15 things to do in Nagasaki, Japan

I love Japan! I became fascinated with the country when I first visited last year (you can read about my trip to Kyoto and Tokyo HERE). It was an extraordinary experience to say the least, and I promised myself I would go back as soon as I could. And I did! I was able to go back this year for my lifestyle travel television show, Trending Now, which allowed me to see a different side of Japan and made me fall in love all over again.

We visited Nagasaki, which I have to admit wouldn’t be my first choice when planning a trip to this country. This part of Japan seemed remote, and I really didn’t know what there was to see and do (I know, all it takes is a Google search). The more obvious choices are, of course, Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto–these seem like exciting places to visit because they are fast-paced and there are long lists of must-see places in those cities. When you hear Nagasaki, well, ‘action-packed’ isn’t quite the word to describe it. Honestly, for me I couldn’t help but think of the World War II bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, and there was a point when it raised some concern for me because I am pregnant (I was on my second trimester when I was there). Well, for those of you who are pregnant and are thinking of going on a trip to either cities, you can rest assured that it is perfectly safe and there is no radiation that can affect your baby (I asked my OB-GYN and the good people of Nagasaki when I was there).

Nagasaki Prefecture is located in the southwest part of Japan, and it is surrounded on all sides by natural beauty–the ocean and mountains, and it is full of historical, traditional and cultural riches. Historically, Nagasaki has long played an important role in Japan’s international relations as the Port of Nagasaki was the only place open for communications and trading with visitors from Western Europe during the time of Japan’s national isolation (1641-1859). This allowed its traditional culture to meld with overseas influences, and it is evident in the region’s architecture, language, food and annual events. This was surprising for me, because I always thought of Japan as having its own distinct identity. Well, in Nagasaki you will see European (mostly Dutch) influences everywhere, which was so interesting to me. Another surprising thing about Nagasaki is that it is generally a Christian region. Here you will see centuries old churches preserved and maintained, and Christians have been known to do pilgrimages to all these beautiful churches and cathedrals.

Thanks to my show, I was able to do an extensive tour of the region and see the quiet, traditional and beautiful side of Japan that I wouldn’t normally see in its big cities. As I found out, there are plenty of things to do in Nagasaki, and it involved getting to know its history, being immersed in its rich culture and tradition, and trying out its amazing food. This really was a unique and unforgettable experience, and I’m so happy to share it with you. Here are 15 things to do while you’re in Nagasaki, Japan:

1.) View the Nagasaki Nightscape. The night views in Nagasaki are spectacular. With the Nagasaki Port at the center, and mountains looming on three sides, it provides a picturesque view as lights from buildings, houses, and street lamps glow from a distance. It has been recognized to be one of the three cities with the most spectacular night views in the world. The best way to enjoy this view is to ride in a glass-paneled ropeway to the peak of Mt. Inasa.

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2.) Learn how to make sushi. As you know, sushi-making is an art form. In order to become a sushi chef you have to go through years of extensive training and practice, as each sushi roll you produce has to be close to perfect. I had no idea it took so much work to put mounds of rice and fish together, but there really is more to it than that. Seafood must be cut and prepared with precision (which thankfully I didn’t have to do), sushi rice (consists of rice vinegar, salt, sugar and of course, short-grained rice) has to be folded into large pellets using your hands, wasabi must be delicately smeared onto the rice before carefully topping it with the seafood. Because of my mini class I developed an appreciation for sushi, and now take a few seconds to admire its workmanship before I devour it.

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3.) Visit Oura Cathedral. Oura Cathedral has been designated a national treasure. It is the oldest wooden church of gothic architecture in existence in Japan. This church was walking distance from my hotel, and is widely visited by Christians all over the world. It may be small, but it certainly is beautiful.

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4.) Drop by Dejima. Dejima served as the location for the Dutch East India Company’s trading post, and thus was the entry point for commercial and cultural exchange with the West for over 200 years. It used to be a man-made island, constructed in 1636 to segregate Portuguese residents from the Japanese population and control their missionary activities. Later on, Portuguese were expelled from Japan, and a Dutch trading factory was moved here. The Dutch workers were the only remaining Westerners allowed in the country during that time. Today, Dejima is not an island anymore, as the surrounding area has been reclaimed during the 20th century. However, a number of Dejima’s historical structures remain, have been or are being reconstructed in the area, including various residences, warehouses, walls and gates. Works to restore Dejima to its original appearance were started in 1996 and are currently ongoing. The ultimate goal is to convert Dejima back into an island by digging canals around all its four sides.

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5.) Play dress up and wear a kimono in Dejima. Getting into a traditional kimono would usually take you more than an hour, as it has layers and layers of clothing that you need to wear correctly. In Dejima, you can get into a kimono in less than 10 minutes (this includes hairstyling). There are experienced staff to dress you up and they can even take your photo after. It was my first time to try on a kimono (something I’ve always wanted to do)–I thought this was a lot of fun! Tip: This is a fun activity to try with your girlfriends!

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6.) Take a boat cruise to Kujukushima Pearl Sea Resort in Sasebo City. Situated in the westernmost tip of Japan, Kujukushima is designated as a national aquatic park within the greater Saikai National Park area. It is said to be the most densely concentrated clustering of islands in Japan, consisting of 208 isles which extends 25 km from outside the Port of Sasebo and across the ocean to Hirado Strait. Of course, the best way to see this is by riding the Pearl Queen.

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(Photo: http://www.travyde.com)

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7.) See the Kujukushima Bay Large Aquarium. It has one of the largest outdoor tanks in Japan that contains 13,000 creatures. It was so relaxing to just watch them swim. I think this is a great place to take your family–they have daily activities like dolphin shows and feeding viewing.

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8.) Stay at the Huis Ten Bosch and get transported to the Netherlands. This picturesque village on the shore of Omura Bay was modeled after a medieval Dutch town, complete with beautiful brick houses and canals (most of these are private homes). Flowers bloom everywhere in this first-class waterfront resort (including tulips, my favorite flower). Within the village, you will find restaurants, stores, hotels, museums and other leisure facilities–it really is a pretty place to visit!

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9.) Make a stopover at Tabira Church. The red brick Romanesque church was designed by famous architect Tetsukawa Yosuke in December 1915. It is built on a hill facing the strait of Hirado, and next to the church is a cemetery where local devotees are laid to rest. We only stopped here for a couple of minutes–it was worth seeing though, the church was beautiful.

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10.) Climb the steps to Hirado Castle. Dominating the hill that rises above the town and the harbour, Hirado Castle, also known as Kameoka Castle, looks out over the surrounding blue sea. Inside you can visit the exhibits about Hirado in feudal times and see a panoramic view of the city (as I was told). You will need to climb A LOT of steps to get to the castle, which I wasn’t able to do because I am pregnant. So sad I didn’t get to see the inside of the castle, but I guess I was okay admiring it from afar. If you’re in Hirado, you have to go here!

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11.) Try Hirado beef. Hirado is the home of the Japanese Black Cattle. Records show that cattle have been grazing here for over 1200 years. The region has a mild climate and clear air, and the grass contains just the right amount of salt. The cattle of Hirado produce meat that seems to melt in your mouth and has a subtle, aged flavor. You can enjoy Hirado beef at yakiniku grill restaurants or as part of a Japanese set lunch or other dishes at various restaurants. Seriously, order yourself some Hirado beef while you’re here!

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12.) Have some tea at the Kan-un-tei Tea Ceremony House. About 300 years ago, the 29th Lord Shigenobu Matsura or Tenshô Chinshin, the feudal lord of Hirado at that time, started a new style of tea ceremony, the Chinshin school of tea ceremony. In 1893, the 37th lord Matsura had the Kan-un-tei Tea Ceremony House built here using natural materials. For over a hundred year it stood here in the grounds of the Matsura clan’s residence until it was destroyed by a typhoon in 1987. It was rebuilt using the same techniques and materials as the original building creating a natural and authentic atmosphere. When you visit you can enjoy a cup of tea with a traditional sweet for ¥500 yen.

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13.) Indulge in a seafood dinner. Hirado is blessed with the richness of the surrounding sea. There is a flourishing trade in products, such as kamaboko, Uchiwa shrimp and fish including flounder and red sea bream. These products are also exported out of Nagasaki prefecture and are a vital part of Hirado`s tourist industry. These are all super fresh and so delicious!

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14.) Make time to see a traditional Japanese temple. There are a few shrines and temples to visit in Hirado City–this one we used to shoot our opening spiels. It is high up on a hill, overlooking the sea. It really was quite beautiful.

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15.) Explore quiet Hirado City. Hirado is a gorgeous city. I loved walking its streets and exploring its little shops–it gives you such a different perspective of Japan.

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