At 11.02 am on August 9, 1945, an atomic bomb exploded above Nagasaki. It killed and injured 150,000 people and destroyed a third of the city .

KEVIN PILLEY visits the area 60 years on.

Mrs Nakata gave me a two-fingered peace sign and handed me one of her one hundred yen ice creams in a cone.

With her friend Mrs Fujitani, she runs the only ice cream stall in the Atomic Peace Park in Nagasaki. The ice cream ladies sell out every day. Peace is very good for business.

"We are the same age, Masaki and I," she told me without telling me how old. But it was easy to work out when she added: "Neither of us will ever forget when we were 12. We will always remember being 12."

Mrs Nakata and Mrs Fujitani are both grandmothers and this year will celebrate their 69th birthdays within two months of each other.

They were both twelve in 1945 when at 11.02am on August 9 the US Bockstar, flying from the Tinian airbase on the Mariana islands, dropped the second atomic bomb. It exploded in the sky over Nagasaki.

"It was mistake, "Masaki told me "They wanted to bomb Kokura further up in the north but the cloud was heavy so they started looking for somewhere else. And then they spotted Nagasaki. It was a lucky day for the people of Kokura but not for those of us who lived in Nagasaki."

At the western tip of Japan's western Kyushu island, Nagasaki is located at the head of a narrow, deep-cut bay where the Nomo and Nishisonogi peninsulas meet.

The city is like an amphitheatre, with its narrow, crooked streets and tiered houses clinging to the hillsides which enfold the bay.

Its early growth was based on its overseas contacts. Prior to the arrival of the Portuguese in 1571, Nagasaki was the principal port of call for foreign ships. Christianity was introduced through Nagasaki by Roman Catholic missionaries.

After 1636, during 'the great exclusion' of foreigners, Nagasaki became the only point of contact with the outside world. Only the Dutch were welcome and they were only permitted to stay on Deshima island on the eastern coast of the bay.

The Atomic Peace Park is, unsurprisingly, Nagasaki's biggest attraction. Every day parties of schoolchildren and busloads of mainly Japanese tourists line up in front of Seibo Kitamura's giant peace statue and smile for the cameras and camcorders. They have special "bleachers" or a stand erected permanently for such snapshots. Memories are what Nagasaki is all about.

"The folded right leg symbolizes quiet meditation. The left leg is poised for action in assisting humanity," the brochure told me about the statue's symbolism. An inscribed stone beside the statue explained a little more. "One resting arm signifies peace and the other is lifted to the sky pointing to the threat of nuclear war."

Visitors leave wreaths and candles at the temple and charnel house where the ashes of 8,927 victims sleep at peace. They visit the shrine to the unidentified victims from "that unimaginable day". They remember the survivors of "the bloodcurdling carnage". They read the statues donated by many countries and dedicated to "mankind's highest hope" that Hiroshima and Nagasaki are never repeated.

The two old ladies who sell ice creams during the spring and summer are not the only regulars. Buzzards fly overhead. Young people do their schoolwork. One young man ate his sandwiches, using his motorbike helmet to catch the crumbs. I asked him why he came here. He pointed up at a sign and told me that he liked to come to the "Aspiration Zone", a special place dedicated to thinking about the future.

Old men come to meet to talk and think or just stare at the passers-bys. One was drying his socks in the sun. Another snoozed. An old lady in a cloche hat sat under the peace fountain. I sat beside her and, through the young motorcyclist, found out that she came every week. "I come here to find peace.To breathe in hope. I know people who come every day because they wish to remember the things that happen here every day. Because they must. Because we must.

"Whether it happened yesterday or 50 or a 100 years ago we must always learn from the past."

With that and a self-deprecatory bow, she turned towards the statue, made another bow from the shoulders and left. The young motorcyclist who turned out to be studying English at a local college said, "She also said that coming here and sitting under the fountain helps her feel freedom on her face."

A short walk from the statue and the fountain which is meant to symbolize a mother lifting a baby in her arms, is the hypocentre. Just down from the official museum is a black stone monolith commemorating the exact spot above which the bomb was detonated. A very old man drove his electric buggy around it. I counted ten laps before he drove away.

An old woman was feeding the pigeons beside a sign which showed the level of the land before the bomb. It was the height of a nine year old child. A mother pushed her child in a pram under the palms. Her husband walked beside her with a baby in a papoose.

"Here is the heart of our town. We all come here. Some more than others. But we all come here," he told me as we watched another long line of pilgrims arrive and head towards the bleachers.

Two and a half square miles of the Matsuyana-machi district of Nagasaki were levelled in 1945. Fifteen houses disappeared in one blinding flash. Seventy-four thousand were killed.

Kyushu is perhaps the least visited of all the islands on the Japanese mainland. Miyasaki, with its famous indoor beach and sea under a roof at the Sheraton Grande Ocean hotel, is a favourite family resort. It is where Japanese surfers go.

The other main cities are Fukuoka, Kagoshima, Saga and Oita. Nagasaki is on every itinerary of the tour companies now beginning to explore Japan's most relaxed, pastoral and historic prefectures.

Nagasaki offers "exotic cruises" on the 'HMS Jellyfish' around the harbour. There are guided walks and plenty of excursions. But instead I spent two day exploring on the trams by myself. Having come from Tokyo, Nagasaki immediately enthralled. The hurly burly is still there but it is far more subdued. I walked up to the Urakami Cathedral which was once the largest church in the orient. It was destroyed by the atomic bomb and rebuilt in 1959. I started talking to two bow-backed nuns who suggested I take the aerial ropeway up to Mount Inasa.

After that, again following their recommendations, I visited the site of the martrydom of the twenty-six saints ; six European missionaries and twenty Japan Christians who were crucified for their beliefs in 1597. I visited Dejima which was built to isolate the morally dangerous Europeans or "Hollanders" and to prevent them spreading their word.

Nagasaki isn't just a memorial to what mankind is capable of doing to itself. It also boasts the Glover Garden, home of a British merchant and inspiration for Puccini's Madame Butterfly and The Spectacles, the oldest stone arched bridge in Japan. However, an hour away by train along the coast is another massive memorial to a more modern horror; the twentieth century theme park. Huis Ten Bosch is Holland in miniature.

Complete with windmills, tulip fields, canals, a mini-Friesland, a not-so-mini Utrecht, a giant true-to-life Queen Beatrix's palace and everything else you would expect from a Low Country except a red-light district and relaxed cannabis laws, it is fairly horrible, although the arrival of a marching band on bikes was a memorable sight. Most were Rumanians and Bulgarians dressed up to be Dutch. The barrel organists looked like they came from the Netherlands but, in fact, came from the Ukraine.

The food in Nagasaki is as good and as cheap as anywhere in Japan with Shippoku the local cuisine. This is a large multi-course blowout-type banquet consisting of about thirty different bowls of food. You can eat as much as you like. Or until either you explode or your credit card does.

Easily the best and most memorable thing I had to eat in Nagasaki was my ice cream in the park. I went back to get another one. Mrs Nakata recognised me and gave me an extra dollop. She also gave me another smile and another peace sign.

"Oishii desu" she said. That means delicious. I returned her peace sign. And told her it was delicious.