hiroshima & miyajima

(17.-18.7.2018)

After finishing my classes at Todai, I was able to take a small holiday before returning to Tokyo to pack all my stuff and clean out my flat. I decided to spend a few days in Hiroshima, as I’d always wanted to go there. It turned out to be a very good decision - I really liked the more laid-back atmosphere of Hiroshima, and there was a vast amount of interesting places in and around the city. I felt I could have easily spent a much longer time there.

I took an evening flight from Narita to Hiroshima airport. Ideally, I’d much rather take the train instead of flying, but the price difference is pretty vast - my direct flights cost less than 50€, while a return ticket on the shinkansen would have cost over 300€, which I really couldn’t afford. I think shinkansen prices are designed to more or less match with domestic airline prices, but now that there are so many LCCs operating in Japan (I used Spring Japan), it’s practically much more affordable to fly. I do think this is problematic from an environmental perspective, but for an exchange student, it really comes down to the price.

I ended up staying in this hostel called 36. It was a very ‘trendy’ but cosy hostel next to Tokaichi-Machi tram stop and within close walking distance to the A-Bomb dome. The owners also had a café conjoining the hostel, and I really enjoyed having my morning coffee there talking to them. I met quite a lot of interesting people in the hostel, including a guy from Kyoto who had come to do volunteering at the flooded areas.

A couple of weeks before I went to Hiroshima, Western Japan had been hit with heavy rain and flooding, causing significant infrastructural damage and killing over 200 people. The rainy weather then turned to a terrible heatwave, with temperatures rising over 40C in some of the areas affected by floods, which made the reconstruction efforts more difficult. It’s admirable how people from different parts of the country still come to volunteer in such difficult conditions. This guy from Kyoto had quit his job with the intention to keep volunteering in a specific area for at least a couple more months, before starting a new company. His role was driving a car to transport debris. The day I talked to him, his wallet had been stolen from his car and his phone had broken - talk about weird karma.

On my first evening in Hiroshima, I went on a long walk after resting in the hostel for a bit. I walked along the river and saw the A-Bomb dome for the first time. Despite being such a familiar sight from countless textbooks and documentaries, seeing it in real life still felt striking.

After walking around a bit more, I had some yaki-miso and soba for dinner. On my way back to the hostel, some guy about my age came up to me and started persistently trying to talk to me. It was obvious he was trying to pick me up, and I wasn’t interested, but I had to spell it out to him in very clear terms before he would leave me alone. It was interesting, because this almost never happens in Tokyo (some light nanpa-ing in Shibuya, yes, but not that persistently). Later on, another guy came up to me and told me he’s been following me and is wondering if I’m lost since I keep walking on by myself. I told him I really just want to walk alone, but he insisted on tagging along for a bit. These kinds of experiences were a bit uncomfortable, but also refreshing in the sense that it really felt like a different social culture from the pretty extreme detachedness of Tokyo.

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In the morning, I returned to see the A-Bomb dome in daylight. It is a very commanding sight. Apparently there was a lot of controversy about whether or not it should be demolished after the war. I think preserving it was ultimately the right decision. The structure is surrounded by a memorial park, and the atomic bomb museum is within close walking distance; I spent a long time exploring it. The main building was under renovation, to be reopened in spring of 2019, but there was still plenty to see and read.

Before coming to Hiroshima, I’d read the manga ‘Kono sekai no katasumi ni’, which I really recommend for people who are interested in the wartime history of Japan and Hiroshima prefecture. It’s been recently adapted into an anime film, which I think is an excellent adaptation. However, the attention to detail Kouno Fumiyo has put in her manga is just incredible - there were so many little tidbits of information regarding things like the diet, the clothing, the habits of people in wartime that just couldn’t be included in the film. It’s not set in Hiroshima but in the nearby town of Kure, which was then a major military base; instead of the events of the war, the story focuses on how people keep living their daily lives during such extreme circumstances. I think it’s a very valuable perspective and a beautifully told story.

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In the afternoon, I decided to go to Miyajima, the island with one of Japan’s most iconic torii gates. The island is actually called Itsukushima (厳島), deriving from the name of the shrine deity, but since at least the 1950s, it’s been commonly called Miyajima (宮島), literally ‘shrine island’, especially in a tourism context. I think these names are basically interchangeable. However you want to call this island, it’s very easy to get there from Hiroshima: you only need to take a tram from the city centre to Miyajimaguchi, where you can transfer to a ferry going to the island. The whole journey takes less than an hour and only costs something like 500 yen.

Miyajima had a large deer population and a very tranquil atmosphere. Although there were, of course, quite a few tourists, it wasn’t that busy, and the barista at a local café seemed genuinely surprised to meet a foreigner who spoke Japanese (which was as a surprise to me).

I visited the famous Itsukushima shrine grounds, tried a traditional maple leaf-shaped momiji manjuu cake, sat in a café with sea-views reading and writing postcards for a while, bought some souvenirs (rice paddles that are supposed to bring good luck to a household; apparently Miyajima is also known for its traditional wood crafts), and climbed up a hill to another temple. It was a really relaxing afternoon.

As I got off the tram near my hostel, the city was glowing with a beautiful pink dusk. Maybe it was just the time of year, but the sunsets I saw in Hiroshima were some of the prettiest during my time in Japan.