legend of Urakami Cathedral states that the statue cries tears for the devastation caused by the bomb. Urakami Cathedral is open from 0900 to 1700 and is free to enter.
Visit the Site of the Martyrdom of the 26 Saints of Japan in Nagasaki
The Twenty Six Martyrs memorial wall and next door museum are dedicated to the memory of the 26 Christians crucified here on 5th February 1597. Christianity was prohibited in Japan at the time and their deaths were a warning to others. 20 of the victims were Japanese and 6 were Spanish monks, the youngest of those killed were 12 years old. You can walk here from JR Nagasaki Station ins just 10 minutes.
The museum is dedicated to the memory of these 26 and displays memorabilia related to early Christianity in Japan. The Memorial wall is free to view, the Museum is open from 09900 until 1700 and costs 500 yen to visit.
Dutch Slope, Nagasaki
Dutch Slope is an area of stone-paved streets lined with European-styled houses. It’s here that the foreign traders lived after the opening of Nagasaki’s port to foreign traders in 1859. At one point all Western residents were known as Dutch. There are a few remaining g original residences here, and Higashi Yamate 13 is open to the public. The views from the upstairs are pleasant and there’s a café here on the ground floor.
Nagasaki Ropeway to Mount Inasa
The Nagasaki cable car entrance is found on the left of Fuchijinja, but there are free evening shuttles from some hotels and the JR Nagasaki station to take you’re here. The cable car takes just 5 minutes and costs 720 yen one way or 1230 return and is open from 0900 until 2200. Reach the lower cable car station by the free shuttle bus, or its 5 minutes from the Takaramachi tram stop. You can also take the bus from JR Nagasaki station to the “top”, but you will still have to walk 15 minutes if you do it this way. It is, however, significantly cheaper at 180 yen one way on the bus.
Huis Ten Bosch Theme Park Nagasaki Prefecture
Designed in the style of Europe in the Middle Ages, Huis Ten Bosch is a theme park named after one of the Dutch Royal Family residences. With canals, and windmills filling the 1.5 million square metres, the gardens of this theme park in Nagasaki are filled with seasonal flowers. There’s a tulip festival in February, a rose festival in May, hydrangeas in June and a winter orchid festival. There are restaurants and gloriously themed hotels to stay in here too! Buy your ticket ahead of time and skip the lines!
You’ll also find illuminations from October to May – with more than 13 million lights throughout the park. Entrance to Huis Ten Bosch is 6,200 yen for adults and 3,900 yen for children and the park is open from 0900 until 2000.
Explore the Nagasaki Kunchi Festival
The annual Kunchi Festival of Nagasaki is usually held between 7th to the 9th October in Nagasaki. Its more than 400 years old and celebrates aspects of both Dutch and Chinese cultures as well as their influence on the history of Nagasaki.
There are dance performances by groups representing different districts of Nagasaki. The dances involve floats, often shaped like ships. If you’re lucky enough to be here during this time you’re in for a treat. It’s unlikely that you’ll get a seat for the official performances, but it’s a great time to visit – you can walk around and visit with the various groups, see the floats, understand little of the group themselves (its all very friendly, and was very sake fueled while we were there! You can pick up an information leaflet in English from the tourist information offices in the city.
Check out seven of Japan’s most celebrated festivals to visit and experience here.
What to eat in Nagasaki
Each region of Japan has its specialities and Nagasaki is no different. Here are some of the regional treats to try while you are visiting Nagasaki.
Nagasaki Noodles – Champon
We made a pilgrimage to taste this while we were in Nagasaki. It might look like just another bowl of ramen, but Champon is a famous Nagasaki noodle-cooking style. The noodles are thick, the broth is creamy. Champon was created in a Chinese restaurant during the Meiji era (1868 -1911) and it was designed to fill stomachs cheaply!
Champon noodles are thicker than ramen, they’re topped with pork, seafood and vegetables and its served with a thick broth. You can learn how to cook Champon – and eat it in a local Nagasaki residents home with AirKitchen > Get a REAL local experience in Nagasaki
Eat Sara Udon in Nagasaki
Sara Udon is similar to Champon. It can be made with either the same thick noodles that Champon is famous for or thinner, yakisoba noodles. Sara Udon comes with the same toppings of vegetables, pork and seafood that are eaten with Champon, but then its covered ins a starchy thick sauce.
Eat Shippoku Ryori in Nagasaki
Shippoku Ryori is a Japanese food style heavily influenced by Chinese cuisine. It originated from Chinese immigrants to Nagasaki during the Edo Period (1603 -1868). Dishes are usually eaten family-style, and the style of service usually includes several small dishes that make up the entire meal. Ske is usually drunk with Shippoku Ryori.
Kakuni Manju – Most Popular Nagasaki Snack
This is Nagasaki’s most popular snack. A white steamed bun encases a thick piece of pork dripping in a sweetened sauce. It was originally served as part of Shippoku but was so popular that vendors started serving it individually. Think of this as the best pork belly bun you’ll ever eat.
Castella – Portuguese Cake in Nagasaki
Castella’s history comes from the Portuguese missionaries of the 16th century. It’s a sponge cake made with flour, sugar, eggs and a starch syrup called mizuame. Traditionally there are NO dairy products in the cake. The batter is whisked together and then baked in a tray, again traditionally a layer of sugar is put in the base of the baking tray, giving a crispy finish to the sponge cake. The name comes from the Portuguese “Pão de Castela” or bread from Castile.
Photo Source: Wikicommons Meda
Omura Sushi from Nagasaki
This traditional dish was originally served to feudal lords on their victorious return from battle. Layers of sweet vinegar rice and alternated with slices of fish and vegetables.
Eat Turkish Rice or Toruko Rice in Nagasaki
Turkish Rice is not inspired by Turkey at all, but named because of the combination of western and eastern influences and thus representing a border between Asia and Europe. A bed of both pilaf rice and spaghetti are piled onto plates, then a breaded pork cutlet is added and drizzled in sauce. There are a huge number of varieties and toppings available depending on your taste.
Nagasaki Milk Seki
Milk Seki from Nagasaki is made to be eaten, not drunk. Traditionally Milk Seki is a sweet drink made by blending egg, milk and sugar. In Nagasaki, this is served over a LOT of shaved ice. Very cooling on a warm day you’ll want to try it here, as you won’t get Milk Seki served like this anywhere else.
Drink Iki Shochu in Nagasaki
In the same way that the Hiroshima Prefecture is a super place to try Sake tasting (read our article on how to go sake tasting in Saijo here), then Iki is the birthplace of barley shochu. These recipes originally came from China, but in Iki, they developed the recipe using barley. It might be one of the world’s top liquors, but boy is it strong. Taste at your own risk!
Take Day Trips from Nagasaki
Visit Gunkanjima / Battleship Island from Nagasaki
This small island is located about 20 kilometres from Nagasaki harbour. It was previously a coal mine and more than 5,000 people lived on this small island – it measures just 480 metres by 150 metres. This massive population density (the highest in the world) meant that to accommodate everyone the island was massively built up. The name, Gunkanjima, is a Japanese nickname for “Battleship Island”, whereas the actual name of the island is Hashima.
Fifty per cent of the island was dedicated to the coal mine which opened in the late 1800s and closed in April 1974. Gunkanjima has been abandoned since then. weathering and result exposure to typhoons has caused mass deterioration., which led to the island being off-limits for years. The island is well known for its haunting atmosphere. Gunkanjima has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 2015.
Explore Gunkanjima by Boat > Check available options here
Nowadays because of a boat dock and several observation decks tours are possible to the island. The boat ride takes about 50 minutes and visitors can spend around 45 minutes on the island. Book a trip to Gunkanjima here. If you’re unable to visit Gunkanjima, there is a museum next to the Oura Church in Nagasaki, the Gunkanjima Digital Museum which includes a host of information about the island, and a simulated journey down a mineshaft. You can even take a virtual reality trip to areas of the island.
Explore the Shimabara Peninsula from Nagasaki
The Shimbara peninsular is a popular trip from Nagasaki. This hot spring and hiking area encompasses the Unzen Amakusa National Park and the Unzen Onsen – a hot spring resort. There’s also a disaster museum here detailing the deadly volcanic eruptions of the 1990s.
How to get to Nagasaki
We travelled to Nagasaki on our JR Passes. The city is 7 hours from Tokyo, it takes between 4 and five hours to get to Nagasaki from both Kyoto and Osaka. Hiroshima is 3 hours on the train from Nagasaki. Not bought a JR Pass yet? Get one now!
How to Travel Around Nagasaki
Most of the sites and activities that you will want to see in Nagasaki are both easy to walk to and to navigate via the Nagasaki tram. Tram tickets cost 120 yen, or you can buy a day pass for 500 yen from the information centre in the JR Nagasaki station.
Where to stay in Nagasaki
We stayed at the Akari Hostel in Nagasaki and had a great private room, with a shared lounge and kitchen. You can check out options for staying there here.. The hostel is a short way out of town, if you want to stay near to the JR Station (best for public transport), then the APA Hotel Nagasaki Ekimae is a great choice. Check rooms here.
Final Words on Visiting Nagasaki
We arrived in Nagasaki direct from taking a ferry from Korea to Japan. We loved the streetcars here, were incredibly moved and educated by the Atomic Bomb Museum and ate our fill of Champon and everything else that Nagasaki had to offer. We explored the foreign trading history of Nagasaki and visited with the performers of the Kunchi Festival. What about you? What will you do in Nagasaki?