The Bridges of Nagasaki

In northwest Kyushu, on a peninsula of a peninsula of a peninsula, like a fractal made from prehistoric solidified lava, lies the vibrant city of Nagasaki.

Satellite image of peninsulas, with Nagasaki location labelled
Nagasaki City lies on a branch of three interconnected peninsulas. Two volcanoes can be seen, Unzen to the east, and Taradake to the northeast.

Nestled amongst rugged volcanic hills, Nagasaki is one of the most important ports in all of Japanese history. The narrow bay quickly gives way to steep mountains, carpeted with thick, sub-tropical jungle fauna thanks to the rich soil and humid weather. Here and there buildings cling tenuously to the hillside, almost stacked upon one another.

Street in front of a building, with hill behind and many houses and buildings on a steep hill
The Nagasaki Museum of History and Culture. The hill behind gives you a sense of the steepness of the city.

Below are narrow gullies where rivers flow into the bay. The rivers are interconnected by a series of canals, crisscrossed with bridges supporting the movement of people and goods. Higher up, the mountains are connected by bridges and tunnels. Driving into the city from the airport your view constantly alternates between smooth concrete lit by drab fluorescent lights, and soaring vistas of cities, rivers, and farmland below. Just entering the city one sees how Nagasaki has conquered its rocky landscape with feats of infrastructure.

The ruggedness also has its boons too, beyond natural beauty. That craggy geography protected much of the city from history’s second atomic bomb in August 9, 1945. Fat Man was a bigger bomb too. Little Boy, the first atomic bomb dropped on Japan, flattened about 70% of Hiroshima’s buildings, leaving another 6-7% severely damaged. An old teacher of mine was a child living in the suburbs when the Hiroshima bomb was dropped. He described to me his memory of coming over the hill to see a total wasteland. He could see all the way to where Hiroshima station used to stand, an unimaginable sight for a 6 year old. It was now a plain of rubble, the only things standing were the occasional telephone pole. A few days later, Nagasaki’s furrowed topography frustrated the Fat Man who could destroy only (!) 40% of its buildings.

That was 75 years ago. Since then the city has built itself back up. Nagasaki has long been a city of industry. A 150 years ago Nagasaki was at the center of Japan’s industrial revolution. Scholars from all over the country would come to Nagasaki to engage in 蘭学 rangaku or “Dutch Studies.” Engineering, medicine, technology — much of the transfer of knowledge from the West happened here in Nagasaki. Specifically on one little island. You just had to get over the bridge.

Bridges to Exit Island

The Portuguese arrived in Japan right in the middle of the Warring States period, a 150 year long era during the 15th and 16th centuries when it was everyone against everyone. Upon arrival the Portuguese immediately began selling arms. Arquebuses, pumpkins and tempura are not the only things they brought over, they also introduced Catholicism. In Kyushu many converted, including a daimyo (feudal lord) who worked with the Western powers to build up Nagasaki as a trading port. Once the country was consolidated and entered the peace of the Edo Period, the Shogun’s attention turned to a new threat: Christianity. In 1634 a canal was dug across a small peninsula sticking out into Nagasaki Bay creating a manmade island: Dejima, or “Exit Island.” The Portuguese, and soon after the Dutch, were restricted to this island for all their interactions with Japan and the Japanese. All the products and knowledge of the West were contained in this 2 acres.

Painting of Dejima, with its single bridge.
Painting of Dejima, with its single bridge.

On this trip I stayed in a hotel overlooking the old island. The surrounding areas have been completely built up in the last few hundred years as the city has grown around around Dejima, which is now only an island in a very pedantic sense. There are canals on two sides, and a narrow strip of water on the other two, demarcating the “island” in a shallow recognition of history.

Dejima on the right. A curved and narrow strip of water preserves its "islandness."
Dejima on the right. A curved and narrow strip of water preserves its “islandness.”

In the morning I strolled across the canal and walked around the 530 meter perimeter of the old island. Now it contains a number of historical buildings and tourist attractions. At the main gate stands a man dressed as a feudal era foot soldier, armed with a katana and a welcoming smile.

A few hundred yards away further up the canal is another bridge connected to another historical restricted area: Nagasaki Shinchi Chinatown. This is one of two places where traders from China were sequestered.

People walk through a Chinese fluted gate and under neon lights. There is a  sign with Chinese text for "Nagasaki Shinchi Chinatown"
Entrance to Nagasaki’s Chinatown

If you were an Edo or Meiji period Japanese person wanting to learn about the West or China, Nagasaki was the only place to be.

Bridges, new and old

The hilly landscape combined with the humidity makes walking in Nagasaki a strategic endeavour conservation — both effort and bodily fluids. Straight lines between destinations are often a curse. Better to meander in a circuitous route alongside the river than have to climb a mountain in this heat.

Cars zoom alongside the rivers and canals, stopping for the iconic Nagasaki trolleys (video). The roads are lined with the tallish modern buildings of a small city, their concrete facades patched with blackish mold and “sweat” from the humid Nagasaki weather.

Nagasaki is still red with the bricks of the 19th century. Not the entire city, just here and there — enough to remind you of the past. I have spent most of my time in Kyoto, where you are steeped in history. Many cities in Japan aren’t so lucky thanks to the firebombing campaign of World War II.

Not to say there isn’t anything new here. Walk down to the waters of the port, where you can see the Megami Ohashi Bridge spanning the narrow mouth of the bay (Video 360 of the bay). Here is Dejima Wharf, a boardwalk lined with cafés and restaurants offering food to patrons sitting on the patio, everything from pasta and pizza to whale. On a Friday evening it sure seems like the place to be, despite being in a coronavirus pandemic.

Around the bay the land is thankfully flat. A cool wind blows in off the sea dispersing some of the humidity. There is a large park and a bayside walkway still under construction. Wandering along the path there are new bridges, part of the Canal Promenade (video). These paths along the canal link the ultramodern Nagasaki Prefectural Art Museum to the Dutch Slope, where 19th century buildings peer down from the hill. Up, down, left, right there are bridges everywhere — literal and figurative. Even the Nagasaki Prefectural Art Museum spans a canal (video)!

Landscape of various buildings at twilight
Modern promenade and architecture, with 19th century architecture looking down from the hill.

The oldest stone arch bridge in Japan

The Nakashima River is one of the main waterways that empty into Nagasaki Bay. It descends from the northeast, out of the mountains, slowing through two reservoirs, before wending its way through the heart of the city where the waters pass under about twenty bridges built over the past four hundred years. The dykes are street level where cars and trolleys buzz past tourists, walking alongside the river and through history as they enjoy the bright azaleas and antique bridges, all the while surrounded by the sounds of a busy city street.

In just fifteen minutes and (eight bridges) from Dejima you will reach the oldest stone arch bridge in Japan. This is Megane-bashi, or “Spectacles Bridge,” a structure dating back to 1634. Arched bridges were not a skill that feudal Japanese engineers knew, but this bridge was not built using any of that fancy “Dutch learning” from Europe — it came from an even more sophisticated country: China.

Bridge and reflection in river
Meganebashi’s double arches reflect in the water eliciting the image of “spectacles”

Beside the bridge, near some spectacular azaleas, is a statue of 默子如定 Mò Zi Rú Dìng, a monk from Kofukuji Temple. Mò Zi is credited with the construction of Spectacles bridge. In the early 1600s there were many Chinese in Nagasaki, not only traders but scholars and religious people. Mò Zi was a contemporary of another famous Chinese monk 隱元隆琦 Ingen, who also visited Nagasaki in the 1600s before heading to Kyoto and ultimately founding the “third” school of Japanese Zen: Ōbaku.

Photo of a statue
Statue of Mò Zi, the Chinese monk who brought the technique of stone arches to Japan in the 17th century

Looking down at the stones of the embankment, if you are particularly eagle-eyed, you might spot some heart-shaped stones. There are said to be 20 in total along the river. It is said the more you find, the more good luck you will have! Here is a photo of the embankment near Meganebashi so you can have a chance to look yourself:

Stone wall
Can you spot any heart-shaped stones in the wall?

Each year Meganebashi attracts hordes of students who come to Nagasaki each year for school trips. You can walk down the steps to a platform from which you can take the perfect shot of the bridge. Today, I was nearly alone (video). I stood unsteadily on the cobblestones unhindered in my photography. The novel coronavirus COVID-19 kept the tourists away… for now.

Nagasaki has been through a lot in its history, and has rebuilt itself after many crises. This too shall pass. Nagasaki is a city of bridges…. new canal bridges, old canal bridges, bridges to history, bridges to modernism, bridges to Asia and beyond, bridges between religions, and nuclear bridges too far. I look forward to crossing over again soon.

Photo of Meganebashi with azaleas in the foreground
Azaleas at Meganebashi.