Nagasaki was historically the gateway between Japan and the rest of the world. Even when Japan was locked up from the rest of the world, Dutch and Chinese traders were allowed into certain, heavily guarded areas of Nagasaki.
It's also an incredibly beautiful city, a natural amphitheatre build around a gorgeous bay.
While the first thing that comes to mind for most people when you mention Nagasaki is the atomic bombings of World War II, it's the earlier history that fascinates me. When Japan first reopened to trade with the outside world in the 1800s, Nagasaki was one of the first ports opened. Because the country had been forced to deal with the West for the first time in 250 years, it meant a time of upheaval in the national consciousness. It became a time of rapid change and revolution.
For a short time, Nagasaki was the centre of this revolution as a place where various Japanese clans mixed with Westerners, mostly to buy guns and other weapons,
I started working on a novel set in this time a while back. It keeps getting put on the back burner while I work on other projects - and trust me, any project is easy compared to historical fiction - but I intend to get it finished this year.
This as yet untitled novel tells the story of a young woman who is forced to move to Nagasaki with her brother after she is involved in a scandal. An adventure outside the bounds of the Westerner colony means she gets to see parts of Japanese life normally closed off to her and to meet some of the local people. One of these chance meetings gives her a way out when her brother's bungles mean financial disaster. Another puts her in risk of her life.
Here's an excerpt:
Ichiro dragged me along a dusty street lined by buildings that looked like temples. I'd liked to have slowed down so I could see more and question him more about these heathen religions but instead we hurried along and all I saw was a blur of orange gates and buildings with strangely curved roofs. The repetitious drumming and chanting provided a beat to the speed of our endeavour.
Then Ichiro turned to lead me up a path of wonky stone steps. Luckily overhanging trees provided the path with some shade. Huge orange gates – technically not gates like we'd understand them but, I'd been told, that was the name for the structures with two vertical poles and one or two poles across the top - the same as the ones at the temple, arched over the path as though the temple extended up the hill, around the curves and into infinity.
At random spots, the orange gates were intercepted with stone ones, rough and weathered and with green moss growing over them. Above them, the sky was the perfect shade of cornflower blue and pretty purple flowers bloomed at the side of the path. In the distance, I could hear the trickling of a stream and the occasional cark of a crow. It would all be all so lovely if it wasn't so hot.
The houses of unpainted wood we passed differed greatly of course from the houses of the settlement and I'd have liked to have been able to watch how the native women went about their daily business, how they washed and cleaned. Was it that much different to us? I did see one woman leaning out the window of an upper floor beating what looked like a big quilt in much the same way we'd beat a rug. She stared at us. I guess a white woman rushing by in billowing skirts wasn't part of her normal scenery.
Finally we stopped and I got a chance to take in the brilliance of Nagasaki harbour below us, the water sparkling in the sun and the boats under sail coming into the harbour filled with cargo.
On the hill opposite, I could see the imposing structure of Mr Glover's house, the grandest house in all of the settlement, towering over the town like a prince's domain with the one grand pine tree beside it. How Edward envied that home but, when I looked at it, I just thought of all the care and maintenance it would need. I had no desire to be mistress of a house requiring so much upkeep.
Hills enclosed the town and kept it snuggled closely to the sea. Beyond the hills was Japan. The real Japan. This port settlement seemed like a place apart, as though we were in the antechamber of the kingdom, leaving a calling card and never being received. Although it was an awfully pretty antechamber.