Turning Japanese Again, Shinkansen to Hiroshima

No hangovers. This was a good way to start the day, even if it was a lot earlier than Jen really would have liked. (Mind you, Jen likes noon as a wake-up time.)

It was warm in the room. The Japanese seem to like it warm. Even trying to turn the heat down didn’t help. Twenty-four degrees is just uncomfortable. We rose, repacked our bags, and prepared for the trip to Hiroshima. Neither of us were particularly hungry, so would skip breakfast. Chris called to inform us of the paper shinkansen schedule, which we’d found out about the night before.

One thing the schedule had shown was the difference in shinkansen trains. There are three different types running between Tokyo and Hakata: Kodama, Hikaru, and Nozomi. Kodama shinkansen are local trains, hitting every station on their runs. Hikaru shinkansen are limited, hitting only some of the stations. Nozomi shinkansen are express, and run between only a few stations. Nozomi trains are the only ones that will run all the way from Tokyo to Hakata. The others terminate roughly half-way.

We came to Toyohashi on a Kodama, but we left on a Hikaru. (We can’t take a Nozomi, as the rail pass doesn’t cover those trains.) It took us to Shin-Osaka, where we switched to another Hikaru that took us to Hiroshima.

Getting a seat on the shinkansen wasn’t as easy as I’d hoped. I figured that when we got to Shin-Osaka, getting prime seats on the next Hiraku would be as simple as being the first in line. Except that when we got to Track 20 (no, there aren’t 20 shinkansen tracks — the track we were on just happened to be the last in the series of all tracks at the station), the lines were already quite full. Luckily, we still got good seats, although we were quite crammed in with our backpacks and day bags.

It’s odd. On weekends, getting a seat is surprisingly easy on long-distance trains, when you’d figure most people would be travelling. But during the week, the seats are packed to the point of standing-room only, when people would normally not be travelling. This is an odd country…

Jen slept most of the way between Toyohashi and Shin-Osaka, and between Shin-Osaka and Hiroshima. I did, too, opting for some much-needed rest. The last couple of days had taken their toll on me, and a short nap was much welcomed. Although I haven’t been here long, I’m already adapting to the Japanese way of riding the trains — fall asleep just enough to rest, but not enough that you don’t hear the call for the next station.

Disembarking at Hiroshima, we went in search of lockers. The idea was to ditch our bags and lug around only our day bags. Sadly, the only lockers we could find weren’t large enough to store the big bags, so we were forced to continue with those. Instead, we put away some of the stuff we didn’t want to carry.

Once outside, we found streetcars that would take us to the Atomic Bomb Dome. This is one of the major tourist spots of Japan, and is so well-featured that many signs bear the name. Even signs at the streetcar made it clear that you could take the streetcar to the Hiroshima Bomb Dome for 150 yen. It was almost too easy.

Easy enough for us to realize that either we left our bags at the station, went to the dome, and then came back before going to Miyajima, or we took our bags with us, and then continued on the streetcar to the Miyajima ferry. We oped for the latter.

The streetcar ride down was easy, requiring little more than to obtain a ticket, and wait for the station to appear. Once I realized that there was a digtal sign that read off station names in English, it was impossible to miss the dome. That, and the station stop is barely 100 metres from it. Very hard to miss.

The Hiroshima Atomic Bomb Dome is the former Hiroshima Prefecture Industry Promotion Hall, barely 100 metres from the hypocentre of the blast. It has come to symbolize the destructive power of the atomic bomb, and is a constant reminder of what happened at 8:15, 6 August 1945.

It was a strange moment for me. I’ve read all about the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. I’ve read about the reasons for and against it. I’ve heard the debates and listened to the stories. It’s something to have a perspective on the event, but it’s entirely another to witness the actual building — or what’s left of it. Aside from excavations following its destruction, and some preservation work to keep it intact, the dome remains untouched from when it was destroyed nearly 60 years ago.

Hiroshima Bomb Dome, Japan, 29 March 2004

As Jen and I walked taking photos, a little elderly woman came up to her and flashed a small sign that read: “Would you like to receive prayers for happiness?” I didn’t know this at first, because all I found was this tiny woman holding her hand up towards Jen’s bowed head. A little confused for a moment, another elderly woman came up to me and flashed a similar sign. Jen and I were blessed, in a way, to allow us to have a much happier day.

Taking a photo of the two women, they directed us to the Peace Memorial Park, surrounded by the Ota-gawa River, the shores lined with sakura — cherry trees just entering full bloom. We could hardly pass that up.

Paper cranes, Hiroshima, Japan, 29 March 2004

On the other side, we found more monuments to the tragedy of the a-bomb attack. One was a peace bell, the supports built of concrete, from which was suspended a traditional shinto bell. The chain used for the bell’s clapper had a metal origami crane. This is significant because next to the bell are several transparent plastic observation booths filled with hundreds of thousands of paper cranes, offered in peaceful remembrance of 6 August.

Further into the park is the eternal flame, near the Peace Arch. Looking through the Peace Arch towards the flame, you can see directly to the dome. The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum is past the Peace Arch, but we didn’t go there. Instead, I followed Jen over to something she saw off to one side. It was a concrete wall, inside of which looked like a clock surrounded by a bed of broken bricks.

It was the top of the Hiroshima National Peace Memorial Hall for the Atomic Bomb Victims. The clock is a skylight into the middle of musem, and is fixed at the time of detonation, 8:15. The bricks were excavated from the Atomic Bomb Dome.

Deciding that it might be an interesting thing to see (and because it was free), we headed down into the entrance. (The museum is underground.) Inside, we were handed English pamphlets, and directed down the walkway, which spirals further down into the earth. Every 20 feet or so, there is a glass panel with text about World War II and the atomic bomb and its affects on Hiroshima.

The perspective is interesting. This should be the Japanese perspective. This is their view of (what is basically) an attack of unwarranted scale. But they’re not accusatory, not disdainful. The presentation is factual, and appeals to visitors to campaign against the use of nuclear weapons.

At the bottom, you enter a huge round room. At the top is the skylight you see at ground level. Directly under the skylight is a fountain, also in the shape of the 8:15 clock. The water is offered as a consolation to all those who died begging for a drink. On the walls are the names of the neighbourhoods destroyed by the bomb, their proximity to the floor indicating how close they were to the hypocentre. Around the upper third of the room is a 360 panoramic view of the destroyed Hiroshima, as seen from the hypocentre, recreated with 140,000 hand-carved tiles. One tile for each person who died.

Leaving the room, you come to a display of some of the victims. Each of the pamphlets accesses one of 9,606 photographs of a victim through a computer. Mine accessed the record of a 48 year-old woman by the name of Masayo Kubota. Suddenly, it wasn’t just a piece of paper. This was a real person.

Sobered quite a lot by the museum, it was quite strange to come to the surface to be confronted by the sounds of a bustling metropolis (Hiroshima is quite large), the laughs of playing children, and the chatter of a people who most likely don’t think about the events of 6 August on a regular basis.

Stopping briefly at the Tourist Information Office for a map and a drink (green tea slushie, anyone?), we continued back to the streetcar station to head down to Miyajimaguchi station, to catch the ferry to Miyajima.

A note for anyone going from Hiroshima Atomic Bomb Dome to Miyajima. As soon as you can switch to the JR Sanyo line, do so. The trip by streetcar, although nice, is very long.

At Miyajimaguchi station, I called the ryokan in Miyajima to let them know we were catching the next ferry to the island. (They offered a pickup service, and we were to call ahead.) The conversation was a bit difficult due to the language barrier, but the person I was speaking with had obviously taken the trouble to learn enough English to make herself understood.

The ferry trip over was short, only about 10 minutes, and we were soon waiting out in front of the ferry station for our ride to the ryokan. A small white bus appeared in view, and an enthusiastic employee beckoned us to join him for a drive.

Ferry to Miyajima, Hiroshima, Japan, 29 March 2004 Miyajima Gate, Hiroshima, Japan, 29 March 2004

The speed limit in Miyajima seems to be about 20 km/h. This guy was doing at least 60 in most places, narrowly missing people and other cars in his mad dash to get to the ryokan to drop us off. The ride, though confusing, was enough to make Jen and I suddenly wish that we didn’t have to go to Kyoto tomorrow (we have reservations, so don’t have much of a choice) and stay here a while longer.

Hold on, you’re probably looking at that “ryokan” word and are wondering what that is. We’re staying at what’s called a ryokan — it’s a type of Japanese hotel. We’re at the Momijiso ryokan, which sits in the middle of Momijitani Park, up the hill from the town/village of Miyajima. In fact, the ryokan is on the way to the ropeway to the top of the mountain.

Mimijiso is the only building in sight. (Mind you, with the forest, it’s hard to see the next ryokan down the side.) It’s also a cafe for travellers going up and down Mt. Meisen, a focus of religion in the area — there are many shrines at the top of the mountain. The isolation is glorious.

We were greeted at the door by what I can only describe as the house matron, a wonderful elderly woman whom I can only assume was the one I had talked to earlier. She guided us to our room, ushered us in, and immediately served us maple leaf-shaped cakes (filled with red bean paste) and two cups of very strong green tea. She told us that dinner was at 18:30, and that breakfast was at 8:00 tomorrow morning.

We had time to kill, so leaving most of our bags behind, Jen and I went to explore the town of Miyajima. The town centres on the shrine, which sits in a tidal area at the shoreline. Just offshore is a torii, a huge red gate that is the symbol for Miyajima. There are shrines all over this part of the island.

One of the other symbols of Miyajima is the maple leaf. Not the same as the Canadian maple leaf, but a Japanese maple. (Jen described it as looking like a marijuana plant.) During the fall, apparently the entire area turns a bright red from the changing leaves. The symbol is found in everything from the cakes, cell phone (kaitei) baubles, markers on the roads and sewer grates, signs, and various tourist trinkets.

As Jen and I walked around, we came realize that we really liked Miyajima. I might have trouble tomorrow when it comes time to leave. Jen and I might not want to get on the boat. I really wish I could change the reservation in Kyoto so we could stay another day. The architecture here is quaint and simple, the people nice, and the lifestyle laid back. And walking around in the park is a joy.

Deer are everywhere. Miyajima has countless deer. They’re small, about the side of a large dog. And completely unafraid of humans. They probably eat a little too much from humans, so have no qualms about coming up to you for food. Jen refused one, and it whined.

Deer on the tidal flats, Miyajima, Hiroshima, Japan, 29 March 2004 Miyajima Gate, Hiroshima, Japan, 29 March 2004

We wandered down to the shrine and torii, up to the pagoda, around the town and through the countless gift shops (my only complaint of Miyajima — it’s almost like an amusement park at times, though at least some of the stores aren’t too tacky), before arriving back just in time for dinner.

The cooking was … exquisite. We were told it was mostly fish. The “appetizers” were sashimi (locally-caught whitefish, sea breem, and the most succulent tuna I’ve ever had), traditional sunomuno, and some egg thing that I can’t even begin to describe. Then it was a cooked piece of sea breem (that blew me away), rice, miso soup, pickled roots, and finally fresh strawberries and melon.

Following dinner, Jen and I went exploring again. With all the tourists gone, it was easier to move around, and much quieter. The deer had gone to sleep. We took pictures of the torii (now lit up for night), walked around the town, and explored a few roads we hadn’t been down.

Jen and Vending Machines, Miyajima, Hiroshima, Japan, 29 March 2004

I need a tranquilizer for Jen, though. She gets quite hyper.

Jen and Miyajima Gate, Hiroshima, Japan, 29 March 2004

We returned for about 21:00, since the ryokan closes down around 21:30 for the night. Which was fine with us, since both of us were quite tired. It’s been a long day, but a very good one.

I think those prayers worked, because tonight, Jen and I are very happy.