Often, before embarking on a trip, there are certain things – sights, activities, places – upon which one sets ones heart to see, do or visit. Before I came to Japan, for example, my list included things as obvious as eating real sushi and seeing the bright lights of Tokyo, along with those things I never thought I would actually have the chance to do, such as skiing, and visiting Hokkaido.
As my final months abroad are approaching, I am becoming ever more determined to make sure this list is not left unfinished, especially as I am unsure when I will next be able to return to Asia, let alone Japan. Third year is looming, and who knows where life will take me post-graduation, so as the weeks go by, my resolve to make the very most of them grows ever stronger.
Earlier this week, this resolve took me to another place which I had wanted to see since I arrived in September. We’ve had ten days vacation for Golden Week, one of Japan’s busiest holiday periods containing a variety of national holidays, including Showa Day, the former Emperor Showa’s birthday, and Greenery Day, a day dedicated to nature and the environment, and Aliya and I took the opportunity to squeeze in a short trip to Hiroshima and Miyajima.
Being poor students, we opted for the bus rather than the Shinkansen (bullet train), which is half the price albeit three times as long. Getting up at 4:45am is never fun, however buses in Japan are unlike any other bus or coach I have ever seen – seriously comfortable seats which almost fully recline, individual hoods to block out the light and a decent amount of leg room, especially if you’re towards the front, so you are actually able to get a decent sleep. Having travelled on the worst of the worst – a night bus in Laos without a seat – I couldn’t have appreciated this more. I managed to get a few hours on the way up to Hiroshima, and we arrived absolutely famished and more than ready for lunch.
Hiroshima was, as everyone is aware, put on the map in the most terrible of ways: the first atomic bomb was dropped on the city by the US at the end of the Second World War. It is, however, also renowned for much more positive reasons, such as a personal favourite of mine – food. The most famous dish is okonomiyaki, a kind of vegetable pancake. I’ve eaten okonomiyaki many times before, in both Osaka and Kyoto, and it’s probably one of my favourite Japanese dishes, but Hiroshima-ites have their own unique style, adding soba noodles, and often toppings such as oysters and squid. We ate at an establishment called Okonomimura, which is basically three floors of tiny okonomiyaki restaurants, and the food was unbelievable! Huge portions, and the addition of noodles is completely inspired.
After lunch, we headed over to Miyajima to see the great floating Torii of Itsukushima Shrine. I am so pleased to have had the opportunity to visit this place, which was fairly high up on my Japan bucket list. As we arrived later in the day, the crowds of tourists were beginning to dissipate. As in Nara, the island of Miyajima is inhabited by a number of rather tame deer, although they definitely seemed less aggressive than Nara’s furry residents – most of them were just snoozing in the sun.
The Torii itself was amazing – it was easy to see how it’s become one of the iconic Japanese sights. We overheard a tour guide telling her group that the structure actually has no foundations – it’s weight alone holds it in place, which is pretty incredible.
After the Shrine, we sampled some more of the local cuisine at one of the oyster bars on Miyajima’s main shopping street, Kaki-ya (which, quite literally, means oyster shop). I never thought I would ever be able to get excited about oysters until I tried one for the first time in Sapporo, and found it to be a rather enjoyable experience. Whilst I’m still not brave enough to try a raw one, the oysters at Kaki-ya are grilled on a barbecue at the front of the bar, and they were truly divine. Hiroshima Prefecture produces between 60 and 70% of Japan’s oysters – around 30,000 tonnes per year – so it would have been terribly rude of us not to try at least one.
Inevitably, they were so delicious that we ended up having far more than one – we began with the oysters and rice set, and ordered a second plate of grilled oysters each, all washed down with a glass or two of Chablis. It was all very pretentious – the bar itself had a very upmarket feel – but the prices were so reasonable. Rest assured you’d pay about three times more if it had been in London! They might not be the most attractive food to look at, but don’t judge a book by it’s cover. This was one of my top ten meals, not just in Asia, but in my life!
The following day we woke up early and headed straight to the Peace Memorial Park. You can’t possibly visit Hiroshima with out paying a visit to the park and museum, which are truly moving tributes to all the lives lost in the bombing. It was a sobering morning, as we’d expected, and left both Aliya and I in a very thoughtful and reflective mood for the rest of the day.
The recovery of the city is a true testament to the strength and resolve of the Japanese as a nation, and I believe the international community has a lot to learn from Japan in terms of cooperation – the lack of bitterness towards the United States after what was, without a doubt, one of the most atrocious acts in history, is something which really struck me during our short trip.
Finally, we went to the National Peace Memorial Hall, specially built to commemorate the lives of those lost in the bombing. Aliya and I agreed that only the Japanese could create something so simple, but at the same time so full of meaning. Each tile represents a lost soul, a total of 140,000, and the fountain is a tribute to all those who died desperate for water in the aftermath. The Hall is such a beautiful space, and truly conveys a message of peace.
Unfortunately, our time in Hiroshima had come to and end, and we made our way back to the train station to catch our long bus home. Although we only had 24 hours in the city, it was definitely worth it, and not just because I could tick another thing off my list.