Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Nagasaki: International City

As I leave Nagasaki on the morning of August 11, the rain that began yesterday afternoon and fell all night has cooled the city down, making this the most comfortable temperature I have felt in my more than two weeks in Japan. The dry warm days and cool nights of Los Angeles seem like just a dream at this point.

This pleasant air provides a good atmosphere for reflection on my second day in Nagasaki, which continued the theme of human international relations I alluded to previously.

I began by visiting the atomic bomb-related sites that I didn’t have time for on the 9th, beginning with the Peace Park and the Peace Statue. I was particularly interested in the Peace Symbol Zone – essentially an international sculpture park. These sculptures, gifts from foreign countries, largely contradict my previous appraisal that Hiroshima relates to the international political stage more than Nagasaki. Judging by the dates on the statues, the Zone was constructed in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and the countries represented here plainly illustrate the Cold War politics of the day. Strongly represented are former (and present) communist and Soviet Bloc states, including Czechoslovakia, Poland, Bulgaria, Cuba, China, and the USSR (which declined to provide an English translation on their statue unlike the others). For all these countries, even China which has its own contentious history with Japan and incidentally strong roots in Nagasaki, it was clearly politically advantageous to side with Nagasaki against the atomic bomb attacks, and hence against the US with whom these nations were engaged with, hmmm, an arms race that could lead to the destruction of a lot more cities. Cynical politics? Naw…Also represented are countries such as the Netherlands, Argentina, Brazil, and New Zealand, which seem to have a more humanitarian interest in building connections with Nagasaki. As I look around, I think, “OK, clearly there’s not going to be an official US statue, but surely Cambridge or Berkeley have sent something?” I was surprised, but pleased to find St. Paul, Minnesota IN THE HOUSE! Way to represent, St. Paul.

I also visited a temple gate that had been half destroyed by the bomb. One half remains standing, while the other half lays in pieces nearby. At this shrine, two massive camphor trees that had been thought destroyed by the atomic bomb actually grow and thrive 65 years later.

I spent the rest of the day in downtown Nagasaki exploring the old temples and shrines of the city. Nagasaki was THE international port in Japan, even in times when the country was supposedly closed, and thus was an important point of meeting and exchange, especially with Chinese and Dutch traders. Nagasaki was also an important point of entry for religion into Japan, including certain sects of Chinese Buddhism and Christianity (and is thus also the site of brutal crackdowns on adherents of both faiths). With limited time, I decided to visit the Chinese temples since their architecture and history are unique in Japan. There are so many layers of details and lines in these buildings – I find them very hard to look at or to photograph as a whole. Focusing in on details seems more rewarding. At the last temple I visited, it began to rain and I enjoyed just sitting and catching the breeze as the rain fell.

Incidentally, Nagasaki is an extremely well-signposted city for visitors. Addresses in Japan are not straightforward, and even the mighty Lonely Planet doesn’t give very good directions. Armed with a surprisingly good map given to me by the proprietor of my Inn (no street names, but an accurate spatial and directional representation of streets), city signs to direct me, and an easy-to-use tramway made getting around Nagasaki quite simple.

I’ll leave you here with today’s tie for most bizarre sightings:

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