By the time I wake up properly I’m standing on the Shinkansen platform at Kyoto Station, waiting for our 6 AM bullet train from Tokyo which will take us to Hiroshima. From there we board a local express train that will take us on towards Itsukushima – also known as Miyajima island.
I don’t know it yet, but there’s a feeling. Today will be something special.
Roaring through the countryside the swift ninety-minute journey makes a brief stop at the neighbouring Osaka.
When we switch to the local train, we’re quickly offered seats with the kids. My partner was sat next to an elderly lady who grabbed at the chance for some cuddles and adoration.
Meanwhile, I’m daydreaming out the window, looking at what I suspect would become a housing development. For a brief moment, I imagine our own new home in this idyllic place we’ve grown to love–when my son whispers that he needs the toilet.
Unfortunately, this meant interrupting the lady’s time with our daughter to jump off at the next station. After a brief trip to use the facilities at Nishi-Hiroshima Station, we waited on the platform for the next train.
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We were quite close to our destination, Miyajimaguchi Station, where we would be transferring to the ferry which would take us to Miyajima.
After arriving at Miyajimaguchi we made the short walk to the port where we were welcomed by a cute wooden robot and the first encounter with a machine which produces the local Momiji Manju Cakes.
As we approached the ferry there was a throng of people waiting at the ticket office. Luckily for us, we knew we could skip the queue and use our JR Pass to board the ferry saving time and money others were losing at the ticket gate.
Onboard we were greeted with luxurious leather seats within a comfortable cabin with panoramic views across Hiroshima Bay. Despite the droves of people boarding the ferry, we did not struggle to find available seats and the cabin was adequately spacious.
The ferry picked up its pace and within 10 minutes we were close enough to the island to see the landing terminal and a few of the landmarks we had seen when researching our itinerary online.
Upon arrival, we were completely taken aback by the sheer beauty of where we were and the view back over to the mainland. My partner described it as a total paradise, the kind of place you can only ever hope to visit. This is one place whose beauty just cannot possibly be fully captured on camera.
One thing that is immediately apparent is the local wildlife.
We first saw a group of schoolchildren in a huddle outside the ferry port, as we moved around we could see they were playfully goading a deer with some candy. It was then we realised that this was an uncommon occurrence.
They were everywhere!
My son was so excited by the sight of so many wild animals and was desperate to interact with them, but numerous signs dotted around made it clear that stroking or feeding the deer is not recommended – after all, the deer are still wild animals.
We made our way along the promenade, following the trickle of tourists towards the main attractions.
The first of which was the market stalls that ran along a street which was shaded by draped white canopies which gave us some reprieve from the scorching morning heat.
We slowed down to browse the storefronts which held some treasures, which ranged from giant rice paddles, freshly made matcha treats, beautiful ornate fans and – of course – Aides.
Here, we picked up some of the street food to try later. I knew we should try the local oysters – some of the best in the world, apparently!
I managed to coax my partner into taking the first bite…
A hidden gem I’d wanted to try was Baccano, tucked away up a side street away from the main tourist path, near the end of the high street. We tried the chocolate and salted caramel gelato which was served with a smile.
Wow – we were not disappointed!
Lapping up the last of our ice cream, we completed the short walk down the remaining promenade towards one of the islands most popular attractions, the Itsukushima Shrine floating torii gate. We didn’t get the full impact as we approached the gate because we had a stalker on our tail…
Here the deer weren’t quite so docile, presumably because there were a lot of people eating the food they had purchased from the market stalls along the way. It seems that the deer too, know that the ice cream is one of the best treats on a sunny day and so we were harassed for some distance by one mean looking big-ass mother of a deer!
Once we were free from our assailant we had time to enjoy the view. The famous red tori gate didn’t seem to live up to the visual splendour we had come to expect.
This was, in part, due to the fact it looked as if it needed a paint (sorry!), but also because the tide was out at the time of our visit which meant that it was surrounded by a hundred snap-happy tourists like ourselves. It wasn’t going to be possible to get that cool poster art image we would have liked.
I was a little disappointed that I hadn’t researched tide times, as this meant we didn’t end up visiting the Itsukushima Shrine itself, as it was not surrounded by water, as we’d hoped for.
This meant I was able to agree with myself to revisit the island at a later date to experience what I would consider being a more photogenic version of the temple.
One thing to note about Miyajima is the high density of interesting sights.
Unfortunately, we had chosen to visit when there was maintenance ongoing besides the temple which meant the route I had planned was closed and I had to cut some of the sites I had intended to visit out of the trip to ensure we were keeping good time.
We ducked under a nearby shelter while we refuelled with the treats we had purchased from the market earlier.
I was personally disappointed when I realised that the cheese and bacon stick that I was, for some reason, not enjoying was actually a cheese and bacon flavoured stick made of compressed and fried fish paste, which would explain the extremely odd rubbery texture!
I was happy to have picked up some Momiji Manju – one chocolate, one cream cheese – as these cleansed my pallet perfectly.
The place was so beautiful that it felt surreal as if we were walking around a film set created purely for our enjoyment.
The amount of quirky and interesting visual details around us already had us playing a game of ‘Woah, look at that!’ between each other.
The houses were beautiful, no two the same. There was a cage that contained what we could only assume was a driftwood with some ancient significance, whose hollowed interior was littered with coins. The large cluster of temples and an unreasonably convex bridge only added to our bewilderment.
Standing in a state of awe and partial heat exhaustion we found our planned route amongst the array of distractions.
If you’ve read any of the other entries in this series you may know by now that any path that presents itself like this, I’m climbing.
(Well, that and that I always mention how hot it is or that we’re visiting the toilet again!)
As we started to get some elevation we could look back and see all the places we had been and we knew that the progress we had made on level ground was nothing compared to the ascent on which we were about to embark.
Our first stop on that ascent would be Tahoto Pagoda.
It’s quite a sight at over 15 meters tall, with a strange, uneven shape and a long spiral finial.
A pagoda is something that would never be seen in our part of the world and so, even though there is not much to be done at them, they’re still a sight to behold for the untravelled foreigner.
We quickly left the pagoda behind and continued up a forested path.
We noticed some of the trees wrapped in fabric, presumably to protect them in some way. Maybe from catepillars or other insects that would wear pose a threat.
Visiting the temple really paid off as we were treated to some of the most inspiring decorations and arrangements on our trip.
There was so much to see that we spent longer than we should have to explore the temple grounds which, while being relatively small compared to Tenryu-Ji Temple, were densely populated with a huge variety of ornate, unique, hand-crafted statues, ornaments and exhibits.
Of the two buildings, we did get the chance to enter one which housed a thousand Fudo images that scared my son so much he ran out of the room. The other was quite the contrast, with a thousand images of Amida Nyorai.
There was a palpable taste of wonder and exploration over and around each stairway and turn. It had a very real magic garden feel to the place.
I imagine it’s not to everyone’s tastes, but it was free to enter and I got a lot of great reference material I can examine for use in my video game designs.
Plus there are some good picture spots!
As we continued to whittle away our time exploring every corner of the temple we came to a cavernous room (Henjokutsu Cave) that really blew us away.
Inside were housed the Buddhist icons of the eighty-eight temples along the prestigious Shikoku Pilgrimage route. A trip I hope to make someday.
Activating cheat mode we cheekily prayed quickly to all of them before exploring the area atop the cave. Another eye-popping overload of statues was hidden up there, along with an object I recognised from some of my research into Buddhism – a Vajra.
This temple quickly became one of my personal favourite spots in all of Japan and the surrounding area only made the place more appealing. I hadn’t even had time to witness the gigantic sand mandala or the oldest seated Fudo Myo-o image with braided hair in Japan, or the take time to examine the six hundred volumes of sutras brought by a Chinese monk from India that are said to bring enormous fortune to those who touch them.
We’re now an hour behind where we needed to be on our schedule, so we must move on.
Before we depart we hastily snap a final few pictures of the temple and drop some coin in exchange for a gong of the belfry.
Wait, where does this stairway off to the side of the bell lead…
…to a hidden garden with 500 Rakan Statues, of course!
In a short few minutes, we soak up the insanity of the many individually posed and dressed little statues.
Some quirky, some bizarre, but all of them contributing to an experience that rewarded those who were curious and observant enough to visit.
I’m not sure how successful they’ve been at that over the years, but they’re certainly not doing anything for the raging heat that is roasting our foreheads into a crisp and sweaty leather.
Searching for a suitable retreat, we follow a small river downhill. We come to a crossroads and I recognise a path leading up into the mountains, running alongside the opposite bank of the river.
I had originally planned for us to walk us up that path a short way to reach both Takimiya shrine and Shiraito Falls, which are part way along a hiking route within the primaeval forest that sprawls the island. However, we are now around two hours behind schedule so we instead continue downhill, intending to take a path around the back of the town that leads to Momijidani Station, a ropeway service and easy-mode shortcut up the islands largest mountain – Mt. Misen.
Opposite a lush white house, we take a much-needed break under the shade of a tree which within a playground.
As my son plays we recheck our itinerary and I have to face the fact that a lot of what we’d planned to do once we get back to Hiroshima would have to be cut from the day as well. While I usually feel anxious about missing out on things I wasn’t as bothered on this occasion. I knew that it’d be unrealistic, given our progress, but also that it would be unfair on all of us (especially the kids) if I were to drag everyone around through the searing heat of the day and all through the night, just to satisfy my original plan.
In reflection, I’m happy that I reconciled my desires with the reality of the situation. Not only because it meant we enjoyed a completely fulfilling day, but also because knowing there are things I want to go back to do motivates me to return someday soon.
After a quick dash to the toilet – where a gang of deer were menacingly chilling like a group of teenagers around a corner shop – we skip merrily on our way with a renewed sense of vigour.
Along the rather well-developed trail, we saw some interesting sights. Trees whose branches spiralled around each other, extended across the path above us. A moss-covered, stone-lined trench ran adjacent to the path, which I imagined channelled the flow of rainwater down from the mountains and into the sea, providing protection for the town below.
About halfway along the route, we spot a man upon a hill above us ahead. His arms tucked in behind his back, ominously watching us as we approach the bend in the road below him. I notify my partner and when I turn back to nod in his direction he’s nowhere to be seen.
As we continue around the bend it becomes apparent that he wasn’t the apparition of a mountain hermit as I’d been thinking. I know this because there’s a sign pointing up some stairs that read 平松茶屋 along with a picture of a Kirin Ichiban and a glass of what appears to be liquid gold.
Within two minutes I was holding a chilled beer and admiring a memorable vista. The combination of which was truly felicitous!
After we gaze through the tower viewer that looks across the bay we glug down the last drops of our refreshments and remunerate the kind and gentle (g)host before continuing on our way.
Our walk to and through the maple strewn Momijidani Park has us pass by some notable spots, which gave me the feeling we were adventurers in some early 2000’s video game that was in some way significant in the forming of the relationship I have with my partner.
No time to reminisce that fantasy though, as we have a cable car to catch on the Miyajima Ropeway.
Now I’ll be honest, I can deal with heights, but only if I feel I’m in control. The fear I felt was simply that deep-rooted infant fear: falling.
And it’s not just one car you take. There’s a circulating and then a funicular aerial ropeway in series. So, we transferred from a small, four adult-sized sitting car into one that didn’t really feel much bigger but had about twenty people packed in standing.
Side note: Their website states ‘Momijidani Line (8-seater)’ and ‘Shishiiwa Line (30-seater)’ but obviously those numbers are based on Japanese estimates and not foreigner estimates. A skinny Brit guy is a fat guy in Japan.
“It’s fine…”, I tell myself.
“…these things run every day without issue. Just gawk at the scenery and don’t look… oh fuck, you idiot!”
The cable holds!
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I was most pleased to see that the amenities at Shishiiwa Station included toilets, lockers and vending machines, along with an observational deck and the Satellite Lovers Sanctuary, which houses a small bakery!
Our child-laden feet pound the winding paths up and down, as we note the bizarre trees growing through other trees. Puffing and wheezing we curse ourselves for not buying more water from the vending machines back at the station.
Then, just as my partners will is about to fade we hear the flat, echoing bass of a gong being struck. Incense smoke highlighted in shafts of light that lets us know, we have reached the first of the shrines and temples that are scattered across the summit of Mt Misen.
To our left is Misen Daishoin Temple Hondo and Gumonji-dojo halls, where the Shingon Buddhist founder Kobo Daishi accomplished his 100-day Gumonji training. Opposite this the ‘Legend of miracle’, Kiezu no Hi (The Eternal Flame) which continues to burn after around 1200 years, enshrined within Reikado Hall. The flame has been used to boil holy water but also acted as the pilot light for the Flame of Peace in Hiroshima, which we would visit later that day.
However, it is already quite late in the day. It’s still very hot and humid – as it’s been almost this entire trip – even up here so close to the mountain’s summit. Time is running down and some of the sights have started to close. This meant we would possibly miss our chance to access the observation deck at the peak if we didn’t hurry on.
We grab double drinks from the vending machine and I chug one down whole. My partner is content with relaxing at this point, so we agree to split and, leaving behind my backpack, I saddle my son upon my back and made a dash for the top.
I pass the opportunity to pray at Sankido Hall, the only place in Japan where a demon is worshipped, as I feel I’ve enough family happiness and business prosperity right now without needing to bargain with a fiend.
Passing swiftly by Kannondo and Monjudo halls (safe childbirth and good studies – no more right now thanks!) I scoot by stacks of statues and an old fallen tree as the anti-clockwise route gives more views out to sea while edging around an assortment of trees and boulders.
Before you know it you’re ducking under and between the boulders of Fudo-iwa and Kuguri-iwa rock formations, until…
Perhaps it was a combination of the scenery and the heat-induced exhaustion but, awe-faces took hold of me.
And I’m not the only one. Everyone seemed impressed by the view.
But that’s not all, there’s a multi-tiered observation platform at the peak!
I snapped pictures quickly as I circled the upper deck. There were many people, most of them wiped out and hiding in the shaded retreat of the lower deck. I should have taken a panoramic picture probably, but I didn’t have the opportunity to elevate my phone enough and I wasn’t really thinking clearly at this point. I was too busy letting the astonishing beauty of Japanese island landscapes make love to my corneas.
That’s right, ocular porn.
A tired voice over my shoulder tells me he needs the toilet, so we head back down and find a small shop inside. My son strikes up a conversation with a spritely old man selling sweets at the counter. I reach into my pocket and find enough coins to let him choose some for his mother.
Talking with the man I realise what a great commute he has. He climbs the mountain almost every day, which he chuckles blesses him with his fit physique and cheery persona.
Bouncing back down the mountain we’re passing by points of interest too fast for me to know what to take a picture of.
Chunky and uneven, leaf covered stone steps marked the trail. Coins atop rocks, presumably thrown by hopeful passers-by. Worn but solemn statues tucked away between the rocks. A seemingly impossible boat shape boulder (Funa-iwa) balances an uprooted tree. Another closed temple, Dainichido, is located before a steep set of stairs, at whose foot a mass of statues shade in the crevice of an overhang.
When I reach my partner she is sitting on a bench underneath a plum tree, fending off flying insects and crows that you’d think were vipers, the way she was flailing about. She’s too distracted to notice us arrive back until my son thrusts the sweets we bought into her lap and climbs up, begging for her to open the packet, oblivious to the pests that plague her.
She beams a smile and we’re soon off back down towards the ropeway.
I take both kids and spur her on, conscious of the time. Knowing that the ropeway would be closing soon and not wanting to have to walk back down the mountain we managed to keep a lighthearted conversation that included a promise of a McDonald‘s visit, so to keep everyone motivated.
I swallow my anxiety as they pack us in the first cable car, in which my daughter finds the perfect time to have a really smelly poo.
Yeah thanks, babe.
By the time we clean her up and board the second, smaller car I’ve no more apprehension left in me. What remained were hugs, relief and a pleasing sense of achievement, having almost a week ago queued nervously for the first of three flights that would bring us halfway around the world to let me have experienced what I had today.
And the whole day wasn’t even over! We still had time left to explore a little of Hiroshima.
Down from the ropeway station, we catch a waiting free bus ride, right on time. It drops us off near what is only the World’s Second Best Freshly Baked Melonpan Ice Cream shop. We’re too late, it’s closed!
Instead of walking back the way we came along the promenade and high street we opt to go through the backstreets.
“More stairs.”, my partner scowls.
Up and down and up and down – left and right, zigging and zagging – we finally reach flatter ground along the residential area. As the late afternoon was in full swing we could appreciate the calmer, less touristy vibe, with children playing in the streets, locals leaving offerings at small shrines and the smell of cooked dinners wafting from almost every open window.
It was hard to shake the resurgent feeling that so much was left unexplored. Two to three days here would be much better next time.
By the time we make it to the port, the sun is subsiding, which means that the viable hours left in our day are running out. One last picture then my phone cries a curtailed jingle.
Out of battery.
A short walk from Shin-Hakushima Station‘s quirky Astram Line station building we meet the Mac, as promised, except this time he’s packing double meat for an extra ¥100. It’s early evening now and we’re the only non-Japanese in the building so we’re attracting a lot of eyes, but that doesn’t stop us from scoffing our food like pigs.
We’re in a calorie deficit, OK guys?
Maybe we ate for hours but darkness seemed to fall really fast in Hiroshima.
We could have chosen to ride the bus to get to the landmarks we were going to visit. However, with our pocket wi-fi out of juice and limited reserves built up on our phones from the portable charger we opted to walk the route directly south, which I had memorised from my meticulous planning sessions.
Plus we would be passing Hiroshima Castle and oh boy, was that worth being on foot for.
Only in Japan would we feel safe enough to walk moat-side along a totally unlit path that was so dark you could hardly see strangers pass until you were almost rubbing shoulders with them. Props to the city planners though, their decision to keep the area devoid of lighting, save for a few well-placed high-powered spotlights that illuminate the castle, really helped makes your pictures better at night.
As we wandered further south we got a better feel for the city and could note the similarities and differences between it and the cities we’d visited so far – Tokyo and Kyoto. From what we were seeing it felt like Hiroshima fell somewhere in between the two in terms of style and layout.
There were taller, modern buildings at the centre than what we’d seen in Kyoto, but with similarly large roads to Tokyo that intersected in a Kyoto-style grid pattern at the borders of city blocks. There were large parks and gardens which we’d seen more of in Tokyo, but at this time of the evening, they were buzzing with the growling sound of polyurethane wheels coasting their pavements, punctuated by the sporadic rip and slam of skateboard trickery.
We even ran into a retired WWII locomotive (C59 161), similar to the untrained eye in the low light as the one we’d seen in Kyoto just the day before. A walk along the river, something more expected from Kyoto, showcased the high-rise apartment blocks and ultra-bright white lighting we’d come to expect from Tokyo.
But Hiroshima is unique in its own ways too. No more evident than when we arrived at our destination, The Atomic Bomb Dome.
When we crossed the road and rounded a corner the impact of the skeletal remains of the building was sudden. Perhaps intensified at night, with a haunting stillness and quiet despite it being only meters from a busy road and the Motoyasu River.
Like the light that illuminated this place not so long ago, the spotlights cast a long shadow over the building. Words can’t describe the raw and poignant, deep-in-the-gut feeling of emotion you get from bearing witness to this place.
You can think of yourself as overexposed to tragedy and evil, vicariously delivered to us in the media we consume and from the stories of suffering we hear and read about from around the world.
For the longest time now – the past ten years, a third of my life – I’ve felt that nothing could shake me so deeply anymore. But, standing at the gates of history and staring at one of humankind’s most destructive acts really wallops you with the sledgehammer of reality.
Let’s never let this happen again.
We cross Motoyusabashi bridge and enter Hiroshima Memorial Park, where a sombre silence pervades the air, despite the many people passing through on wheel and heel.
There are many landmarks in the park, but one that stood out was the Children’s Peace Monument. Where the heartwrenching story of Sadako Sasaki and her attempt to save herself from leukaemia by folding 1000 paper cranes highlights the plight of the hibakusha – a Japanese term referring to those who were affected by radiation exposure from the bombings. Thousands of paper cranes are displayed in an act of solidarity with young victims such as Sadako.
I can’t stand here for long so I give thanks that I can hold my children tight and we continue towards the centrepiece of the park.
My heart dropped at the powerful imagery of seeing the Atomic Bomb Dome through the archway of the cenotaph, with the Flame of Peace between the two. It gave me a chilling vision that tightened my chest and turned my soul into a fragile glass.
Heading out of the park and back over the bridge a group of school-age children are being marched back home. I exchange a frail smile with their adult guide as we exit the park.
I don’t know why, but this moment stuck with me.
As my mood starts to raise a plaque on the side of a nondescript building reminds me that we’re at the hypocentre, 600m above which the first A-bomb in history detonated, changing the course of the war and history in a single act of nuclear fission on the atomic scale.
Without the memorials or the preservation efforts, you couldn’t have guessed that in this place only 73 years prior was an impossibly unimaginable hell.
We head into a shopping arcade and head for the Taito Station, something to distract our son, in the hopes of giving our subconscious minds time to sort through the past hour. However, the weight of the whole day bore down on us too heavy. Our tempers were short and the flashing lights and sirens of the gaming arcade were having a negative effect on our family’s cohesion.
It was time for bed.
We board the nearest tram – on which network, two of the streetcars that survived the bombing still partially operate – and make our way back to Hiroshima Station in silence to catch the next Shinkansen bound for Kyoto.
It’s a long journey back and we must alight the bullet train at Osaka, as there has been an incident on the tracks which meant the train wouldn’t be continuing on to Kyoto. At first, I thought this no problem, but after an extra half an hour on a local express train I remind myself not to take the expedient nature of the Shinkansen for granted.
We’re all falling asleep standing as we finally arrive back at Kyoto Station.
One of the staff at the station spots us coming through the gate and gestures to my son. Reaching into his top pocket he pulls out a small gift and we see the first smile from one of our herd that there’s been in hours.
I can’t even remember a second of the walk back to the hotel, only that the following day – our final night in Kyoto – we would be going back to explore Osaka, ‘the nation’s kitchen’.
As I write this, on the 73rd year anniversary of the events that took the lives of those people present in Hiroshima and all those who suffered in the aftermath for many years thereafter, it is hard to end without some reflection on my thoughts and feelings.
My main take away is that the time I spent in and around the areas affected by these events is a testament to the strength and resolve of the Japanese people. Any form of recovery from such a scarring event is surely evidence that the spirit or essence of humans is, with time and effort, able to overcome the monumental odds stacked against it.
I feel it’s important to state that I’m not anti-nuclear entirely. In fact, when it comes to solving some of the worlds most important problems, I feel that the use of nuclear as a source of clean energy is very important. However, I wish that we could learn from what happened in the past and that we could vow never to use nuclear weapons against our fellow man ever again.
Naive and hopeful? Time will tell.
I don’t really have anything more fittingly important or philosophically meaningful to say about this, but I want to leave you with this video, which describes the Japanese art of kintsugi – a Zen Buddhist philosophy applied to ceramics.
There could be a metaphor or ideal that can be derived from this act of reconciliation that we could all learn from.
I would argue that this message can be seen embodied across Japan today, in the physical manifestation of the peoples’ will to conquer adversity and find a new equilibrium, without hiding from or denying their past, no matter how difficult that has been.