Nagasaki, not a gourmet's delight
We spend a lot of time in Japan. Although we live in the United States, one of us is native Japanese (issei), and we visit relatives there at least once a year. Nonetheless, neither of us had visited Nagasaki until October 2009. The breakfast (included) at the simply wonderful intimate little hotel where we stayed (Ihokan Hotel) was excellent every day we were there. But Nagasaki appears to be a city devoid of nightlife.
We asked the Front at Ihokan for a recommendation for a good dinner, and immediately got the reply that we should go to Chinatown (Nagasaki boasts the oldest Chinatown in the world outside of China itself) near the Tsukimachi tram stop. We tried that, and, although the restaurants there do offer some satisfying victuals, fine cuisine it is not. The restaurants are brightly lit, and mostly specialize in one-bowl meals. Perfect lunch stops, in other words, not places for a leisurely and relaxing dinner.
While we were in town, we had occasion to take a taxicab to an area not served by the tram, and we asked the cab driver where Nagasaki residents go out for a special meal. After some hard thought, he offered that perhaps the dining rooms of the better hotels might provide something of that sort, but there was none that he could recommend in particular. We went to an alley of bars that was not far from Ihokan Hotel, and very near to Nagasaki Station, for some nihon-syu (sake) that evening, and were surprised that "last call" was at 8:30 p.m., and not only that place, but all of the bars, were closed and shuttered by 9:00 p.m.
We had a Japanese language guide book devoted only to Nagasaki, and in the dining section, after an introduction that praised the very cosmopolitan nature of Nagasaki, it recommended a fine Italian restaurant in the Youme complex near Ohato (not far south from Nagasaki Station). We checked out that restaurant during the daytime -- it had changed its name since the guidebook was written, but we were assured that nothing else had changed. It is now called "Pizza, Pasta & More" (yes, in English), and, as its name implies, it serves Italian fast food, semi-cafeteria style.
A different person was manning the Front at Ihokan Hotel the next time we passed by and we asked (as if we had not asked before) where was a good place for a sit-down dinner. The answer was the same: Chinatown.
We took to asking clerks in shops and perusing guidebooks in bookshops. After a while, there was some convergence on one restaurant in particular, Yossou, in the Hamanomachi Arcade. O.k., nobody, but nobody, recommended any other restaurant. Yossou was also mentioned in the guidebook (the same guidebook that recommended the Italian restaurant). We made reservations at Yossou. http://www.yossou.co.jp/ provides pictures and information.
Actually, Yosso turned out to be a pretty good restaurant. You are greated by a hostess who claps together two wooden boards to call the staff and, if you are not prepared for it, it will scare the heck out of you. Yossou has some specialty versions of tcawan musi that we had not seen elsewhere that were interesing and good, as well as good sasimi. Certainly worth a recommendation. However, last call for ordering at Yossou was at 8:00 p.m., and the restaurant closes at about 8:30. That's Nagasaki for you.
Nagasaki is a very nice town. Public transportation is excellent. The Ihokan Hotel is simply superb. But as for nightlife, there is none; the city rolls up its streets at night.
Chinatown in Nagasaki is pathetic, especially in light of the other Chinatowns around Japan (I think "China Alley" is a more accurate description. The food is alright, but frankly there is not that much to see or eat around there.
Natives keep recommending Chinatown because historically, there's been a big influence from the Chinese in Nagasaki. It's what Nagasaki is known for. It's a pity, though, because there is so much more to try and explore in Nagasaki than Chinatown, especially when Chinatown is so... unimpressive.
For nightlife, you need to go to Shianbashi, which is Nagasaki's nightlife district. It's right by the Kankodoori tram stop and next to the Hamanomachi area. All the bars are open there all night long, people stumble down the alleys drunk and ready for some ramen... but other than that area, yes, Nagasaki shuts down pretty early.
However, here are my recommendations for Nagasaki. I'm sure I'll have more soon, as I continue to live around here, but what I've discovered:
1. Castella (kastuera), brought by the Portuguese. It's a cross between an spongecake and a pound cake, made chiefly with sugar, butter and eggs. Very simple, but when made well, it's very good. Not too too sweet. There are inventive flavors like matcha, chocolate, peach, and "chocolate latte," but I find the original to be the best. This is the food Nagasaki is best known for.
2. Champon and saraudon are the other two Nagasaki staples, influenced by Chinese cuisine. Champon was invented by a cook from China who made a dish for homesick Chinese college students -- his restaurant, Shikairo, still exists in Nagasaki and serves some really delicious champon. (There is also a Korean version called jjampong, but these two are totally different -- champon has a mild taste in a slightly white broth, with lots of vegetables and some seafood; jjampong is oilier, resembling ramen more than anything else, and is more packed with seafood.) Saraudon is like champon, but the noodles are fried, like chow mein, and the toppings are gloppy. I personally don't find either of these THAT great, but to each their own.
3. Buta kakuni -- or pork belly buns. You can buy them piping hot in Chinatown for about 200 yen a bun. You can't really mess this up.
4. Toruko rice ("Turkish rice"). It's a weird East-meets-West deal, combining spaghetti, rice/pilaf, and hamburg steak with demiglace sauce. It is a gut bomb for sure... Tsuru-chan is a very famous place in Nagasaki for this, but my personal favorite is Hustle Heart Cafe in Hamanomachi, which serves up a chicken AND steak version.
5. Nagasaki is also known for kamaboko, or fish cakes. I don't have a very discerning taste for kamaboko -- they all taste the same to me, so I can't say much on this...
6. Goto Island, one of the smaller islands off Nagasaki, is famous for its udon (called Goto udon). I haven't tried it myself so I can't vouch for taste, but it seems much finer than regular udon, almost like a cross between somen and udon? Goto is also famous for kankoro mochi, which is mochi made with sweet potatoes, so it's got a starchier feel.
The thing with Nagasaki cuisine is that it is not very traditionally Japanese -- and by that, I mean you feel a lot of "foreign influence" in the food, since Nagasaki was Japan's first open port of entry for foreigners. A lot of the food "feels Chinese," and there are some good Chinese restaurants (though not so much around Chinatown, in my experience). And there are other great restaurants, but I guess Nagasaki's weakness is that there isn't one dish or food that they are that famous for, that is SO delicious, so it seems less of a culinary destination than other places in Japan.
But here's a fun fact for you: that highly praised Kobe beef? I've been told by many people that it's actually all from Nagasaki...
In terms of the quality of Chinatown restaurants:
When I was in Nagasaki, the best thing I had was this incredible corn cream croquette that this guy was selling on the street. The best I ever had. But Nagasaki really wasn't much of a culinary experience for me, either. They're famous for kasutera (Japanese pound cake) and champon (Chinese-inspired ramen with lots of veggies and stuff sitting on top), neither of which are inspiring items to me, no matter how well one makes them. Having said that, Nagasaki is still Japan and so I still had plenty of satisfying meals there. Just nothing memorable.