NAGASAKI, Japan — "We are now traveling at 285 km/hour." I reached for the calculator when I saw that startling announcement spooling by on the display in our train. Japan, I determined, was racing past us at 176.7 mph. The historic island of Kyushu whizzed by like a fast-forward video about rice farms and train stations.
My husband, Kevin, and I lived in Osaka from 1997 to 2000, but our work schedules at a university left precious little time to explore the country. So last October, armed with rail passes and hostel information, we returned for a budget vacation to Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan's four main islands. Kyushu is also the most exotic, a fiery landscape of volcanoes, steam jets, hot springs and boiling mud pools--a complete and welcome contrast to Osaka's urban sprawl.
"Japan on a budget" may sound like a contradiction in terms, but it's quite possible. The country is notorious for high prices; a tiny, stuffy room in a lower-end hotel can run $125 or more.
But we found that careful planning made travel affordable. The Japan Rail Pass, an extensive network of all-ages hostels and family-run inns, and tourist information offices with English-speaking staff all helped. Our prior knowledge of the country may have made things easier, but it wasn't necessary.
We arrived in Nagasaki, a city of about 450,000 near the island's western tip, as a tropical storm threatened one evening. The city is less than five hours away by train from Osaka, where we had spent time with old friends, but it felt like a different country. We dropped our bags at the hostel and set out to explore.
As the two places where the U.S. dropped the atomic bomb, Nagasaki and Hiroshima (on the neighboring island of Honshu) resonate with World War II history. But as we soon learned, Nagasaki's story dates back much further.
On a tip from the tourist office, we walked up to Glover Garden at sunset and watched the lights come on below us. Nagasaki climbs the green mountainsides along a narrow ocean inlet. When the city was reopened to European traders in 1859, they grabbed scenic locations for their homes, and Scotsman Thomas Glover got one of the best, a slope high above the harbor. His graceful tile-roofed bungalow forms the centerpiece of a historical park preserving a romantic era in Nagasaki history.
Some believe that Glover's marriage to a local geisha inspired "Madama Butterfly," the tragic Puccini opera of love and loss, though the marriage was long and apparently happy. Others believe that Glover's house was merely used as the setting for the story.
These Europeans were only the latest in a long succession of foreign settlers. For centuries, Kyushu was Japan's window on the world. From earliest history the Chinese traded here, and in the mid-1500s Portuguese missionaries landed on the island, establishing Nagasaki as an international port.
The shogun expelled most foreigners in 1637, so Chinese and Dutch traders allowed to stay in Nagasaki were Japan's only contact with the outside world for more than 200 years. That left Nagasaki with an international flavor that exists nowhere else in Japan.
By morning the rain started. The massive red archway of Sofuku-ji, a 17th century Chinese Zen temple, glowed in the rain. Even more flamboyant was its inner gate, with tiers of ornate wooden bracketing painted a dozen brilliant colors. Built in Ningbo, China, it was transported to Nagasaki and reassembled. A 6-foot-tall iron caldron in the courtyard shows the temple's central role in the Chinese community. During a famine, monks cooked rice here to feed 3,000 people. Only in Nagasaki was Japan's close relationship with China maintained, and the city still has an extensive Chinatown.
Of course, the most famous date in Nagasaki's history is Aug. 9, 1945. At 11:02 a.m., a nuclear bomb detonated over the suburb of Urakami, killing or injuring nearly two-thirds of Nagasaki's 240,000 residents, according to some estimates. Of all the heart-rending exhibits we saw in the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum, two miles north of downtown, what devastated me most was a simple display of clay roof tiles that can be touched, their surface blistered.
Outside the museum, the Peace Park abounds with uplifting sculptures donated by different nations, and everywhere are strings of 1,000 brightly colored origami cranes, a Japanese symbol of hope. But the enormous Peace Statue of a man pointing skyward toward the threat of another bomb was foreboding. At nightfall, as we walked the 19th century flagstone lanes of Dutch Slopes, a hillside of Victorian-era European houses, I marveled again at how much the city has preserved its past despite the atomic blast.