Day 17 – Witnessing the Tragic History of Hiroshima, Floating Torii Gate of Miyajima & Eating Too Much Okonomiyaki

It’s been a while since we’ve done a proper day trip out of the city we’re staying at, so we’re changing that up. Today we’re heading over to one of the most famous cities in all of Japan, but not for a good reason, the city of Hiroshima.  I’m sure most people would have heard the tragic fate of Hiroshima sometime during school, but I’ll give a brief summary anyway.

The city was the target of the first and only use of nuclear weapons in the history of warfare on the 6th of August, 1945, followed by another one dropped on Nagasaki 3 days later. The explosion wiped out everything within a 2km radius and killed tens of thousands of civilians, either instantly from the force of the initial blast or a slow and painful death succumbing to burns or radiation poisoning. The rationale behind the use of nuclear weapons was to force Japan to surrender to end WWII and the Americans believed it was better than a direct land invasion of Japan which would have been costly for both sides. After the Allies called for Japan’s unconditional surrender in the Potsdam Declaration and their ultimatum of “prompt and utter destruction” was ignored, it was believed that Japan would only surrender if they see the overwhelming destructive capabilities of the nuclear weapon first hand. Well, I guess you can’t say it didn’t work, as 6 days later after Nagasaki bombed, Japan unconditionally surrendered realising underestimated what they were up against. However, the ethics and morality of the use of nuclear weaponry continue to be debated to this day, with many arguing that  either conventional bombing alone, or Soviet Union’s declaration of war on Japan a few days prior to the bombings, would have sufficed in forcing Japan to surrender.

Today, the city and it’s various historical landmarks has been rebuilt from the ashes, and the area around the detonation became a memorial park to remember those who lost their lives, remind us the devastation of nuclear warfare and advocate for peace in a world free of nuclear weapons. A visit to Hiroshima is also a good excuse to extract more value out of our JR Pass, as shinkansen is the easiest way to reach Hiroshima from Osaka, taking us to Hiroshima Station in about 1.5 hours. Even better, once you exit Hiroshima Station, there’s a JR operated bus that loops around all the main attractions in Hiroshima so it’s FREE if you have a JR Pass. The only problem is it doesn’t come around very often, only once every 30 minutes, so once you take it to leave Hiroshima Station, it’d be very hard to time all your visits at various locations so you can keep catching this free bus. The more convenient form of public transport here is by tram, the largest of all tram networks in Japan, which also connects the major tourist attractions in Hiroshima. Only downside is JR Pass cannot be used on the trams, and while sources online seem to indicate Suica and Passmo cards do work on trams, mine did not and I had to pay in cash, just something to keep in mind. Alternatively, the major tourist attractions in the city are not that far from Hiroshima Station, so visiting them on foot is perfectly doable.

We got off the JR loop bus at it’s first stop, a garden called Shukkeien. The name literally translates to “shrunken scenery garden”, which is quite an apt description of the garden itself, which attempts to mimic a scaled down version of various landscapes using manipulation of the land and plants. For a small fee of 260 yen, you can follow the path around the pond in the middle of the garden and it’s various miniature sceneries, and get some great pictures. It’s also usually devoid of the same crowds you’ll find at other more well known gardens in Kyoto or Tokyo, but looks just as good.

I found it amusing that this garden has the same weird straw-covered plants I found in Nijo Castle few days ago, which had uhh…and odd shape to say the least.

I’m really curious what is this supposed to do, keep the trees warm?

Karl the budding Instagrammer is also getting to work 😂.

The pond in the middle is full of koi or carps, the long term residents of Shukkeien. But in one particular spot of the park, you can see dozens of them congregating, probably to eat all the food or nutrients that trickles through to the lake.

Feeding frenzy

The garden also has a small bamboo forest and herb garden at the back

A little hill on the other side of the pond even has a mini shrine!

I ended up taking a lot of pictures in this park and I honestly thought it was one of the better Japanese landscape gardens I’ve been to thus far, although all of them have been very beautiful. Perhaps it’s the lack of tourists that makes me feel at ease to take my time walking around, and snapping whatever shot comes to my mind. The few visitors that were there with us at the same time seem to have the same idea, as most of them seemed to be serious photographers.

Not sure if telescope or camera

I don’t think many visitors to Hiroshima actually bothers to visit Shukkeien, and I was almost ready to skip it until Karl said he liked gardens and wanted to go check it out. I’m sure it was for Instagram, but good call 😉. Still, if you got a full day planned ahead and you’re not that big of a landscape garden fan, then probably you won’t be giving this place much of a thought. But if you’ve got time to spare and enjoy gardens, especially away from tourists, then Shukkeien should be on your to do list for Hiroshima. As always like every other Japanese garden, I expect this place to be all the more beautiful if you come any time other than winter like we did 😂.

We ended up spending much longer at Shukkeien than we initially planned and as a result missed the next free JR loop bus. We saw the Hiroshima tram for the first time, but didn’t make it to that either!

Definitely been a while since I last saw a tram…

Not wanting to wait around and do nothing, after realising from Google Maps that it’s only 10 minutes away on foot, we decided to just walk to our next stop, the Hiroshima Castle. Just like nearly everything else in Hiroshima, it was destroyed by the atomic bomb and recreated after the war. Keeping to it’s original design, its style is somewhat similar to Osaka castle, albeit with a much less modern wooden exterior.

While the rest of the castle grounds are free, the main keep costs 370 yen to enter. I think it’s well worth it as the insides serve as an informative museum on the history of Hiroshima. Did you know that Hiroshima started off as a castle town, with the Hiroshima Castle built as the home of the local daimyo, as both the physical and economical centre of the city? This is quite uncommon as castles tend to be strategically built on the summit of mountains  for defensive purposes, despite the practical difficulties such as water supply and transportation of food. The daimyo, Mori Terumoto, was one of the most powerful men in Japan at the time, one of the council of Five Elders to Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who united Japan and ordered the construction of Osaka Castle. You can also relive a bit of history here by taking a picture in old samurai clothing.

Like the Osaka Castle, the top of Hiroshima Castle also serves as a lookout point, giving us a great view of the entire city as it does not have many high rise buildings.

Again like the Osaka Castle and Nijo Castle in Kyoto, Hiroshima Castle was surrounded by two moats known as the Honmaru and Ninomaru, however only Ninomaru, the second circle of defense, still remains today, which can be seen from the top as well as when you enter and exit the castle grounds.

Although the main keep has been reconstructed, there are many relics scattered around the castle grounds to remind us of the destruction caused by the nuclear bomb.

Ruins of buildings that once stood here

The name definitely doesn’t fit this resilient tree

Another tree that withstood the nuclear blast

I think they also do some kind of samurai demonstration or show here, as we saw a two people practising their choreographed routine.

I would recommend adding Hiroshima Castle to your Hiroshima visit – the reconstruction was done very well and the exhibits inside tells you a lot about Hiroshima’s past, which extends way beyond the nuclear bomb.

But ultimately, everyone comes to Hiroshima for one particular reason, to see the area that was the original target of the nuclear bomb. A 10-15 minute walk from Hiroshima Castle, this area used to be the commercial heart of Hiroshima, which is why it was chosen as the target. After the war, the area was not redeveloped like the rest of Hiroshima but became the Peace Memorial Park to remember the victims and to promote peace. Coming from the north, the first thing we saw was the A-Bomb Dome, an iconic building that used to be the Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall primarily used for arts and educational exhibitions. The centre of the blast was only 150 metres away from the dome, which is why it was able to resist the almost vertical downward force of the blast much more than surrounding buildings. However, everyone inside died instantly. After the war some people wanted to demolish the place while others wanted to preserve it, the latter succeeded and now it stands as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

There’s an old man here displaying a handmade glass replica of the dome while teaching tourists how to make origami cranes. He also had many folders laid out for tourists to read, each in a different language. They contained both information about WWII and about himself as a survivor of the nuclear bomb, and it was really sad to read his first hand account of what life during the war and after the bombing was like. I don’t normally post pictures of texts, but this is worth a read.

His information on Japan’s role in WWII was also surprisingly frank compared to what we read in the conservative Yushukan back at the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo. At least he is man enough to recognise that Japan was the aggressor most of the time.

To be fair,  America did warn Japan of “prompt and utter destruction”. Should’ve listened…

Or you know, just buy the stuff you need with money?

While I’m sure Terao-san does this on his own time as a volunteer, I have no idea how often he comes around so there’s no guarantee he’ll be around when you visit. But if you do see him, do check out his anecdotes.

Across the river lies a somewhat UFO-looking structure with a statue of a child at the top. This is the Children’s Peace Monument which commemorates the thousands of child victims of the nuclear bomb. The girl at the top is Sadako Sasaki, a young girl in Hiroshima who died of leukaemia contracted from the radiation poisoning. You may notice that she’s holding up the frame of a crane over her head – a reference to her goal of making 1,000 paper cranes, following a Japanese tradition which says if one succeeds then they are granted one wish, presumably to cure herself. This is why underneath the bell the thing you use to ring the bell is in the shape of a crane, and all around the monument are thousands of paper cranes left behind by tourists from around the world. You can also add your paper crane to the count too, and if you don’t know how to make one then I’m sure Terao-san is more than happy to teach you.

A marble slab in front of the monument contains the inscription:

これはぼくらの叫びです これは私たちの祈りです 世界に平和をきずくための

This is our cry, this is our prayer: for building peace in the world

Walking further south we ended up in front of the Cenotaph for A-Bomb Victims, an empty tomb for those who died as a result of the nuclear bomb.

Many people come here to lay a flower and pay their respects

Below it’s arched structure, there is a stone chest that holds a register of those names, so far 220,000 and counting. The inscription on the stone chest reads:

安らかに眠って下さい 過ちは 繰返しませぬから

Please rest in peace, for the error shall not be repeated

Now what’s interesting is that the technical translation should be “shall not repeat the error”, but the subject of the sentence is omitted in Japanese. Therefore, it can be read as either “we shall not repeat the error” or “they shall not repeat the error”, leaving it open to interpretation as to whether the error was the use of nuclear bombs by the Americans or Japan’s overreaching ambitions in Asia. While the author, a Professor of English Literature at Hiroshima University, did this on purpose to avoid politicising the issue, you can imagine all sorts of people got mad at this. Extreme right wingers in Japan are insulted as they feel this is an admission of guilt, while those in American can easily interpret it as a denial. For his part, the author eventually added an English translation clarifying that the subject is “all of humanity” and the error is the “evil of war”.

Behind the cenotaph lies the Peace Memorial Museum, focusing on the events surrounding the use of the nuclear bomb and it’s impact on Hiroshima and it’s people. A word of warning, exhibits inside can be quite heavy and upsetting, sometimes with graphical images that are not pretty to look at. However, it does an excellent job of giving unbiased and unpolitical information around the facts of that fateful day and suffering caused by the nuclear bomb, so it’s definitely a must-visit if you’ve already came all the way here to Hiroshima.

I’m not sure how to describe this, but they have a big holographic display of the impact of the nuclear bomb.

I think anyone who knows me know that I’m not a very emotional person and don’t shy away from dark or politically incorrect humour, but even I can’t do that after visiting this museum. Especially harrowing are the various first hand accounts of the victims of how they reacted in the days after the blast, watching their family members die from radiation poisoning before succumbing to it themselves. They leave behind many pieces of everyday personal items, including a watch that stopped at the exact moment of the blast.

As far as museums go, it’s hard to find one that’s more impactful on a person as this one. Just a note, the museum is currently undergoing renovations until early 2019, where only one of the two wings will be open at any time and the exhibits are reduced. Even so, you can easily spend 3 hours in this museum taking in all the daunting information, but I can see why most people would not want the full dosage.

As we walk away from the Peace Memorial Park and into downtown Hiroshima, I can’t help but wonder how all these regular Hiroshima people who walk past me deal with all this. Perhaps as the newer generations emerge, the scars will be less evident.

I wonder whether the kids playing baseball knows what their city went through

We were both pretty down after that visit, so the only way to cheer us up and get our spirits back is to eat some delicious food. When I did my research at home, it seemed like Hiroshima didn’t have that many specialties when it came to food, which was good because we’re only having one meal here! Hiroshima is known for having it’s own style of okonomiyaki which is different to the Osaka style that most people are used to. Instead of using batter to mix together all the ingredients as Osaka style does, Hiroshima style okonomiyaki layers each ingredient separately. It also adds two extra ingredients not commonly found in Osaka style okonomiyaki – yakisoba noodles and my mortal enemy, bean sprouts.

Blink and you’ll miss it!

The best place to get authentic Hiroshima style okonomiyaki is at Okonomimura, or literally the Okonomiyaki Village. Located in downtown Hiroshima in the 2nd and 3rd floor of an unassuming building, about a dozen or so okonomiyaki stands are crammed in.

Choosing one to eat in is almost impossible as they all literally look the same, so it’s best to just pick one that has a lot of people in it and let other people do the judgement for you.

One of the many ubiquitous okonomiyaki stands in Okonomimura

Credits to Michael Wai

Noodles, shredded cabbage, bean sprouts, bacon and batter are layered on top of each other

Mine is obviously the one on the left without bean sprouts. Hiroshima style okonomiyaki also uses 3-4x the amount of shredded cabbage than Osaka style, so I’m not even sure what I’m doing here 😔.

Final product – they accidentally added bean sprouts initially and had to take them out by hand, so some got left in there 😦

I wasn’t the biggest fan of Hiroshima style, much rather prefer the Osaka style or even Kyoto style we had a few nights earlier. The yakisoba noodles are a bit of a weird addition, I think I liked it better when it was just like a pancake with batter. The bean sprouts and absurd amount of cabbage didn’t help either, especially compared to the few strips of bacon we got. Worth a try if you’re around downtown Hiroshima during lunchtime, but wouldn’t go out of your way to try it. One of my least favourite dishes in Japan thus far 😞.

With most of Hiroshima over and done with, it’s time to head over to our next destination, the island officially known as Itsukushima but more famously referred to as Miyajima. Commonly grouped together with Hiroshima as a day trip, Miyajima is an island south of Hiroshima that is home to one of the Nihon sankei, Japan’s there most scenic places. To get there from downtown Hiroshima, the easiest and fastest way is to take the tram back to Hiroshima Station, then take a train on the JR Sanyo Line to Miyajimaguchi Station, walk 5 minutes to the pier and finally take the a ferry to Miyajima. This is the cheapest method if you have a JR Pass, as one of the two operators of the ferries is JR so that’s also covered. Alternatively, you can take a boat directly from Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima, but it costs 3,600 yen return and isn’t covered by JR Pass.

The 30 minute or so ferry ride can get really cold and windy, but it’s worth heading up to the top deck to get a panoramic view of the Hiroshima Bay. Along the way you can also spot oyster farms floating in the water, which Hiroshima & Miyajima is well known for.

All those floating platforms are oyster farms underneath

Soon the island of Miyajima will become bigger and bigger, and if you look closely enough, you can also spot the famous Itsukushima Shrine, one of the top 3 scenic locations of Japan! The whole island has a long history as a holy site of the Shinto religion, with it’s highest peak Mount Misen being worshipped by locals since the 6th century. In 1168, the most powerful man in Japan at the time selected the island to be the site of his clan’s shrine and built the Itsukushima Shrine.

Once you dock, just following the coastline south or go along with the crowd. We soon realised that apart from humans, Miyajima is also populated by fearless deer that wonder the streets just like they do in Nara. Although I think the ones here are much more tame, so don’t worry about them headbutting you for food.

About 15 minutes walk brings us to the Itsukushima Shrine, which is unique in that it’s built over water, so during high tide it appears as if it’s floating. Unfortunately, we got here during low tide so the water has rescinded quite a bit, at least away from the shrine is located.

The most iconic part of the shrine isn’t the shrine halls themselves, but the torii gate that’s built a few hundred metres out into the sea. It also looks as if it’s floating in the ocean, and even though it’s low tide now and the weather is a bit overcast, it’s still an awesome sight.

The shrine definitely knows it has a winner, and has built wooden platforms stretching out from the halls for visitors to get a good view and picture with it’s torii gate.

Just get ready to line up

Worth the wait

Inside, there’s a prayer hall where it seems like you can receive the Shinto priest’s blessings, for a small donation of course.

Because we went during low tide, the water has rescinded quite far from the shrine, so you can actually walk onto the beach and get *relatively* close to the famous torii gate.

If you come during high tide then you can get the view where it seems as if the torii gate is floating on water, and if you come during proper low tide you’ll be able to walk right underneath the fully exposed torii gate. So there are definitely better times to visit Miyajima, as we kinda caught it at the awkward time in between high and low tide.

Credits to Michael Wai

I did check the tidal schedule for that day, and it low tide was at like 8 pm at night which was too late for us 😞. However, if you can spare the time or if you’re staying at one of the ryokan on the island overnight, both the shrine and the torii gate actually light up at night which I can only imagine to be an amazing view. Perhaps we should have done that, or just come here first before Hiroshima to catch it during high tide.

Being such a remote island, you might think there isn’t much in the way of food here, but you’ll also be glad to know that’s not true! There’s a healthy dose of local street food found all over the town, such as the momiji manjuManju is a type of bun made from mochi, with sweet fillings like red bean paste and looks similar to Chinese buns mantou, while momiji is Japanese maple trees. So as the name implies, momiji manju is a manju shaped like a maple leaf.

The origin behind momiji manju is unclear, but it is said that when a famous historical figure visited Miyajima, he jokingly told a girl at a ryokan how it’d be great if he could eat sweets shaped like a maple leaf, and the owner of the ryokan had an idea. Seems like that could be legit. Nowadays momiji manju has become the most popular souvenir in Miyajima, and has even been immortalised as a Kit Kat flavour.

Damn that’s highway robbery but I fell for it anyway 😂

I mentioned before that Hiroshima & Miyajima is famous for their oysters, and there are several stores in town where you can try some of that. They’re definitely not as big as the one’s I found at Kuromon Market back in Osaka, but still much bigger than what you’ll find at Australian fish markets. Here you can also get them grilled with a variety of sauces, whereas back in Osaka sashimi style was the only option.

I was bloody full by this point thanks largely to that massive Hiroshima style okonomiyaki (which wasn’t even that great!). But as I keep seeing more and more street food I persevered and kept ordering.

Fried crab cake – not even sure why I got this LOL you can get it anywhere in Japan

But one more thing you have to try here is the  anagoman, or conger eel bun. I’ve had anago once before at a random restaurant we found in Kyoto karaage style, which turned out to be excellent, so when I saw you could have this in a bun I knew I had to try it too. I’m not sure if there’s only one store here that sells it, but this one I went to stood out quite easily so you can’t miss it.

Look at those plump beauties, minus the tofu buns

Eel in a bun, delicious genius

That bun was huge and given it has eel which is usually pretty expensive, much value was obtained at 450 yen. It did almost put me over the edge however, as buns = lots of carbs and I was struggling as it is already. Thankfully I didn’t see anything else on the way back to the port, otherwise it might have been bad…

We left the island as the sun had mostly rested for the day already, many of the buildings turned on their lights and illuminated the island as we pulled away. I definitely didn’t give Miyajima the full time it deserved, I think it could easily stand on it’s own as a day trip. Apart from getting better views of the Itsukushim Shrine, the other popular thing to do on the island is to climb Mount Misen. It’s about a 2 hour hike up to the top, or an expensive cable car ride, and you’ll not only be rewarded with a panoramic view of the island and Hiroshima Bay, the treks themselves are also very rewarding – bypassing some cool temples hidden in the mountain. Some of my friends did that and here’s what they saw at the top.

That concludes our day trip and it’s time to hop on the shinkansen to squeeze more value out of our JR pass, back to Osaka.

For dinner, I arranged to meet up with my friend Winona from university days who now also works at the same company as me. She’s here with her boyfriend Paul and they’re both obsessed with the snow, so they’ve come all the way to Japan to snowboard in Niseko, Hokkaido. Okay to be fair we’ve also come to do some snowboarding in Nagano, but they’ve got their own snowboard and shit which they flown all the way here and shipped to the resort. You’d think she’d be a high roller from that but she’s actually a closet cheapass, at least I’m open and honest 😛.

I’m not really sure why but we ended up deciding on having okonomiyaki, even though I just had a massive one in Hiroshima that severely limited my appetite, which isn’t easy to do. We just couldn’t come up with something everyone wanted to eat ☹️. Well if we’re gonna eat okonomiyaki again, this time it better be the best damn okonomiyaki ever, so I tried to find the best okonomiyaki place in Osaka.

The restaurant Ajinoya seemed to be a consensus top 3 pick by both tourists and locals, so off we go waiting in the line (they do not take reservations 😞). Line wasn’t too bad though, we waited about 20 minutes before we got a table. They have quite an extensive menu but we came here for their okonomiyaki, which range from 1,300 yen to 2,450 yen for one.

We picked a few different one’s from the menu to share, and just like all the other okonomiyaki restaurants we’ve been to, they’ll cook it right in front of you on a grill.

The whole cooking process is quite interesting to watch, as they pile on the ingredients then mould it into shape, before flipping it around to cook it evenly.

We also got a serving of omurice, which is a popular yoshoku dish, or Japanese style western food. It’s basically fried rice, which is the Japanese part, wrapped in an egg omelette, which is the western part.

Okay you can definitely find a more aesthetically pleasing omurice in Japan

This may be a controversial opinion, but after trying 3 different kinds of okonomiyaki – Kyoto, Hiroshima and Osaka style, I’m going to have to give the gold medal to the Kyoto style, which is probably the least famous of the 3. Most people aren’t going to be aware that okonomiyaki has different styles, but I think if you’re in Japan you won’t regret broadening your horizon and trying out the Kyoto style okonomiyakiNow why do I like that one the best? It has the least amount of vegetables LOL. I’m sorry but all that excessive shredded cabbage just ruins it for me. Scratch that I’m not even sorry 😅.

That being said, I think Ajinoya gave Osaka style okonomiyaki as good of an attempt as you’ll ever get. I can see why it’s so highly recommended. Unlike some of the other places they do give you a variety of toppings instead of just 1-2 strips of bacon, so value-wise it also holds up well.

Besides, even though I literally sit on the same floor as Winona every single day and, don’t actually get to talk to her that much, so it was good to catch up outside of the office. Would’ve been nice if you didn’t dog me for your next snow trip though, or all you can eat tacos 😠😠😠.

Paul is cool though, embracing the Asian spirit

I did my part in finishing my share of the food, but holy damn my stomach hasn’t been under this much pressure in a while. We walked around Dotonbori for a while afterwards to digest, plus the walk back to our hostel, but even with all that I felt like such a fat ass just rolling into bed with my food baby. That’s enough okonomiyaki for this trip.

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