Day 11 – From the Dome of Destruction to the Gate of Enlightenment

Turns out we do have internet here, but only in the Internet Corner down in the lobby… which (according to the sign) has the English catch phrase “Let’s hold hands, if that all right with you”.

To help me communicate here, I have a Japanese phrasebook I bought from a second-hand bookshop for $3.30, which is pretty nice. It’s about ten years old, but I figure that the Japanese language hasn’t changed too much since then, though I did suddenly realise it’s missing words like “internet” and “mobile phone”. I also have a bit of a grasp of Japanese that I learnt from anime, and my Lonely Planet guidebook has a few phrases too. James, however, has no head for languanges whatsoever – you should hear him try to pronounce “Matsumoto” even after I’ve said it slowly for him. Instead he communicates with a sort of cross between charades and interpretive dance. Somehow between the two of us we manage to get by – I’m better at communicating information, and if that doesn’t work, James can step in. On the other hand, James is better at receiving information – he’s better at deciphering inquisitive glances from people, and can usually understand the heavily-accented English replies we occasionally get better than I can, and if that doesn’t work, then I can still step in. Still, I was amused when we were ordering dinner at the kombini last night to see James go through the whole interpretive dance routine, then I stepped up and just said “nikuman ando chiisu-chikan, onegaishimasu” (“meat bun and cheese chicken, please”… “cheese chicken” was a product name, honest) and got my food much faster. I would have helped James, honest, but I was off in the shelves, and he was already in the middle by the time I came back.

In any case, today we visited the Hiroshima Peace Museum Park, including the Peace Museum. To get there, we needed to catch a tram. Hiroshima’s primary public transport system is the trams. There is a bus network, but it doesn’t seem to be that well-used, and there only seems to be one subway line, running from the centre of the tram network to the northern suburbs of Hiroshima. There’s also a couple of JR surface lines too, but they mostly go around the edges. In any case, the trams – or street cars, as they’re called there – have been running since the 1910s, with only a brief interruption of a few months after the wide-scale devastation of the city in 1945. They’ve been buying trams from other cities as those other cities retired their own tram networks, so what they have now is quite an eclectic bunch. Apparently there’s still two surviving trams from before WWII. The tram network is colloquially called Hiroden (from Hiroshima Dentetsu Kabushiki-gaisha, or Hiroshima Electric Railway Company Limited).

We discovered last night it’s possible to buy a two-day pass that covers all tram travel in the city, plus the ferry to and from Miyajima, plus the Mount Misen cable car on Miyajima, for just two thousand yen. Since the cable car on its own costs eighteen hundred for a return trip, and the ferry would be another three hundred and fourty return, it’s already a deal even if we don’t take the trams anywhere. Trouble is, though a tram stop was just a block down from the hotel we were in, we’d have to go all the way back to the tram terminal at Hiroshima station to buy the pass. According to the Hiroden website, our own hotel could sell us both of the one-day passes (which, depending on the pass, don’t cover the cable car or the ferry), but not the two-day pass. (If you’re interested and not planning to visit Miyajima, all tram routes are 150 yen regardless of how far you’re going, except for one of the shorter routes which is only 100 yen.)

Pass bought, we hopped onto the tram that was waiting, and headed off to the Peace Park. As well as remembering the atom bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima, a large part of the park is there to campaign for complete worldwide nuclear disarmament – hence the name “Peace Park”. There were two ladies on the front entrance with a petition to sign (and a card with an English explanation on it). We signed the petition (Australia is a nuclear-weapon-free zone, after all – along with the vast majority of the Southern Hemisphere) and headed in.

While viewing the A-Bomb Dome, a bumped into a huge group of (I think) middle school students on some sort of school excursion. As a side note, Japanese schools run in three levels – elementary school (years K-5), middle school (6-9) and high school (10-12). Some of them said “hello” to us – I’ve noticed school students often do this when they see us. We wandered around a bit more looking at some of the monuments, then we ran into them again at the Children’s Monument. This is a monument dedicated to the children who died as a result of the bomb. It’s surrounded by huge display cases full of paper cranes made by children from all over the world. This group we saw were making a presentation of some more – one of the cases was open to them. They had a photo taken with them holding the strings of cranes, then they all sang a song together. One of those commemmorative or anthem-type songs – we didn’t really hang around to listen.

We headed into the Peace Museum itself. Everything else in the park is free, this costs a token fifty yen to enter. The first few rooms were all about the history of Japan leading up to the Second World War, and the events leading up to the actual dropping of the first atomic bomb, on August 6th, 1945. The next floor had a reconstruction timeline for the city, and the next was all about why all nations of the world should destroy their stockpiles of atomic weapons. These rooms were easy enough to get through, and quite interesting and informative – though the music on the three-minute introductory video at the door could be heard throughout that whole part of the building, and it got a little tiring after a while.

The next room, however, was a struggle. This is the room that’d have displays of mementos from victims. Things like a scrap of cloth, singed at the edges, and a card saying “this school uniform belonged to Miyoko, age thirteen. She was on her way to work at a demolition site and was caught in the bomb blast, 1.5 km from the hypocenter. This is all her mother could find of her.” Or a baby-carrying cloth with a card saying “Hanako was carrying her baby Yoshihiko while helping the abled-bodied people at a demolition site. She knelt behind a stone wall to put her baby down, and when she came to her senses again, everyone around her was dead.” Or some melted marbles. Or a lunchbox, the un-eaten lunch burnt to a crisp and still inside. Some blistered roof tiles, a stack of rice bowls fused together – at one place, they’d even moved and reconstructed a section of the local bank’s front steps, showing the shadow of someone sitting waiting for the doors to open, burnt into the steps.

That room was a struggle.

Downstairs had a display of art drawn by survivors, including a whole room of drawings about people wanting water. Drawings by people who went looking for a well, and found it full of people who had crawled in desperate for a drink, and died of their injuries. Those tho had felt guilty for refusing someone water, because a doctor had told them to save it for those with less severe injuries. They were also showing When the Wind Blows, the movie based on the book of the same name by Raymond Briggs, while I rather liked.

After this, we decided to dispense with our plan to visit Hiroshima Castle – reading about it on Wikipedia made us fear it’d be another Osaka Castle, and we were running out of time anyway – and head to Miyajima early, after lunch. I wanted to try okonomiyaki, since Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki is one of the local specialities (and we didn’t get a chance to try it on Osaka, where it’s also a speciality). To my joy, there was a sign for a place right on the wall immediately after we exited the park. Unfortunately, when we reached the place advertised, we discovered it was closed today. And only today.

We headed into the nearby shopping arcade to see if we could find another. We’d also intended to visit the hypocentre, apparently a block from the park, but I didn’t see it where I expected to see it, and then I forgot about it when we walked away. It was quite some shopping arcade – we eventually asked a policeman directing traffic if he knew where we could get some okonomiyaki, and he directed us to a place. It was really tasty – we got one to share, and that was quite enough. Fortunately they had an English menu, so we knew what we were ordering.

We caught a tram back to the hotel to pick up our luggage, then walked back to Hiroshima station (again) for the train to the Miyajima ferry terminal. Miyajima is actually called Itsukushima – Miyajima is just a colloquial name (meaning Shrine Island). Its most famous feature is the Isukishima shrine, and the attached “floating” torii gate. It’s regarded as a sacred island in Shingon Buddhism (yes, the same branch that has its home in Koya-san) and Isukushima shrine is right on the waterfront, raised up on stilts, so that the common pilgrims can visit the island without defiling it by actually setting foot on the island itself. Like Nara-koen, there’s deer wandering freely all over the island, though these ones are apparently a bit tamer. There’s a general ban on public feeding of deer, though, so sometimes they get a bit desperate. There’s apparently monkeys up on Mount Misen too.

We just missed the private ferry for which we had the two-day pass – but the JR ferry right next door was leaving in ten minutes, and they accepted our JR passes, so we caught that. It swings wide on the approach so that people can get a good look at the floating torii. I took some photos. Once on the dock, we headed straight to the hotel to dump our bags and have a good sit-down. As I’ve said before, we’re staying in the Miyajima Hotel Makoto, which is a ryokan. The building is seriously impressive – the lobby is palatial, and everything is both luxurious and traditional at the same time. Except the size of it – we’re on the fifth floor. Took a lift to get up here. Also, it’s air-conditioned.

Once settled in, we went to visit the shrine before it closed, and to have a wander around town. I’m seriously loving this town – the majority of my photos today were taken here. There’s paths and stairs leading all over the place, up into the hills, down into the houses. The main shopping street is shaded by sailcloth. At one point, it has the world’s largest rice scoop (rice scoops are apparently a speciality here… along with momiji manju, little leaf-shaped cakes filled with sweet bean paste).

At high tide, the Itsukushima shrine is over water. Unfortunately, we visited the shrine just a couple of hours short of low tide, so the ground underneath was dry – didn’t look quite so impressive like that, but it still looked pretty good. We had a look through it, then headed up into the hills to get the long way back to the hotel.

There’s a sort of long hill running through the middle of the town – we walked through a tunnel under it to get to our hotel, and just before sunset we climbed to the top of it to get a photo of the hotel, and the view was quite amazing. This is the sort of town I was hoping to see when I came here. It’s a shame we’re only staying here one night – we’re off to Kyoto at lunchtime tomorrow (in order to get there in time for dinner). The morning will be spent catching the cable car up Mount Misen here. And finding the cable car station.

We also had our first bath in the big indoor bath here, then put on the yukata provided afterwards – though the bath itself wasn’t as hot as I expected. We’re going back for a good soak-and-relax as soon as we’ve done posting. We also had dinner here. It was huge… and mostly seafood. I decided to draw the line at some things, but I ate most of it, and was extremely full at the end. Good thing we shared that okonomiyaki at lunch instead of a whole one each. They gave us the option of Japanese-style or Western-style breakfast – I admit I’m getting a bit tired of Japanese-style breakfasts, so I chose the Western-style. It’ll probably be things like bacon and eggs, but we’ll find that out tomorrow.

Today’s photo count: three hundred and forty-four.

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