A short stay in Hiroshima
When I originally planned my around-the-world trip, I intended to start in Beijing and work my way to London, then back home to Minnesota, USA. My plans changed after I saw the movie “Lost in Translation”. A recent Hollywood flurry of new movies based in Japan made it seem like a must see, romantic, historic destination. Since I was going to be in the area, I thought I would stop by Japan for a bit before heading off to China.
I set out on my RTW trip with only a minimal itinerary. So, when I arrived in Japan, I only had the first two days in Tokyo booked. The remaining days in Japan would be decided on an on-the-fly basis.
My first few days in Japan were spent in Tokyo; A hectic place for a novice traveler from Minnesota. It was a high energy, crowed place that seemed to have a strikingly amazing competency: Moving people around with a huge mass transit system.
I went to Kyoto for a few days. Its a great place to go if you can’t get enough of temples, shrines and gardens. I went in the non-cherry blossom season, so the gardens were not at their peak. It was an all right place to visit.
Along the way I decided to go to Hiroshima. I called up a hotel off of a brochure from my Kyoto guest-house, and was surprised to hear an American at the other end of the line. I had, in fact, called a guest-house owned by a retired American couple called the World Friendship Center. They had a room for cheap, so I booked it for a few nights.
My decision to go to Hiroshima was solely based on the historic significance of the city. I am a history buff and it would have been a shame to skip such an significant place as I traveled south through Japan. I had no expectations of Hiroshima as my bullet train rolled into town. I didn’t know whether they had a dislike for Americans. After all, my grandparent’s generation destroyed their city, and some folks can hold grudges for a long time. I didn’t know if it was a poor backwater town (after all, it is something like 1/26th the size of Tokyo), or a thriving metropolis. I walked out of the train station with a clean slate.
What I found in Hiroshima was a friendly, vibrant, and beautiful city. By the time I left, it had become my favorite place in Japan. After I arrived, I rolled down the street in a trolley car, got off at my exit and looked around. The streets were wide and spacious. They were nothing like the streets to Tokyo, where every space seems to be used as efficiently as possible. The bridges over the city’s rivers were simple and elegant. It had a whole different feel from the Tokyo and Kyoto.
I spent most of my time in Hiroshima wandering around, with no specific destination in mind. There were small parks along the main roads. The trolley stations where easy to find, allowing me to bounce around the city. The trolleys are all above ground, and operate in the middle of the main roads. Hiroshima was the one place in Japan where I didn’t spent a descent portion of my time below ground waiting for subways, or inside train stations. A volunteer at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum told me that trolleys hold a special place in the hearts of Hiroshima’s people. After the atomic bomb attack, the trolley cars were up and running quickly in order to bring up the spirits of the survivors, and show them that life was moving along again.
Hiroshima is a modern, stylish city. I felt out of place as I walked around in my grungy backpacker’s attire and baseball cap. The shopping district was a cool place to hang-out and walk around. There were a number of coffee shops with some very good pastries. There was also an entire section devoted to restaurants serving the Hiroshima style, layered okonomiaki.
I fell in love with the okonomiaki. It is a cross between an everything omelet with noodles and a giant pancake. Customers usually sit on a stool right in front of a giant griddle. The cook whips up your order and slides it to the space right in front of you. Small peaces are cut away and eaten right off of the griddle. They are usually huge and filled with all kinds of foodstuff, and I gorged myself many times at okonomiaki shops.
At ground zero of the A-bomb attack there is a park and a museum. On my way to the park, an old man stopped me on the street corner to talk about baseball. From what I gather he was a Red Sox fan, and he thought Ichiro was “number one.” He didn’t seem to know who the Minnesota Twins were. I was surprised to see such a random show of friendliness, especially when everyone is supposed to hate Americans.
At the museum, there a number of historic and nuclear non-proliferation exhibits on display. But, the memorable sections contain items found after the blast and a show the gruesome effects on the A-bomb on humans. Some of the haunting and sad items on display were: a schoolgirl’s lunch box with the charred remains of her lunch still inside, a mangled tricycle, a vaporized shadow of a woman on a stone stairway, and a pocket watch stopped at 8:15 (the very moment of the attack). I signed the guest book when I left, and walked to the park.
As I was leaving the park, an old woman came up to me and held out a card. it had sentences written in numerous languages: French, Korean, English, and some others I couldn’t make out. It said “Will you pray with me for three minutes.” I thought, “why not,” and sat down. She had me put my hands together and close my eyes. I didn’t know who to pray to. I’m an atheist and I didn’t know what religion she was, so I just sat there with with my hands together and my eyes closed. When I was done praying she held up another card that said “Your blood will be purified.” I think there was something lost in the translation, unless she intended to sound creepy.
What I didn’t do in Hiroshima was rush around to see all of the sites. I saw what I saw, and if I missed something, who cares. I had a good time just wandering. Hiroshima seems to be an ideal place for wandering.
I happened upon Hiroshima castle while wandering. I saw the sign for the castle, and wondered how it withstood the destruction of the bomb. I found that it was only the stone foundations that remained and a replica of the castle tower was rebuilt on the site.
At night I visited a few bars. I tried to stay out of the discos and nightclubs. I wanted to sit and chat over a few beers. My last night in Hiroshima I went to a bar called “Mac’s”. It was a small, smokey, rustic, hole-in-the-wall and it was just what I was looking for. Mac has over 4000 CDs behind the bar proudly displayed and was willing to play anything requested. I requested some Johnny Cash “Folsom Prison Blues”, and Pink Floyd’s “Wish you where here”. I struck up a conversation with a guy from Liverpool named Graham who sat next to me at the bar. He was in Hiroshima on business, and was homesick for his family. He requested some James Taylor, and didn’t say a word until after his song was done. He said to me “I hate hotels and I do anything I can to stay out of them.” By “anything” I think he meant drink at the bar. I worry that I might do “anything” to stay out of my hotels as my year long RTW trip progressed.
Graham finished a few more beers and left; it was a work night after all. I stayed for a few more. Mac at the bar pulled out a stack of Phish CDs still in the packaging. “What is good here?” he asked me. I don’t know the names of too many Phish songs, but I guess I looked like a weed smoking slacker to him (no offense to Phish fans). When I couldn’t find “Bouncing Round the Room” or “Bathtub Gin”, I pointed to a random song. He put in the CD, grabbed the rest of the new CDs from the bar and said “I must study these.”
I found my way home from the bar with ease. It seemed easy to get home in Hiroshima with a buzz. The next morning I packed up and jumped on the bullet train once more.
I recommend Hiroshima to anyone traveling in Japan. It is a vibrant picturesque city where you can burn a whole day wandering around eating, drinking, shopping, and just hanging-out. The emotional history lesson given at ground zero is worth the trip alone. My suggestion for anyone traveling through Japan: When you’re bored (or even if you are not) with the temples, castles, cramped streets and crowded rail stations, head to Hiroshima. See a profound historic site, and slack around the city at your leisure.