After our big day in Kyoto, we weren’t planning on going to any new cities just yet. Kaori and Nobuko brought us to Sumiyoshi Taisha, the shrine that they visit once a month.
This place was really cool. It was actually built in the 211CE before Buddhism made it to Japan, making it one of Japan’s oldest shrines.
Thanks to Kaori and Nobuko’s instruction, Holly and I can now navigate Shinto shrines without embarrassing ourselves. Kaori provided us with a bunch of 5 yen coins and we joined them in the prayers at each shrine, making sure to bow, ring the bell, clap, and give our coin in the right order. Travelling solo is great for the freedom it provides, but having local friends who are part of the culture leads to opportunities you wouldn’t have on your own.
We finished off the day at a tempura restaurant. I think that Japanese portion sizes are what I’ve been waiting for my whole life. You get to try many different things, but not too much of anything.
We had one more day to relax (and for Holly to recover from jet lag) before we started our busy travel schedule, so we spent part of it watching Naruto, and part of it at a cafe. At long last, I found a coffee I was happy with.
On December 9th, we activated our Japan Rail Passes and got on the Sakura Shinkansen to Hiroshima. The passes were expensive, but we made sure to go on enough trains in the next 14 days to make it worth the money.
Hiroshima is of course well known for being the first city ever to be hit by a nuclear weapon. As one of the three axis powers in World War 2, Japan was still fighting after Mussolini was killed and Hitler had committed suicide. Wanting to avoid a full-scale invasion of Japan, the USA instead decided to drop the atomic bomb “Little Boy” on Hiroshima which at the time was a significant industrial and military city.
Formerly the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall, the most iconic structure in Hiroshima is now the Atomic Bomb Dome, or the Hiroshima Peace Memorial. The bomb’s hypocentre was almost directly above the building, which is why its original shape is so preserved.
We took our first evening in Hiroshima pretty easy. The owner of the Air BnB we were renting had forgotten to give us directions to the apartment or the codes to get in, so finding a place that wasn’t listed on any map applications and getting wifi to contact him didn’t start us off in the best mood. We soon remedied that by finding a restaurant that had tonkatsu for me and beer for Holly. One of my new travel strategies is: if your travel companion is stressed, find them a beer.
That evening was just a first look at the dome and a walk to the castle. There was a fancy garden to explore on the way there, and a sunset to appreciate as we followed the river.
By the time we got to the castle we were both ready to call it a day and go to bed. We watched the castle change colour a few times and happily returned to the apartment.
In the morning we went downtown and found the marker for the bomb’s hypocenter. We then decided to take full advantage of our JR Pass and got on the local train that would get us to the ferry station to Miyajima.
The ferry to Miyajima was also covered by our pass, so we walked right on the next one. We were here to see the famous Itsukushima Shrine, the Floating Torii Gate. It was a pretty rainy day when we went, so the views weren’t as beautiful as they might have been, but it was nice to see the gate and surrounding hills anyways.
The weather suited the rest of our day well. We returned to the city and spent the rest of the afternoon into the evening at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum.
The museum exists to convey the inhumane nature of atomic bombs, and to educate people on the effects they can have. In the blast and resulting firestorm, 30% of Hiroshima’s population died, and 70% of its buildings were destroyed.
“Little Boy” was considered inefficient; only 1.7% of its material fissioned, yet its blast strength was about 15 kilo tonnes worth of TNT. In comparison, the bomb “Castle Bravo” that the States tested on Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands 9 years later had a yield of 15,000 kilo tonnes. As the museum points out, the world really cannot handle nuclear weapons.
Years ago in school I was read the story of Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes. It was about a girl, Sadako, who was 2 when the atomic bomb was dropped. As a result, she was diagnosed with leukemia when she was 12. According to Japanese legend, anyone who folds 1000 origami paper cranes would be granted a wish. Sadako completed 1000 cranes, but passed away that same year at 12 years old. Her cranes are now a symbol of peace, and some of them are displayed with her story in the museum.
This was a very sad museum to visit, but I think it is important. It’s one thing to know that 140,000 people died, it’s another to read stories of children carrying their dead siblings to where victims’ bodies were being burned and putting a face to those numbers.
That museum has stayed with us.
It was now later in the evening, and we were looking for dinner. We were told that not only is okonomiyaki a must try Japanese dish (it’s a “Japanese pancake”), but Hiroshima-yaki in particular was the quintessential version. There was a busy restaurant downtown that looked to be frequented by locals, so that was good enough for us.
Holly was clearly prepared for this.
It was a short visit, but we felt that we packed a lot into our Hiroshima time. In the morning we walked across town to the train station. We were on our way back to Kishiwada with a stop in Himeji on the way.
Himeji was a convenient stop because it was on the train line back from Hiroshima to Osaka. I was interested in stopping here because of Himeji Castle, which I had heard was the most beautiful castle in Japan.
Luckily, we happened to be there on a day when admittance was free. Himeji Castle is the largest castle in Japan, and has managed to stay in tact for over 400 years; it even survived an earthquake and the US firebombing of the city in WW2.
Visiting the castle was a colder experience than I expected. At the entrance, visitors place their shoes in plastic bags to carry with them and put on some awkward slippers. I get it, if that’s what it takes to be allowed in the castle then I’m fine, but my feet froze despite the 6 flights of stairs up and down the castle.
This was a cool stop for Holly, because this was her first ever visit to a castle! I’m not sure how many castles there are out there that can challenge Himeji though. Holly may have started out a little too strong.
As impressive as the castle was, I don’t think it was the main event of the day for Holly. The castle grounds also had a cat park.
We thought that we may as well take a picture since we’re at one of the nicest castles in the world, and I don’t know whether to blame the direct sunlight or our abilities, but this is the best we came up with.
We arrived home fairly exhausted and ready for bed, but were met with a surprise – Kaori and Nobuko had prepared “Shabu-Shabu.”
I still remember visiting China and Japan back in 2004, but the one memory that stands out the most was trying Shabu-Shabu. It’s a meal of thinly sliced meat and vegetables boiled in a central pot then dipped into sauce and eaten with rice. The name comes from the sound that the meat makes in the pot. It was just as amazing as I’d remembered, and the perfect ending to our first independent adventure in Japan. Seriously, we could not have asked for better hosts.
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