Japan day 15: Miyajima shrines and Hiroshima peace zone

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May 20th 2019
Published: May 27th 2019
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For breakfast every day so far I have had salad and fruit but today I was able to have my favourite cereal - cocoa pops!

We were met in the hotel by our guide for the day Masako Unezaki. Our first stop was the island of Miyajima. We took a train to Miyajimaguchi and then a ferry across to Miyajima. Whilst we were on the train I asked a question about the railway. All the rail lines are run by JR - Japan Rail. The railway started off as a nationalised enterprise until 1 April 1987. It split into seven companies - six being passenger companies and one being a freight company. Although they all carry the same logo they are distinct companies; they do not have a group holding company or a group headquarters, they are all for-profit companies. When they were denationalised the government said that whilst they knew that some of the companies would make great profits whilst the smaller companies would not, the public would not lose out. Wrong - the smaller loss making rural areas are having some of their services cut. They share the same ticketing system and you may travel across company boundaries without having to change trains.

Talking of transport, even in the capital, Tokyo, we noticed that compared to Israel, the UK or the US, traffic congestion is nowhere near as bad. The public transport in Japan is amazing, efficient ie it runs to time, and clean. As we found out even if a train is two minutes late the apologies are profound and plentiful. The workers take great pride in their work.

Back to our Miyajima boat ride: From the ferry we could see the huge vermillion tori gate in the water indicating an entrance to a shrine. At high tide the path to the gate is submerged in the sea and it looks as if the gate is floating in the sea. But when the tide has gone out people can easily walk to the gate. There has been a gate here since 1168 but this one dates back to 1875.

Masako was insistent in pointing out that when we land we are going to see hundreds of deer. The difference between these deer and those at Nara is that people are not encouraged to feed the deer here. They are wild and live on local vegetation. As long as they are on the island they are protected but if they find their way to the mainland they are game for hunters.

Once we had disembarked from the ferry we walked along the sea front until we came to the Itsukushima Shrine. It is said that this shrine was erected by Tairo no Kiyomori, a daimyo (warlord) in 1168. Part of it was rebuilt in 1571. There is another tori gate along this path which we had to pass through to reach the shrines. The first shrine is dedicated to three female deities. The name Itsukushima means island dedicated to the gods. The shrine is built like a pier over the water and it appears to float separate from the sea. Then we walked along a boardwalk and passed a wedding party. This shrine is a popular wedding venue. The shrine is guarded by two lions, a male and a female. There is a second shrine that is dedicated to male deities and is called Sessha Marodo-jinja. In addition to these two shrines there are 17 other buildings. The whole complex is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and six of the buildings have been designated National Treasures by the Japanese government.

Then we were taken to the Daisho-in Temple. This is a Buddhist temple. Buddhism and the Shintō religion work very well together. The Shintō religion does not believe in an afterlife whereas Buddhist followers do. So with both religions co-existing believers can take bits from each religion. In the past when a person married a priest was not required; a marriage was consecrated by the drinking of three cups of sake. Now many couples have a more formal religious ceremony and invite priests to play an obvious role.

Since Japan became a democracy after WW2 there is a clear division between religion and state, and religion is not taught in school.

The steps leading up to the Daisho-in Temple were quite steep and there were a lot of them. So I found a bench and worked on my crossword and let Don and Masako do the exploring. The temple is on Mount Misen which is the holy mount on the island. It was founded in 806 by the monk Kukai. Kukai, who later became known as Kobo Daishi, was the founder of Shingon Buddhism. It was the place to pray for the peace and security of the nation. We had first heard about this Buddhist sect and its founder when we stayed in Koyasan (see Days 12 + 13). As Don and Masako proceded up the steps to the Daisho-in temple, she explained that although people from the surrounding area would pray here at this local shrine, they would arrange their burials at Okunoin cemetery in Koyasan, That is becase they believe that when Buddha ushers in the ultimate future world, Okunoin is closer to heaven and they will reach the afterlife more quickly. In fact Masako said that there are those who hold this belief all over the country, which is why Okunoin cemetery Is so large.

Masako was a most knowledgeable guide to lead Don to the Daisho-in temple. In fact she was a co-author of the brochure which covers a broad range of topics related to the Miyajima Misen Daiso-in Temple. Not only does it portray and describe the buildings and religious objects that are seen on a visit, but it also explains the basics of Shingon Buddhism and its relationship to the other buddhist sects. Along the two flights of steps (steep and steeper) leading up to the shrine are writings from sutra - Buddhist scripture. They adorn the vertical posts that support the railings of the steps. People are encouraged to touch the sutra texts and to spin those which are designed to turn freely on their axis. Alongside the rising path to the temple are 500 small statues. These represent the disciples of Shaka Norai and all have different facial expressions. Their heads are covered by colourful knitted caps. Worshippers make and replace the caps when they become frayed or weather-worn, so that they always look fresh.The temple area contains many buildings, each housing different important figures or objects. One of the shrines has a giant mandala. This is a multi-coloured circle consisting of intricate designs made with sand. It is hard to imagine the time and effort that its creators expended in arranging zillions of grains of sand with the appropriate colours to form the designs. Eventually Masako and Don came back down and found me.

Masako took us to a cafe that was frequented by vegetarians. They assured us that they used no fat when cooking for vegetarians and they prepared the dish that was popular on the island which was stir fried vegetables with an omelette on the top. It was tasty. Whilst we were having lunch Masako explained that before WW2 nobody had the suffix 'ko' on their names as this was a suffix only used by the aristocracy. After the war many of her generation were given names with 'ko' at the end because their parents could!

After lunch it began to rain and we took the motor launch from Miyajima directly to The Peace Park in Hiroshima city. By the time we landed it was raining quite heavily. The park is over 120,000 square meters. Before the atomic bomb the area was the political and commercial heart of Hiroshima. It was also the military headquarters which was the main reason that the bomb was dropped there. We started at the hospital which had a plaque outside noting that the hospital was actually the hypocentre of the bomb ie ground zero. Then we walked to the A-Bomb Dome known as the Hiroshima Peace Memorial. This was one of the few buildings that was left standing, albeit not fully intact. The bomb exploded at 8:15 am on 6 August, just 15 minutes after the town was at its busiest as people started work and school at 8 am. When the bomb exploded it generated a temperature between 3,000 and 4,000 degrees celcius. Everything and everyone in the immediate vicinity became incinerated. There were stories of lucky survivors like a man in the A-Bomb Dome building who was in the basement collecting documents from the safe room at that moment. Masako’s father aged 16 was assigned to a group evacuating people from the town because of the regular bombing raids. For some reason his group were reassigned another day and he survived. She never knew of his trauma until his funeral when his colleagues related his story.

From the dome we walked to a bridge from where we could see the eternal flame. Then we walked to an exhibition of paper cranes made by children. The story goes that a young girl named Sadako was caught up in the fringe of the blast area but was thought to be ok after the blast. She developed leukaemia but her parents couldn’t afford the pain killers. She had a goal of folding 1000 paper cranes before she died. The folding of the cranes was supposed to have helped her through the pain. However, she only folded 644. Her school friends completed her task and the cranes were buried with her. Every day cranes from around the world arrive at the park and they are exhibited. After some time the paper is recycled and made into postcards bearing the logo of the park.

Masako told us that every family has been affected. Her mother died at the young age of 34 and Masako's own daughter died at the age of 10. Many women suffer miscarriages. Then we went to the Peace Park museum. This contains gruesome pictures of the victims and the devastation of the city. On another floor there is the history of the atomic bomb. Ironically the idea of the bomb was a German one. In 1938 some nuclear physicists in a laboratory in Berlin discovered nuclear fission. Another section of the Peace Park museum describes the political situation regarding countries who have signed up to nuclear disarmament.

I too have a connection with Hiroshima. My father was part of the clean-up team at the end of the war. He had photos of ash outlines of persons. He never spoke of his experiences. But he did come home with a samurai sword which was stapled to the ceiling of his cousin’s ‘bar room’.

Don and I were pleased to leave the museum, which was a very heavy experience, really the only one in our Japanese touring. The three of us then went to have ice cream, partly for its uplift factor, before returning to the hotel in a taxi.

That evening we decided to scavenge for food. In the hotel lift somebody noticed Don’s kippa and said shalom. I thought that they were taking the mickey until they started speaking Ivrit. I spoke to them in my broken Hebrew - they now live in San Francisco. When I said we were from Ra’anana one of the party said that she was the cousin of a friend of ours. Our friend couldn’t believe that of all the places in the world to meet, it would be Hiroshima. Guess what we had for supper? Yep - sushi!



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