Wednesday, July 2, 2014

A Sobering Excursion to Hiroshima and An Uplifting One to Miyajima

Tuesday, July 1, 2014
Hiroshima and Miyajima

 We had an ambitious day ahead of us, so it was not surprising that we awoke at the crack of dawn, washed hastily, got dressed and left our hotel, sans breakfast, to catch the earliest train available going west from Kyoto on the island of Honshu which is Japan’s largest and where the major cities are based—including Hiroshima which was on our itinerary for today.

 Obtaining Our Japan Rail Passes:

            We took the subway from Shijo Karasuma (where our Hotel Via Inn is located) to Kyoto Main station where we made a beeline for the Japan Rail Office to convert our Japan Rail vouchers (only available to foreigners and, therefore, sold only outside Japan—we had purchased ours online in the States before leaving home. These are the equivalent of the famous Eurail Passes in Europe. They cost us $280 for 7 days of unlimited travel on Japan Rail.). After checking passports for identification, the passes were issued to us together with reserved tickets for our ride from Kyoto to Hiroshima (a direct bullet train ride on what is called the Shinkansen) which took approximately two hours. Since we had a few minutes to spare, we crossed the street in front of the station to the Family Mart (Japan’s answer to the 7-11) bought ourselves breakfast sandwiches and lattes and made our way back into the station to catch the 7. 20 am train to Hiroshima. On the train, we had the opportunity to read up some Lonely Planet material that I had photocopied.

 Arrival at Hiroshima:

            Japan Rail passes took us neatly out of the station at Hiroshima and on to a waiting sightseeing Loop Bus that transports visitors to all the important sites in this incredibly moving city. Having first heard the name of this ill-fated city when we were school kids in India and Pakistan respectively, both Llew and I had to pinch ourselves to believe that we were actually striding on its streets. There is probably not a person in the educated world who is unaware of the fact that at 8. 15 am on August 6, 1945, the US dropped the first-ever atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima in a desperate bid to persuade Japan to surrender and thus end World War II. The sightseeing bus takes the visitor to the ‘hypocenter’ of the blast which has been converted into a Peace Memorial Park.

 On a Pilgrimage of Peace in Hiroshima:

            Before we arrived at the Peace Memorial Park, our bus wound its way around a modern city that has been developed in a grid pattern on what appears like an island between the two rivers that flow through it. One must bear in mind that the entire city was flattened in 1945—which means that no building is older than 60 odd years. Hiroshima has a variety of local transport—buses, trams, street cars. Although modern, some aspects of it have the appearance of being stuck in a 1950s time warp—which is rather interesting.

 Arrival at the Atomic Dome Building:

            One of the first stops on the Loop Sightseeing Bus is the Atomic Dome Building—which superbly sets the tone for the rest of one’s visit. This building, made of solid concrete in 1915 by a Czech architect called Jan Letzel was the only one that remained erect after the nuclear explosion. (We learned on our tour of the Peace Memorial Museum, later that morning, that nuclear rays do not penetrate concrete—which is why the building and a few concrete bridges survived; the rest of Hiroshima was made of timber which grew into a massive incinerator after the bomb was dropped—a matter that flattened the city within hours).

            Despite the fact that this building stood, not too far from the hypocenter, it remained standing although the metal sheeting that covered its dome quickly melted. The shell of the dome that looks like a metal crown remained. After the reconstruction of the city of Hiroshima began, it was decided, despite huge public misgivings, to retain the ruins of the building as a stark reminder of the horrors of nuclear warfare. Today, it is a World Heritage Site and a profoundly sobering one at that. The original brick and mortar rubble lies in thick layers around the building’s ragged foundations with some iron girding still visible within. What used to be the Industrial Promotions Hall of the City is today a sad remnant of the glory and prosperity that was pre-war Hiroshima. We encircled the building, took pictures there and were actually interviewed on camera by a Japanese documentary film crew that was filming a feature on the conversion of this once-residential area into a Peace Park.

 Walking Across to the Peace Memorial Park:

            Just a few steps ahead, across a bridge over one of the rivers that flows through the city, is the vast Peace Memorial Park that is scattered with monuments erected by various world organizations in memory of those who lost their lives that fateful morning (70,000 instantly, another 70,000 from ‘black rain’ or nuclear fallout that occurred within the next couple of days).

            Our first stop was the Bell of Peace that visitors can ring as a mark of respect. It is shaped like the typical Buddhist shrine gongs we have been seeing in all the temples in Japan. Llew and I were struck to see verses from the Bhagvad-Gita sculpted in Marathi and Hindi’s Devnagiri script (which I can read fluently) all around the periphery of the bell.

            Our next stop was the Mound of Ashes that contains the ashes of the thousands of victims of the blast who were rendered unrecognizable and who were cremated in a nameless mound that is now covered with fresh green grass and topped by a Buddhist monument.

            The third stop on this walking tour in the park was the Children’s Monument for Peace erected in memory of a Japanese girl named Sasaki who was four years old when the blast occurred. At the age of 11, she contracted radiation-related leukemia and was given only a few months to live. Because in Japan, the crane is a symbol of happiness and longevity, she took it into her head to create 1000 origami cranes. She folded them in the desperate belief that if she reached a thousand, she would survive. She did not fold a thousand nor did she survive, but her classmates and friends joined the campaign and created 1000 cranes. Today, Sasaki has become an enduring symbol of the need for nuclear disarmament and school children all over Japan continue to fold cranes in her honor and send them to the Park. In recent years, it was decided to honor her memory by constructing the memorial which consists of a conical sculpture crowned by a metal image of a girl with a crane soaring above her head. Inside the monument is a Crane Bell which visitors can ring. Sasaki’s sad story brought tears to our eyes and a lump to our throats especially as her monument is ringed by glass cases crammed with colored origami cranes that periodically arrive from all over Japan.

            Crossing another small bridge, we arrived at the Eternal Flame, which burns through the day and night in honor of those who perished. We paused there for a moment then walked to the Cenotaph, one of the most important sculptural monuments in the park, designed by the Japanese sculptor Tange Kenzo. It looks like a tunnel, a bridge or a shelter—depending on one’s perspective. Beneath it, in a stone vault, are more ashes of victims of the disaster. There is a prayer in Japanese and various plaques encircling the monument in various languages. All of these monuments are lined alongside a pathway that flanks a reflecting pool. The effect of water, green grass and these memorial stones is extremely moving and quieting and we felt quite deeply touched by what we beheld.

 Touring the Peace Memorial Museum:

            Our stroll through these sculptures eventually brought us to the vast Peace Memorial Museum that runs the breadth of the Park—it is a modern building that tells the story of the city of Hiroshima from its earliest beginnings until the destruction of the bomb and after. We paid an entrance fee of 300 yen each and were rewarded by an English-speaking guide who was summoned to take just the two of us around the museum on a guided tour at 10. 30 am. (We were subsequently joined by another four English speakers which made the entire experience feel like a private tour). Plus, this was perhaps one of the best guides I have ever had on a museum tour. She was fluent, articulate, extremely well-informed and completely balanced in her views. Apart from the enormous amount of information she provided and the complete feeling of enlightenment with which she left us, there was absolutely no bias or sense of judgment about anything she said. She was dispassionate and objective and, therefore, non-controversial.

            Thus, she informed us that the reason Hiroshima was chosen as the site for the dropping of the bomb was that after its imperial successes, Japan had grown extremely arrogant and had constructed massive armament manufacturing units and was using Hiroshima as a port from which to ship out its troops across the East during World War II. After America had developed the atomic bomb, she said, it was keen to experiment and determine the impact of nuclear warheads. As the American pilots in the B52 bomber scoured the skies above Japan, they were able to spy the concrete “T Bridge” that spanned the two rivers. This provided them with an accurate hypocenter for the dropping of the bomb—since this was nuclear warfare, it ended in a mushroom cloud, not a crater on the earth. Black Rain dropped over the city for days and brought life to a complete standstill. The few survivors, badly burned, and unaware of the effects of nuclear fallout, remained in the city instead of fleeing it. They became victims of awful suffering in the next few years. Three days after the A-Bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, a second one was dropped on Nagasaki, and three days later, Japan’s Emperor Hirohito made an unconditional surrender—World War II was over.

            The Museum provided graphic accounts of the planning and plotting involved in the dropping of Little Boy as the Bomb was known in code. Apart from pictures, there are the charred remains of all sorts of minutiea that make up our lives: clothing, books, lunch boxes, toys, etc. The remains of childrens’ goods were especially moving: about 400 of them attached to a single school had died in an instant as they were assembled outside for morning assembly. A sole child who remained inside (protected by the concrete of the building’s walls—survived until the age of 80 and passed away recently). However, the survivors were also ostracized for years on end as people were afraid that they were emitters of radio-active rays and did not wish to come into physical contact with them. None of them were able to marry as no one was sure of the impact of nuclear disaster on their reproductive capabilities. It was just layer after layer of horror to which we were exposed on the tour.

            Another portion of the museum exhibited the charred remains of tiles, roofs, houses, concrete buildings with glass fragments embedded in them, etc. There were wonderful scaled models of Hiroshima just before the disaster and days later—the contrast was horribly humbling. The museum also contains information on the continuation of nuclear testing and the involvement, in recent years, of other countries such as Israel, India and Pakistan, in the nuclear race.

The guide ended the tour with profound questions for reflection, such as: Could this disaster have been avoided? Could another way have been found to end the war? Did Japan have to wait so long to surrender? Was Kamikaze—the Japanese philosophy of invincibility—largely responsible for the disaster, in the first place? Did America have to drop a second bomb? And was the dropping of the bomb on Nagasaki purely an attempt to test the impact of plutonium on humankind? She did not provide any answers: all she did was leave us to ponder and reflect on the human capacity to cause suffering. Llew and I left the museum feeling so sorry for the people of Japan and yet so admiring of their efforts to build up from the rubble and ashes of their ruin in the manner of the Phoenix, the bird that decorates so many of their Buddhist temples and palaces.

 On the Route to Miyajima:

            Having seen the main sites in Hiroshima and having learned so much from this experience, we were ready to leave the city at 12 noon to undertake a journey further west on Honshu to the island of Miyajima of which I had only recently become aware. It is recognized as one of the three most scenic parts of Japan and, therefore, warranted a visit.

 Getting to Miyajima involved returning to Hiroshima station to take a train (a 26 minute ride) to Miyamaguchi—a small rail head. From there, we walked about five minutes, following good signage, to the Ferry Port, where we boarded a ferry for the ten minute sail to Miyajima which is a small island. Our Japan Rail Passes were accepted everywhere and so we did not pay an extra penny for any of this travel.

We arrived in Miyajima by 1.30 pm after having picked up burgers and ice-cream sundaes from McDonald’s at Hiroshima station. As we approached the island, the sight of the green forest-clad mountains that dipped straight into the water, reminded us very much of the Na Pali Cliffs of Hawai’i’s island of Kauai. It was a very pretty sight. From the ferry port at Miyamaguchi, we could already see the vermillion T-shaped shrine gates known as O-Tori, which at 53 meters tall, happen to be among the most towering of Japan’s shrine gateways and is the iconic subject of the publicity posters brought out by the Japan Tourism Bureau. As our ship headed closer to the Pier on the Island, it loomed bigger and bigger and I became really excited. It seemed to rise right out of the sea as the tide was in—by the end of the afternoon, we were actually able to walk along the ocean bed to the tori and to touch it (an extremely exciting prospect for me) and marvel at the thick coating of barnacles clinging to the sides  as the tide had receded enough to make such an adventure possible.

Along the Promenade to the Itsukitsama Shrine:

            The island of Miyajima is known for the O-Tori that is part of the Itsukitsama Shrine that dates back to the 12th century—it was built by the shogun known as Yoshimoto who was the subject and hero of Tale of the Heike that I had spent part of last week studying. So I was really thrilled to be in this shrine. It is, like all Japanese Shinto shrines, a series of sub-structures—all painted in vivid vermillion, containing wooden, shaded walkways, a very old Noh Theater and a Main Shrine. We paid 500 yen each to enter and admire the environs with its Ah and Um guardian lions in beautiful teal colored ceramic, its many stone lanterns that line the path to the temple and the multitude of tame deer that are considered sacred and that come to the very hands of visitors seeking nibbles. All of this is extremely atmospheric because the temple is constructed on stilts on the ocean floor and has the dramatic backdrop of the green mountains just behind it to set the tone of contemplation which is so much a part of Shinto Buddhism. I simply could not get over the architecture that I photographed endlessly because the venue lent itself so perfectly to the creation of jaw dropping pictures.


On to the Mijodiani Park:

            Right behind the Temple precincts, past kitschy souvenir shops from where we finally found a few Japanese magnets (which we collect), we found a picturesque pathway leading to one of Japan’s most famous public parks: the Mijodiani Park or the Maple Leaf Valley Park. As its name suggests, it truly comes into its own in the autumn, when the thousands of maple trees in the park put on their stunning show of seasonal foliage in shades of orange, red, yellow and brown. There are the typical Monet-favored vermillion arched bridges over burbling brooks with ran with clear water and the stone lanterns punctuating the landscape. It is very pretty indeed and we spent about an hour taking in the glory of this park.

 Back to the Pier and on to Hiroshima:

But by 4.00 pm, we began to retrace our steps back to the pier to take the ferry back to the mainland from where we hopped into a train that took us back to Hiroshima in about an hour (from island to city). It was about 5. 00 pm when we decided to have an early dinner.

 Okinomiyaki in Hiroshima:

Hiroshima is noted for its okinomiyaki which is very different form the kind found in Kyoto—where it is essentially a stuffed Japanese pancake. This one, in Hiroshima, is not folded over like a stuffed omlette but presented flat and with a huge mound of noodles—either soba or udon, you take your pick.

            Lonely Planet provided us with the name of a place called Okinomura Village where in a building near Parco, a busy shopping center, we would find a number of small stalls selling the delicacy. Inquiring around for the exact venue, we chanced to speak to a very sweet Japanese woman with very halting English who was, nevertheless, keen to help us, having spent a while, twenty years ago, at a home stay in California. She actually led us physically to the place and told us to try the item at Asuma’s eatery. This turned out to be quite a delicious treat and although at 11,000 yen (about $11), it was much too large and hearty for either one of us to finish, it was truly delicious. We washed it down with an Asahi draft beer and then made our way back to Hiroshima station by taxi (as the sightseeing bus had ended its runs for the day).

Back to Kyoto:

                    About two hours later, we were on in Kyoto and heading on the subway to our hotel where we made inquiries about our onward journey tomorrow to Mount Fuji to spy another one of Japan’s most iconic sights—its dormant volcano mountain in the direction of the capital city of Tokyo.

 Until then…sayonara     

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