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Winter Trip (pt 3) - Nagasaki New Year's

Written on: Saturday January 19th, 2008

A journal entry from: Japan

Part 3 now - forgive the long post, but this was the longest stop on my trip, and I couldn't resist added in a little bit of the history I've picked up. But you can always just skip ahead to the photos if you want!

I hadn't actually planned on going to Nagasaki at all, partly because I didn't feel compelled to visit two atomic peace museums, but I'm glad I did. Nagasaki has an interesting past; during the period of Japan's isolation, Nagasaki was one of the designated ports that foreigners were allowed to trade through. So, not only was there a lot of European cultural exchange, but it was a point of contact for Chinese and Korean culture, as well as the rest of Asia.

An Afternoon Wandering in Nagasaki

The first day I spent meandering around the city, I visited the monument to the 26 Christian Martyrs - European and Japanese Christians who were killed about 500 years ago when Christianity began to be seen as a political threat (partly, as I understand it, because the Christian missionaries in Asia were often accompanied by attempts to institute European colonial control). Persecution of Christians continued for many years, and Christianity was actually outlawed, but many Japanese Christians survived underground.

Despite the suppression of the Christian religion, there was still an advantage to allowing trade with European cultures. This was tightly controlled, of course. Originally, it was the Portuguese with whom they traded in Nagasaki, but eventually the Portuguese were barred because of their close association with Catholic and Jesuit missionaries and the suspicion of colonization attempts. Instead, the Japanese began trade with the Protestant Dutch, since they felt they could conduct business with them without religious strings attached. The Dutch operated from a small island in the harbour called Dejima, which has been turned into a small museum. The museum was fine, if not impressive, and it did have a lot of good info on this part of history. I liked the re-creation of the living quarters of the captain, as it was an interesting mix of Japanese and old Dutch styles.

I didn't just visit sites connected to European history, though. I also visited one of the most interesting temples I've seen so far, at least in terms of design. Fukusai-ji temple was re-built after the atomic bomb destroyed the original, and the reconstructed temple is in the shape of a giant turtle, with 18m tall statue of the goddess Kannon standing on his back. Another unusual feature of this temple is the Foucault Pendulum inside. The pendulum hangs from a point high in the ceiling, and goes through the floor of the main level to the basement level. There was no one around when I was there, although the temple was open; but the access to the basement level was closed, so I couldn't get a close-up look at it, only looking down from the main floor.

New Year's Eve

A group excursion for New Year's had been organized from the hostel I was staying at, with about twenty or so people. I was the only one of the group who was not either Japanese or Korean, but luckily for me, many of the people spoke some English, and two of the girls in particular, Kayo and Chihiro, spoke English quite well. I really enjoying hanging out with the group for the night, and I had a lot of fun with them. First, it was off to a restaurant for something to eat, and then our guide - one of the hostel owners - took us on a short walking tour of the city at night. We took a "slanted elevator" contraption to the top of a lookout point, with a fantastic view of the night lights and the harbour.

Then we made our way to a small local temple. There was already a bonfire going, and we were served soba noodles (which it is traditional to eat on New Year's) and then warmed ourselves by the fire and drank sake. By about 11:30, there were quite a few people gathered at the temple, and I began to hear the low sound of bells being rung from other temples in the area. We started to line up, and everyone took a turn ringing the temple bell. It was great fun, and my favorite was a little boy of about five or six. He was one of the first to go up, and the bell was high above his head and he had to stretch up to reach the rope for the clapper. But with a little help he managed it, and then...he did the funniest little victory dance right under the bell. I think he got in line four or five times after that to ring the bell again, and he was so excited every time. Here's a video with Chihiro and another young man ringing the bell, sorry it's so dark:

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After this, we headed out to some of the local shrines. The first place we stopped was a small shrine which was connected to love and marriage. My new friends showed me what to do. First, you go to a water basin and use a long-handled cup to wash your hands and rinse your mouth, to clean or purify yourself. Then, you approach the front of the shrine. There is a wooden box there, which you throw a coin into (like a wishing well). Then you take the thick rope in front of you and swing it around to ring the bell - very different from the temple bells, these are more like very large cow bells, and make a tinny noise like a cowbell being struck. Then you bow twice, clap your hands twice, make your wish for the new year, and then bow once more. Then you can go over to the nearby booth and buy a New Year's fortune, or one of the "charms" that shrines always sell (like for good luck, or to achieve good grades on a test, or to be safe while driving). I got a fortune (only costs about 20 cents!). It was all written in Japanese, but apparently it was only so-so. Anyway, you usually take your fortune and tie it to a tree branch or a string they've set up. It was kind of funny watching me try to tie mine as I almost ripped it and we ended up just squishing it on.

From there we visited another shrine, a little bit bigger, and very pretty I thought. I didn't catch much information about this place, but we made wishes here too, and I could see there was a Shinto ceremony going on inside, with a white-robed priestess. But we didn't stay long and we were soon off to Suwa Shrine, the biggest and most important shrine in Nagasaki according to our guide, and it was perfect for the culmination of our evening. To get to the shrine, you have to walk up a long paved pathway. The way was lined with small tented kiosks, just like at a fair or community festival, and lit up with red lights. Most of these booths were selling food - yakitori, yakisoba, a type of okonomiyaki rolled onto a stick, roasted ears of corn, and so on. My favorite was the booth selling candy apples, but which also had other candied fruits too, like strawberries and grapes. There were also a couple booths selling non-food items, like cartoon character masks for the kids.

Standing on the steps leading up to the shrine, with the entrance gate towering up above was quite a scene. And it was so busy; they had a few security men with glowsticks to direct the flow of traffic, it was so thick with people. We had to go in groups, and we waited a few moments for a crowd of people ahead of us to make their way in, then we were signalled to go ahead. Once inside the gate, we had to pay attention not to lose each other. We made our wishes at the front of the shrine amongst a crowd, and I caught another glimpse of the ceremony going on inside, with white-robed priests. Next to this was an area where we were given small dishes with a sip of sake each, purely as a cermonial act. Then we headed into the area where they were selling the usual shrine paraphernalia, along with special New Year's items - it was crazy busy! Our guide was kind enough to buy another fortune for me, since Suwa is one of the few places to have bilingual ones, so I could read it in English. I was very lucky as this time I got the best fortune that you can get, according to Kayo and Chihiro. (I've decided that's going to be the right one for this year, and we'll just call the first one a practice fortune.) Finally, we made our way out of the shrine and headed back to the hostel, where we stayed up in the common room, drinking more sake and eating snacks and talking.

New Year's Day

So, needless to say I slept in the next morning. But eventually, I got myself up and headed for a coffee shop. Since Nagasaki's Chinatown was nearby, I decided to wander down there. It was nice, but to be honest, not really very different from any other Chinatown I've visited. Although, of course, the shops and restaurants catered to the tastes of Japanese shoppers rather than American shoppers.

I wasn't up for anything too energetic, but my plan was to follow the temple walk from Sofuku-ji temple to Kofuku-ji temple. The temple walk (or temple row) is a string of temples that were all built in the same area along one side of a small river. There are many beautiful old walking bridges along the river, too, and at one time, each bridge was the entrance to one of the temples. Now, of course, there is a lot more development around the temples, so they are surrounded by houses and shops and offices, and there's a block or so of buildings between the river and the temples.

I had actually paid a visit to Sofuku-ji temple the day before, and started there. Sofuku-ji is an important shrine built in the 1600s, by a sect of Chinese Buddhists, with a unique gate built in China and then brought to Japan. The buildings were in a beautiful Chinese style. One interesting artifact at the temple is the huge cauldron which was used by the monks to prepare food during a famine in the late 1600s. Three to five thousand of people were fed here every day during the famine.

I spent the next couple hours walking from one temple to the next in a row, making a stop at each one. It was a lovely way to spend New Years day for me, a chance to spend some time with your thoughts on a relaxing afternoon walk in some contemplative surroundings. The weather was capricious, though; all day long it alternated between calm winter sun, and bouts of light snow and rain.

The last temple that I visited was Kofuku-ji, another significant Nagasaki temple built by a Chinese Buddhist sect. Perhaps the most interesting artifact here was the glass Chinese-style lantern hanging in the main hall, hundreds of years old.

It was still light out, so I decided to retrace some of my steps from the night before and visit Suwa shrine again to see what it was like on New Year's day in Japan. (Of course, lots of people go to the shrine, but just like at home, many people relax and catch up on sleep and visit friends and family, too.) It wasn't too far away, so I continued walking along the river, and by chance stumbled upon the first shrine that we had visited the night before. I also visited another shrine nearby, called Wakamiya. The pathway up to it was a very long, winding path, with many small red torii gates lining the way.

Suwa Shrine was busy, but not as busy as the night before, and there were no crowd-control men. The kiosks were still lining the walkway up. I was able to walk through the shrine and take my time looking around this time. Although some women were dressed in kimonos, I was surprised that there weren't many more, since it is traditional and fairly common, I thought, to dress in one for New Year's. I was also able to spend some time visiting the kiosks on the way back down, and sampling some of the great food on offer, including my new favorite, candied grapes! One of the booths was making fresh mochi cakes with sweet bean filling, which was great to watch.

That's about it, again sorry for the length of the post. Only one more post to go to complete the saga of my winter trip, and I promise it will be much, much shorter.