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Published: November 4th 2017
The Torii At Sunset
This 'floating' gate of Itsukushima Shrine on Miyajima Island is one of the most iconic images of Japan.
Having a Japan Rail pass makes things so easy - just show your pass to officer at the manual ticket gate at any Japanese train station and just pass on through and board any train you want apart from the two fastest class of shinkansen
to anywhere you want. It never takes long to get from one place to another and I was appreciating the short journeys after all the long ones in China.
A mere one-and-a-half hours later, I had reached my next destination of Hiroshima. The city is nice and compact and very easily walkable. It was also noticeably quieter here than in Osaka - combined with its relatively small size and it really didn't feel like a city with 1.2m inhabitants. Despite the lack of traffic however, it did not stop the locals - and the Japanese in general - from patiently waiting for the pedestrian lights to go green before crossing the road. The people so orderly and rule-abiding. I felt guilty for jaywalking but just don't have the patience to wait if there is literally no traffic to wait for.
I decided to take a tram to the even quieter neighbourhood where my hostel
Through the main memorial monument in the Peace Memorial Park, you can see the Flame Of Peace and the Atomic Bomb Dome.
was. Things seemed pretty quiet here too although I loved the traditional layout of the dorms with tatami mats, futons, sliding doors and frosted screens. Japanese hostels tend to be absolutely spotless too, probably the cleanest I have come across anywhere in the world. You might pay a little more here for accommodation than most other countries but definitely can't say you don't get your money's worth. Everything from hand towels, air freshener, soap, bathroom mats to dry your feet after a shower, hooks, toilet seat wipes and diagrammatic and photo instructions are immaculately laid out. Everything is fully stocked, all the time. The attention to detail and thoughtfulness in Japan really is second-to-none.
It is always a little fun trying to work out how things work here in Japan though, particularly the plethora of automatic machines. Things always seem to work a little different to how you expect them to work - sometimes things seem a bit too clever for their own good but things always make sense once you work them out. If you're really stuck, there is usually some nifty diagrammatic instructions to hand to help you out.
I had noticed that both Osaka and
Huge pavilion hall and its beautiful pagoda amongst the autumn colours on Miyajima Island.
Hiroshima were very modern cities with little historical architecture left. I found out why the next day.
For most people, the name Hiroshima is intrinsically linked with tragedy; on 6 August 1945, Hiroshima was the site of the world's first atomic bomb attack at the tail end of WWII. 80,000 people were killed instantly by the astronomical and horrific blast, which produced heat over 2,000 degrees Celsius. The city was literally flattened and fires raged for three days; 90%!o(MISSING)f the city's structures were completely destroyed. 130,000 more died from the after effects of radiation and severe burns.
The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum recounts all the terrors and provides background on one of humanity's darkest days. A panoramic photo of the city immediately after the blast which was plastered along the wall of the first room did a good job of shocking visitors with the hellish wasteland that resulted from the attack. I then learned that the infamous bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were intended by the US government as the coup de grace
that would end the war with Japan once and for all; it would also leave the US rather than the Soviets in post-war control of the
Children's Peace Monument
School children pay their respects at the memorial dedicated to the child victims of the atomic bomb.
country. The museum also described the blast itself in detail, explaining the science behind it and how the blast was formed of three instantaneous waves of heat, blast energy and fire respectively. Survivors also described the blast and its aftermath in videos that were both tragic and at times, almost comically understated. The history of the city of Hiroshima itself was also covered but perhaps the most moving section was where items from victims of the blast are on display along with their personal stories; a rusted tricycle belonging to a three year old boy; a watch stopped at 8.15am, the exact time of the blast; torn school uniforms; deformed glass bottles melted from the heat of the blast. There are also some gruesome photographs on display, mostly of burn victims with "skin hanging off them like rags", as described by one survivor.
Having already visited other sites of harrowing atrocities such as Auschwitz
and Phnom Penh
, perhaps I have been desensitised a little to such scenes as what I saw here in Hiroshima didn't affect me as deeply as I thought it might. The only story that really moved me was that of Sadako Sasaki, a girl who developed
Atomic Bomb Dome
This former local industry promotion building has been left as-is after the bomb to serve as a reminder and memorial.
leukaemia from the blast at just eleven years of age. Origami cranes are a symbol of longevity in Japan and young Sadako decided to try and fold 1,000 paper cranes in a bid to prolong her life. She sadly died before she reached her target but her classmates went on the fold the remaining cranes. I remember hearing this story as a kid; there is monument in the adjacent Peace Memorial Park that was inspired by her and is dedicated to the all the children who died from the blast. There is something especially tragic about child victims; innocents who suffered so much and who would never go on to live out their dreams, lives and potential.
Also in the Peace Memorial Park is the main cenotaph to the victims; through it, you can see the Flame Of Peace, an eternal flame that will only go out once all the world's nuclear weapons have been destroyed. There are several other monuments in the park including one dedicated to Korean victims, of which there were many slaves in the city when it was attacked; and the Atomic Bomb Memorial Mound, in which are buried the ashes of thousands of unidentified victims.
The entertainment district of Hiroshima.
The starkest of all the memorials however, is the Atomic Bomb Dome, which was a much-loved landmark of the local people before the blast. This art-deco building was designed by a Czech architect and served as local industrial promotion hall among many other functions and had a distinctive green dome. The bomb exploded almost directly above it, where being caught in the 'eye of the storm' saved it from being completely destroyed; its occupants inside it were not so lucky as they all died instantly. The ruins of the dome have been kept as is, to serve as a reminder and as an important history lesson. The park itself is immaculately kept; there is inevitably a sombre vibe to the park but it allows one to really reflect on one of humanity's greatest tragedies.
Immaculately-kept could also be a decent description of the city of Hiroshima itself, which is a fairly run-of-the-mill, non-descript, modern city. It reminded me a lot of cities in my home country of New Zealand; clean, relatively new and with few historic buildings. Hiroshima does have one historic building in Hiroshima-jo, but otherwise the most characteristic feature of the downtown area is the covered Hon-dori
Where your okonomiyaki is cooked right in front of you on a teppan.
Another of Hiroshima's key characteristics is okonomiyaki
; a savoury pancake filled with shredded cabbage, egg, meat and other vegetables. Hiroshima's version comes with a noodle base; your choice of udon
. I tried it at Okonomimura, a three floor complex of counters serving only okonomiyaki that is cooked right in front of you on a teppan
. I have had okonomiyaki before in London a couple of times and remember it being eggy and delicious and served with a sweet BBQ sauce - therefore I was really excited to be trying it here in Japan. Although nice, I can't say that it met my expectations; there just wasn't enough flavour amongst the mainly cabbage, bean sprouts and soba and I had to liberally apply the sweet okonomiyaki sauce. It would've been amazing with scallops and oysters; unfortunately I couldn't afford to pay double the price for what was already my most expensive meal here in Japan.
I made a friend the next the morning as I got some coffee in the hostel kitchen in Jose from Costa Rica and soon we were on our way to one of Japan's most iconic sites; the red water gate
Floating shrine on Miyajima Island.
of Itsukushima Shrine that seems to float on the sea just off the nearby island of Miyajima. It was a bit crowded with tourists but nowhere near as crowded as some sites in China; after India and China, no crowd will ever faze me from now on!
The island of Miyajima is considered sacred and the shrine dates back to the 6th century. Common folk were not allowed to set foot on the island itself and had to enter through the red torii
and then could only presumably stay put on the floating shrine. The gate isn't the most elaborate you'll ever see but there is something reverential about it and it really is all about the setting as you look past it out to sea. We didn't enter the shrine itself - we were both on budgets and decided to forego the ¥300 fee. It really is all about the torii
though, which you can see and photograph from the shore for free.
We did have a look at some of the other elegant structures dotted around the bay including the massive wooden Senjo-kaku pavilion and its gorgeous pagoda. I was happy with the timing of my visit to
Main Pavilion At Daisho-in
Nestled in the autumn colours on Miyajima Island.
Japan as I had escaped the summer heat and the autumn colours were starting to come through - this made the already pretty scenery even more beautiful. I haven't seen scenery and colours like this for almost a year, when I was in Switzerland
. But Japan has some wonderful flora, fine and refined botanical specimens that create the very distinctive Japanese natural landscape.
Surprising - and free - was the Daisho-in Buddhist temple on the island. I've seen a few Buddhist temples in the last year or so in Asia and while they all have their own style depending on which country they're in, I had never seen one quite like this. There were so many interesting things to look at here from the beanie-wearing Buddha statues to the wonderfully atmospheric cave temples, to the typically Japanese-looking temples and pavilions. I love Japanese architecture which is all about straight lines and squares and is much less elaborate than Chinese architecture, but is more elegant and sleek in my opinion.
Jose and I then decided to climb up Mt Misen, the highest point on the island. I've definitely done enough climbing on this trip
but it seems that I like to torture myself and started ascending anyway, despite
View Atop Mt. Misen
Looking at the sunset from the top of Mt. Misen on Miyajima Island.
knowing the effort required and the tiredness of my weary legs. Jose was game too, so up we went. And once I start climbing, I have to get to the top. It wasn't too bad considering what I have done in the past and an hour later we were rewarded by magnificent views amongst the summit's boulders which reminded me of Pidurangala Rock in Sri Lanka
. The sun suddenly peeked out from behind the clouds, dousing the island and the surrounding sea in gold. Going back down was much easier than going up and we were just in time see the lit-up torii
against the pink of the sunset and the darkening blue of the night.
Back in Hiroshima I had a go at one of Japan's culinary staples with a bowl of properly cooked ramen
. I have to say that it was a little disappointing with again, a lack of flavour. I'm thinking perhaps that having been treated to the richness of Indian and Thai food in particular, that I have gotten used to my food being packed with strong flavours.
We ran into quite a few Argentinians in Miyajima and Hiroshima including three who we had a long chat with
The original castle was built in 1589 but rebuilt again after the bomb in 1958.
in Spanish back at the hostel. Well, they chatted - I was just trying to keep up, with my Spanish proficiency having long been eroded after more than a year without regularly practising. I was happy that I could understand about 75% of what was being said but my brain took far too long to come up with words and sentences to be able to properly engage in the conversation.
I had one final stroll around the leafy streets of Hiroshima and happened to walk past the Children's Peace Monument as a group of uniformed kids paid their respects with a bow and a minute's silence followed by a perfectly sung Japanese song. It was moving to see but I thought it was right to ensure the kids here never forget what happened so that they can understand the danger of war and the pointless tragedy that it can create. President Trump would do well to come here to learn about what can happen if he sparks a nuclear war. It seems the world just doesn't seem to be able to learn from its mistakes.
I had so far seen plenty of modern Japan, so after a glimpse
The Torii By Day
The famous 'floating' gate of Itsukushima Shrine on Miyajima Island.
of old Japan on Miyajima, I was keen to see more of it. Therefore my next destination of Kyoto with its thousands of temples and shrines, as well as its many reserved, time-honoured traditions, promised to be the perfect place to go.
じゃあまたね (ja matane)!
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