Haunting Hiroshima & Shrine Island

Hiroshima & Miyajima, Japan

April, 2023

Today’s train journey took us from one side of the country to the other.  First train from Takayama to Nagoya, just over 2 hours through beautiful mountain towns along the Hida river.   There was a quick stop over in Nagoya in which we had to join a long queue to get some food from the small convenience store in the station before boarding our second train, a Shinkansen or bullet train which took us 1 hour to Shin Kobe.  (I discovered later, a station with the name Shin … means the Shinkansen train stops there.)  I am pretty sure the bullet train was not going full speed, but it was hard to know as we did not know how fast we are going!

The third and final train for the day was another bullet train and it took around 1.5 hours from Shin Kobe to Hiroshima – our destination for the next few days.  This train definitely went faster but no idea how fast 🥴 (The fast train in Uzbekistan had a speedometer in the carriages so you could see the speed.) From the train, we transfered to a street car (or tram, all decked out in support of the local baseball team, the Carps) for a 10 minute journey to our hotel where we dropped our bags and immediately went out to explore.

Hiroshima is the capital of the Hiroshima prefecture and today, has a population of just over a million people.  Starting as a castle town in the 1500’s, Hiroshima is one of the few Japanese towns that is more known for its more recent history, in particular August 6th, 1945 when an American B-29 bomber dropped the world’s first atomic bomb over the city. 

The explosion killed an estimated 80,000 almost immediately and tens of thousands were to die later due to their injuries and/or radiation exposure – a total of around 220,000 deaths.  It took a second bomb being dropped on Nagaskai three days later before Emperor Hirohito surrendered, effectively ending World War II.  (Thankfully the second bomb missed its target but it still managed to kill around 40,000 people.)

Our hotel was just a few minutes’ walk to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park.  Covering over 120,000 sq metres in the heart of the city, the area that once was the commercial and political centre of the city, hence the target of the bomb.  It was interesting that the memorials and even the park itself are focused on peace rather than the atrocities of war.  That said, there are signs of the atrocities all around. 

Within the park there are a number of monuments, including the Children’s Peace Monument, the Cenotaph arch (below which is a stone chest holding a register names of those who died) and the Peace Memorial Museum, but beyond that and across the river is the most prominent feature – the A-Bomb Dome. 

The A Bomb Dome, is also know as the Hiroshima Peace Memorial.  The building was the Prefecutural Industrial Promotion Hall and despite being at the epicentre of the explosion, it was one of the few buildings left partially standing.  Today it is a UNESCO World Heritage site and stands as a reminder to the history of the city.

The benefit of having a guide stood out today.  We wandered around the park whilst Rinrin queued for our tickets to the Peace Memorial Museum so we could just walk straight in when we were ready.   The museum tells of the city pre and post bomb, and includes person stories of the human suffering the bomb caused.  It was a very intense but necessary education.  There was also a really interesting exhibit on nuclear weapons, the dangers of them and what is currently being done to remove them from any future conflict.

Leaving the Peace Park we walked back across the river and stumbled across a large covered, pedestrian shopping street called Hondori Road.  It was lined with shops including a shop selling only socks – normal socks, big toe socks, five toe socks, frilly socks.  Whilst the others shopped, I enjoyed the Abba’s greatest hits being blasted out in the shop lol.  From here we came across a glasses shop, with an upstairs performance area, where an odd John Lennon/Yoko Ono singing duet where performing.  It was all very weird and something I am sure you can only find in Japan.  lol

We then made a beeline to the Okonomimura – described as a “Hiroshima style okonomiyaki them park”!  A building housing 24 okonomiyaki restaurants.  Okonomiyaki can be translated as “as you like it pancake” and is a popular dish consisting of batter, lots of cabbage and then a selection of toppings which can include thin strips of pork and green onion (which I had), or cheese and garlic or even intestines.  It is available all over Japan but is particularly popular in Hiroshima. 

We were lucky enough to find room for the 4 of us at one of the 24 small “restaurants” and found ourselves sitting next to someone who could explain to us what it was and how it worked.  (Yes, we had come this far without really knowing what we were doing!)  The cooking was done on the teppan, or iron griddle, right in front of us and was a performance in itself.  The finished product was huge and tasted great, and the whole experience was well worth it and a great end to the day.

Next morning (and day 10 of my trip), I took advantage of the beautiful brisk early morning for a quiet walk around Peace Park (it was only 5°).  Surprisingly there were still quite a few people around.  Mostly local people have some early morning exercise, all stopping and bowing or praying at the Cenotaph as they passed it. 

Crossing to the other side of the river, I learnt that the t-shaped Aioi Bridge is thought to be the actual target used to drop the bomb.  Surprisingly, like the nearby A Bomb Dome, the bridge partially survived and with some repairs was used for another 35 years before replacing it.  This morning I walked along the other side of the river, reading the signs about the different spots along the riverside and admiring the morning bird life and beautiful azalea hedges lining the pathways. 

Lots of countries sent plants and trees for the peace nearby Peace Park and I found a plant that looked suspiciously like a New Zealand kowhai – perhaps it was??  Also along this side of the river was lot of small monuments specific to buildings and people that died on those sites, such as one for the Hiroshima gas company.

Back at our second rate hotel (it was a flash back to the 70s) I had a second rate breakfast, although the “breakfast curry” was pretty good, and I had time to grab a decent coffee from the local Starbucks before meeting the group for our day trip.  Streetcar, train and then a short ferry took us to the small island, and UNESCO World Heritage site of Miyajima (translated as Shrine Island). (I should note that one of the two ferrys that go back and forth to the island, is run by Japan Rail and therefore is free if you have a JR pass.)

The island is one of Japan’s most popular tourist sites and one of the first things you see when approaching is the famous floating torii gate of the Itsukushima Shrine. It is probably one of the most icon images of Japan, when at hightide it looks like it is floating. 

The island has been a place of religious significance for centuries with many Shinto shrines and buddist temples all around the 30 km sq island.  A few of us ditched the rest of the group to walk down to see the torii gate as the tide was in, before walking up towards the cable car.  Not before stopping to admire the wooden Five-Story Pagoda in the Daisho-in Temple complex.  Built in 1407, it is over 27 metres tall and is another one of the iconic sites of the island.

The walk to the first cable car station took us through some of the forest that covers much of the island.  The cable car system up Mt Misen started with a circulating ropeway, with gondolas seating 8 people.   From the end of the gondola rise, we transferred to the funicular ropeway which operates 2 large gondolas that took up to 30 people.  There were great views from both gondolas across the island and out in to the Sea of Japan.

At the top gondola station, there is a great view point and then walks up to the top of Mt Misen, 535m above sea level.  On the walk up there are many other beautiful temples and we were lucky enough to spot a couple of the island’s famous deer. I should mention, that it is possible to walk all the way up (or down) the mountain, rather than take the cable car, but as always we were on a mission to see as much as possible in the few hours we had on the island!

Back down by the water front we discovered the tide had gone out, and we could now walk right out to the torii gate.  It was really cool to be able to see it close up and even touch it.  We then stopped for a long overdue drink (a local beer) and to sample some of the local delicacies from some of the many food stalls.

Deer are scared in the Shinto religion and there are over 1000 Sika deer roaming freely around the island.  I was surprised that we actually saw more in the town area then in the forest in the hills, but I guess they must get fed in town – they were certainly tamer there. 

I would have loved to have had the time to spent the night on the island, but sadly not this time, so it was back on the ferry, train and streetcar to the hotel.  Another 12km + under the belt and my feet refused to move again 😂 great day though