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Hiroshima

A final thought from Hiroshima from my recent two day trip.

With two days to spend in Hiroshima my girlfriend and I used one day on Miyajima and the other visiting the A-bomb museum and the various memorials in Peace Park. All of which I have written about before.

The night of our second day we wandered down Peace Boulevard to look at the “Dreamination”. Basically Christmas Lights.

I don’t know about other countries but in Britain we have a big tradition of municipal Christmas lights. Every December cities up and down the U.K. tart themselves up in illuminations and then hold a fairly naff ceremony with a local celebrity to switch them on. Thus done the cities are transformed into a festive winter wonderland. Well not quite, but it would take a scrooge of epic proportions to object to Christmas Lights. For one month of the year the same old streets and tired shop fronts transform into something a little bit more interesting and fun to look at. The whole experience of just being in a city is subtly altered for the better.

I have fond memories as kid of being driven around the city centre with my Mum, Dad and two brothers with Christmas music playing on the radio looking at all the lights and pointing out all the strange shapes they were in. Snowmen, stockings, wreaths, presents, bears, Santas, candy canes and most memorably in Leeds the Santa parachuting down the side of an office building.

The “Dreamination” reminded me a lot of Christmas lights except that

a) They had nothing overtly to do with Christmas
b) They were up in November
c) They were confined to one (admittedly rather long) street
d) They were on a pedestrian level and pedestrians could interact with them rather than merely looking at them.

a) Can’t be helped considering Japan doesn’t officially celebrate Christmas, b) is a sad indictment of our consumer capitalist society but c) I am prepared to forgive because d) more than makes up for it.

Strolling through the lights is a much different experience to driving past them looking up. Strolling arm in arm with your long time girlfriend in weather that is cold but not too cold and looking at and playing with lights is another experience altogether and a very fine one at that.

Most of the lights were still there to be gazed at, obviously but a few of them provided an opportunity to get inside the lights and pose for photos.

Most notably this carousel.

And this train which I dubbed the Galaxy Express 999.

One day I need to see that anime, if only because at karaoke with my fellow teachers one of my JTE’s sang it once.

My favourite of the lights was this awesome looking phoenix. Not very Christmassy but very cool.

Incidentally Kobe also has it’s own Christmas lights-esque festival. The Luminare. I wrote about it last year. The Luminare has its appeal but frankly I’m much more a fan of the idiosyncratic but varied lights of the Dreamination than the beautiful but repetitive lights of the Luminare.

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I apologise but this post gets a wee bit poetic and flowery in the middle.

Momijidani is one of Japan’s two famous “viewing” seasons, the other being hanami in Spring. Momijidani means to go view the beautiful maple leaves that turn Japan’s forests into beautiful vistas of red and gold every autumn.

One of the most famous sights for Momijidani is Miyajima Island near Hiroshima. The island is covered in a wide variety of maples and even has a park dedicated to maple trees.

My girlfriend being wiser and more sensible than I rightly thought that it would be a great place to spend a long weekend. And she was right.

I don’t really have a lot to add about Miyajima since the last time I wrote about it. The floating torii is still a truly amazing sight. The view from the top of the mountain still offers a stunning panoramic vista of the surrounding area and the dramatic, moody mountains that burst from the sea like monsters rising from the depths. The climbed down is still pleasant and calm and takes you through beautiful primeval forest. There are still monkeys, deer and monkeys and deer together. The town of Miyajima is still charming and old fashioned and a delight to stroll through. It is, basically, still my favourite spot in Japan.

The main changes this time were to the climate and the amount of people in attendance.

Obviously it was autumn and as I said we had gone there to admire the autumn leaves. And they are definitely worthy of admiration. Autumn has always been my favourite season in Britain for the combination of the nicest temperatures of the year (September is warm but not so warm that you sweat from walking), the confluence of several festivals such as bonfire night and Halloween (which obviously isn’t a big thing in Britain but is to a horror movie buff like me) the beautiful crisp quality to the air and the glorious colours of the trees.

Japanese Autumn lacks the festivals and is still so wet that it jumps from hot to cold almost immediately but it more than makes up for it in the quality of its leaves.

I mean, wow! Words fail me.

The amount of forest in Japan helps this effect too. Japanese cities are largely devoid of trees (although Hiroshima is an exception) but just beyond every Japanese city is a dominating mountain range covered top to bottom in ancient forest. These forests are mostly a lustrous dark green but they are dotted here and there with bright apple reds, fiery oranges and sunflower yellows. In autumn every view in Japan gains a breathtaking multi-coloured backdrop.

Chief and most important of the autumn trees are the maples, the momiji which the season gets its name from. Not only do these trees effect the most dramatic change and most exciting of colours (just look at some of those reds and let your jaw hang loose in wonder) but the shape of the leaves further enhances their beauty. Symmetrical, angular, intricate, eye catching the classic maple leaf shape is the perfect canvas on which to display these autumnal compositions.

Autumn also grants the surrounding view a wonderful mist. From the top of the mountain the surrounding islands which rise so magnificently from the waters are draped in a mysterious fog. Thin enough that it doesn’t obscure the view but just thick enough to lend the islands an air of mystery and a vague ethereal quality.

Put basically Miyajima looks really pretty in autumn.

However, unfortunately, the Japanese people are well aware of this and they flock, in their thousands, to come see it.

This is a constant problem for the traveller in Japan. There are just a lot of Japanese people. And lots of these Japanese people want to do the same things as you. The Japanese are very good at enjoying their own country, much better than Brits are, and they love to travel and see the sights in Japan.

So you can be sure that at any major festival or any scenic spot that is particularly associated with a season there will be other people there in their thousands getting in your way and spoiling the view and the quiet.

Frankly I’m used to this by now and having to struggle through enormous crowds of people no longer bothers me quite so much as it did but it can still rankle sometimes, especially when we had to wait more than an hour for the cable car to the top of the mountain. Nor did I have the island entirely to myself last time either but whilst last time on my climb down the mountain last time I saw 3, maybe 4 people in total this time around I passed a group of 3 every 10 seconds.

The food is still awesome too. I introduced Fran to the delights of barbequed oysters. She didn’t like them and so I got to eat hers as well. She has no idea what she’s missing, they were tasty and juicy and perfect and meltingly delicious. I want some more just thinking about it.

And momiji-manju, basically tai-yaki but in the shape of momiji leaves, is still the finest invention in the entire history of Japan.

Hey guys. New post tomorrow for sure. I just came back from a visit to Hiroshima and I have lots of amazing photos to share. Right now though I’m absolutely knackered so just a quick filler.

birds fling delightly

Seen on a cup in our Hotel.

(topic title means “one moment please”)

Day 3

I had no particular plans for the last day except to try and squeeze in the “Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum” (or “the atomic bomb museum”) and maybe the castle. My first priority was breakfast so I ambled around the edges of Peace Park looking to see what restaurants there were.

I only found one, a little Italian place and it wasn’t due to open for another hour so I headed off to the atomic bomb museum first aiming to breeze through it and then have brunch.

The Peace Memorial Museum was excellent and deeply moving. It covers the story of Hiroshima city before, during and after it was hit by the first atomic weapon ever to be used in anger. It tells the story of what Hiroshima used to be like, principally a University town with the only major University outside of Tokyo at the time. It also had strong ties to the military, due to the 5th garrison of the Japanese army being stationed there, and a thriving entertainment district.

It explains why the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima; a decision that was as much taken to see what it would do as it was to end any war. The museum has originals and copies of many of the key documents leading up to the bombing with men such as Einstein and Roosevelt explaining in their own hand what they were thinking at the time.

This section is also surprisingly even handed. Whilst I came away with the impression that America were dicks there’s very little commentary on the process and a greater emphasis on getting you to read the documents themselves. And whilst there’s some level of selection here Japan doesn’t exactly come across in a great light either. It would be very easy for Hiroshima to act the bitter victim, claiming total innocence but they don’t. Instead the museum explains the thought processes of the Japanese war machine and the daily life of Japanese people during World War Two (which they call the Pacific War).

Most harrowingly the museum demonstrates the effect of the bomb and the immediate situation afterwards. There are a number of exhibits that really hammer home the impact of the bomb. Paintings by survivors showing what happened, twisted and burnt materials, human shadows and pictures of the day. Three things in particular stand out. The first is a pair of models showing the city of Hiroshima the day before and the day after the bomb. The first looks like a regular model town full of houses, trees and buildings. The other is a grey wasteland with nothing visible except roads and some foundations. Two buildings still stand, the Industrial Promotion Dome, now known as the A-Bomb dome and miraculously an elementary school which is still standing even though buildings on all sides of it are gone. Above this model a giant red ball hovers showing how big the fireball was after the explosion. A wax statue of a mother and family walking through the town with the skin melting off their bodies also hit home but nothing, nothing is as heart wrenching as the room of belongings. It’s full of burnt school uniforms and lunch boxes and underneath are stories about the people they belonged too. Mostly stories of how a small child found their way home despite all the skin being gone from their body and dying shortly after they reached their home. By far the worst is a twisted misshapen tricycle belonging to a 5 year old boy. When he died his father thought hew as too little to be buried in an adult cemetery so he buried him in the back garden with his tricycle so that he would have something to play with. Years later he dug him up again and moved him to a cemetery when he thought he was old enough. It was everything I could do not to cry.

After this the museum explains the continuing problems that survivors faced, radiation sickness, burns not healing properly, cancer and worst of all those survivors who weren’t yet born when the bomb was dropped but who nearly all suffered birth defects and massive developmental problems. How horrible a weapon is it that it can ruin lives before they’ve even begun.

Finally the museum explains the current global situation regarding nuclear weapons, which countries have them, what mutually assured destruction was, etc. This section can get a little bit preachy and some people would probably say that its a little bit naïve (it certainly is biased) but I would argue that as the only survivors of a nuclear attack Japan is the only country that can possibly understand what their effect is. In this section there is a wall showing a copy of telegrams sent from the mayor of Hiroshima to the Japanese ambassador of various nations. Ever time a nuclear weapon is tested the mayor sends a telegram expressing his distress and desire to move away from nuclear weapon research. The wall is huge and sadly seemingly futile.

It doesn’t take much familiarity with Japanese pop-culture to realise that this is a nation that abhors war more than any other. Although Japan was previously one of the most jingoistic and imperialistic war like nations in Earth’s history (sadly something it shares in common with my home country) after World War Two popular opinion swung right the other way. In almost all Japanese pop-culture that deals with conflict there is an underlying anti-war message, questioning the necessity of war and its impact. Even a relatively light piece of fluff like the Gundam series constantly asks questions about what war does to the humans that have to fight it and the humans that are victims of it.

Yes Gundam. The same show that gave us a robot dressed like a fish.

Also gave us relatively sophisticated arguments about why human beings fight wars.

Most famously of course Godzilla, that most quintessential emblem of the disposable and insane pop-culture of Japan is also a metaphor for the danger of nuclear weapons.

Furthermore Japan doesn’t even have an army! Alright, for most intents and purposes it does have an army, with tanks and everything. However this is officially designated a “self defence force” and the Japanese constitution explicitly forbids Japan from declaring war or moving combatant troops overseas.

Those of you that have been keeping up with news in Iraq are probably confused right now as surely Japan was in the coalition of the willing right? Well the troops they contributed were strictly non-combatants. That they assisted with the occupation and invasion of Iraq at all is not exactly living up to the ideals of peace that they typically espouse but Japan are still a damn sight more committed to the pursuit of world peace than America or Britain.

So I definitely recommend the atomic bomb museum. It’s incredibly moving and informative.

After the museum I headed back to Italian place for what was now lunch and had an awesome dinner for a bargain price. Suitably refreshed and happy I had a wander around Peace Park again.

I liked Peace Park in the evening but I liked it even more on a sunny day. It was green with wide open spaces and beautiful monuments scattered about. Peace Park marks the spot where the A-bomb was actually dropped and where most of the existing buildings and roads were destroyed completely. The main focus isn’t actually in the park itself but is just over the river. Genbaku-domu-mae, the A-Bomb dome. This is the site of the former Industrial Promotion Dome. Once upon a time this was a remarkable building with a distinctive green dome. Its main job was hosting events to promote the city of Hiroshima as a tourist destination. It was the symbol of the city and still is. Then it was a symbol of prosperity and power, of international influence culture. Now it is a ruin and a mute reminder to the events that once happened here. The green dome has gone and in its place is the framework for the dome, still bent and distorted from where the blast hit it. It forever points to where the blast came from.

The dome was very contentious for a long time whilst the city was being rebuilt. Many people thought it was a dangerous ruin and that it only served to bring back painful memories. Others, quite wisely in my view, suggested that something should still stand as a reminder of the destruction of that day and so the A-Bomb Dome remains. A skeletal reminder of what once was.


The other main monument in the park is that children’s monument in memory of Sadako Sasaki. Sadako was 2 years old when the atomic bomb was dropped and when she was 12 she contracted leukemia. There is an old Japanese tradition that if you fold a 1000 paper cranes and make a wish on each one it will come true. During her hospitalisation Sadako folded paper cranes constantly wishing on each one to get well. Her effort was in vain though and though she managed to fold more than a thousand cranes she died within the year. Her classmates suggested a memorial to Sadako and to all the children that the atomic bomb had claimed.

The memorial is filled with thousands of paper cranes which are constantly refreshed by volunteers from around the world, mostly schools. The paper crane has since become a symbol of peace for many.

Another particularly moving monument was that to the Korean victims of the bomb. During the war many foreign residents of Japan, mostly from Korea and Vietnam, were forcibly conscripted to work in labour camps to fuel the war effort. On the day of the bomb many of them were working outside clearing demolished buildings in order to make fire breaks. When the bomb hit they had no protection and many died instantly. The rest, delirious from their injuries, leapt into the river to try and soothe their burns. For years these foreign dead were denied a proper burial and worse for their relatives they died far away from home and their souls were not enshrined to be looked after. This simple turtle, wrapped in paper cranes commemorates a suffering which is still not really understood today.

The Peace Flame was lit in 1964 and will remaining burning until the world is free of nuclear weapons.

Finally the cenotaph, a simple arch bears the following inscription.

“Repose ye in Peace, for the error shall not be repeated”

We can only hope so.

There are dozens more monuments in the park, too many to cover in this space or to see in one trip. I only hope that the people those monuments commemorate aren’t offended that I didn’t have the time to contemplate them personally.

I bid Peace Park goodbye and headed off to find the castle.

Hiroshima-jo, also known as “carp castle” (this city is obsessed with carp) is, well it’s a Japanese castle. It isn’t as architecturally as impressive as Osaka-jo and it doesn’t combined with nature as harmoniously as Himeji-jo. Plus it’s a reconstruction, the original, unsurprisingly, was destroyed by the bomb.

For all that it’s still a nice castle to visit. The castle was hugely important in shaping Hiroshima’s history. The establishment of the castle turned five towns on a series of islands into one cohesive city (named for the widest island). The castle was also the reason the 5th army garrison was stationed here, which ultimately was a factor in the city’s tragic fate. It’s informative but not exactly riveting stuff.

Finally here is a dog in a hat driving a car.

I bloody love this country.

And that was my trip to Hiroshima. I shall probably return there, girlfriend in toe, and not make the same mistakes I did this time. I enjoyed my break immensely and can easily recommend it as one of the finest places to visit in the whole of Japan.

Hiroshima Day 2

The plan for Day 2 was to get up early, head to Miyajima Island to climb Mt Misen and then spend the rest of the day on Miyajima getting some photos of the “floating torii.” Reportedly, one of the three most beautiful and most photographed views in all of Japan.

Of course the problem with this is that I lost my camera. So I had to hang around in Hiroshima until 10 o’clock when the shops opened, find an electronics shop, buy a camera, charge the battery and then head to Miyajima. I eventually arrived at about 1 o’clock, a good 3 hours after the planned time.

However, whilst I was not too pleased about having to fork out for a camera and being late any residual anger I had left me the minute I came into view of Miyajima.

It’s wonderful.

The ferry that takes you to the island crosses in front of the famous floating torii on its way there. Unfortunately for me the floating torii only floats during a high tide and as I approached it was low tide and the torii was surrounded by nothing more beautiful than sand and tourists. Even so it was still an impressive sight. Elegantly constructed and massive it dwarfed the people surrounding it and is immediately eye catching.

I was going to have to wait until high tide to see the torii but I had to climb the mountain straight away if I wanted to have a chance to visit anything else. Pausing only to feed my complaining stomach some yakitori (which was delicious and juicy and the best I have ever had) I headed off to Misen.

The first stage of the climb requires leaving the small town that surrounds Itsukushima-jinja and the torii and heading up the slope to the cable car. The town of Miyajima is phenomenally touristy but still really nice. Moving away from the main shopping arcade it’s quiet, decidedly old fashioned and full of winding narrow hilly streets, interesting little shops and handsome older Japanese style buildings. Oh and there are tame deer wandering through the streets too which adds a certain novel charm. Pretty as it was it was also bloody steep and I was knackered just reaching the cable car.

On the way up the mountain I saw what may be my 2nd favourite sign so far in Japan.

The second stage of the climb is to get on the cable car which, yes I realise, is a bit of a cheat. Time was a factor though and I resolved to take the scenic route down. The cable car ride was absolutely stunning. Miyajima sits at the entrance to the Seto Inland Sea, which isn’t inland at all but is between two of the main islands of Japan. The Seto Sea is full of tiny but tall mountains formed from volcanoes. They rise out of a perfect blue ocean like the teeth of some great monster. Small islands you could walk around in an hour but impossibly tall and pointy for their size. They’re absolutely gorgeous, some of the most captivating scenery I have ever seen.

Eventually we got to the top of the cable car where I was greeted by what is easily my favourite sign in Japan so far.

MONKEYS!

Yup monkeys. Deer too. At the top of the cable car there is a rock park with a small observatory that is full of macaques and deer. I love monkeys. These were far less terrifying than the ones in Yamasaki too as they weren’t circling us to try and steal our food. It was a bit freaky though when one nearly fell on me after leaping off a roof.

Also how cute is this sign.

As it was spring time there were lots of little baby monkeys running about too. I saw one incredibly sweet little thing climbing out of a hole. When his mother spotted me with my camera she immediately swept him up in her arms and turned her back to me.

This pair on the other hand had no shame.

And may I just go on record as saying that distended monkey nipples are some of the most disturbing things I have ever seen.

Shudder!

Although I could have stayed all day I had a mountain to climb. So I embarked on stage 3, up the path to the peak.

The path to the summit wanders through a primeval forest that is pretty dark and absolutely full of animals. May favourites were the frogs that made a noise like a video recorder rewinding. Not that that means much to many of you young whippersnappers but trust me they sounded exactly like a rewinding video.

After about 20 minutes I reached a temple dedicated to Kobo Daishi, the monk responsible for inventing kana. The main claim to fame for this temple is that Kobo Daishi once ate at this spot on his way up Mt Misen on a pilgrimage. The cooking fire he used is apparently still burning and the focal part of the temple is a shed containing a small fire and an enormous cast iron pot. Highly doubtful that a priest would have an enormous cast iron pot which he just left behind but interesting nonetheless.

I thought that this temple was at the summit but I spotted a staircase and guessed that I needed to keep going. Then I came to an open plain with some rocks and figured I’d reached the top but no, another staircase. This happened about 5 or 6 times before I eventually, mercifully came to the actual summit.

Whereupon the grey clouds that had been doggedly pursuing me all day parted and I stared down upon one of the most serenely beautiful things I have ever seen.

The view was amazing. As I mentioned last post no matter how high you climb in Japan you can always see mountains and I could here. But their character was totally different to those I had seen on my way here. The mountains on the land are soft, dark green and wave like. The whole landscape is little more than a bumpy plain of dark green hills. Here the trees were bright green and contrasted against the absolutely glorious blue of the sea. And they didn’t roll but jutted straight up in the air. I could see all the way to Shikoku!

I just sat and stared for ages. A good half hour easily, with my lower jaw hanging heavily down. I was dumbstruck.

Then I spotted that there was an observation tower and more stairs to climb. *sigh*. I climbed it but the view was not significantly improved by the extra 10 ft of height.

Underneath the observation tower was a house on a hillside with a little café attached. I went inside and got a beer and some crisps and ate staring at the sublime vista. The man who served me was one of the smiliest men I have ever seen. I assume he lives near the top of the mountain, or at least spends most of his day there and the smile is the result of the absolutely stunning scenery.

And then it was time to head down.

Just as I was about to set off I passed a couple just reaching the peak. The girl was wearing enormous high heels, real stilettos. God only knows what she’d done to her feet on the climb up.

There are a couple of different routes down the mountain but the one I wanted to take passed a shrine on the way down. The colourful shrine of Daishoo-in which promised a koi carp pond, a Zen garden and basically everything one could possibly want in a shrine.

Unfortunately that route was shut so I instead headed off back through the forest.

It was shockingly quiet. Japan is so full of background noise that I can never get used to the moments in its countryside that suddenly goes quiet. It’s like stepping outside of the real world and into some fantasy setting. I half expected a kappa to leap from the water at any second.

The path followed a stream down to the base of the mountain. Periodically at points along the stream there was half a dam across it made of stones. I discovered at the bottom that these are actually erosion defences. In the 1930’s buildings at the bottom of the stream and much of the scenery of the forest was destroyed by a freak monsoon that caused the stream to burst its banks and flood. The town of Miyajima embarked upon a plan to stop this happening by installing some flood defences. However they faced the problem that all of the flood defence ideas would involve building some kind of dam that would detract from the beauty of the area. Then they hit upon the idea of disguising the dam to look like a traditional Japanese garden. And it works! The garden at the base of the mountain is lovely and completely hides all the flood defences at the bottom and the dams going up the mountain are shaped to fit into the surrounding area. It’s a rare example of local government actually improving on something and getting it right.

According to the “lonely planet” guidebook the descent takes “a good hour.” I managed it in nearly half of that and I wasn’t exactly running.

At the bottom I made my way quickly to “Itsukushima-jinja” before it closed. Itsukushima-jinja is the shrine for which the island is properly named (Itsukushima) and is the shrine that the floating torii marks the entrance too. It is a very unusual shrine in that it is mostly not on the island at all but rather is constructed like a pier jutting off the beach. The reason for this is that the god the shrine venerates is the entire island itself, which is considered to be holy. Because the island is so holy common people weren’t allowed to set foot on it. They had to cross over from the mainland, pass through the floating torii and worship on the shrine.

Although it looks quite nice from a distance and is quite unusual the actual shrine itself is pretty dull and doesn’t boast any interesting relics or statues. The one feature that I did enjoy was this bridge that joins the island to the shrine. In older days messengers from the Empress Suiko would cross this bridge to give messages to the shrine. The bridge is actually so steep that it can’t be crossed normally and special ladders are needed. I love that, a bridge that you can’t cross. How fantastically pointless.

The other thing the shrine offers is a good view of the famous floating torii. By this point it still wasn’t quite floating so I decided to have a wander up to it to see it up close.

It is, I can report, very big. Although it isn’t the biggest torii I have ever seen. On the arms about halfway up the torii are piles and piles of rocks that tourists have thrown up there. I have no idea what the point of this is but I decided to have a go too. I overshot the arm completely and splashed in the water opposite, startling an American gentleman who was lost in admiration for the torii.

As time was getting late I set out to find two things. Food, and a giant rice ladle.

Now the giant rice ladle was a bit of a whim. On my way up the mountain I had glanced at a map that marked out a “big ladle” as a site of interest. It wasn’t marked on my map though and now that I was searching for it I couldn’t find it or the map I had seen. After a brief search I gave up and went off in search of oysters.

Hiroshima as a whole is famous for sea food and Miyajima specifically for barbequed oysters. Whenever I have eaten oysters in the past it has always been raw and they have always been disappointing little blobs with the exact texture and flavour of an enormous bogey. I had never had them barbequed before and OH! MY! GOD! Why on earth don’t we cook oysters in England?! These were juicy, delicious and sweet. Like giant mussels but oh so very tasty. I am sorry to say that I gorged and went back for seconds.

No sooner did I seat myself for seconds than I glanced up and spotted that all this time I had been engrossed in my oysters I had failed to spot the giant ladle.

Well actually it’s more of a spatula, but I’m sure we can all agree it’s a very big spatula.

Full on oysters I sought out ice cream to wander along the beach with. As most of the day trippers had gone home by this point a lot of the shops were closing up but I found one woman with a wide selection of ice creams.

Including wasabi.

That would be horseradish ice-cream. How could I refuse?

The wasabi ice cream was unusual but not unpleasant tasting. It had a sweet and creamy taste but a fiery hot after taste. The effect was to make you want to eat more ice cream because every bite demanded some cream to cool your mouth down. Despite this I couldn’t finish the ice cream and so I fed the remains to a deer. Deer will eat anything; they’re like giant pretty rats.

To rid my mouth of the taste of wasabi I sought out another thing Miyajima is famous for. Dorayaki in the shape of a maple leaf. Only I had it taiyaki style. That means deep-fried maple cake filled with anko. Scrumptious. The outside was warm and crunchy then a layer of gooey warm cake and finally a layer of warm oozing sweet anko paste.

I think if offered it, I would eat taiyaki every day. It would make me very fat but very, very happy.

In fact I liked it so much I had two.

And now finally the tide was in so I set off to get some shots of the now floating “floating torii” and then headed back to the hotel.

“As I write these words, in a little black moleskine I bought in Newcastle in
the misguided belief that I am Ernest Hemmingway, I am presently stuck in a
train station in a place called Aioi. I have no desire to be in Aioi, I want to
be in Hiroshima, which is several hundred miles to the west of where I am
currently seated. Failing that I’d settle for Okayama which is where several
trains have promisedme I was going before informing me that they were going to
drop me of in the middle of sodding nowhere. Aioi train station is not exactly
thrilling. I have bought a drink, and thus exhausted it’s possibilities for
amusement. The only thing I can do to possibly while away the hours is to
attempt to work out how exactly one pronounces Aioi, something like ah-ee-oh-ee
which sound a bit like a painful grunt. I will probably type this all up on my
blog if, and this is a big if, I ever leave sodding Aioi.”

Eventually, after over an hour, I did.

How I got there in the first place required a spectacular misjudgement on my part, one of several I had made that day leading up to a not exactly successful start to my trip.

The previous night I had packed my brand new bag. Not knowing what the weather or sleeping conditions would be liked in Hiroshima I had prepared for the worse. I had placed my gameboy, phone and camera on charge and went to bed giddy and excited.

The next morning I awoke, quickly packed my things, had breakfast and headed off to make my way to Hiroshima.

I decided to take the JR rather than the Shinkansen for the simple reason that the Shinkansen costs more money and would be too easy for my poorly planned little adventure. I use the JR quite frequently and have never before had any problem deciphering it’s maps and complicated system of multiple speed trains before. Furthermore when I got to the JR station I discovered that although the map didn’t have Hiroshima listed it did have Okayama, a city I have been to before on the JR and where I had done, well this.

I knew that from Okayama you could get the train to Hiroshima so I made this destination number 1. Now I did mess up somewhat straight away. I remembered from last time that when we went to Okayama we had to transfer once before reaching it. I didn’t remember which station we transferred in so I decided to aim toward Himeji reasoning that they would probably have an Okayama connection there. That’s a reasonable assumption right? Two big cities probably have a train running between them.

In Himeji there were many trains listed as heading to Okayama. I boarded one.

It did not go to Okayama.

Instead it dropped me in a tiny little rural train station and returned to Himeji. However this train station also promised connections to Okayama, in half an hour.

These subsequent trains did not go to Okayama. Instead I had to catch a series of ever progressing local trains inching my way towards Okayama.

All of which led to me sitting in a train station in Aioi for an hour and the rant at the start of this post.

Having said that, the journey was not entirely unpleasant. The scenery was absolutely lovely all the way to Okayama. Japan is really characterised by its mountains. There is no horizon in this country, look far enough in any direction and all you’ll see is mountains. Climb and mountain and there’s still no horizon just more and more distant mountains. Hell look out to sea and you’ll probably spot an island or two. The mountains inform so much of Japanese culture and how the country feels. Leave the city and they really start to creep into your brain, they dominate your thoughts. You simply can’t escape them. At times it can be quite intimidating, you feel squashed in and trapped. However in this instance they were lovely, like the train was boat travelling in a green sea. It was sunny, quiet, warm without being hot and I had nothing to do but read and gaze at trees and mountains.

Having arrived in Okayama I decided to sod the JR and try my hand at the Shinkansen (bullet train). This is such a symbol of Japan that I knew I would end up riding it one day anyway and I was so desperate not to be on a train anymore that I paid the extra fair and set off.

The Shinkansen is more like a plane than a train really. It has its own station that feels much more like an airport than a train station. The doors are airlocked, the corridors are very narrow with low ceilings and the décor and shape just screams plane at you. Except it isn’t a plane, and it has absolutely scads of leg room. I rode it in blissful happiness that I was finally making some progress to Hiroshima.

Eventually I arrived. 6 hours later.

One benefit of all the extra travelling time was that I’d had plenty of chances to consult my guidebook and look for a place to stay. The plan was to try and find a cheap-ish hotel and failing that to just find a coin locker to store my bag in. The guidebook pointed out a youth hostel right smack dab in the centre of the city and next to the peace park. This was exactly the sort of area I needed to be staying in so I headed to the Aster International Youth Hostel.

Asking for a room for two nights resulted in an ominous Japanese collaborative huddle (i.e. they all had to ask each other if it was okay) the end result of which was that yes they did have two rooms but I would need to check out each day and check back in again.

Fine, whatever, I give up questioning you Japan.

And the room was great. Fairly basic but this place was meant to be a hostel! I got a room to myself a TV and an en-suite shower and bath. I’ve stayed in hotels that were much worse than this place.

Depositing my belongings I hit Hiroshima to see what it was like.
It was then that I realised that I had left my camera back in Kobe.

Arse.

The first thing I noticed about Hiroshima, trams. As in it has them, and as far as I know is the only Japanese city that has them. Now I love trams, don’t ask me why. I can’t possibly identify any specific aspect of trams that I find appealing but for some reason I do. I think it might be a boy thing.

And because of the trams the streets are really, really wide. Startlingly wide actually. I’m used to Japanese cities being cramped and busy but Hiroshima was full without being crowded in the slightest. There are acres of lovely space in those streets.

It’s also much leafier than most Japanese cities too, particularly around the peace park and bordering the peace park on either side is a wide, slow moving river. The combination of river and tress was particularly lovely on this hot day with the shade and the feel of the water giving me some much needed cool.

In fact Hiroshima doesn’t really fell much like a Japanese city, it’s got lots of green space, it’s wide and uncluttered and it has a grand river running through it with riverside cafes. These are not qualities I associate with any city in Kansai, in fact at times it feels positively Mediterranean. Disconcerting but perfectly pleasant.

This had all put me in a good mood and I ventured out to explore peace park and possibly get something to eat. I had spotted on my way to the hostel that there was some kind of festival in the peace park so I headed in that direction hoping that they would have food.

I needn’t have worried, this is Japan and anywhere people gather there is always food.
I set myself up with a beer and this thing.

Yes, an omelette on a stick. I have said before that the Japanese have a great fondness for putting food on sticks but even I could not quite believe that they would put an omelette on a stick. It wasn’t bad though, a bit gooey in the middle but it had onions to give it some crisp and was pretty tasty.

I wasn’t quite full yet so I continued searching for more food on sticks and elected to have some barbequed squid on a stick. I was tucking into this delicacy and heading into the park when who should I cross paths with but Steve.

You all remember Steve right, from Yamasaki.

With a mouth full of squid I couldn’t say anything but fortunately he recognized me too. He was on his jollidays from work too and had been in Tokyo the night before. Small world isn’t it?

Turns out Steve also has a blog on deviantart. He was visiting Hiroshima with his friend Daniel. Fortunately both of them are big photographer geeks and have many, many spectacular photos of that night. I will post them as soon as Steve puts them on deviantart.
The festival was a “festival of flowers” and was in honour of “Greenery Day” which is an actual national holiday in Japan. As well as all the usual festival distractions (i.e. food) the main events were a stage with some dancing and a display of candles in peace park.

You could buy a candle, write a message and add it to the display. This consisted of a long table running down the centre of peace park, some fixed candles on stilts in the reflecting pond and some stands with candles on them. There were also giant glass cranes in the style or origami cranes that lit up. The effect was really quite beautiful and as I say, Steve has pictures.

The dancing was much less impressive although not bad. The most memorable part for me were some boys who, judging by their costume, were either from Thailand or India. I had actually spotted these boys in costume when I checked into my hotel and was a little skeeved at the time. Most of the boys were in a masculine costume, a purple robe with a gold effect headdress and some other gold effect components. They looked quite Indian basically and I’m sure you can all guess their general appearance. However some of the older boys had elaborate gold head dresses, skirts, make-up and what I can only describe as belly shirts exposing their mid riff. They were definitely boys, I saw one up close as I checked in but they were dressed in phenomenally feminine costume. Creepy.

The rest of the dancing was competent and occasionally amazing but substantially less mind searing.

Having wandered around chatting and taking photos we set off for dinner. Hiroshima is famous for two things; seafood and a kind of okonomiyaki called Hiroshima-yaki that is made with noodles. My guidebook mentioned a department store called “okonomi-mura” that promised a wide selection of Hiroshima-yaki places so we set off to find it.

Could we find it, could we bugger.

The map in the guidebook was complete crap and didn’t tell us where the actual store was instead opting to give us a few landmarks and then make us guess. Worse nobody we spoke to had ever heard of okoni-mura or the entertainment district we were looking for. Eventually we found a guy who did know what we meant and directed us to a street we must have passed about 6 times. There we saw a sign saying in hiragana “okonomi-mura”. That meant that when we were asking where the entertainment district Sintenchi was we were in Shintenchi. Yet not one person we asked had ever heard of Shintenchi.

The Hiroshima-yaki was good though. A little bland maybe, with too many noodles and not enough sauce or meat. Still it was tasty enough to satisfy. Hiroshima okonomiyaki doesn’t hold a candle to the stuff in Osaka though.

I finished up in a bar called “Zepplin bar” because I liked the sound of the promised classic R’n’B and rock. Not exactly common music in Japan. What I got was Chicago. Bloody Chicago! Still I got chatting to a nice Japanese bloke who used to live in Canada and had a couple of “just what the doctor ordered” beers.
And that’s it for day 1. Still 2 more days and many, many photos to get through so stick around.

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