Impressions of Japan: Nagasaki

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A whale manhole in Nagasaki
August 12, 2016

Begin again

Walking through the maze of Chinese and Dutch architecture, flourished with Portuguese ceramics here and layered with Japanese neon there, I asked myself:

“Where am I?”

If almost 90% of the images that pop up when you google search “Nagasaki” reveal a city destroyed, this colorful cosmopolis was the complete opposite. Vibrant, playful, diverse and resonant, Nagasaki was not what I expected. The city challenged and entertained. And despite already traveling in Japan for almost two weeks, it felt completely new to me.

For the fourth and final stop on my Japan tour, it was all about beginning again.

Breeze on a plate

Nagasaki stretches it’s picturesque, middle-rise environment down from the sea, along the river, up across beautiful forest-covered mountains, peaking at Mount Inasa which offers one of the top three night views of the world.

The scene was astonishing; the strong cool breeze, the Megami Bridge, the boats, the rhythm of the three-legged trees, the rugby players and the sound of water rippling through the cobblestone pavements flowed together to create a 360-degree panoramic whirl.

Zooming in, every detail felt like an invitation to connect. It’s almost like you can listen to each neighbourhood singing the story of its harmony by way of remembrance. In the antagony of the smooth vs. textured sides of the building stones, in the setting of the houses near the river banks, in the use of every edge, to the way the city expanded out to its hundreds of islands, I saw, heard and felt a tribute to togetherness.

Meet Shogi

Walk, ride a bike, hop on a joyful streetcar – in Nagasaki you don’t have to learn to use any complex transportation systems. The second morning, I stumbled from a tram right onto a group of merry old men playing Japanese chess, or shogi, under the cover of a large traditional wooden roof.

Raluca and shoji

After spying me taking some photos of his friend’s skills, a Mr Oura invited me, in very good English, to a cup of tea from a nearby vending machine. 100 yen later, there I was, in the outdoor living room of a cheerful band of gamers learning all about life and chess – one and the same thing, Oura-San tells me.

A lost landscape

The second day, time stopped in a concrete freeze on the abandoned Hashima Island, the everyday “battleship” for almost 5300 people working in the coal mines. Concrete schools, shops, hospitals and homes sprouted from the island’s hull, including the first nine-story tall residential tower in Japan. But by the 70s, when coal was no longer profitable, Hashima was shut down, closed, abandoned. It’s secrets went with it.

Looking through the huge sheets of pouring rain, listening to the tour guide and becoming aware of the island’s hidden history, with all the smashed and massive cracked concrete still standing as a powerful testament to industrialization and the machine of war, gave me a weird feeling of balancing on the edge – of what, I was unsure.

Chinese temptation

Back on the mainland made with the mixed ingredients of various parts of the world, I decided I needed to grab a bite of China. Beginning with the brightly-patterned Chinatown, I moved on to visit the intense red-yellow-turquoise Confucius Shrine, greeting the carp fish and eating Nagasaki Champon along the way.

Scanning the map of Nagasaki it seemed to me that the different parts of the city spread and furled together, like a drop of colourful ink into clear water.

11.02 a.m. my last day

11.02 a.m. was the time history and geography here were abruptly deleted. The city map before and after the explosion, the imprints burnt in wood of the last fragments of life, the pieces of cloth and sculptures of melted steel, glass and plastic were all pieces of memory on display in the Atomic Bomb Museum. No horror, no hate, no guilt, no aggression, just remembrance, respect and a testimony for the future: peace.

Peace memorial museum in Nagasaki artistic portrait

Fasten your seat belts

Three days and I found myself at the airport in Japan for the last time, heavy with the anguish of my adventure having met its end.

Then, once again, I was lifted by the sight of the serene Japan Airlines check-in desk. During this whole experience, the airline staff became my family and friends seeing me off time and again as I flew from place to place. I never really managed to feel sad leaving each destination, as boarding for another undiscovered part of Japan always came next. This anticipation fueled by the thrill of being up in the air, relaxed and guided, made each flight into a live capture of that special feeling you get when you cross a border – an extended moment of expectation and excitement.

I realized I was looking forward to the long flight back home; to having a movie night, to tasting the last exquisite bites of Japanese food, to receiving the luxury customer service – it would be the final epilogue of my experience here, in which Japan Airlines had played such a big part.

Under construction

It sounds like a cliche, but the Japan Explorer Pass really, honestly, made my dreams come true. I felt like a millionaire picking a point on a map of Japan and being escorted in my own private jet to these amazing destinations that most people never get the chance to see.

Having such easy access to this network of highways in the sky meant I was able to bypass the typical tourist route and reach far corners of a country I had always wanted to know as an architect, and, simply, as a girl from Romania.

I was guided beyond the bright lights of Tokyo to touch down among the colors and sounds of the country’s tropical scenery, to solve the puzzle of its unique spiritual history, to get lost in its chaotic modernity, to climb mountains and drift down rivers, to scale skyscrapers and squeeze into izakaya, to eat, to drink, to talk and to listen to its many distinct voices.

In my video applying for this competition, I asked the question; “what is Japan really like?” Maybe you thought “wacky”, or “spiritual”, “modern” or “mysterious”. After two-weeks exploring four very different parts of Japan, I still can’t tell you. There is too much to uncover, so much left that is still unknown. My answer is officially under construction until I can come back and explore more.

I guess you’ll just have to find out for yourself.

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Romanian architect and designer, and now winner of a dream tour of Japan with the Japan Explorer Pass.

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