Saturday, 24 December 2011

A night in Nagasaki

Last night, my friend Hiro (“Ta-chan”) and I had a little trip to Nagasaki. That is not a drug-related metaphor: we drove there. In a car. 

Of all cities in Japan, Nagasaki -- uncomfortably stuffed into the nest carved for her in the west Kyushu mountains--has had the most torturous relationship with the world. During Japan’s centuries long isolation she was the one place where foreign traders, Portuguese, Dutch and Spanish mostly, could come and, on a neutral island called the ‘Dijima’, sell a few wares: arms for tea mostly.  From a privileged vantage over the city, the house built by Thomas Glover in the 19th century tells the story of the Scotsman who came to make his fortune in a newly open Japan and became the first famous long-term Gaijin here. He’s perhaps most famous for helping to found Kirin, the beer company. The city is also the setting of Puccini’s masterpiece “Madam Butterfly”. And, of course, in 1945 the American Air Force obliterated her.

Despite all of this, Nagasaki is a beautiful city. Hiro and I stayed near the port in a cheap but comfortable hotel with views over the bay. On the first evening we took the charming tram (and I could not, of course, help but be reminded of Hong Kong), which is old and loud, to Glover Garden to see the illuminations which went some way to warm the severe chill. Even in the dark, the gardens and buildings were glorious: the tranquility of the near-distance, with flowers and not-obscene piped-in opera, contrasts with the urban mess of the far-distance wherever the eye looks. In the gift shop I bought some ‘Olanda Saburu’, “Dutch” biscuits for the people who are going to be hosting me next week in Kyoto and Tokyo (more on that to come!”).

Ta-chan and I had a lovely greasy dinner in ‘Hakatsu’ a chain of restaurants in which, it turns out, Ta-chan’s grandmother owns some shares entitling her, and therefore us, to some bonanza free meal.
Tonkatsu, is deep-fried, breaded pork cutlet with a variety of sauces. In fact, they give you the components for the sauce so that you can make it yourself. One of the requisite processes is grinding the sesame seeds in a little pestle and mortar. Ta-chan tastefully explained to me that “grinding sesame” is a Japanese euphemism for “kissing arse”. Nice.
Successfully bloated, we had a quick coffee in Caffè Veloce, the cheapest café in Japan, and went to bed.

Exploring Nagasaki on a cold Christmas Eve (though no assurances as to Broadway’s disposition towards me were made) was a pleasure. It has a strangely European atmosphere which struck me as a cross between Manchester and Hong Kong if that’s possible: hilly and exotic, homely, lively and with pavements. We went to the old Chinatown which was smaller than you’d expect for the size and history of the city and, as is my wont, I gorged myself on free samples in the tourist gift shops.

Ta-chan and I were kindly treated to lunch by a lawyer friend of mine who took us to a Chinese place that served excellent ‘Champon’: Nagasaki’s take on crispy noodles. And so oishii!
Stuffed again, we wandered round the central arcade and came home.

I have been bewitched by Nagasaki and definitely have unfinished business there. I look forward to taking another, perhaps longer, trip with the rest of the chans.
Un bel di vedremo…

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