Hiroshima: a place to remember

Remembering

It was 8.15 on a snowy December morning when I heard chimes start to ring in the Memorial Peace Park. I happened to be standing beneath the Peace Clock Tower that marks the time when the nuclear explosion happened nearly seventy years ago. The devastating effects of the atomic bomb have not been forgotten in Hiroshima but have been memorialised in the Peace Park; a place I found hauntingly beautiful.

Photographing the floodlit A-Bomb Dome at night made me look closely at the building that was at the hypocentre of the blast. From a distance its iconic round dome looks sturdy and steadfast but once up close you can see it is reinforced by steel beams and concrete blocks. It is a skeleton that should have been buried years ago. Yet, it stands as a powerful reminder of the destruction the atomic bomb inflicted on the city of Hiroshima.

The Children’s Peace Monument remains the most moving statue in the park, and also the most positive. Beneath the statue of a young girl holding a giant origami crane are garlands of colourful paper figures, folded by school children from all over Japan and other countries. On a miserable, rainy day these rainbow coloured artworks are a glimmer of home for a more peaceful world.

Eating

Hiroshima is also known as the city to sample fresh seafood and gobble down hot okonomiyaki. For lunch, my companions and I went in search of authentic Hiroshimayaki, and we were not disappointed. The culinary tradition is made of two batter pancakes cooked on a hot grill with a layer of cabbage, bean sprouts, meat and noodles sandwiched in between. There is a rich, sweet sauce to lather on the top pancake, and it’s optional whether chilli flakes or katsuobushi (bonito fish flakes) are thrown on top too. It’s a Japanese equivalent to a pizza, pick your base and choose your toppings.

I, however, wouldn’t stand outside for forty minutes whilst a pizza was cooked for me, but this seemed to be the norm for popular Hiroshima okonomiyaki joints. As we waited in line, sitting on metal stools on the pavement, one of the staff came to take our orders. I wondered if we could have enjoyed a drink whilst waiting outside, but I’d be afraid my fingers would freeze to the glass!

It’s said that punters enjoy roller coasters more when they’ve had to wait for the ride, and the same could be said of eating okonomiyaki. Starved and cold we were finally directed inside the small grill restaurant, which only had enough seats for twelve people. Our ready-made orders were placed in front of us and within minutes we were woofing down the hot, delicious food, washed down with a glass of beer. I can safely say the food was worth waiting for.

This trip gave me a flavour of a city that has recovered from 1945’s atrocity and has developed into a buzzing, lively and modern city, with great food.

Miyajima, the Shrine Island

I’d been recommended to visit this island by many people but I’d never really known why. Even when I was on the ferry to the island I was thinking, ‘Why is this place so special?’ Just because someone built a red torii gate on a sandy beach doesn’t mean it should be on the ‘Must See’ list of Japan.

At first, it appeared to be another Nara, heaving with tourists and tame deer only this time they sold fish-cakes on a stick. In other places of the world, when a place becomes so popular and overcrowded it loses its popularity and another place becomes the ‘must-see’ of the moment. However here in Japan it seems people flock to the same historic tourist sights, all at the specific times of year and the crowds do little to deter visitors. Miyajima, as one of the three most beautiful sights in Japan is definitely in the ‘over-visited’ category.

Yet when I discovered the significance of the island for Japanese people, I understood why it was so popular. The main reason is because the island is thought to be sacred because of Itsukushima Shrine. There have been shrines on the island since the 6th century where Noh performances have been used to pay honour to the gods and act out the myths of Shinto beliefs. The toori is a feature of the Itsukushima shrine and there has been a torri gate there since 1168. The 2000 people who live on the island must still follow the rules of the sacred shrine so that no deaths or births happen on the island. So pregnant women about to deliver or very elderly people who may imminently die to have to retreat to the mainland.

Despite it’s religious significance it was still too crowded for me to visit the shrine, so I decided to get away from the crowds by climbing the 530m high mountain on the island. Still dressed for a city, minus the heels, I started the climb the steep, paved path. The path was empty apart from tourists coming down who were wishing me ”Good luck!”. I had a moment of uncertainty about my climbing abilities, but then I thought ”Come on, I’d climbed Mount Fuji, this is going to be a walk in the park!”

Walking alone up this tropical mountain, with the threat of hungry monkeys and other animals lurking in the forest, made me think of another mountain I’d climbed, Mount Emei in Sichuan province, China. For two days my fellow traveller and I walked, step after step, to the top of the mountain in hope of seeing the sunrise at the top. Looking back, I don’t know how we endured it. The endless monotonous of the steps makes it more a mental than a physical challenge! But thankfully, this climb was over in just an hour and I’d thoroughly recommend it. The path can be managed by most people if they took it at their own pace and had a sturdy pair of shoes. If you do climb it, or cheat and take the cable car, there are beautiful panoramic views across the Inland Sea and of Hiroshima city.

One of my family’s traditions is to call someone at the top of anywhere high, so using Skype on my magical iPhone I was successfully able to wake my parents up and share with them the good news, ‘I’ve just climbed a mountain’ (not revealing it was only 500m high). They did well to cover their morning voices and act excited that I’d called. Then my friend Julia, a UK JET living on Shikoku, arrived at the top of the mountain. We’d arranged to meet here so it wasn’t just a lucky coincidence! It was great to see Julia and we walked down together sharing stories of our first five months in Japan.

It was dusk when we reached the town and the sea had receded from the torii. Another charm of Miyajima was walking under the gate and putting a coin in the cracks if the wooden legs to receive good luck. It was still too damp under foot to do that but we took photos and enjoyed the view. I admit the place did feel special at this time of night and with fewer tourists I can imagine how this scene became so celebrated in the first place.

If you really wanted to experience the best of this island, I’d suggest you stay overnight here. The only hostel on the island looks great and they hire kayaks that you can use to paddle through the torii gate, without the crowds.

The pleasures and perils of travelling solo

When you’re travelling alone and something like this happens, it’s nobody’s fault but your own. Well, maybe the guide book could’ve mentioned that one of the most popular tourist sights in Japan is actually covered in scaffolding for five years! Ah, it did. I see it now, that hidden paragraph tagged on at the end that nobody reads. Surely this vital piece of information for the traveller justifies a text box?!

Himeji

Himeji castle is one of the ”twelve surviving feudal-era fortresses” says the Rough Guide to Japan (2011 edition) and it goes on to give the history of the fantastic castle. I myself are more of an ‘atmospheric traveller’, I go to soak up the feel of the place, to watch the other tourists and to take photographs. The history sections of a guidebook seems to bypass my memory and leaves me with no idea what era something was built or who built it. That’s when I normally rely on a fellow traveller to fill me in, to be my guide for the day. I’ve had the pleasure of travelling with two history students, one of which loved castles and no doubt would’ve filled me in on all the details before we’d even got there. Yet here I was travelling alone and I still had no clue when this castle was built. (For your information, the guidebook reads ‘The present complex of moats, thick defensive walls, keeps and connecting corridors dates from around the early seventeenth century’.)

This day I made two large oversights; firstly, that the castle was not under renovation, secondly, that it would be open to enter. Seeming as it was the 29th December and the start of the New Year holiday, everything was closed. Even the souvenir shops. Yet the picture of me smiling in front of the castle sums up my reaction, I didn’t really care! It was a sunny day, I was neither too hot nor too cold and I had my camera.

As I walked around the perimeter of the castle I came across something that was interesting to me. A very serious game of croquet being played by retirees. Now I thought this was a game just played at tea parties in England, but it seems that the Japanese have taken this game to new levels. It is called geeto booru (gateball) and is a ‘fast-paced, non-contact, highly-strategic team game’ (Wikipedia). There is even a World Gateball Championship! I would have never have found this out if the castle was open.

I also met a very nice man who showed me where the famous Himeji-jo Koko-en gardens were which I was grateful for, except they were closed too. ”Ahh”, I sighed, back to the train station it is.

Yet this experience was softened by the fact I had saved money on not buying anything, so could justify taking the shinkansen (bullet train) to my next stop. For the equivalent of £50 I zoomed across 250km of mountainous land to arrive in Hiroshima exactly 57 minutes later. This was the best decision I’d made yet. The journey was five times quicker than taking the local trains and I got to experience the coolest form of transport in Japan, or even the world.

Before I stepped aboard the shinkansen I made sure it was heading to Hiroshima, as I didn’t want any more surprises that day. Once reassured by another passenger that the train was heading in the right direction, I found a seat by the window and sat next to two half-asleep Japanese women. This is normal on a Japanese train, but I thought I’d stay awake to watch the countryside go whizzing by. The blur of mountains, trees and towns became monotonous after a while and I became sleepy. The motion of the high-speed train is such that it’s very difficult to stay awake! Thankfully I woke up to the gently chimes of the overhead speaker and a woman’s voice in perfect English saying ”We have landed in Hiroshima”. Landed? Am I on a plane, a space craft or a train? I like the touch of showbiz about the shinkansen and got my bag to exit the aircraft, train.

Mobile Japan