Japan part 4: Hiroshima, risen from the ashes
We hopped on the shinkansen (bullettrain) towards Hiroshima with mixed feelings. On one hand we were sad to leave Kobe so soon but at the same time we were so excited to see Hiroshima since this had been on our list for a very long time...
Hiroshima, the first city a nuclear bomb was dropped upon during WWII, instantly killing over 78 000 people and over a 140 000 by the end of 1945. Though there still isn’t a definite count, the estimation is that 240 000 people in total were killed by the atomic blast, fires, toxicity, black rain, cancers, kelloids,… Of course we wanted to visit the peace museum and visit the Atomic Bomb dome. We think it is of great importance that people are kept aware of the atrocities that happened in history, and visiting these ‘monuments’ is necessary to do that. Also this city has some very interesting islands around it, of which my foremost interest goes to the Miyajima island which has one of the most beautiful shrines ever built. The Itsukushima shrine. Of course we were very curious, since not 75 years ago, Hiroshima was totally destroyed. So how was that city now? How were the people? Could you still see and feel the history?
We arrived in Hiroshima about 1 hour after we left Kobe, no wonder, since the shinkansen can reach speeds of 300 km/hour. We settled in our little apartment and did a quick internet check for food recommendations. We were in the mood for some okonomiyaki and set out toward Okonomi-mura: a big building with several floors filled with small Okonomiyaki shops. We were very, very hungry. On our way towards the food, we suddenly spotted the Atomic Bomb dome. One of the very few buildings that still stood after the A-bomb and still stands today as a testimony of what happened on the 6th of august 1945. We immediately went to pay it a visit.
It was a very strange and surreal view/ experience. In the evening sun we were standing there, looking at a memorial of the atrocities of war. But yet at the same time, there was this whole city around it full of people living their life. Standing there we felt a mixture of sadness, anger, hope, acceptance,… a whole whirlpool of emotions really. After a while we did what everyone around us did, move on to wherever we needed to go. A lot of people come and see the dome, stand still for a moment , read the information panels and then just move on. It’s part of everyday life here.
Once we arrived at Okonomi-mura we quickly went inside and found a place to eat at. One thing to know is that there are two styles of Okonomiyaki: the Osaka style with all ingredients mixed into the batter or the batter being poured over them. The other style is Hiroshima style where they lay a thin layer of batter, then slowly stack all the other ingredients on top of it and put an egg on top of it to finish it off. Both styles are equally delicious and it all comes down to personal taste. Haythim likes the Hiroshima style of stacking better (but he likes to Osaka style of sauces etc. better) while I prefer the Osaka style wholeheartedly. It’s way easier to eat.. While we were eating there we quickly noticed that although there were a lot of locals eating there it was also a tourist hotspot. We did enjoy our meal but it really wasn’t anything special, and therefore felt like we might have missed a chance. It shows in this case that if some things get too popular, the quality might go downhill…
Not every day can start with sunshine and rainbows, and our next day had quite the shitty start… For some reason Haythim woke up around 6 (after only 4h of sleep) and while he didn’t try to wake me, I woke up anyway… So two sleepy grumpy kitties took a reaaaally long time getting ready to head out. We decided to just take it easy, do one activity and try to stay alive. Just a visit to the Hiroshima castle, seemed like one nice relaxing thing to do that day. What we actually were about to visit was the Hiroshima castle replica that had been build in 1958, after the second world war. The original castle, like pretty much everything else, had been destroyed by the A-bomb. It had been completely razed to the ground and the few things that were left were also used in the immediate reconstruction.
Hiroshima castle was located only 15 minutes (walk) from our airbnb and since it was a lovely sunny day, the walk felt quite refreshing. We arrived at the castle: it had 2 entrances, each on the opposite side of the grounds. They were connected to the grounds with a bridge over a moat of about 5m with Koi (duh). We entered the castle premises (free entrance yay!) and strolled around the park a bit. There were still some foundations of the original castle buildings to see here and there in the park but nothin above the 1m level really. We headed towards the rebuild castle and visited the inside (370yen) that now served as a museum. For every floor (of the 5 floors) there was a different aspect of history lighted. From the lifestyles of people in the olden days, to the time of WWII, to a very nice exhibition on pre modern warfare. We got to see some beautiful katana, wakizashi, tanto, tachi (=all various kinds of Japanese swords), tsuba, as well as armour. The beauty of the handicraft that went into these artifacts is beyond belief. After exciting the castle, we had the pleasure of watching the koi fish swim in the moat around the castle, being fed by a local priest. To see all the different colours swimming about and to hear the “paku paku” sound of their mouths always lifts my spirit. Then we went towards the main shopping street and just hung around a bit, checked out some stores and enjoyed another coco ichiban meal in the evening. We got home early that day, tired as hell and got into bed real quick.
And what a good night’s sleep can do!! No waking up early, no alarm clocks, no rush! Our schedule for today had just one item: the Mitaki-dera and shrine. We didn’t know anything about this shrine except that it was only a 30 minutes walk from our airbnb. Our walk there couldn’t have been more idyllic. First we walked along the riverside were we were greeted by kids practicing baseball, families having a picnic, people playing soccer and barbecuing. It looked like so much fun! We took our time strolling down the river and crossing the bridge. Like we said earlier, Japan has a lot of mountains and for some reason all the temples and shrines want to be up there. So once again we had a steep climb before us without really knowing what was waiting for us. Hopefully it was worth it. Luckily for us it was!
We climbed the last part of the hill and were greeted by a temple complex shrouded in warm autumn colours. Oranges, reds and yellows, it was perfect! This is what we aimed to see in Japan: not just off-season but full-blown autumn!! (for whoever wants to go to Japan for the autumn colours: mid November is when the magic starts!). We entered the grounds and took an immediate turn right up some stairs and found a beautiful 2 story pagoda surrounded by the autumn colours. I could hear Haythim going nuts with the camera. We admired the scenery and decided it was the perfect place for lunch! And we weren’t the only ones to think so.
After our little picnic we headed onwards to the buddhist temple which was located deeper in the mountain. There were plenty of other beautiful spots and things to see in between the temple and the pagoda. You could see the tree waterfalls after which the shrine was named or climb to a summit with a beautiful view, find a nearby perfectly nurtured zen garden with koi pond. There was much to see at this temple complex. And all of this between numerous buddha and bodhisattva statues. Some full size and finely detailed, while others more stylistic or rougher. The cutest ones were the little Jizo statues. They are little statues on which you’ll often see a red bonnet, scarf or bib. These statues are believed to be the protector of children. There are a lot of memorials at the temple premises for the atomic bomb victims as well, from the pagoda which was moved from Wakayama to Hiroshima, to the jizo statues, and much more. Tucked away in a mossy mountainflank, the Mitaki-dera was a fun temple complex to explore, with various sights and beautiful things to see. Easy to spend a couple of hours in. And for the hikers there’s a bonus, since there are a couple of loop hikes (from easy to difficult) that start or end at the Mitaki-dera.
You haven’t been to Hiroshima, if you haven’t visited the Miyajima island with the beautiful Itsukushima shrine. As usual we got up early, and took a train towards the port. It felt a little bit colder that day, though the sun was already shining, and it looked like it was going to become a beautiful day. After just a ten minute ride on the ferry, we found ourselves on a green island, and our eager feet immediately headed towards the main attraction of that day. The astonishingly beautiful Itsukushima shrine. The shrine was built by Taira no Kiyomori, biggest male protagonist in the Heike Monogatari (an epic account about the struggles between the Taira and the Minamoto clan). Most characterizingly, the shrine is built entirely on water. With a huge torii (=gate) much further into the sea, standing right before it. The best part about it, is that when at low tide, you can walk up to and pass through the torii. Unfortunately again, in preparation for the upcoming summer olympics, it was all covered up and under renovation…
Darn it. Guess we’ll have to come back again to see it in full glory! Luckily the Itsukushima shrine was still open to the public, so we, next to some schools that wanted to take their school pictures, enjoyed our time there. It is not overly spacious, though it does have a couple of bigger halls where you can pray or watch monks at work. The fun part is to just stroll the halls, not a few inches above the water, and enjoy the tranquility the shrine emits.
Afterwards we had a walk around, paying a short visit to a small shrine made for Taira no Kiyomori, a buddhist temple and a pagoda that overlooked the small village. Next we headed for a temple complex on the flank of mount Misen, where later we started a hike that would fill up the rest of our day. The Daisho-in, one of the most important temples of the Shingon buddhism. A vast temple complex, with so much to see and so much to do, I couldn’t describe all of it even if I wanted to. Memorable were the stairs with spinning metal wheels (called ‘Mani’) on which scriptures of sutras, which you can turn whilst walking up the stairs (it counts as reading the sutra’s). Also impressive is the Henjokutsu cave: a dimly lit cave in which sit an 88 buddhist icons representing the 88 temples of the pilgrimage route on Shikoku. I felt as it I didn’t have eyes enough to take in every beautiful sight, and never enough 5-coins (or other, but the fiver is considered lucky) to donate to all the icons that I felt close to. At least I had my temple book stamped, and after asking directions, we started a 1,5 hour ascend towards the summit of Mount Misen.
If you don’t like stairs, hiking in Japan is a no-go for you. This hike had hundreds of them. Some staircases had low stairs, like, old-people-friendly. But some stairs were almost knee-high and some areas had no stairs except a few remnants or some rocks or roots of trees that looked a little bit stair-like. So if yo have weak knees don’t do it, even for us it was a challgenge.The climb also doesn’t stop, it just goes on and on for 1,5 hour. Between trees, underneath bushes, over rocks,… Again it became clear what diverse nature Japan has. I was happy that we checked our water reservoirs before we set off! There were a lot of warnings to beware of the mamushi, a pit viper that carries poisonous venom. We agreed to stay on the path and keep a sharp eye. Since you’re at least an hour walk away from civilisation, getting a bite would be very unfortunate. We surely didn’t want to count ourselves among the ten people who die annually of the bite of the mamushi. Though I was still rather curious and I would have loved to see one, but we never got to find out. Maybe for the better.
Nearly at the top of mount Misen, we suddenly found ourselves at a peaceful stop, where other hikers also took their break and had a short rest. There stood a small temple hall, called the Reikado hall, also known as the eternal fire hall. There burns the holy flame which Kobo Daishi (=founder of Shingon Buddhism) used as part of his training, and is called eternal because after 1200 years it is still kept burning! The water that is cooking above it in a big kettle is said to cure all kinds of ailments and diseases, and for a small contribution you may take a sip of this magical potion! (might just cure my cold, so why not I thought). (it tasted a bit like warm water with honey actually).
The summit was only about 100 meters further, where we found an impressive lookout point which overviewed all the tiny islands surrounding the Miyajima island. A stunning sight I won’t forget easily. We had a longer rest there, before we chose a path downwards again. No ropeway for us! We opted for the momiji dani route, that took us past the most bright red coloured momiji trees, over creeks and past small water dams. Before we knew it, we were already walking amongst people again, who came up to get a good picture between the red bridges and shrines, and the red foliage of the trees.
Once down, we couldn’t resist just paying a last visit to the Hall of Thousand Tatami. Also known as the Senjokaku it was built by Toyotomi Hideyoshi (uniter of the Japan islands). It sits on a hill overlooking the bay with the Itsukushimashrine, and next to a five story pagoda. The hall is ginormous, really built for thousand tatamis. Purpose was to let a lot of monks (like, a LOT) chant buddhist sutra’s for fallen soldiers. On our way to the ferry we passed through a kind of shopping street with lots of food stalls selling their local speciality (a lot of oysters!), or souvenirs,… If we weren’t so hungry already we could’ve stayed longer, but the call for food was greater, so homewards it was!
On one of our last days at Hiroshima, we visited the Hiroshima Peace Museum. We hoped to be mentally prepared, had a good breakfast and lunch, before heading inside. I can already say, nothing in the world can prepare you for what you read, see or hear,… inside. Although the Peace Dome was already very confronting, and the remembrance hall was surely unsettling (to say the least), the Peace Museum just states the honest truth, without sugarcoating. If only all the people in the world could see it.
Short summary about the remembrance hall: just a few days earlier we visited this building right next to the Cenotaph Statue (the memorial monument) which you can get to by descending some stairs. Inside they show an all-round panorama of the barren landscape after the A-bomb fell on August 6, at 8:15. The whole scene is made of 140 000 tiles, representing the estimated victims to have died before the end of 1945. At the centre a water basin stands, offering water to the souls of the A-bomb victims who died craving water that day. When walking out the hall there is a room where a big screen hangs, on which you can watch/listen to testimonies of victims as well as survivors. It breaks the heart is all I can say about it.
So the Peace Museum went even further. Describing what lead to the A-bombing, the consequences (so many of them), the victims’ individual lives, the survivors (how they tried to build up their lives again), how only few countries today work on a nuclear-free world, and so much more. There are remnants shown: clothes worn by victims, fused glass bottles, death shadows on stones (dark shadows left on stone of where a person sat when the A-bomb struck),… There are pictures shown, of Hiroshima before and after, of victims, of survivors, of drawings made by survivors describing what they had seen and been through. There is much, and so much I can not sum it all up here. We saw lots of groups of schoolchildren under supervision of a teacher come to the museum as well. Some were still quite young we thought, and we did see a couple of kids (also adults) that broke down crying at the sight of the exhibition. Nevertheless we also think it is justified to show them this. Not only is it your country’s history, but it’s important for everyone to see what war can do.
Hiroshima is a fantastic thriving city, with so much culture and history to see and learn about. The people were so friendly and also hardworking, it left a profound impression on us. We enjoyed good food, had so much fun while shopping at the malls, the shrines and nature in and around the city are an absolute must!! I can’t wait to come back and see even more of this fantastic place, that rose from the ashes and keeps on growing towards a bright future. For real, I almost didn’t want to leave for Tokyo, but our journey in Japan was slowly nearing its end, and what better way to end it, than to go back to the most psychedelic city of Japan: Tokyo...
Back on the Shinkansen again…
Roasted chestnuts: they are roasted to perfection and absolutely delicious. You can find them on street corners or in shopping streets
Okonomiyaki: Yes, our recommendation for Kobe also stands for Hiroshima because this is another style. You can pretty much find it anywhere. Most famous place is okonomimura but we’ve had the best at a restaurant called Nagataya. Be early or there will be a long line.
Ramen: it remains one of our favourite foods in Japan and nearly every city or part of the country has a different take on it. The ramen in Hiroshima are mainly made with thin needles and often have a seafood base for the soup. Our favourite spot here was a tiny place (5 seats) called Kyochan. It exists since the 70 and it now has it’s third generation chef. But, for the love of god, we found it by accident and while we tried to find it on google or so we weren’t able to.
Things to visit:
Mitaki-dera: It’s a place of wonder and inner peace. the grounds are quite big and have plenty of nature with lots of colors in autumn. Beautiful budha statues and lots of nature, you can also do a loop hike here. Just be sure to have good shoes and don’t start to late.
Bomb-dome, peace museum, remembrance hall: If you are in Hiroshima you have to visit these tree. It’s the best way to understand why we need to stay far away from nuclear (and other) weapons. Just take your time and don’t be ashamed to split them up. Especially for empathic people it might be a lot to take in.
Miyajima island: Known around the world for the Torii that stands in the sea ( and survived the A- bomb). This island has much to offer. Beautiful shrines, gorgeous and strenuous hikes with rewarding views and shopping in the main streets. This has to be on your list.
Also the Itsukushima shrine of course. If you haven't visited this one, you haven't visited Hiroshima. It's pure beauty in uncanny compared to other shrines.