GETTING BIGGER IN JAPAN: HIROSHIMA
Well, of course that’s what you think of. There is no way that the devastating effects of 6th August 1945 and the after effects of the A-bomb are not going to inform every person’s conception of what Hiroshima was and, indeed, is.
And, of course, they inform every aspect of this amazing city too, from the quiet monuments to the dead and to peace to the shape and nature of the town where much of the city has been rebuilt along its old lines.
Good food apart, it may be obvious from the last couple of entries that Hakone and Takayama were not my sort of towns. Predicated on tourism, if for the Japanese rather than the westerner, they had a fake air about them which did little to beguile me. Hiroshima, on the other hand, was exactly my kind of town. Just the sort of place you think of when imagining modern day Japan.
Lively, bustling and frenetic, it still managed an air of civility about it that was perhaps missing in Tokyo. I think, Tokyo included, of all the places we visited, Hiroshima gave me most of what I was looking for. Certainly, it offered some of the best food I tried on the trip.
What I was not looking for was perhaps, the toughest journey of all. It took the best part of a day’s travel to get from one city to the other and, lots of short train journeys made sure that we were never on one train long enough to be able to settle down before having to clamber to the back of the carriages, hike our backpacks on and route march to the next train.
Our small, basic inn was a welcome sight when, eight hours later, we trudged wearily up to its front door. A welcome that seemed less warm when it transpired that it was also home to any number of American College students and, let’s just say the Golden Arches they were asking reception about did not belong to any shrine. Got to just love them.
Yuka, however, knew just how to cheer us up. Food and plenty o’it.
Hiroshima, amongst its many claims to fame, is the spiritual home of Okonomyaki, to all intents and purposes an pancake which, while being cooked with great skill on a hot plate is layered with a huge range of fillings including noodles, meat, vegetables and seafood. It is not fine food by any manner of means, but for hungry travellers, it was everything we needed.
So well know if Hiroshima for this delicacy that it even has an okonomyaki district which houses the greatest density of store fronts serving them than anywhere else in the whole of Japan.
After a quick beer in a neighbouring bar, we all decamped to one place which Yuka declared her favourite and sat watching in awe as the meal was prepared in front of us. A thin layer of batter spread out like a crepe is then layered with ramen or udon noodles, then shredded white cabbage, strips of pork, shrimp and vegetables, before being topped with an omelette and flipped one last time.
Served with a hot sauce and a cold beer, it is little wonder that it has become hugely popular.
It is fair to say that our spirits were much revived by then and someone, again, I totally deny the fact that it may have been me, uttered the fateful word “Karaoke”
Now, as I am sure you all know, Karaoke is very serious business in Japan with outlets of many floors being dedicated to the pursuit of folk, young and old singing out of tune to songs from the 80’s.
We chose “Big Echo” which allows you to rent out a private room housing about 12 people to sing to your hearts content while they provide you with free drink.
It was a dangerous combination and, if I am honest, no one came out of it with much dignity left intact. Although, it will come as no surprise that my rendition of “ You Are My Sunshine” is still being talked about as far as Yokahama.
It is just as well that the next day was a totally free day with no group activities. This allowed me to take a leisurely walk around the peace memorial park and the Hiroshima Peace Museum before visiting the A-Bomb Dome.
The Japanese attitude to the A-Bomb is an interesting one. In many ways they are quite matter of fact about it and openly put down the war and its tragic ending to “mistaken domestic policy” The view of the Americans too is quite understated with little blame attached merely a view that it should not happen again.
Whatever ones views about the dropping of the bomb (our group was split between those who thought it was politically and strategically expedient to those who saw it as a war crime) the human reality is hard to avoid and provokes incredibly strong emotions.
The A- Bomb Dome is the last surviving building in Hiroshima which survived the blast and is now preserved as a monument to the dead. I will not deny holding back a few tears as I walked around there and the memorial to the 140,000 who died on the day itself ( another 100,000 died in the following two years from their wounds and radiation poisoning) which stand as gentle reminders to future generations.
After walking past a small monument on a side street which marked the spot above which (at 600 metres) the bomb exploded, I needed to forget about the war and all its horrors for a while and see what the rest of the city had to offer.
In terms of shrines and temples, of course, very little as it was all destroyed. Some have been rebuilt but they offer little and Hiroshima Castle in particular was a bit of a dud with, perhaps, the dullest exhibition in history (about the local baseball team, The Hiroshima Carps) within its walls leading me to begrudge the thirty minutes and 300yen I had spent there.
Instead of the temples and gardens, I went in search of food and, in particular, the local speciality of grilled conger eel known as Anago. I found it in the small fish market located next to Hiroshima station. Unlike Unagi, this eel is grilled whole before being doused in a slightly sweet sauce. A stunning combination of crispy skin and fatty flesh that I can still taste as I write about it.
It’s not cheap with a portion coming in at nearly 1500yen, but it was worth every last penny and was one of the highlights of my trip to date.
Just enough to whet my appetite, so I stopped in at one of Hiroshima’s many fast food joints for a spot of lunch. Fast food in Japan is huge business and there are a number of chains which have built up to feed those who want to eat and go in the space of 15 minutes. In many, you choose from a menu outside before you set foot in the place, buy a ticket for the corresponding meal from a vending machine inside the front door and hand it to the server when you sit down at the counter. About a minute later your meal is in front of you with some free water and green tea and you are all set.
This time, I chose a particularly peculiar Japanese speciality, curry & Rice or “Kurry Riasau” which can trace its roots back to British naval visitations in the 19th century. This curry though would be unrecognisable to anyone from India and, indeed, the UK. It is sweet with chunks of meat and sometimes fruit in it and the Japanese love it. It is their comfort food. Their hangover food and their chicken soup.
Me? I thought it was just a little odd but, not as odd as the $100 square melon I saw at a department store I saw on my way home. Definitely one for the 'foreigners are funny" collection
After a long day’s walking, I had an early night and, after a quiet unmemorable supper, I had an early night.
Just as well as, the next day, I decided to subject myself to some unplanned exercise. Myajima Island is a short journey on a JR line train and a ferry from Hiroshima, but definitely worth a visit for its stunning views and primarily for The Tori Gate, considered one of the three most important sights in Japan.
The whole island is treated as a shrine and, although people now live there it is still not legal for babies to be born there or for people to die there. The Tori Gate, sitting out in the harbour was a symbol of the gateway to the shrine and, despite being torn down by the occasional Typhoon ( the current one has been there since 1875) remains one of Japan’s most treasured possessions.
I was being quite well behaved at this point and walked with the group as we went “ooh” and “ah” and took some pictures of the gate as it appears to float in the water. But, then there was another shrine to visit, shoes to be taken off and more purifying of hands and bells to be wrung.
Not for me. So, I took this opportunity to leave the rest of them and go and explore the island which fortunately had a lot more to offer.
In food terms, there are quite a few things that are unique to the island including small cakes filled with the inevitable red bean paste, that are shaped like the maple leaves that can be found all over the island, fried oysters (I like them, they don’t like me) and long skewers of minced cuttlefish deep fried.
All of these were worth trying. What was not worth trying was a tub of a rather frightening cold substance I bought from one of the vendors on the main shopping drag. A strange mix of Uni (sea urchin) squid and a sweet tomato sauce. It tasted as I would imagine a bowl of snot and ejaculate might taste and it took me at least four cans of diet coke to get the taste of the one and only bite I took out of my mouth. The thought of it still makes me quiver as I write.
OK, the exercise. Mount Misen rises high above Myajima Island and is considered, like so many mountains in Japan, sacred. So, I decided to climb it.
Silly really, I had nothing on but training shoes and the roads to the top are not the most user friendly. Also, in 90o heat and almost 100% humidity, the steep ascent became less and less of a good idea the further I went.
After nearly two hours of climbing upward, I finally reached the top. It was, after all that, worth it and the views from the island, quite magical as the mists gathered around me.
There is little to report for the rest of the day except my first encounter with Panchinko, that rather mystifying little game that so enthrals the Japanese. A game involving a large number of silver balls that bounce around a vertical board in a way that all the Japanese seem to understand as soon as they come out of the womb, but was still a mystery to me even after a few attempts. While my neighbours made deft hand movements on a small dial to control the movement of the balls mine just seem to arrive and disappear in rapid succession and my game was over almost as soon as it began.
After that, a walk around Nagarekwa, the red light district with its girly bars on umpteen floors and small bars offering Yakitori. I stopped at one to eat a bit of Pig's heart, well you are forced to aren't you and then headed back to the hotel to join some of the others who had emptied the nearest vending machine of its beery contents
The next morning saw one of the more remarkable encounters of our trip. Yuka had arranged for us meet with Keijiro Matsushima. A man in his 80’s who was one fo the few remaining survivors of the A Bomb. Again, people’s political opinions aside, to hear an account of the day of the bombing from a man who, fifteen at the time, witnessed the resulting fall out, the casualties on the day and the ongoing horrors of radiation poisoning was something that no one on the trip will forget and, I have to admit, there were tears welling up even amongst the most hardened of us.
It was a fitting end to the trip. So, after our morning, we headed back to our hotel and collected our backpacks for the last leg of the journey to Kyoto, home of 2000 Shrines and the best Izakaya of the whole trip.