"If a city was dreaming … then the city is asleep. And I do not fear cities sleeping …. Sleeping cities are tame and harmless things. What I fear … is that one day the cities will waken. That one day the cities will rise."
World’s End, Neil Gaiman
I wanted to mention something about cities having their own character, and I thought of that dialogue in The Sandman. Cities are living things — they have their own character, shaped by the people inhabiting them, by the events happening within them, by the geography surrounding them.
Austin couldn’t be mistaken for Dallas, even though both are located in Texas. New York City couldn’t be mistaken for Honolulu. Hell, Honolulu couldn’t even be mistaken for Kahului.
The cities I visited in Japan are no different. Kyoto reminded me of Honolulu. Tokyo reminded me of New York City or Los Angeles. Osaka — definitely Austin.
Hiroshima is world-renowned for one of the most shocking events in human history. But what else could be said about the city? In terms to its size relative to the likes of Kyoto, Tokyo or Osaka, Hiroshima would be … Galveston, Round Rock, Oakland.
Hiroshima is a two-hour bullet train ride from Kyoto, located on the coast. The sea air gives the infrastructure and the architecture a rugged feel. Hiroshima looks worn, not the urban gleam of Tokyo. Hiroshima feels rough, not the relaxed gentility of Kyoto. Hiroshima is country, not the indie rock ‘n’ roll of Osaka.
To say it inelegantly, Hiroshima is the sticks.
Of course, it’s only the sticks to someone with a narrow view of urban living. The people who call Hiroshima home most likely don’t see it that way.
With practice, it’s fairly easy to navigate the subway and train stations in Tokyo, Osaka and even Kyoto. Hiroshima was not so transparent.
The city has a street car line — it’s not big enough to warrant a subway system. (Kyoto has a subway system, but it doesn’t have the same reach as its bus system.)
When my brother and I arrived at Hiroshima Station, he had a bit of a hard time trying to figure out where to board to get to Itsukushima Shrine on Miyajima Island. (Ed. note: jima already means island in Japanese, so to say Miyajima Island feels redundant.) There was a big sign in the station that seemed to spell it out, but since neither of us read Japanese all that well — he less than I — so boarding the wrong train was always a risk.
We went to the information desk, and they pointed us the way, handing out an English-language map of the transit system.
I knew of only two things about Hiroshima: the atomic bomb was detonated there, and a Los Angeles jazz group named itself after the city. I had no idea what else the city — and prefecture — had to offer.
Hiroshima is actually the capital of the prefecture of the same name. The prefecture includes 14 cities, one of which is Hatsukaichi, home to Miyajima Island and Itsukushima Shrine.
We took a JR train to the Miyajima stop — travel time, 23 minutes — then we boarded a ferry to Miyajima Island.
The Torii gate of Itsukushima Shrine, often called "The Floating Gate", looks like it’s built in the middle of the water. At low tide, a mud bar emerges that allows visitors to walk to the gate. It’s similar to Chinaman’s Hat near Oʻahu.
During the boat ride, a film crew was shooting a woman trying to hold up a picture frame as the gate came into view. I didn’t understand a word they were saying, but it was a comedic performance.
When we got off the ferry, my brother warned me about the deer. Deer are sacred symbols and allowed to roam freely on the island. Despite their cute cachet, they’re also a kind of pest. Got a guide book in your hand? The deer will munch on it if you’re not looking. And the pellets on the ground? Best not to step on them.
I encountered one deer while I was walking along the sea wall of the island. I let it go on its way.
I didn’t take many pictures of the shrine, instead opting to shoot video. I haven’t compiled the video yet, but I did miss some opportunities.
The Daisho-in Temple has a path of miniature Buddha statues, each with a different expression. I believe there were about 500 of them, half the number of a similar path in China. The long stairway to the temple has a series of rotating handles which you spin as you walk up. It’s said to give you good luck.
The view of the harbor from the island is incredible.
On the way back to the port, my brother and I stopped for lunch at a restaurant near Daisho-In.
I had to use the restroom. No, this is not my first encounter with a Japanese toilet. (I saw some in the train stations, and thankfully I hadn’t need to use them.) It was, instead, my first encounter with a souped-up western toilet.
Real estate in Japan is scarce, and space is optimized. Restrooms are really water closets. The toilet in this restaurant’s water closet had two ways of flushing — small and big. While I couldn’t quite read the Japanese labels on the other buttons, the icons indicated their purpose — washing.
No, I did not indulge.
The sink was tiny, but it too was optimized for the space. And automated.
I bet all this stuff is ecologically sound.
My brother mentioned there was a tram that led to the top of the island mountain, but my feet were already protesting. Beside, I found the web site for a Yamaha Music Store location in Hiroshima, in a section of the city called Kamiya (literally, "paper store".)
Rather than taking the JR train back, we took the street car. It took about 45 minutes to get to Kamiya, and the store was only two blocks away from the stop we got off.
We split up, my brother looking for a hobby shop next door. Bingo! I found a piano score for Onitsuka Chihiro’s Insomnia and a band score for Tokyo Jihen’s Goraku (Variety).
Boy was I tempted to blow all my cash right then and there. I knew we would head to Osaka the next day, and I vowed to look up more Yamaha locations there.
From Kamiya, we walked to the Peace Memorial Park. At that point, I was still trusting my brother’s lead, but it was a damn long walk, and I started to question his navigational choices. As it turned out, we didn’t cross the bridge we were supposed to cross. We made it to the park all right, but I had the sense more efficient routes were left unexplored.
Of all the places we explored on the trip, the Peace Memorial Museum had the least expensive admission — 50 yen (roughly 50 cents.) But those 50 yen go a long, long way.
The atomic bomb detonated 600 feet above the city. I had always assumed it made landfall. Two scale models of Hiroshima before and after the detonation illustrated the extent of the devastation. One model showed a city packed with buildings. The other was flat, only three structures left standing.
School children were working to clear land for the war effort on the day the bomb dropped. A number of photographs showed crowds of children among the rubble. A watch stopped at 8:15 a.m. And then there’s the stoop where the shadow of a person waiting for a bank to open was burned into the concrete.
Then there’s the old Industrial Promotion Hall, the iconic ruin now known as Genbaku Dome — "Atomic Dome". I was surprised to find it wasn’t actually in the park, but from the museum, the landscaping was fashioned in a way to put the dome front and center.
Itsukushima Shrine and the Peace Memorial Park were both breathtaking, each in their own way.
It’s tough being a tourist in Japan without some knowledge of the language. Most store clerks and restaurant employees don’t know English, but some folks are willing to practice.
So it was a surprise when an old guy walking along the bridge stopped to say hello to my brother and me. Your typical Japanese stranger is not usually so extroverted. He asked us where we were from. I decided not to reveal I lived in Texas, so we said Honolulu.
Our final destination was Hiroshima castle, rebuilt after the bombing. The interior was completely redone as a museum, so it wasn’t really an authentic castle.
After walking all day, my brother and I stopped to listen to an animatronic presentation about the castle. We put on headphones to listen to the English dubbing. Wow, was that some bad voice over acting. Still, it was nice to sit.
We had to navigate more than a good share of steps to reach the top, but it was quite a view when we got there.