The Nagasaki Lantern Festival 長崎ランタンフェスティバル

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Last weekend, a couple of friends and I took a day trip down to Nagasaki for the annual Lantern Festival, a veritable mosh pit of glowing paper sculptures and steaming Chinese street food. It was a lovely excursion, as Nagasaki turned out to be much more charming and fun than you might expect from a city that boasts a slope as one of its prime tourist destinations. Getting there and back took almost eight hours total due to a series of unforeseen delays, but it was worth it. Besides, getting there is half the fun, right?

After we checked to make sure our legs were still in working order after sitting on the floor of a vestibule on the train for two hours, the first thing we did upon arriving at Nagasaki Station was head to Chinatown and seek out the legendary Nagasaki meibutsu, chanpon チャンポン. A word that denotes a mixture of disparate things, chanpon is sometimes used to describe the blend of Japanese and English (and/or other languages) sometimes spoken by gaijin like me. But in Nagasaki, chanpon more commonly refers to an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink noodle soup of Chinese origin based on chicken and pork broths and piled high with various meats, vegetables, and seafood. There are generally anywhere from ten to twenty toppings, all roughly chopped and brightly colored – green and yellow cabbage, white and pink kamaboko かまぼこ, orange prawns, and brown mushroms – giving an otherwise fleshy beige soup the festive appearance of comestible confetti.

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The taste of chanpon is mild compared to its visual impact, with no spices and a thin, chickeny broth – don’t eat chanpon expecting the fatty richness of tonkotsu ramen, even though both soups are made from pork. But even so, chanpon is easy to lose yourself in, between thick and doughy noodles, pleasantly chewy little shellfish, and that singular soft crunch of cooked cabbage and bean sprouts.

That was lunch. As an afternoon snack, we had some lightly grilled oysters that were quite tasty (as oysters tend to be) and also exceptionally photogenic (more on that later). For dinner, we took advantage of the opportunity to enjoy food from street stalls that only pop up at festivals: yakitori, Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki, nikuman 肉まん, and chimaki 粽, a steamy leaf-wrapped wedge sticky rice made stickier with a sweet soy-based sauce and studded with pork, mushrooms, and bamboo shoots. Here’s a helpful culinary tourism tip from the viking, kids: always eat things that come wrapped in a leaf. They’re almost always delightful.

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And this was all in just one day – actually, in just seven hours, to be more accurate. It was obvious that there is still much more in Nagasaki to explore, foodwise and otherwise, so I shall return! And next time I’ll know to buy bus tickets in advance… grr!

Oh, and the lanterns were cool, too.

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