Japan: Nagasaki and the Scottish Samurai

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By Jen

Cherry blossom Nagasaki
Garden to sit in, under the cherry blossoms.

The story of the maverick  Scotsman Thomas Glover is a fascinating one. It all began in my home corner of the world, the North East of Scotland, and ended up in Nagasaki, Japan, where I was lucky enough to find myself last week.

Thomas Glover, Nagasaki
Thomas Glover statue, Nagasaki.

Thomas Glover was born in the fishing village of Fraserburgh, Scotland and moved just along the road to Aberdeen as a young lad.   He was the fifth of eight children, the son of a coastguard.  At the age of about 18, as a young shipping clerk,  he set sail with the shipping company Jardine Matheson, ultimately to Japan – and he never left. His relationship with his wife is believed by some to have been the inspiration for the opera, Madame Butterfly.

Glover became an influential and powerful citizen of Nagasaki – he aided the Samurai against the Shogun, and revolutionized trade with the West.  That’s no mean feat considering that the Shogunate has been in place since 1603.

Glover gardens Nagasaki Japan
The view over Nagasaki.

He’s the founding father of Mitsubishi and Kirin beer.  He also brought the first steam railway to Japan – boy have those bullet trains come a way since.  Glover was no angel, however, and as well as illegal arms deals he was originally said to have been involved in the Chinese opium industry.

He was the first foreigner ever to be honoured by the Japasnese Government when he received the Order of the Rising Sun, back in 1908.

Unbeknown to me, I passed his family home most days in Aberdeen as a student, not realizing the story within. It’s a fairly modest tourist attraction, I daresay low down the list of Aberdeen places to visit.

Not so in Nagasaki! You’ll see trams decorated in tartan, inside and out.

Trams tartan Nagasaki Japan
Tartan trams of Nagasaki.
Tartan tram Nagasaki Japan
Inside is tartan too.

You’ll hear bagpipe and ceilidh music emanating from the bushes in the Glover Gardens, the biggest Nagasaki tourist site after the Atomic Bomb Museum and Peace Park. The gardens are stunning. I was lucky that my visit at the end of March coincided with the start of the cherry blossom season, when the magnolias are also in full bloom.

Nagasaki harbour Japan
The view over the harbour, cherry blossoms just out.
Magnolia glover gardens Nagasaki
Magnolia in the Glover Gardens.

You can wander round Thomas Glover’s former western-style home which was built in 1863 – a Nationally Designated Important Cultural Property – and round the homes of other big-in-the-day foreign traders.

Mr Glover really does have the best view from his house in the whole of Nagasaki. There are lots of weddings there now which utilize this view.

Thomas Glover House Nagasaki
Thomas Glover House veranda.

It was easy to while away 3 hours.

The topology of Nagasaki with its harbour and mountains meant the houses weren’t destroyed when the atomic bomb hit on 9 August 1945.

View Nagasaki Japan
View over Nagasaki.

A number of years ago I read Thomas Glover’s life story in The Pure Lands by Alan Spence. An excellent book. And it made it all the more interesting to see the locations described in the book for real. There are moe than 2 million visitors a year to the house and gardens and it’s extremely well set out with audio-touch pens to provide moving commentary. You can even dress up in costumes of the day.

Gift shop glover gardens
Gift shop.

The gift shop is full of Scottish, Japanese and Glover souvenirs. We bought a tartan hanky for a Nagasaki friend.

Now to complete the journey with a visit back to Aberdeen.

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