Rising from the ashes…
and still fighting the wind
Circa November 2002
On the ferry to Mogi, a suburb south of Nagasaki, I thought I would lose my lunch. They may have called it a ferry, but it was no more than a small yacht, what a friend later called a "water taxi," but it bounced around on the water more like a pinball than any vehicle. The wind dominated that day, gusts as strong as I had seen in Japan.
I bought my ticket in Reihoku, a small town of sea people just north of Hondo, from a man who used an abacus to make my change. Say what you will about Japan's technological advancements - this was a sight to see. It seemed like it took more
time than if he had done the math long hand, but he made the right calculations and handed me the shiny silver coins I was owed. As I boarded the yacht it was already rocking violently, despite clear skies and the well-constructed harbor surrounding us. My stomach growled and my head ached from the previous night's festivities. People in Kyushu are known to be big drinkers, and I knew what to do in Rome.
We backed out of the dock and the rocking halted for a moment. I wiped my brow. Then we were off, racing at speeds I guessed were near 60mph. It felt like we might take off. The winds pushed the boat southwest, forcing the captain to cut into the waves at a 90-degree angle. We skipped from wave to wave, each hop a new crash landing and a new rough liftoff. It was apparent at that moment that I had placed a lot of trust in the captains, conductors and pilots of Japan. In my short stay (two months at that point), I had used buses, airplanes, slow trains, fast trains, ferries, trams, cars, and this unbearable water taxi. For some reason there was only one window I could bear to look out of, so I sat like a statue praying for the ride to end.
I stumbled off the boat and feebly asked where I could find a bus to Nagasaki. An old man from Hondo who had made his way to Nagasaki on business helped me ("I am rich man!", he later told me, with a voice as giddy as a schoolgirl). He was the owner of a chain of karaoke bars that covered Kyushu, and he spoke English well enough, though he said he'd never been outside the archipelago. He helped me find the first of two buses I would need to get into the city - Nagasaki was over a hill from the port of Mogi, and at the top of that hill we would need to change.
Upon arrival I marveled at Nagasaki's eclectic beauty. The winding cobblestone streets. The clear blue – albeit windy – skies. I need to set my bags down and check this place out, I thought to myself.
I called the first hotel in my guidebook and a friendly woman answered, strangely asking “where you stand?”. I told her, and in ten minutes, she had collected me on foot. Then she led me back to her ryokan
, or Japanese style inn. I couldn't help but be impressed - again and again - at the helpfulness and friendliness of the Japanese. No commission or bonus was at stake, but people went far out of their way to help me. There were stories of men leaving their desks to drive gaijin
(foreigner) two blocks, or women setting down their groceries to show a newcomer where to eat. Each time a new tale seem to trump the last.
After a short rest and a cup of Japanese tea, I sought social life on the streets of Nagasaki. The sloping cobblestone steps descending from my hotel led me past gyoza
joints and ramen
stores and bars named "Bean" and "Prom Star." The city was showing off its multiculturalism, which to me seemed very un
-Japanese. The comforting alphabets of English, French and even Spanish words emblazoned shop signs and tee shirts, bringing a smile to my face. For new white people to Asia, the sight of a Romance language is like the aroma of a Sunday roast, as rare as it is mouthwatering.
I was looking for a chanpon ramen
store - Nagasaki's specialty - a seafood, noodle and cabbage soup – and I found one after a good deal of wandering. I sat down next to the only other patron at the bar. The cook began to chop some vegetables and his wife came in from outside. She brought out my soup. In it was a rainbow of ingredients: octopus, scallops, noodles, and various vegetables. I slurped, and, finally, I began to feel like myself again.
I spent the next few hours wandering some more, looking for temples or parks that my guidebook recommended, sitting on benches to decipher new kanji
, or diving into an Internet café to take a rest. I felt very comfortable in Nagasaki, where nuclear holocaust seemed as far away from reality as my California home.
When the sun set, I hiked the cobblestone to Glover Garden, a renovated park surrounding Japan's oldest European style homes. Nagasaki was one of the first ports to open to the West in the 19th century, and Thomas Glover, among others, was a resident of the city for over 10 years. Among his other accomplishments in Japan, he started shipbuilding and train endeavors, introduced guns, helped himself to the finest hilltop real estate overlooking the city and the bay, and married a Japanese woman.
It was late afternoon by then, and it seemed wiser to visit Urakami, the Atomic bomb hypocenter, the next day, rather than speed through it before dark. I imagined it might be an inexplicable experience; it turned out it was.