We’d debated whether to take a bus or a train from Kobe to Hiroshima. No matter how one goes, domestic travel in Japan is spectacularly pricey, with the bus for the ~300km journey costing 5000 yen (about NZ$75), the local trains 5700 and the legendary Shinkansen (bullet trains) almost 10000. We ended up opting for the local train in order to avoid backtracking to Osaka to pick up the bus and to see the famously efficient Japan Rail system in action.
And were rather disappointed. Typically Japanese trains arrive and depart on time to the minute. However on this day, high winds delayed our first train of the day by 4 minutes. And since we had exactly that amount of time to make our first connection of the day, our well planned series of 4 train rides to Hiroshima fell apart almost as soon as it has started. The rest of the day was spent showing our tickets to the (very helpful, if not always multilingual) station staff, climbing aboard whatever local train they suggested, getting off a while down the road, and repeating the process at the next transfer station. This was a bit frustrating, and led to many more train changes than we’d anticipated and no time to stop for lunch, but in the end had us in the Hiroshima suburb of Hatsukaichi only 20 minutes or so later than we’d hoped.
The view looking down from the slopes of Mt. Misan
Our Couchsurfing host Tara met us at the station and led us back to her place to drop off our bags before we headed out to a tiny local eating house for one of our most memorable meals in Japan: Hiroshima style Okonomiyaki. Okonomiyake translates roughly to “anything you want grilled.” While the recipe varies slightly from one purveyor to the next, ours was fairly typical and consisted of a thin crepe, topped with cabbage, secret seasoning, crispy tempura batter bits, green onion, bean sprouts, thinly sliced pork, noodles, a stirred (though not scrambled) egg, seaweed flakes, sesame seeds and salty/sweet/sour okonomiyaki sauce. You can choose to add any one of a number of other toppings to this (sarah and I opted for tempura and raw squid respectively), and the whole lot is cooked up on the grill in front of you by the master okonomiyaki chef.
When it’s finally done, it’s pushed to the cooler section of grill in front of you, where you can further customise it with ground chillis, mayonnaise or more okonomiyaki sauce. You then eat it straight off the grill, with a trowel like instrument and chopsticks. Having eaten little all day due to our epic train journey it was just what we needed.
We had a fun chat with the chef while he prepared our Okonomiyaki, Tara acting as translator
Sarah and Tara getting ready to dig in!
The next morning we took the steetcar/tram into Hiroshima proper, about 20km east of Hatsukaichi. Hiroshima is most famous for one thing, of course: its status as the target of the first atomic bomb ever used.
Most of the city bore very little sign of this scar. It looked little different from the non-ancient parts of Nara or the suburbs of Kobe. The main streets were rather wider because the ground-up re-building of the city in the 1950s allowed for more modern urban planning, but that was really about it.
The tragedy in the city’s past is by no means forgotten though. At its very centre is the Hiroshima peace park, dedicated to the memory of August 17, to the victims and survivors of the bomb, and to the hope that no city will ever again suffer the same fate.
At one end of the park is the Atomic Bomb Dome, the remains of the prefectural agricultural hall, which was a relatively new and grand building at the time of the bombing. Because it was almost directly beneath the hypocentre, almost all of the force of the explosion was directly downward, leaving many of the walls standing, and the steel frame of its copper dome in one piece as well. This is a stark contrast to the rest of the central city: almost every other building within about 2km of the hypocentre was reduced to rubble.
The Bomb Dome and its immediate environs had been left almost completely untouched since the bombing, with bits of brick and even glass still laying on the ground around it.
Hiroshima’s atomic bomb dome. The area around the dome is a popular spot for peace demonstrations and lectures. While we were there, there was a Japanese man addressing a small crowd, nearby signs explaining “in-utero survivor speaks!”
Other monuments were scattered throughout the park, ranging from the cinterary where the ashes of thousands of unknown bomb victims were interred, to the children’s monument, where people bring string upon string of paper cranes in memory of the youngest victims, to the peace bell, rung by visitors as a prayer for a future where the war is no more, to the victims memorial, where audio and video recordings made by the survivors tell of their loss and the suffering of the city in the days following the bombing.
Some of the thousands of paper cranes strung on monuments throughout the peace park. Some Canadians and Kiwis my age may remember reading The Thousand Paper Cranes in school. It was the story of Sadako Sasaki, a Hiroshima survivor who eventually succumbed to leukemia. The museum in the Peace Park displays some of her original thousand paper cranes
The view back through the Peace Park from the museum towards the atomic bomb dome
At the far end of the park is the museum. Its first section presents a history of the city, its role in the second world war (including a discussion of the many Koran and Chinese forced labourers and allied prisoners of war in the city), a dispassionate and balanced explanation of why the atomic bomb was used on the city, and displays about nuclear weapons throughout the world in the present.
The second, and much more personal part of the museum presents artifacts from the bombing, along stories describing the aftermath in the words of the survivors (immediate survivors at least… Even those that survived the few weeks past the bombing suffered from very high levels of leukemia and other radiation related diseases.)
While this was all very grim and somewhat depressing, it was always coupled with a message of hope: hope for an end to all war in general and to the existence of nuclear weapons in particular.
Successive mayors of Hiroshima have sent letters to the ambassadors of the nation responsible for every nuclear weapons test since 1968. Copies of each of these letters were on display in the museum
Various artifacts melted by the heat from the atomic bomb explosion on display in the museum. Other items in the museum included torn, tattered and burnt clothing, shoes, and even the tricycle a child was riding when the bomb fell
After the museum we had a little sit out in the Peace Park while waiting for Tara (she’d been to the museum before, and understandably, wasn’t always in the mood for a return visit) and to gather up the strength to continue our exploration of Hiroshima’s present.
We spent the afternoon checking out the main covered (though not actually indoor) shopping arcade and its surroundings. I loved the Japanese toy store. Its contents seemed even more bright and eye-catching than western ones. Particularly cool were the huge variety of lego (ninja-go!) and the Gundam models/figurines.
Trading cards at the toy shop. These seemed a bit incongruous beside all of the lego and toy trains (if not the Barbies) but then Japan was a strange place in many subtle ways
Just off the mall we wandered into an exhibit of painting/performance art that was part of an AIDS awareness event. We just caught the first painter finishing his work, and then watched the second from beginning to end as he went from a sunrise, through the past year in Japan (including, of course the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster) and with happy and hopeful Christmas themes. By the end he was covered in paint and panting for breath.
The “kinetic painting” near its beginning and at its end
As darkness fell we headed a few streets over to check out Hiroshima’s Christmas illuminations. They weren’t on the same scale as Kobe’s, but were still a very entertaining lot of light-sculptures that lined the city’s main boulevard for about five blocks.
We loved the idea of the “river” created by the strings of blue LEDs along the ground
Me with a maple leaf. They’re different species, so they don’t look quite the same as the Canadian ones, but brightly coloured maple leaves are the emblem of various parts of Korea and Japan as well
Yarr, here be our host Tara with a pirate ship and whale (perhaps the most impressive of the Hiroshima illuminations)
We finished off the night at one of the most memorable bar/restaurants I’d ever been to. It was Okinawan themed, and had recently opened. Tara, having been there often enough that the staff recognized her, got us seats in the (very) low ceilinged, but charming VIP area in the basement. This was followed up by our waitress saying that, as friends of a valued regular customer, Sarah and I were being given our own “keep bottles” of Awamori. These lovely earthenware jugs were individually numbered and kept behind the bar. When you came in for a drink or a meal, you simply asked for your number and they’d bring out your bottle (which could be regularly refilled) for you. Awamori is a distilled rice wine product, and is drunk mixed with ice and water (to beat the tropical Okinawan heat, no doubt), which dilutes it back down to a similar strength (and, indeed similar flavour) to regular Japanese sake.
Perhaps even better than the drink was the food… battered, deep fried goya (a bitter, but tasty cucumber-like vegetable) chips, tiny bowls of noodles flavoured with a sweet-tart ginger sauce, and kakuni, pork belly that had been simmered for hours, then pressure cooked, then simmered some more, leaving it so tender that it could be pulled apart and eaten with chopsticks, no knife required. So good was the kakuni that the only thing that approached its level of tastiness was the sweet, lightly spiced broth it was served in.
Mmm… Kakuni! Food in Japan was generally fine but it seemed as though you really had to know where to go to get the best stuff (unlike in say, Thailand, where you can pretty much pick a street stall at random and know it’ll be fabulous
Sarah and her “keep bottle.” We got through less than half of this one, and since we’re unlikely to back in Hiroshima soon, our keep bottle cards were left with Tara for her future enjoyment
The final surprise of the evening was waiting for us upstairs as we left. Tara had heard that they had a large pet turtle at the restaurant, but hadn’t seen it yet. She asked after him, and one of the staff pulled a tablecloth off of what appeared to be a large footstool. But in fact it was Quachi, who appeared to be an Aldabran giant tortoise. He was huge, his shell almost a metre long! I felt bad having interuppted his nap, but he was such a bizarre sight sitting there on the floor of the restaurant that I really wouldn’t have wanted to miss the guy!
Quachi! I’ve no idea how he ended up in the restaurant. Though the staff all claimed that he was the owner
An “information booth.” These were all over the entertainment districts of Japanese cities. Essentially the information they provide is how to meet prostitutes. I suppose that since prostitution is widely tolerated, but still clearly illegal in Japan it has to be handled delicately and through middlemen
That night, as we were just about home, we chanced to look up and see that only a tiny sliver of the formerly bright full moon had maintained its silvery glow. The rest had taken on the rusty colour brought on by the sun’s light being filtered through the Earth’s atmosphere during a lunar eclipse. We stared up as the red crept over the last vestiges of silver and the eclipse became total. A fittingly impressive end to a day like the one we’d had.
Our second day in the area was actually spent much closer to Hatsukaichi on the island of Miya-jima. Miya-Jima is famous all over Japan for its quaint village, its celebrated shrines and temples, and its natural beauty. And it was just a few tram stops and a ten minute ferry ride from Hatsukaichi.
Miyajima is very popular with tourists, both for its visual charms, and for its gastronomic ones as well. Its most famous products are oysters and Momiji Manju, maple leaf shaped cakes perhaps 8cm across and 1.5cm thick that are filled with just about any sweet filling you can imagine. From the traditional red bean paste, through the obvious chocolate and fruit jellies, to sweet cheese or custard, they were all delicious.
Fresh local oysters on the grill. They were huge, and with a squirt of lemon and a dash of ground chilli, were very tasty too
Thus fortified, we decided to go for a walk up Mt. Misen, accompanied (more led really) by Alexis, one of Tara’s friends. As in Nara, the trail was very well constructed, with nice flat rocks that must have weighed 20kg or more apiece. The walk up wandered through pine and cedar scented glades, with the occasional splash of red or yellow from the few deciduous trees that were hanging on to their last few leaves. The walk, about 3.5km long with 500m or so of vertical climbing was pleasant without being too difficult, and got us to the summit just in time to catch the late afternoon filtering through the clouds as lovely crepuscular (I love that word!) rays.
The view from the summit. The rising columns of steam/smoke from the stacks of the industrial areas was a sharp contrast from the beauty of the small islands that dotted the bay. But when they were turned a brilliant silver by occasional rays of sun they were almost as beautiful in their way
We walked back down a steeper, faster path, re-entering the village near the Daisho-in. Daisho-in is a temple complex, consisting of dark wood buildings surrounded by lovingly maintained gardens and statury, including a small walkway near the entrance that winds its way past several hundred carved stone Buddhas, each unique, right down to the expressions on their faces.
This theme was continued under the main temple building, where 50 more buddha statues rested. Each one represented a particular aspect of life. Each one had also its own temple that formed part of a major pilgrimage route on the island of Kyushu, but they had all been gathered here as a sort of lazy man’s version where visitors could stop in front of the statues one at a time, say a Buddhist rosary using the beads built into the handrail, move on to the next, and have the whole thing done in an afternoon instead of a couple of months.
Me looking thoughtful among the garden-ful of buddhas
The amazing display of lanterns on the ceiling of the “lazy-mans pilgrimage”
As the sun was setting we wandered back through the now very quiet town (the only one on the island.) Most of the vast hordes of tourists that visit the island each day had gone home, and many of the souvenir and snack merchants were pulling down their shutters and finishing up for the day.
Before leaving the island we made a stop at Itsukushima, a shinto shrine built on piers holding it up just over the water’s edge. At low tide, it stands a metre or two above the tidal flats. At high tide, it appears to almost float on the water, the waves lapping at its walkways and rising up to cover the base of its brilliant orange entrance gate, about 150m out at sea.
A last stop for a deep fried cheese-filled Age-momiji on a stick, and we were back on the ferry heading for Hatsukaichi, home and bed.
The main tourist street. While we were away Tara took a walk through the backstreets and was accosted by an older man who told her to get on the ferry and go back where she came from. Which seemed especially harsh given that she’s learned Japanese and works at a school not far away
Crispy, cakey, cheesey goodness!
Miyajima is famous for its tame deer. If we hadn’t been to Nara already I’m sure they would have featured more prominently in this blog entry…
The entrance arch at Itsukushima shrine
The next day we were headed down to Fukuoka, the largest and nearest city on the island of Kyushu. For similar reasons as with our trip to Hatsukaichi, we decided to take the local JR trains again. And were, I’m sad to say, once again disappointed. About 2/3 of the way through our trip, our Shimonoseki-bound train stopped, all the passengers disembarked and were ushered on to shuttle buses. These did take us the rest of the way to Shimonoseki, but they did so in 45 minutes longer than the train would have, thus leading us to miss another connection, and once again end up at our destination rather later than planned. I’m assured by several people that even one event such as this is very rare on Japan Railways, and that our experiences were as improbable as snow in Okinawa, but JR finished 0 for 2 on our trip, and we were left a bit disappointed.
Fugu “pufferfish” on the ceiling in Shimonoseki train station. Not a great photo, I know, but the things are just so cute!
Our visit to Fukuoka, meanwhile, was short but not disappointing in the slightest. After a few logistical difficulties (due almost entirely to our lack of organisation) we managed to drop our bags off and to meet our Couchsurfing host Kara near the centre of town.
We had little time in Fukuoka, really just a single evening, but Kara ensured that we hit the important points: the inevitable Christmas light display, the (plastic!?) “ice” skating rink (it never really gets cold enough in Fukuoka to snow, much less for natural ice) and the Neko-cafe, where cats are meant to provide a homey and relaxing atmosphere for customers while they sip their hot drinks. And, of course, the food. Other than fugu (the super cute, deadly toxic pufferfish that Japanese chefs must be licensed to prepare) Fukuoka’s most famous foodstuff is Ramen. Not the curly, dried kind with a flavour sachet that comes wrapped up in plastic and lasts forever. Fresh, handmade noodles, served with chewy-crunchy seaweed, flavoursome green onion, sliced pork and salty-hot pickled ginger, all in a savoury TON-KA broth that Fukuokans regard as something of a civic treasure. The best ramen is had at Yatai, the streetside food-carts that are another Fukuokan treasure, as they’re the last ones remaining in any large Japanese city. The ramen we had at a Yatai by the river, crammed around the chefs workstation with perhaps 10 other diners, were so good that I ordered a second helping of noodled for my broth once I’d finished the first (the ability for customers to do this is yet another unique aspect of Fukuokan ramen.)
After a bit of a wander around the centre of the city, Sarah and I headed back to Kara’s place. A cup of tea with her chatty fellow English teachers/neighbours, and it was soon time for bed, our last sleep in Japan.
The bright lights of central Fukuoka, one of Japan’s largest cities
“Ice” skating in Fukuoka. I’m intrigues by the idea of skating on plastic. We saw several people fall down hard on their butts, so it’s obviously at least somewhat realistic…
Ramen at the Yatai! Apparently some of these are associated with the Yakuza (Japanese organised crime) so are some of the few public places that petty scams (e.g. charging for un-requested edamame) exist in Japan. Apologies to Kara for using the photo with her eyes closed, but somehow it was the only one we had!
The next morning, we took the subway to the international ferry terminal (Kara had suggested a bus, but in the end we weren’t confident enough in speaking enough Japanese, having the correct change, or recognising our destination) and were soon on our way back to Busan, Korea.
A couple of general comments on Japan before finishing:
It was different than I’d expected. I’d envisioned everything in Japan being either brand, shiny new, or ancient. In fact the vast majority of the country looked to have been built in the period between 1960 and 1980. It was also very familiar. Aside from in the very centres of large cities and the ancient temples, most of Japan looked very like Canada. Similar architecture, similar shops, similar traffic and just an all-around similar feel.
I’d also expected Japan to be stupendously expensive. This expectation was only partially met. Transportation, both between cities and within them was exorbitant. Accomodation, had we not been couchsurfing, would have been as well. But food (baked sweet potato in Nara and fresh fruit aside) generally cost about the same as in NZ. And while admission fees to things were a little pricey, most of the towns we visited also had plenty of interesting free things to do.
Aside from those whose job it was to deal with tourists, most Japanese seemed to be much less interested in (or at least less willing to) talk with foreigners. To the point that the seats on either side of a foreigner would regularly remain unoccupied, even on a crowded subway train. Perhaps this feeling arose because the level of English spoken was generally not as high as in Korea, or perhaps it was because the Japanese were even more concerned with making a mistake when speaking, or perhaps it was just because in our rushed trip we stuck mostly to the obvious sights and didn’t make enough effort to immerse ourselves in the country. Either way it left me with the (almost surely unfair) impression that Japan wasn’t quite as friendly a place as Korea.
This lack of friendliness did not, of course, extend to our Couchsurfing hosts who were, as usual, awesome. Tara in Hiroshima/Hatsukaichi was a very fun lady, who sparkled with life and energy. Kara in Fukuoka took us in for a single night (which a lot of CS folks wouldn’t be so keen on) and though we didn’t get to spend as much time as we’d have liked with her, she made sure Fukuoka put its best foot forward.
Thanks again ladies!
Up next: Return to Korea
One of the lights marking the exit to the inner harbour of Fukuoka (dressed up as Santa!)
The curry and paratha we prepared for dinner on our second night in Hiroshima
The view from a hilltop shrine near Tara’s place in Hatsukaichi
Tags: Fukuoka, Hatsukaichi, Hiroshima, Japan, Llew Bardecki, Miyajima, Travel