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Nagasaki Lantern Festival

No other city quite embodies Japan’s remarkable march through history the way Nagasaki does, and there’s no better time to visit the city than during the annual Lantern Festival held from the 7th of February to the 21st.

The Chinese New Year is always an exciting occasion. Fireworks and fire crackers chase away evil spirits, and dancing dragons and lions invoke the blessings of the heavens. Hands are clasped in hopeful prayer, tables groan under mountains of sumptuous dishes, and lanterns burn brightly into the night heralding spring. Every year, the Nagasaki Lantern Festival brings all this exuberance to life.

As night approaches, some 15,000 lanterns light up the the city and thousands of people descend upon the festively illuminated Chinatown where night stalls selling yamcha are enveloped in steam, and traditional Chinese music fills the air. On the stages throughout the city, acrobats, dancers, and musicians entertain, bathed in the warm glow of the lanterns. Nagasaki’s Lantern Festival is much more than a celebration of the Chinese New Year; it is a celebration of the city’s five-hundred-year legacy of openness to diversity, change, and modernity.

With the establishment of a port in 1571, Nagasaki quickly grew from a sleepy fishing hamlet into a bustling port city. Many of the exotic curiosities from the west, such as tobacco, bread, textiles, sponge-cake and tempura, were first introduced to Japan here, and still bear their Portuguese names today. In addition to goods from Europe and China, the traders also brought Christianity. The growing influence of the Catholic church in southern Japan, and the aggressive actions of the Jesuits who at one time had Nagasaki under their administrative and military control, would cause Catholicism to come under the ire of the shogunate. And in 1614, the missionaries, having worn out their welcome, were ordered to skedaddle, and Christianity was officially banned. The Portuguese living on the specially-constructed island of Dejima were expelled, replaced by Dutch traders more interested in gold than god.

During Japan’s 200-year-long isolation, Nagasaki was one of the few windows that remained open to the outside world. Depictions of the city in the art and literature of the time depicted the city as an intriguingly cosmopolitan port. Following a lifting on the ban of western literature in the 18th century, Nagasaki came to be an important center for the study of European science and art, known as rangaku, or “Dutch Learning” until the reopening of Japan.

The Chinese living in Nagasaki enjoyed relatively more freedom than their Dutch counterparts at the time. Rampant smuggling from China in the 17th century, however, resulted in the leash being tightened, and the local Chinese residents were forced to live and work in a ghetto of sorts, known as Tojin Yashiki. After the Meiji Restoration, Tojin Yashiki became an important conduit for Chinese goods and culture. Both merchants and artists sailed between the Chinese mainland, and Nagasaki and the city flourished.

The Lantern Festival of today celebrating the Chinese New Year is a testament to the enduring spirit of the Chinese community in Nagasaki. In 1994, the city endorsed the festival and since then it has grown into the major event that it is today with more than fifteen thousand lanterns bringing a festive glow to the city. The Lantern Festival makes it an excellent time to visit this colorful city.


There is so much to do and see in Nagasaki, that you’ll want to arrive early to get as much of the city in as possible before dusk falls. If coming by train, drop in at the station’s information desk where you’ll find a variety of pamphlets and maps, as well as the Lantern Festival’s official program. Getting around town is a cinch, and, with day passes available for the train at 500 yen and the bus at 300 yen, it’s cheap, too. Saruku (095) 911-0369 offers custom-made walking tours for groups of two or more for the low price of 500 yen per person. After taking in the sights, dine at one of the many Chinese restaurants in Chinatown for the city’s famous champon (pork, seafood and vegetable noodles), or at any of the city’s hotels serving the local specialty, shippoku ryori, a delectable melange of Western, Chinese and Japanese cuisine.

There are eight sites throughout the city with lantern displays, the largest of which are at Minato Park and Central (Chuo) Park, where performances of dance, traditional music and Chinese acrobatics are offered daily for the duration of the festival from late afternoon until about nine, depending on the venue. On the 9th and 16th from 14:00~16:30, the Emperor’s Parade with 150 people in gorgeous costumes, including campaign girls from each of Kyushu’s major cities, winds its way from Central (Chuo) Park, around town, on to the waterfront Hamaichi Arcade, and back to Minato Park. Oh yes, be sure to bundle up as the winds coming off the ocean can be bitterly cold.


Lion Dance, Shishimai

A lively performance accompanied by gongs, drums and firecrackers, the Lion Dance, known as shishimai in Japanese, represents the descent of good luck from heaven. The ceremonial dance is performed at the New Year to exorcise evil spirits and to summon fortune. Performed six times during the course of the festival at Minato Park. Check schedule for times.
2/7 (Wed) Minato Stage: 18:00~18:50 / 2/12 (Tue) Minato Stage: 18:40~19:10 / 2/15 (Fri) Minato Stage: 18:20~18:50 / 2/18 (Mon) Minato Stage: 18:40~19:10 / 2/19 (Tue) Minato Stage: 19:10~19:40 / 2/21 (Thu) Minato Stage: 19:40~20:30

Dragon Dance

No Chinese New Year celebration would be complete without the famous Dragon Dance. Originally performed as a traditional rain dance, dancers in Chinese costume lift, dip, thrust, and sweep the 20-m long dragon, suggestive of billowing clouds that swallow up the moon. The dragon is believed to bring good luck, power, dignity, fertility and wisdom. Performed daily at both main venues.
2/16 (Sat) Minato Stage: 20:00~20:30 / Kajishi Stage: 18:40~19:10 / Hamanmachi: 20:20~20:40 /
Central Stage: 21:00~21:30 / 2/17 (Sun) Sufukuji Temple: 15:00~15:20 / Central Stage: 18:50~19:20 / Minato Stage: 20:00~20:30 / 2/19 (Tue) Minato Stage: 19:10~19:40 / 2/21 Minato Stage: 19:40~20:30

Niko Performance

The lovely Ji Wenxi brings her musical talents to the stage nightly at both the Minato and Central Park venues. The Shanghai native, also known as Sissiji, performs a wide variety of genres from jazz to pop music, as well as traditional Chinese songs, on the Chinese two-stringed fiddle, known as Niko in Japanese.
2/16 (Sat) Central Stage: 18:00~20:30 / Minato Stage: 20:00~20:30
2/17 (Sun) Central Stage: 18:00~20:30 / Minato Stage: 19:10~19:40

Chinese Acrobats

Acrobats from China in traditional attire bedazzle and amaze with balancing acts, plate spinning, impossible contortion routines, and other spectacles. Performances are held several times a day throughout the festival period at the main Minato Park stage, Central Park and Tojin Yashiki venues.
2/9 (Sat) Central Stage: 12:00~13:00, 18:50~19:50 / Tojin Yashiki: 16:00~16:20 / Hamanmachi: 20:40~21:00 / 2/10 (Sun) Central Stage: 13:00~14:00, 20:30~21:30 / Tojin Yashiki: 17:10~17:30


During the 200-plus years when the doors to Japan were double-bolted, only limited trade with the Dutch and Chinese was permitted on a fan-shaped artificial island called Dejima. As Japan’s only point of contact with the outside world, Dejima played a important role in her economic, cultural, and scientific development during the period of isolation. Penned in behind great wooden barriers, the traders were allowed to emerge once a year in order to visit Edo with gifts for the Shogun, who grilled them for information, and, made the foreigners dance and sing, and perform near-indignities, that the Dutch submitted to for the benefit of trading with Japan. Two ships laden with precious cargo were permitted into Japanese waters annually, introducing billiards, beer, coffee, and so on to the nation. Although a large number of Dutch were housed on the island while their ships were anchored there, only 15 or so remained to manage the day-to-day affairs. A short walk from Minato Park, the restored Dejima offers a unique glimpse into medieval Japan and the Age of Exploration.

Address: 6-1 Dejima-machi, Nagasaki
Tel: 095-821-7200
Open: 08:00~18:00 (19:00 during the festival)

Higashi Yamate


A stone’s throw away from Nagasaki’s foremost tourist attraction, Glover Garden, you’ll find this quaint enclave of western style houses and buildings dating back a century or more when Japan opened her doors to the world and began her headlong rush into modernization. Of particular interest is the Chinsei Gakkuin ruins where, legend has it, the principal’s wife relayed events occurring in the port town to her novelist brother, Luther Long, who penned the short story “Madame Butterfly,” basis for Puccini’s famous opera.

Address: Higashiyamate-machi, Nagasaki Kwassui Institute

Siebolt Memorial Museum

Opened in 1989 in honor of the German doctor’s immense contribution to the development of modern science in Japan, the museum was built on the site of Siebold’s original clinic and boarding school known as Narutaki Juku. Arriving in 1823 as resident physician at the Dutch Trading Post on Dejima, Siebold conducted exhaustive research on the flora and fauna, geography, history, customs and arts of Japan. His “Nippon” published in 1832 was a catalyst for the Japonism movement in Europe. The museum displays 206 items detailing Siebold’s six-years in Nagasaki, including the infamous “Siebold incident”.

Address: 2-7-40 Narutaki, Nagasaki
Tel: 095-823-0707
Open: 09:00~17:00 (last entry 16:30)


Fukusaya Castella

Castella 1,400 yen
Castella, a rich and golden sponge cake introduced to Japan by Portuguese merchants in the 16th century is without doubt the most popular souvenir of Nagasaki. Fukusaya, founded in 1624, is produces Nagasaki’s most famous and prized castella with a delightful crystalline sugar base. The cake is sold in bars of various sizes and wrapped and in an instantly recognizable yellow package.

Where to buy:
Fukusaya Original Shop
3-1 Funadaiku-machi, Nagasaki-shi, Nagasaki
8:30 ~ 20:00
(also available at department stores)


Adapted from the Portuguese word for apparatus, these colorful, yet delicate glass objects were first introduced to the Nagasaki area by the Dutch. When air is blown into them a “poppen” sound can be heard. Primarily a toy, many believe that blowing into one at New Year’s helps to ward off bad luck. Available at most souvenir shops for as little as 300 yen.

Get Your Souvenir Ear Cleaners!

Lantern this and lantern that! How about an official Nagasaki Lantern Festival Souvenir Ear Cleaner? Just 300 yen. These and more at:

Car 2 hours / 4,150
Fukuoka Urban Expressway Tenjin Kita Interchange (15 min. / 600 yen)
Dazaifu Interchange Kyushu Jidosha-do (1 hr 40 min. / 3,450 yen)
Nagasaki Interchange (3 min. / 100 yen)
Exit: Nagasaki Dejima Doro Shinchi Interchange

Train 2 hours / 4,410
JR Hakata Stn. / Express Kamome (2 hrs 6 min. / 4,410 ) – JR Nagasaki Stn.

Bus 2~2.5 hours / 2,500
Nishitetsu Tenjin Bus Center / Kyushu Go ( 2 hrs ~ 2 hrs 30 min. / 2,500 yen) – Nagasakieki-mae


Originally published in Fukuoka Now Magazine (fn110, Feb. 2008)

Nagasaki Prefecture
Published: Feb 1, 2008 / Last Updated: Jun 13, 2017

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