Category Archives: Travel


On August 6th 1945, the first atomic bomb to be used in war was dropped on Hiroshima. Three days later, and seventy-five years ago today, on August 9th 1945, a second bomb was dropped on a second Japanese city, Nagasaki in Kyushu.

I lived in Japan for twenty-seven years, and two months before I moved back to the UK I decided to visit Nagasaki. My primary reason for visiting was to make a kind of pilgrimage, since Nagasaki was the site of the martyrdom of the twenty-six martyrs of Japan, but I couldn’t go there and not visit the Atomic Bomb Museum. Ever since I visited, I have been meaning to write about what I saw and felt, and I am only just getting round to it today, spurred on by the anniversary of the bombing.

It feels a little strange to be sitting here, on a pleasant August evening in a village in the north of England, but, as far away as a city on the western edge of Kyushu feels, the way I experienced it for three days at the end of January and beginning of February in 2019 still feels very close. What follows is my impressions, the images and the conversations that have stayed with me.

There is a Celtic Christian term for places where the membrane between heaven and earth feels particularly thin or porous: thin places. Whether we consider ourselves particularly spiritual or not, we may encounter an atmosphere somewhere which seems to tug at our heart or call to us in a moving way. Scientists have suggested that this could be attributed to ’emotional residue’, that somehow an echo of something remains and we can tune into it.

I have felt a kind of timeless, otherworldly atmosphere in the small side chapel on the site of Julian of Norwich’s cell. In that place I felt I could sit and be with her, across the centuries, that somehow the world was turning outside but in that quietness I could tune into something going on in another dimension.

I felt the same feeling in Nagasaki, but it did not bring me peace. I walked around the city and wondered at the ordinariness of life going on around me. It seemed like any other Japanese city; people commuting to and from work, buying groceries, schoolchildren in uniform, the red kites wheeling in the sky overhead. It felt normal and yet – I found it profoundly disturbing. It felt like the moment of the atomic blast was somehow trapped in time, and that it was just out of sight, just out of reach, but that across time and space it was there, all the time. I remember walking around, thinking, how can life just continue? Don’t they feel it?

On that first afternoon, I walked up from the centre of the city to the Atomic Bomb Museum. The first exhibits describe the city of Nagasaki on the morning of August 9th; how many people, what kind of work they were going to do. It was just another ordinary Japanese city, its people exhausted by war, still engaged in the hopeless work of contributing to a war effort for a war that was already lost. Following on from there, there are eye witness accounts (as there are throughout the museum) of what happened when the bomb detonated above the city. There are items from Urakami Cathedral, very close to the epicentre of the blast; rosaries, crucifixes, statues. In the subdued lighting of the museum, these objects, particularly the damaged statues, have an eerie quality.

I moved through the museum, trying to take in what I was seeing, but at the same time not wanting to. It’s just too much. The eye witness accounts are told in a matter-of-fact way, the horror recounted without much emotion – the experiences of people who had no words, maybe, to describe the scale of the suffering, and no way of escaping what they had to endure.

I reached the end of the museum and went into the tiny shop to buy a book by Dr. Takashi Nagai (more of him later). I asked the two women who worked there, what is it like to be here every day? They answered enthusiastically, telling me they were glad to be there, that it was a good place to be. Seeing what must have been my horrified expression, they asked if it was my first visit to the museum. Hearing that it was, they said, oh yes, of course, it’s a terrible experience, but working here every day, we see people come from all over the world to learn about what happened here, and to pray for peace, and that makes it a good place.

Although there is a memorial hall where visitors can go to sit quietly, to ponder, to pray, I decided instead to walk the short distance to Urakami Cathedral. Inside, there were ropes strung across to prevent anyone walking around the cathedral, but there were two men sitting at a desk and when I asked if I could go past the ropes and sit to pray, they said I could. I sat there for a long time, at first numb, not knowing what to think or pray. Gradually I found the words: Lord, have mercy.

When I felt ready I walked over to Dr. Nagai’s tiny home, where he had spent the last years of his life. A Roman Catholic convert, in August 1945 Dr. Nagai was working at Nagasaki Medical College Hospital. He had done research on radiation and so was uniquely and horrifyingly qualified to understand the injuries the survivors of the bomb had, and to know the radiation sickness that would follow. His wife was killed by the blast, but their two children had been taken to safety outside the city, following reports of what had happened in Hiroshima. After the war Dr. Nagai built a small hut in Urakami district and lived there with his son and daughter. There he wrote a number of books, including the one he is most famous for, The Bells Of Nagasaki.

By then I felt I had taken in as much as I could, and headed back to the centre of the city, and checked into my hotel. I spent the next day visiting sites connected with the Nagasaki Martyrs. Despite the horror of the persecution of Christians, the facts are inspiring and humbling and I was glad I had decided to visit.

The next day, my third in Nagasaki, was my last. After I had checked out of the hotel I went to Starbucks near the bus station to wait until it was time to catch the bus to the airport. While I was waiting for my coffee, I spoke to the three young women who worked there. They asked why I had come to visit Nagasaki, and what I had thought of the city. In turn I asked them how it felt to grow up there. Did they think a lot about the atomic bombing? No, they said, not really. In primary school we studied what had happened, and of course we pray for the victims every year on August 9th. One of them added, my grandfather was a hibakusha (被爆者, ‘person affected by the bomb’) and because he lived with us, we saw how his health had been affected every day. They were happy to chat and wished me a good journey back to Tokyo.

I felt relieved to leave, and once the bus had passed through a tunnel and was on the other side of the hills that form a kind of basin around the city I felt better, and once the plane took off I was glad to know I was leaving Nagasaki behind. It was a strange experience, an unnerving experience, being in a city where such a horror had happened, and feeling the echoes of that horror. Writing about it, following my steps in my mind, has brought back some of the feelings even now.

The resilience of the human heart is an amazing thing. We get through traumatic events because the only option we have is to go forward. We live with the ideas and memories of what human beings are capable of doing to each other. In China, after the end of the Cultural Revolution, people who had been persecuted, denounced and ‘struggled against’ by their neighbours, and then sent down to the countryside, returned to their former homes and lived near those same neighbours. In Rwanda, in Bosnia, people live with the people who killed their loved ones. We are a resilient species, but we are also capable of inflicting terrible things on each other; we have the scientific knowledge to create terrible weapons, yet also the will to survive the horror others can inflict.

One year at school in Tokyo I gave the Year 12s an assignment to make a poster about one of their grandmothers (or great grandmothers). One of the sections was to be family and childhood. Several girls wrote about Hiroshima:

“My grandmother was born in Hiroshima. A week after the bomb was dropped, she went into the city and saw terrible things. She told us that what she saw was so terrible that she would never tell anyone about it. But she did.”

“My grandmother had an elder brother. She loved him very much. After the bomb he got sick with radiation sickness and died in her arms. Although she got married, and had children and grandchildren, she never got over it. Her heart was always broken.”

Lord, have mercy.


Upgraded to a liminal zone


For the last 30-plus years I have been a fairly frequent air traveller, mainly between the UK and Japan, but also within Europe. Over the years I have developed my flight kit, and my personal expectations of plane etiquette. For long-haul flights I always take a neck pillow and my own small blanket (I don’t think airlines clean the blankets after every flight, how could they?). I have a foldable water bottle, and a small plastic bag with toothbrush, moisturiser, eyedrops etc. I always carry my Kindle. For short-haul flights I can do without the neck pillow and blanket.

Plane etiquette: Of course I greet the person I’m going to be sitting next to, but after that I like to be in my own little bubble until just before the plane lands. After the travel to the airport and getting through luggage drop-off, hand luggage check, waiting at the gate, it’s nice to just unwind a bit. Unless you need me to pass you something or stand up so you can get past me I’d rather not have long conversations.

Several years ago, KLM announced some link-up with Facebook where you could search your flight for people who knew and then get seated next to them. No thank you. In all my years of travel there has been one occasion, only one, when my fellow passenger started talking to me before take off and I didn’t mind. We’ve stayed in touch, she’s a Facebook friend now, but that is the only time. (It was a December flight on Swiss Air, hello H if you’re reading this.)

In these 30-odd years I have also been a reasonably loyal customer, and have amassed air miles in a couple of frequent flier programmes. On a few occasions I have been upgraded, but it hadn’t happened for a while.

Last month I went on my annual visit to the Netherlands (more on that in another post). From Manchester to Schiphol is a very short flight, only about 50 minutes, barely time for the cabin crew to serve everyone a drink and clear up before we land. You take off, climb for a while, cruise briefly and then start to descend.

I checked in online, went to the airport, dropped off my bag and went to the gate (OK, I did make a brief detour through duty free and Costa Coffee). Just before boarding, they announced that the flight would be full and asked several passengers to come to the desk at the gate; one of the names they read was mine. They gave me a new boarding pass; I had been moved up to 1C from a few rows back. Oh what joy! It may be a very short flight, but a bit more space, being right at the front of the plane so I could get off ahead of everyone else, I was briefly happy with my lot.

The fun started when I got on the plane.

Sitting in seat 1A, the seat next to the window, was a British man in his late sixties or early seventies. Realising that I was going to be in 1C, he asked, would you like the window seat? I agreed to the seat swap, and as he settled into seat 1C he remarked, ‘I always sit in 1C.’ OK then. From there he didn’t stop talking until we landed at Schiphol.

Within a couple of minutes, he was telling me about his wife’s cancer and chemotherapy, his former life in South Africa, first as an engineer and then as a diamond dealer, (he was on his way to Antwerp that day), his reluctant return to the UK and disillusion with post-Apartheid South Africa, his own health concerns, including a recent colonoscopy (done by a doctor friend in Germany at no charge), how to book train tickets with the best app (the one I was relying on was not good, apparently); on and on he went.

I tried to avoid his conversation, first by pretending to doze. That didn’t work; I was poked awake for the snack (which is much nicer in business class). Later I pulled out a newspaper but he read over my shoulder and commented with some relish about the article on North Korea. I mentioned then that yes, it was concerning, particularly as I live in Tokyo. I thought he might find that interesting, but no, he ignored it completely. I was just the person he was talking at for the duration of the flight. Later I turned and looked out of the window, noting with some relief that I could see wind turbines in the sea, so we must be approaching the Dutch coast.

Just as I was thinking, oh thank goodness, a bit of peace, a hand snaked forward from the passenger in 2A. He poked me on the arm and said, ‘It’s a nice view, isn’t it?’ I gave up and asked a member of the cabin crew for a cup of tea, which was brought in a white china mug instead of the usual plastic cup. ‘Aha!’ said the man next to me, ‘I knew it! You’re from Yorkshire! My wife is from Yorkshire and is always drinking tea.’ Through gritted teeth I answered, ‘North East Derbyshire’. Of course, he didn’t hear me.

Finally, we landed at Schiphol, taxied, then got off the plane onto a bus to go to the terminal. Mr. Chatty picked up his briefcase, deplaned (as they say), hopped on the bus and started talking at someone else. It wasn’t me, it was him.


My heart is not here


Jet lag is a funny thing. I got back to Tokyo last night after an almost 24-hour journey back from the UK. After a pot of tea and some toast I thought I’d be ready for bed, but nope, at 4am I was still wide awake. I finally managed a couple of hours sleep and then my eyes popped open again and by  7:30 I was out in the windy sunshine, off for a walk round the lake at my local park.

This year I have been walking every day, and as well as making me fitter it has also opened my eyes to the beauty and wonders around me. Tokyo is a great city to walk in, but in the summer, walking around the village I grew up in I realised what a country girl I am. I recognised the crops, I was thankful for the good harvest, I fretted whether the harvest would be in before the rain came. Walking in my own childhood footsteps I had a new appreciation for the village and the surrounding countryside.

Just as I did in the summer I spent the last fortnight taking the same walks. My favourite takes me all the way up the village, past the primary school I attended, along the top road and then a long walk down a farm track, through a hamlet and back out onto the main (actually only) road. I walked through the wood where bluebells bloom in the spring, past the field of Jacob sheep (and the alpaca that lives with them), past the church where I was confirmed. On Sunday I walked 4 miles to the parish church, something that feels like a mini pilgrimage every time I do it.

And then, on Wednesday, I left again and flew back to Tokyo, and I have the same feeling I did when I came back at the end of August: my heart is not here. My body is here (even though it refuses to sleep), my mind knows I’m here, but my heart hasn’t caught up yet. My feet are walking on the pavements in Tokyo, but they are missing the farm tracks, the mud and the soft fallen leaves I was walking on a few days ago. I see herons at the park and miss pheasants, I smell car exhausts and miss woodsmoke, I see smart pedigree dogs dressed up in little outfits out for a walk and I miss the farm dogs who come out to bark and see me off as I walk past their home.

My heart aches for the landscape that shaped me, for the memories, for my roots. I feel like I’ve been wrenched away from the soil that I belong in. Having spent most of my adult life in large Asian cities I thought I was a confirmed city dweller and it has come as a surprise to understand that I am very much a country girl; a north of England, tiny village, muddy-booted, crop-watching, blackberry-picking country girl.