The port in Nagasaki.
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This far west Japanese city of 450,000, located on Kyushu Island, has one of the most complex histories of any in Japan because of the early European influence that resulted in both positive and negative responses by the once-insular Japanese. The earliest contacts between Nagasaki and the West took place in 1543, when the Portuguese arrived, introducing the Japanese to guns and Catholicism. Next came the Spanish, followed by the Dutch. When Western religion came to be seen as a threat, the people of Nagasaki expelled the missionaries, and, in one famous incident in 1597, murdered some two dozen European and Japanese Christians. The Dutch, being Protestants -- and, more importantly, traders -- were allowed to retain a foothold on the nearby island of Dejima, even after foreign contact was banned altogether.
As the Dutch gained more influence, Western culture and science took hold in the city. In 1859, the city was officially reopened to the outside world. With the establishment of numerous industries, such as brewing and shipbuilding, Nagasaki became the most international city in Japan.
Gradually, the Japanese began to wrest control of these industries from the Western ex-patriots. And, it was Nagasaki's strategically important shipbuilding industry that made the city a target in World War II. On August 9, 1945, the Americans dropped a plutonium A-bomb on the city, three days after the one at Hiroshima.
Today's tourists will find a completely rebuilt city. Although many come to see the Atomic Bomb Museum, the city has much more to offer, including remains of European influence in Glover Garden, two Catholic churches, shrines and temples dotting the hillsides and a thriving and walkable Japanese city center that is close to where the ships dock.
Nagasaki is quite an attractive city, set on a plain between the active harbor and a backdrop of mountains. Where industry does not intrude, the city has developed attractive park promenades -- perfect for a quiet stroll and an escape from the urban hustle and bustle. The city's largely linear layout makes it easy to navigate, and it's well worth exploring the city on your own. The efficient tram system will take you anywhere you want to go.
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Japanese cotton and silk patterns are just beautiful, and popular items include scarves, shawls, napkins, bathrobes or bolts of material for making your own clothes or sewing projects. If you're purchasing ready-made clothing, know that Japanese sizes tend to be small. Prints, lacquerware and pottery also make authentic souvenirs, as do the popular Mikimoto artificial pearls, which vary widely in size, color and, therefore, price.
The best locations for shopping -- including one large department store halfway along and to the right -- are along the long, narrow Hamanomachi arcade. Another location for crafts is opposite Nagasaki's main JR railway station.
The official language is Japanese. Younger Japanese men and women are more likely to speak English than the older generations. Signs written out in the English alphabet are incredibly helpful for finding your way.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
Japanese currency is the yen; check XE.com for current exchange rates. The Japanese use credit cards far less than we do for small purchases, so you'll definitely want to take out yen at ATM machines found around the city, including at the post office where there's also a currency change counter. Additionally, you can get yen at offices of the financial institution called 18 Bank. Currency exchange onboard your cruise ship usually offers a poorer exchange rate.
Where You're Docked
Cruise ships dock at Matsugae Pier in a very convenient location, adjacent to the city center.
The pier itself offers no services. Cruise-ship passengers can easily walk from here to the entrance to Glover Garden (10 minutes), the tram 5 stop or the waterfront promenade.
On Foot: Most of Nagasaki's tourist attractions are within a 20-minute walk of the port.
By Tram: The city's tram lines are easy to navigate, even for people who don't typically use public transportation at home. Board through any door, and pay the flat fare of 100 yen when you get off. There is also a 500-yen day pass, but most day visitors will not ride enough to make it worthwhile. The tram lines are numbered 1, 3, 4 and 5, and the stops are both numbered and written in English letters. The stop for tram 5 is just outside the wharf precinct and to the left, and you can get to most attractions in about five minutes. Tram lines 1 and 3 stop close to the Nagasaki Bomb Museum, a 15-minute ride from the city center. Buses supplement the trams, but they are harder to use.
By Taxi: Taxis are plentiful, cheap and metered. Drivers are usually very honest.
Watch Out For
The Japanese drive on the left side of the road, like the British, so be careful when crossing the street. Drivers tend to be polite to pedestrians at intersections.
A visit to the Atomic Bomb Museum is the primary reason visitors come to Nagasaki. The museum's location, north of the city center and about two miles from the cruise ship dock, coincides with the hypocenter of the explosion. The bomb was supposed to land in the heart of the city, with its industry and shipyards, but poor visibility resulted in the bomb landing in the northern suburbs instead. Of a population estimated to be 240,000, 73,844 were killed, and just as many were injured by the blast, heat rays and radiation.
In the museum, photos show the city before its destruction, as well as footage of the bomb being dropped, photographed from the air. Using spreading lights, a model of the city shows the areas destroyed and damaged. Subsequent photos show burned victims, shadows of objects left by the heat rays (such as a lookout and a ladder against a wall), radiation effects and genetic effects on the next generation. Adding to the poignancy, story panels and videos tell survivors' stories and depict the relief and rescue efforts. In the adjacent Peace Park, you'll find a sculpture of a man with his right hand pointing to the sky from whence the bomb came and left hand outstretched, asking for help. Take tram 1 or 3 from the city center; the ride takes about 15 minutes. (7-8 Hirano-cho; open daily, 8:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.)
Another major attraction is Glover Garden, an assembled collection of mostly wooden western-style homes and other buildings, set in a hillside park, that date back to the 19th century, when Western merchants established settlements in Nagasaki to promote trade between the East and West. Glover Garden is located on a slope directly above the cruise dock and is easily reached by a series of escalators. The garden's name comes from Thomas Glover, a Scot, who -- during the Meiji Restoration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries -- established Japan's first railroad and the shipbuilding industry that later became Mitsubishi. Visitors can see the Mitsubishi No. 2 Dock landing, with exhibits detailing its development. Glover's house and those of other Western entrepreneurs in beer brewing and coal mining are also located there. The wooden, Gothic-style Oura Catholic Church, built in 1863 for the foreign community, is now listed as a national treasure. ( open daily, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.)
The Dejima Museum recalls the life and influence of the Dutch island colony that existed for some 200 years during Japan's isolation period. The site was chosen to prevent the spread of Christianity among the Japanese. Most exhibits are housed in a Protestant Seminary -- a restored, wooden, two-story building -- and they focus on the trade conducted during the isolation period and the influential cultural exchanges between the Japanese and Europeans. A restored stone warehouse shows some of the archeological finds on the original property. The museum may be accessed on foot from the pier in about 15 minutes or by Trams 1 and 5. (6-3 Dejima-cho; open daily, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.)
Been There, Done That
A neighborhood of small temples is located just north of the city center. Sofuku-ji (7-5 Kajiya-machi) is located two blocks from the end of tram lines 1 and 4, at a station named after the temple. Enter the Zen sect temple, built in 1629, through a Ming-style gate to find a large 17th-century bell and an equally old cauldron, used to serve food during a late 17th-century famine. Very close by, on Sofukuji-dori, Daiko-ji -- which is reached by steep steps -- was spared from any damage during the atomic bomb drop. Hosshin-ji, down the hill and to the right, has a temple bell that was cast in 1438. The fourth temple, Daion-ji, contains the final resting place of the magistrate, who got caught up in a Napoleonic War dispute between the British and Dutch; he committed suicide when he was unable to successfully help the Dutch oppose the British.
The JR Nagasaki Station area, reached by trams 1 and 3, offers shopping, restaurants and tourist information. Amu Plaza, alongside the station, has a restaurant arcade with varied menus, some with harbor views, and the noted Dragon Deli for an international selection of foods. Local crafts are located in the same building -- across the street -- that houses the Nagasaki Prefectural Tourist Federation.
The 26 Martyrs Memorial, a five-minute walk from the port on Nishi-Zaka, recalls in wall reliefs the Christians who were crucified in 1597, plus the Japanese -- including two children -- and Spanish friars who were also killed.
Nagasaki, with its history of foreign influences, has a great variety of eating opportunities. One popular dining experience is the banquet-style shippoku-ryori, a meal in which a group of at least four samples Japanese, Chinese, and Portuguese dishes, perhaps accompanied by Japanese beer, sake (rice wine) and green tea. Other Nagasaki specialties include champon, a kind of soup with pork, octopus squid, vegetables and noodles, and sara-udon, the stir-fried equivalent using the same ingredients. Of course, there is sushi (cold rice and raw fish or vegetables with soy and other sauces) and tempura (deep-fried seafood and vegetables).
Hamanomachi shopping arcade and its side streets offer the most concentrated selection of lunchtime places. Picture menus will help you choose, or you can look around at what others are eating. We found a place on a side street near an Internet cafe where, for $7, I had a bowl of noodle soup with shrimp, octopus, rice and dumplings. The department store's lower level food court (the Japanese equivalent of Whole Foods) is also outstanding with its mouthwatering and colorful displays, but it has no tables for onsite eating. However, on a nice day, the takeaway items can be enjoyed in the nearby waterfront park.
Shikairo is a Chinese restaurant conveniently located between the cruise ship pier and Glover Garden. The dining room is on the fifth floor and offers great views over the harbor. Menus are in English with pictures, and prices for the main dishes run from about $8 to $12. While the Chinese-influenced building is new, the restaurant (established in 1899) claims to be the inventor of champon. The complete meal adds dumplings, rice, pickled vegetables and tea. (4-5 Matsugae-machi; open for lunch and dinner)
Shippoku Hamakatsu offers shippoku dining for small groups and individual diners. At lunch, the set price is 2,900 yen ($24). On the main floor, the tables are set Western-style in private alcoves with bamboo screens, while on the floor above, the Japanese-style tatami room has cushioned seating around low tables. A larger menu with more selections, including sushi, is also available for larger parties. (6-50 Kajiya-machi; open for lunch and dinner)
Harbin is an upscale Russian-French fusion restaurant with a sophisticated atmosphere and dark wood furniture. Lunch is more reasonably priced than dinner. Specialties include buckwheat crepes with smoked fish, chicken Kiev (fried with butter), coulibiac (Russian-style salmon pie), roast duck in a red currant sauce, borscht (beet soup) and piroshky (stuffed pastries). (Yorosujamachi 4-13; open noon to 2 p.m. and 6 to 10 p.m.)
Staying in Touch
Nagasaki has several Internet cafes, located in the city center. The best one, Cybac Hamanomachi, is located just beyond the top end of the covered arcade of the same name. It's to the left, upstairs, and is reasonably priced at just slightly more than $3 an hour.
Editor's note: The computers will be set up in English. However, the Japanese space bar is very short, and it is all too easy to hit a key on either side, resulting in all the characters suddenly becoming Japanese. I made this mistake three times in a row, and, happily, the Japanese supervisor came to my rescue.
Best for First Timers: The half-day "Nagasaki's Legacy" tour takes you to the principal sites, such as the Peace Park and Atomic Bomb Museum, within Nagasaki. You'll visit Oura Catholic Church, which was designed by a French missionary in 1865 and built by Japanese carpenters; it was later the site of a massacre of 26 Christians. Finally, stop by Glover Garden, with its collection of western-style homes built during the Meiji Restoration (1868-1912).
Best for Repeat Visitors: The nine-hour "Unzen and Shimabara Discovery" tour visits Mt. Unzen, an active volcano located on the Shimabara Peninsula. From this lofty destination 4,500 feet up, you can take in panoramic views or stroll along a promenade, called Unzen Hell because of its parallel sulfur pits and active steam vents. In 1990, Mt. Unzen exploded, and the Unzen Disaster Memorial Hall recalls the damage caused by the lava flows and mudslides. Afterward, you'll stop at Shimabara Castle, built in 1613 for the local feudal lords who oversaw their trading empire at the base of Mt. Unzen. Next are the Samurai houses that housed the warrior class. The houses are set in a village with a manmade waterway full of Japanese carp.
Best for Art Enthusiasts: The full-day "Arita: Birthplace of Japanese Ceramics" tour takes in historic Arita, where blue and white Imari porcelian – world-renowned among European royalty and aristocracy -- was first manufactured. You'll visit the Kyushu Ceramic Museum, with its collection that dates back over 400 years; the kiln where the key ingredient, kaolin, is processed; and Porcelain Park, where a replica of Dresden's Zwinger (Baroque palace) houses an additional collection of Arita and European porcelain.
For More Information
Nagasaki City Tourism: http://www.at-nagasaki.jp/foreign/english/, +81-95-823-3631
Japan National Tourism Organization: http://www.jnto.go.jp/eng/location/regional/nagasaki/, (212) 757-5640
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--by Theodore W. Scull, Cruise Critic contributor