“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.
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.