A change of pace from our sopping day in Kyoto, we took the bullet train down to sunny Hiroshima for a day in the southern most stop of our whirlwind tour of Japan. After disembarking from the bullet train we hopped on one of the city’s many trolley cars. Kinda like the cars from Fishermans’ Wharf in San Francisco, these electric train car lines criss cross the main avenues of the town. We took one of these electric cars out to Miyajima Island, home to the famous “Floating Torii Gate.”
Arriving at the ferry terminal we were amazed by the crowds. granted it was a weekend morning but this small town ferry terminal transformed into downtown Tokyo for the day. Across the river we were surprised by something we hadn’t expected on the island: deer. These “wild” deer have learned to come out of the inland forest and into the shoreline towns to search for food. As we walked down the crowded boardwalk to get a better view of the torii gate we saw dozens of these fearless deer walk up to visitors, food stands, and even snatched some food off one guy’s lunch platter! After the pleasant walk down the beach we were a little bummed to find the famous “Floating Torii Gate” at low tide. A mighty impressive and elaborate gate, but is certainly more impressive at high tide if you can plan it right. Still, we made the most of our trip and had a blast taking photos, people watching all the tourists, and having a tasty street vendor lunch of corn on the cob and yakatori chicken.
After our stop off at Miyajima Island, we took the ferry and train car back to central Hiroshima to visit the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park and Museum. First thing to catch your eye is the A-Bomb Dome, which used to be the Industrial Promotion Hall. Almost directly underneath the epicenter of the blast this building survived where almost no others did. Used as a gathering place and emergency treatment station immediately following the blast, it now has been preserved as a testament to the destructive harm and power of nuclear weapons by UNESCO in 1996.
Just across Ota River is the Hiroshima Memorial Peace Park, which includes several memorials and monuments commemorating those who perished as a result of the blast. The Children’s Peace Memorial, inspired by the story of Sadako Sasaki, is the most easily identifiable with the colorful bins of origami cranes, loud crane bell, and tall figure just off the main road crossing the bridge. A short distance from that is the Atomic Bomb Memorial Mound and Peace Clocktower, and just across the street from the Children’s Peace Memorial is the Peace Flame, which has been burning continuously since it was lit 1964. It will remain lit until the last nuclear weapon on Earth has been dismantled and destroyed, thus ending mankind’s potentially destructive nuclear age.
Following the main corridor pathway past the eternal flame is the Memorial Cenotaph, the official marker for all those killed by the A-Bomb blast, this marker is a popular attraction for locals, Japanese nationals, and foreigners alike to pray for the peaceful rest of those lost and for continued pursuit of world peace. At the end of this corridor is the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. In its beautiful simplicity the museum is lined up to form a straight line of sight past the epitaph and eternal flame, over the river, and onward to the dome of the A-Bomb Dome.
Once inside the museum gives a detailed history lesson in the build up of military and commercial activity in Hiroshima as well as on World War II the development of nuclear fission, and the decision to drop the bomb. And while the museum is built to remember and document the sorrow and horrific nature of that day, its primary mission is to stand as a cautionary tale to the destructive force of nuclear weaponry in the hopes for world peace. Moving through the museum there are dozens and dozens of photos, artifacts, and even pieces of buildings that had survived that fateful day. It is a somber hall filled with ripped and burnt clothing, warped girders and shutters, and heartbreaking tales of survivors struggles with losing loved ones and dealing with the fallout of radiation. Once through the exhibits of the museum, we walked past the full length windows that overlook the park and memorials with a new sense of what happened August 6, 1943. While it may seem off-putting since it happened only 69 years ago or as an American walking through the halls, I highly recommend paying a visit to this Unesco World Heritage Site.
From the museum we took a short and lovely walk following the river, catching glimpses of the numerous community and unofficial memorials in and around the park. Making it back to our train station we took two short rides and went to visit the historic Hiroshima Castle. With a storied history that dates back to 1590s, the castle grounds had risen and fallen in prominence depending on the region’s ruler, until the castle structure was destroyed in the a bomb blast. It was rebuilt in 1958 and turned into a museum on the area’s rich samurai and shogun history. Like a smaller version of the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, Hiroshima Castle has a large stone wall surrounded by a large moat, which was breathtaking as the sun dipped down out of the sky. We continued to walk around the wooded grounds, which include the Hiroshima Gokoku Jinja Shrine and historic military headquarters for the Japanese forces during the Sino-Japanese War. Soon thereafter we came upon the castle tower, peeking up through the trees, sun glinting off the grey stone tiled roof. The building has five successive levels, each featuring gorgeous white stucco and traditional woodwork to the region.
While we enjoyed the towering giant for its beauty and grandeur, Beth and I had dinner to eat and a train to catch, so we made our way back to the electric car line. Along the way we stopped by a tasty little Chinese restaurant and chowed down on tasty gyoza dumplings, fried noodles, and simmered pork before making our way back to the train. With only 15 minutes to spare we made our way through the stations and even purchased two traditional Hiroshima dessert cookies before we boarded the Shinkansen (Bullet Train) bound for Kyoto. The soft cookie is shaped like a maple leaf and typically has a sweet bean paste center, but can also be filled with a variety of cremes, including chocolate and green tea. After a long day of sightseeing the major attractions Hiroshima has to offer, we nibbled on our treats and relaxed along the ride back to the B&B for the night. Stay tuned for our second day in Kyoto, as well as our trip north to Nagano!
Before we head out on our week-long trip around central Japan, Beth wanted to show me some of the cultural sites around her neighborhood. A short distance north by train took us to Kamakura, a bustling seaside suburb of Yokohoma. It was here that we connected to the historic Endoen electric train. A train from a by-gone era, this electric line services the small communities along the beach as well as connecting tourists to the many cultural sites along the shore. Though it runs more slowly compared to the busy JR lines I’ve grown accustom to, I really appreciated our rides on this classic train. Between the stretches that chase the sand and sea to the ones that barreled past homes and shops, I certainly could recognize the beauty in the mundane in this electric line.
After hopping on we took a short ride to Hase, the part of town that features Japan’s second largest Daibutsu, or big Buddha. Cast in 1215 this bronze Buddha towers close to 14 meters tall and weighs more than 120 tons. It has seen some rough times over the years, surviving earthquakes, floods, monsoons, and nearly constant exposure to the elements, and has undergone several restorations over the years, the most significant in 1712 and 1923. This figure draws crowds from all over and it truly a sight to behold, in and out. From the exterior it looks like a solid piece of bronze, but from inside you can see the seams that show, with artful detail, the assembly of this great giant.
After visiting the Daibutsu in the Kotokuin Temple, we made our way through the streets of Hase, which offer many shops and eateries. I got to see beautiful calligraphy and craftsmanship in a card store, as well as sampling the local treat of green tea ice cream. The bright green color may cause some alarm at first, but after one taste I was hooked, it was absolutely delicious! Walking along we paused at several art and pottery stalls, featuring beautiful works. Eventually we came to the Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine, easily Kamakura’s most important. As it turns out the weekend we visited coincided with a festival for young children in Japan, Shichi-go-san, where the children are taken to shrines to pray for good luck, happiness and to marry young. Consequently we also witnessed several traditional Meiji weddings taking place. The shrine grounds are stunning, blending the land and waterscapes with the main pathway that lead to a set of towering steps to the shrine. Once we reached the summit you could look straight down the main street of town and beyond to the sunset, truly a gorgeous sight to behold.
All that walking around worked up an appetite and luckily we had made plans to meet up with a crewman of Beth’s and his wife and their Japanese neighbor for dinner at a “sumo” restaurant. This restaurant prides itself on having a sumo clientele, complete with posters, massive handprints, and score cards from some of the local sumo patrons. The restaurant is quite traditional, serving the meal on a table top on the floor complete with padded pillows to sit on. We also had to remove our shoes and store them at the entryway before settling in for dinner. And while a four course meal sitting cross-legged the entire time did strain the muscles, the stomach was to reap the benefits. Each course was extremely good, each served in a unique, signature broth. The first two course were more or less soups, complete with various mushrooms, Chinese cabbage, and tofu. The second course was a little more spicy, featuring local mussels and imitation crab meat. Oh did I mention, these course were served in a giant cauldron placed in an intricate heating rack in the center of the table? Well they were, and thank goodness we had 5 people there because with any less there is no way we could have finished. Moving on we were served a tasty dish of saucy rice which bursted with flavor despite the mundane appearance. This was about the time we received a complimentary order of terriyaki chicken meatballs, my personal favorite of the evening. Finally we made our way to the final course, already feeling full and satisfied, but were happy to take in a spicy broth with udon noodles. After all that I can understand why its a “sumo” restaurant, and would certainly recommend searching one out if you ever visit Japan!
Sunday rolled around and we decided to go back to Kamakura and visit Enoshima Island, a tourist attractions we missed the day before. While on the Endoen line in Kamakura we decided to ride it all the way out to Fujisawa, just to see what was there. Expecting to find a small residential community at the end of the train line Beth and I were surprised to find Fujisawa and a bustling city of commercial activity. Certainly off the tourist path, this town was all business with dozens of skyscrapers and elevated pathways. After walking around, visiting a local park, and enjoying a curry lunch at CoCos, we decided to head over to Enoshima Island.
Enoshima Island is a treasure trove for vacationers, Japanese and foreign alike. It was a mainstay location for the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo, with its famous Shoden Marina built for the sailing competitions. It also features a high-class onsen and hotel, dozens of Shinto shrines, and great beaches. But what the major attraction on the street seemed to be is a Japanese dish that features what looks like noodles with eyes. In reality they are little white, wormy looking fish and the Japanese love em! Add that to the squashed and dried octopus, squid, and jellyfish lines and you have yourself one seafood loving populace. I have yet to work up the nerve to try it myself, so we moved on to the shrines and famous lighthouse.
The lush and hilly island is covered in different Shinto shrines and monuments, dedicated to a host of gods and goddesses. The main building seems to be have something to do with love, luck, and relationships, as noted by the frequency of relationship oriented prayer cards, not to mention the week-long Valentines Island celebration where the everything is drapped in pink lights in February. Despite walking from shrine to shrine and through various gardens, this is still city property and the grounds are covered with trinket shops and restaurants. We even saw a street performer and his monkey do so wild tricks to a massive crowd’s amusement.
Continuing on we got to see the famous lighthouse and botanic gardens, founded by British merchant Samuel Cocking in 1880. Though much of the greenhouse area was destroyed in a 1923 earthquake, the gardens and towering lighthouse have becoming an emblem of the town, attracting thousands of visitors each week. As we made our way back we had both worked up a hunger and decided to treat ourselves to some street food. Beth’s picked out some of the best corn on the cob, complete with soy sauce dressing, while I got to try my first massive dumpling (really they are almost as big as a Chipotle burrito), but not nearly as filling. We enjoyed our street food, walked back to the train and witnessed a beautiful sunset through the windows on the way back to Kamakura, truly a great weekend exploring. Next week Tokyo…stay tuned!!!