Excerpt from a travelogue: 183 days-a-travelling. October 2009.
I was only in Hiroshima for about 36 hours, but enough happened that it deserves a post on its own.
It was a long trip from Fukushima. I left the farm about 9:15am, getting a quick ride to the first bus, then switching to another bus, getting to the train station, and then boarding the first of three shinkansen (bullet trains). I had to change at Tokyo and again at Osaka, so it was 5:30pm before I finally rolled my way out of the station. The trip was over 1000km all told. Luckily my hostel was 3 minutes’ walk from the station and very easy to find. It had been awhile since I’d stayed in a dormitory room and I wasn’t really looking forward to it, but actually it worked out pretty well. There were only four of us to a room, and the bunk beds had little flowered curtains to pull around each berth so that you even had some modicum of privacy. And not having to go outside into the freezing cold night to use the bathroom was a nice change over Fukushima, too!
Before bed I headed out again and rambled the streets sampling the busy nightlife of the city, which bustled in a very cheery way. I had no time to waste, so that very evening I had Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki. Okonomiyaki (cook it the way you like it!) is a very popular food that basically involves mixing fillings into a sort of thick pancake batter and cooking it on a griddle. Sometimes a chef does it for you and at other places you cook it yourself. I’d had it a number of times before, but always the Kansai-style. Hiroshima style is totally different. To make it, they start by pouring a thin sheet of crepe batter onto the hot griddle. As soon as it sets, a huge mound of shredded cabbage and onion goes over top. It’s covered and steam-cooks while the rest is prepared. Next the chef starts cooking your choice of protein. Hiroshima is famous for kaki (oysters, not to be confused with kaki, persimmons), so I had those. Some ramen noodles get tossed onto the griddle and fried with some pickled ginger, then last of all an egg is cracked right onto the griddle surface and spread out so it cooks to a thin sheet. The elements are assembled – crepe bottom, vegetables, noodles, and egg on top holding the whole thing together (some pieces of pork generally go into the construction somewhere, but I asked them to leave it out of my portion so I’m not sure where). Then the oysters are placed on top, which is drizzled with okonomi sauce (a sweet brown sauce), bonito flakes and more shreds of ginger. Voila! If you’re sitting at the bar, like I was, then the okonomiyaki is just whisked over to rest on the griddle in front of you, where it keeps warm as you use a little metal spatula to cut off pieces and convey then to your plate, where you devour them with chopsticks. Oishii!! May I say, too, how nice it is for single travellers that there is such a huge variety of foods on Japan that can be consumed while sitting at a bar, thereby avoiding the awkward lone diner in a restaurant feeling.
I only had one day to see the sights of Hiroshima, so I decided to use my early rising to help get it all in. My first stop was the local market, which as luck would have it was actually between my hostel and the station, so I got lots of fruit and various bits of cooked food to assemble into breakfast and lunch. I hopped a train and was off to Miyajima.
Miyajima Island is renowned as one of the three most famous, most beautiful views of Japan (the others being Matsushima and Amanohashidate, neither of which I’m going to). It’s especially known for the Itsukushima Shrine, which has a red torii gate which at high tide is partly covered by water, so that the gate floats on the water (and is reflected below). After a busy commuter train ride, there were hardly any people on the ferry, so I thought my getting up early scheme had worked quite well.
Not so. When I reached the island at 8am, there were already hordes of schoolchildren pouring off the island, having finished their visit – and the island was mobbed with yet more of them. This was actually true of everywhere I went in Hiroshima. I’m not sure if it’s a popular destination for out of town school groups on trips or if the area schools just really like going on outings, but there were large groups of children in blue uniforms being shepherded by loud tour guides EVERYWHERE. I actually ended up not even going into the Itsukushima Shrine, beautiful as it looked, because it was just so mobbed that I couldn’t imagine being able to enjoy myself. (My presence, however, was an added value for many of the little boys, who were constantly daring each other to come up to me, say “Harro, harro!” and then run away again giggling.)
I was eventually able to find a quiet corner of the island, though, and settled down by the water’s edge to enjoy views of the shrine while having a nice little picnic. I had onigiri with pickled vegetables, really tasty omelet with seaweed in it, apple and carrot slices, and a little anpan (sweet bun filled with red bean paste). And cold green tea. Ah, this was the life, the quiet morning, the sounds of the sea, no one around…
Suddenly I felt something nudging me. Eek! It is a sad fact to which any solo female traveller can attest, that as soon as you settle down to a moment of quiet contemplation, something comes along to disrupt you and make you move on. In Paris it’s persistent North African men hitting on you, and at Japanese sacred sites it’s…deer.
I haven’t mentioned the deer yet, but just like at Nara (ancient capital of Japan, site of world’s largest wooden building and Japan’s largest bronze Buddha), there are deer everywhere. They are protected, so they amble about utterly unfazed by the tourists and sometimes actually going after them. The Miyajima deer aren’t nearly as aggressive as the Nara ones though – the latter are little gangsters who will chase you down, pick your pockets (or pick your bicycle panniers) and otherwise move around in packs sneering at you. You think I exaggerate, but go see for yourself. Anyway, this was just an inquisitive deer with a very muddy nose who really tried hard to convince me that I should give it my picnic. So I had to hurriedly scramble up, awkwardly bundling up my food and stuffing it into my backpack and edging away from my assailant, who eventually looked sadly at me and gave up, ambling away.
I ambled too, here and there and eventually happened on Daisho-in, a Shingon sect Buddhist temple complex set into a hill, where I spent probably an hour. There were a number of temples and hundreds of statues scattered over the hillside, not to mention the Japanese maple leaves starting to change into their autumn colours – and views back down over Itsukushima and across the bay to Hiroshima. It was a really beautiful place, very calm and probably because it was on such a steep hill, there were hardly any people.
From there I noticed a sign pointing to “Mount Misen”. So I decided to climb it, having no idea how long or arduous a walk it would be (the tourist office wasn’t open yet when I arrived). It turned out to only be a 2.5km trail, but with over 500m of elevation gain and under a hot sun, it felt like more. Not to mention that while steep stone steps may be direct, they are a lot less forgiving than the dirt switchbacks I am used to from hiking in the Rockies. Oof! It was quite the climb. But it was so worth it. Ah…the view. 360 degrees of the bay, various islands, wildly shaped trees emerging from the hillside, and the city of Hiroshima spreading out to the northeast. At the top, too, there were enormous stone boulders piled intriguingly on top of each other. I’m not sure what their story is (I never did pick up a pamphlet) but they were quite something in themselves. I was horribly sweaty and disgusting when I got to the top, but I sat and drank tea and ate the rest of my picnic gazing at the view, and eventually dried off. It was really spectacular.
I had started climbing at the same time as two Japanese men, and we had exchanged pleasantries at the beginning, but I soon passed them and didn’t see them for quite some time. But then after I’d been resting for awhile at the top, I found them again. The younger of the two came up to me and handed me a chilled bottle of Pocari Sweat (yes, that’s its name) “Sports Drink!” He said, indicating with gestures that I should replenish my ions after such a workout! A spontaneous gift from a total stranger.
Unsurprising that I felt a beautiful sense of calm and peace at the top of this mountain. It stayed with me most of the way down, though by this time I was so tired that my legs trembled with every step. So it’s probably a good thing that I received the precious gift of Pocari Sweat! I rambled over Miyajima a bit more but it was time to head back to the city.
The other thing that I had meant without fail to do in Hiroshima was of course to visit the memorials to the atomic bomb victims. But without really consciously doing so, I found myself being distracted, turning one way or another. Putting off my eventual arrival.
I got to the A-bomb dome as the sky was just starting to darken into dusk. When the bomb exploded 600m up, nearly all of the city centre was completely flattened. But a few buildings, that were directly under where the blast hit, actually remained partially standing. While most of these are now gone, the dome is being maintained as it looked after the blast as a memorial and tribute. I had seen partially demolished buildings before – in Germany and the UK, especially churches that were left half destroyed as a testament to the unsparing destruction of war. But here there were concrete beams bent in half and hanging in the air, metal twisted into strange shapes, holes everywhere. I started to cry at my first sight of the building and wasn’t really able to stop until I left the park a few hours later.
I got to the museum about an hour before closing. It was, of course, mobbed with school groups. I’m not sure if that was better or worse, as I shuffled along quickly from horrifying sight to horrifying sight, sniffling and trying to keep it together. It’s a very well put-together museum, trying as it does to cover a topic so mind-blowingly terrible that you can’t hold all of the awfulness in your head at once. One of the early rooms has two scale models of the city – one at 8am on August 6th, 1945 – a regular city. And half an hour later. Emptiness. Rubble. A few broken buildings jutting out of the flattened core.
I couldn’t decide which was the most sickening thing – the photos of the burns and the melted flesh? Or the wall that discussed how the decision was made, where and when to use the bomb, and how much that decision and its timing had to do with impressing the Soviet Union and not Japan at all. You couldn’t finish fighting one war before starting the next one, superpowers? And what a funny thing, the way that you fought that next war all on the bodies of other peoples, not your own, and how those other peoples you deemed worthy of attack were by strange coincidence not white people like you were. Funny.
And then there were the little things, like that the hypocentre was over a hospital. Like the tattered remains of a schoolgirl’s dress. She was 13 when she sewed it herself and 13 when she died in it. The artifacts were almost worse than the pictures of the wounds, because they somehow made it all more everyday and thus more real. At least 140,000 were dead by December, and 260,000 known deaths have been recorded by now, though given that the city’s records were completely destroyed, it’s hard to know much for certain. The quick deaths were bad enough, but thinking of the slow agony many of the victims suffered, taking days to die with no supplies or even shelter to succour them; and the misery of rebuilding the city in the aftermath of the trauma…and the lingering aftereffects like leukemia and microencephaly showing up just as the residents thought they were recovering…
And then to think that that was just one bomb, just one incident, just one tiny thing in the whole history of horrible things that humans have thought of to do to each other. I don’t know how you think about these things without feeling sick, without your whole body and mind revolting at the thought. So I don’t know how you could drop a bomb, or give the order to do so. It just doesn’t make sense to me, I just don’t understand.
I was a little upset after all of this. One of the downsides to travelling alone, I guess, is not having anyone to hug at moments like this. So, after calming myself a little in the quiet of the park outside the museum, I went and wandered around a grocery store for awhile – something about the cleanliness, the bright shiny packages and the busy people finding sustenance for themselves, was soothing. Life just goes on, there’s not much to do about that (until enlightenment, that is, i guess ). So eventually I went back to the hostel, ate something in the kitchen, and went to bed. I’ve been reading The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles by Haruki Murakami, which I am loving, but it too deals quite a bit with the horror of World War II and on top of everything else it was a bit much. So I just went to bed.
The next morning, I was up early again, and after a peaceful walk in the gentle light rain of early morning, I went back to the peace park. This time I visited the memorial to the victims. I was the first person to enter the museum and I had it to myself for the length of my visit. The first part of it is a quiet room in the victims’ memory. At the centre is a fountain symbolically representing the time of the attack, 8:15, and also to remember the victims who cried out for water, to give them water now, to help them rest peacefully. The room is round, empty, like the city was, radiating out from the hypocentre. And then along the circular walls are faint drawings of the landscape after the bomb fell, as if you were standing at the hypocentre and seeing the new, barren, jagged skyline. Under this is a listing of the neighbourhoods that were destroyed, radiating outward as they get farther from the hypocentre. It was a beautiful, peaceful room, but still terrible in the immensity of what it was there to remind one of.
In the next room, the pictures and names of the known victims are continuously scrolling. You can stand and watch, or if you want to look for particular people there are computers for that too.
The last part of the museum has survivors’ testimonies about the immediate aftermath of the bomb, the frantic search for relatives and equally frantic attempts to help the overwhelming numbers of the injured and dying. I tried to read all of these, but after awhile I got acutely sick, so that I was afraid I would throw up on the floor – or faint – I had to leave. I couldn’t even stay and read through what these people had had to live through. So I went and sat by the river and cried for awhile longer. Then I went and sat in a cafe and drank a coffee, until it was time to go back to my hostel, gather my things together, and take another train south to Kyuushu.
It was strange to experience such highs and such lows in such a short period. I really liked Hiroshima the city, the friendly people, and the beautiful seclusion of Miyajima. Despite being so deeply connected to Hiroshima, of course, visiting the atomic bomb memorials felt like being in some other place, some hideous contemplation of horror and pain – and I felt entirely alone there even though there were often many people surrounding me. I don’t know what to do with this sadness, am not sure what if anything it could yield, but I can’t help feeling it. Days later I can still be suddenly overwhelmed by the feeling of horror again. Still I feel glad to have gone; better that than just ignoring it.
All over Hiroshima, especially in the rivers but even, in the morning, perched on top of the A-bomb dome, I saw white cranes. I read the story of Sadako and the paper cranes when I was little, and these real cranes kept making me think of those folded paper ones, of human frailty, tragedy, but also hope.