Surprise day trip!
So I was looking at the guidebook yesterday, planning what to do today, and I came to a realisation. There are a million things in Kyoto that I still haven’t seen; between 2013 and this trip I’ve spent a combined eight days in this city and I still feel like I’m only scratching the surface. There’s an immense wealth of history and art here, and the sights are very scattered all around the city and the mountains. All that said, after enough days in Japan it’s entirely possible to burn out on temples and gardens, and we’ve seen so many that we risked saturating ourselves by the time we get to the great garden of Kanazawa.
So I thought, why not dust off our JR passes and go somewhere for the day? Somewhere not about temples and gardens, but something equally representative of Japan? Options included Osaka (Dotonbori is fun, but I’ve already been), Himeji (hosts Japan’s most famous castle, recently renovated, but I’ve read there isn’t much to see inside after you’ve taken pictures of the outside), and Hiroshima, which ended up being our choice. At two hours from Kyoto by shinkansen, I had dismissed it from my initial itinerary for being too far away (about 300 km), but the weather forecast was rainy for today and we really wanted to rest, so we went for it!
There are direct Nozomi shinkansen between Kyoto and Hiroshima, but you can’t use them with the JR pass, so we had to go to Shin-Osaka (around half an hour) and then board a Sakura shinkansen to Hiroshima (about an hour and a half). We hadn’t reserved tickets, so we had to commend ourselves to our lucky stars and queue for the three shinkansen cars with unreserved seats. We turned up about twenty minutes before departure and were easily able to get a seat, but about five or ten minutes before departure the queue had tripled in size behind us!
The shinkansen ride had few stops and felt decidedly faster than the Hikari. Announcements in English are infrequent but correct, which is more than can be said about a lot of the places we’ve been to; Tofukuji had signs around saying “You can’t take pictures at here” (sic) and “This bridge is you cannot take photograph” (double sic). Kyoto bus announcements are read by loquendo. One restaurant I saw advertised a “Prefix Menu”, and as a linguist I found that very interesting -I love prefixes!- until it dawned on me that it was a bad transliteration of “prix fixe menu”. There was this jewellery brand called Plus Vendome that I’m convinced thinks itself Place Vendome…
I digress, but I had two hours to kill. We eventually made it to Hiroshima at lunchtime; it was drizzling unenthusiastically. We ate something (and had ChocoCro® for dessert; don’t judge me). The train station is a ways off the sightseeing spots, but thankfully JR runs two bus lines (the Maple Loop or meipuruupu [hee] and the Green Loop) that you can board with a JR Pass. If not, there are trams everywhere, but those don’t accept JR passes or Pasmo/Suica cards. They want their own cards or stone cold cash.
Once in the centre of town, the most important sights can be found inside the green Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, from where you can see the Atomic Dome, for lack of a better name: the half-destroyed building that was left standing after the atomic bomb went off 600 metres pretty much exactly above it. Today the stark contrast between its ruined structure and the new buildings around it illustrates what the city has recovered from.
The park also includes a monument to the children who died that day in August 6, 1945. The statue depicts a girl holding a big paper crane, in honour of Sadako, a baby at the time who later developed leukemia at age 12 and who folded origami cranes one after another because there’s a saying that folding one thousand cranes can grant a wish. Today several classes of schoolkids were gathered around, while their teachers gave them history lessons.
There’s also an eternal flame and a beautiful monument right in the centre of the park; my guide says the flame is pledged to burn until all atomic weapons have been destroyed. Both the flame and the monument align beautifully with the fountain and the dome building in the distance.
The main feature of the park, of course, is the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, which chronicles the destruction caused by the bomb. The building itself is a pretty ugly post-war concrete monstrosity, although of course what matters is what’s inside.
There are exhibits that explain just how much of the city was destroyed (pretty much everything in a 2 km radius of the blast), but also the effects it had on the victims who weren’t killed instantly. There are display objects such as as clothes and personal items of victims (a wristwatch stopped at 8:15, or a kid’s unopened bento lunchbox) and horrifying photographic evidence as well as actual fragments of buildings such as brick walls with glass shards stuck to them or steel shutters warped by the explosion. There’s a wall with the drip marks of the black, radioactive rain that poured immediately afterwards.
It’s a harrowing experience, especially reading and listening to accounts from the survivors, so it’s a good idea to plan some quiet time afterwards to reflect and decompress; but it’s also enriching and it broadens one’s understanding of the world, which is the best you could ask of a museum. It reminded me of the war museum in Vietnam in that sense, although Hiroshima’s doesn’t really have an axe to grind and focuses its message more on disarmament than politics.
Unfortunately, the whole Eastern building of the museum was closed for renovations, so our visit was cut short. We left and briefly peeked over at the memorial hall, an underground round room with a mural and a fountain designed as a place of remembrance for all the victims of the atomic bomb.
Having seen the highlights of Hiroshima, and discouraged from venturing further out by the weather, we made our way back to the station and took the shinkansen back to Shin-Osaka. Doing train connections in Japan is a pleasure, because the trains are so supernaturally punctual that you always know if you can make a transfer or not. If you know that your two trains share the same platform, for example, then you know that you can make a three-minute connection, because if your ticket says you arrive at 18:17, then you can look at your watch and see it strike 18:17 as you arrive into the station.
When we got back to Kyoto, I decided I couldn’t leave Kansai without having okonomiyaki! You’re supposed to have it in Osaka -and I have- because it’s the typical dish there, but Kyoto’s good enough for me! We ended up at Machiya, which is in a massive underground mall under Kyoto Station (not to be confused with the massive overground mall above Kyoto Station). They serve your okonomiyaki on a hot plate right there on your table, and it was delicious! Another item crossed off my list!
Tomorrow we pack our bags and take another shinkansen, this time to Kanazawa, the city of great gardens and gold leaf artisanship.