Around 3 years ago, whilst I was packing up all my worldly belongings in the process of moving home, I came across my diary from 1985. Flicking through the pages, I was equally amused and horrified by the workings of my late-teenage mind; the outpourings of angst and anxiety, accompanied by some truly hilarious asides and some rather matter-of-fact remarks about the many nubile young men (most of whom I now have no memory of, whatsoever) who seemed to casually wander in and out of my life at that time. However, the one thing which really had an impact upon me, was that each week – without fail – I wrote of my longing to visit Japan. At this time, my bedroom walls were adorned with prints of Japanese art and there was an array of oriental-themed junk scattered on every surface, with a huge, green bamboo parasol and paper lanterns hanging from the ceiling…..like some tat from Japan. Ahem. Fast-forward almost 30 years and, as I read of my teenage longing to visit the land which had inspired such dreadful interior design, I realised that I still hadn’t actually got around to that trip. I had a vague memory of planning to visit Japan in 1994, when I was travelling home after living in Australia, but I ran out of money in Thailand and had to spend 8 weeks living off £1.50 a day on Kho Phang Ngan, until I could get my flight home from Bangkok. So that plan was scuppered.
May 2016 – finally, after more than 3 decades, I made it. Yes, life had got in the way for a while there, but here I was. In Tokyo, with 3 of my friends. At last. We only had 10 days to explore but I had grand plans. 2 days in Hiroshima, 24 hours in Osaka so I could visit my beautiful friend (and legendary Japan fan) Keiko Kurata, followed by 3 days in Kyoto and ending up in Tokyo. A number of people have asked me to recount some of the highlights of my trip, so I have hijacked my own blog for the purpose. Don’t worry – there will be a couple of relevant Jansen photos and Japantheband-related anecdotes along the way!
When I told people I was planning to visit Hiroshima, a couple of them asked “why?” – and to be honest, I wasn’t exactly sure. It just felt like a place I ought to see. Along with Nagasaki, Bhopal, 3 Mile Island and countless other places, it is one of those names indelibly linked with one specific incident; a place where, whether by accident or design, the impact of what happened on a single day resonates for decades. I purposely didn’t do any research into modern-day Hiroshima, as I wanted to experience the city with no preconceptions and with a totally fresh perspective – I definitely think that this was the best approach. We arrived at the station, after a 4-hour journey from Tokyo and having travelled for the first time on the Shinkansen. This, in itself, was a major highlight for me. Growing up with a father who was a bit of a train-geek and having spent much of the 1970s watching programmes like Tomorrow’s World, I could only marvel at the joy of finally seeing, and sitting on, a bullet train. They are the strangest combination of a sleek, futuristic, high-tech exterior, combined with a slightly old-fashioned, almost colonial interior – all lacy antimacassars and embossed velvet headrests. Slightly odd. I was actually besides myself with giddiness when the first two slid into Tokyo station as we waited on the platform. My proper, bona-fide, Japan-experience had begun.
So….we stumbled out into the streets of Hiroshima and my first thought was “oh, I didn’t expect it to be so big!” It was a vibrant, modern city, buzzing with life and sizzling in the heat of the mid-afternoon sun. After a rather interesting taxi-journey, which involved several dreadful attempts by us to explain, in our non-existent Japanese, where our hotel was and what it was called, we finally arrived at our location; a hotel sandwiched between Hiroshima Castle and the Peace Park.
First things first; we had spotted the silhouette of the A-Bomb Dome (or Genbaku Dōmu) from our bedroom windows, high up on 21st floor (our hotel was the highest building in Hiroshima, fact-fans. Chosen specifically for its location but also because it boasts the only sky-bar in the city. We have our priorities.) and so we immediately set off to explore the area. Long after we had planned and booked this trip, it was announced that President Obama would visit the city, and it just so happened that he was due there the next day, so we were curious about just how much we would be able to access and see, imagining that the security would be OTT, with such an important visit on the cards. Surprisingly, we were able to wander freely amongst the monuments and through the park where he was scheduled to give his speech the following day. There was an increased police presence and a rather noisy, but polite, protest was being held by the A-Bomb Dome but, other than that, it was just an average evening. We noted that all of the monuments and the museum were due to open the following morning but would all close from 12pm and this included the small ferry service to Miyajima, which we had planned to visit the next day.
As we wandered around the park, pausing at the many memorials, it was almost impossible to comprehend what had happened here in August 1945. Families were walking, people were chatting and we could hear the cries of the protesters but it all felt slightly surreal. We agreed that we really needed to visit the now-closed museum when we returned from our trip to Miyajima, as this would be the only way we could fully understand the impact upon the city, and the country as a whole. It was a warm, muggy evening and dusk was falling, so we decided to head over to the site of Hiroshima Castle.
Pretty much everything was flattened by the bomb, so what greeted us was a replica of Hiroshima Castle, (also known as the Carp Castle) but its relative newness was well hidden by the beautiful workmanship. You would never believe that this was a modern replica. We wandered through the grounds, with the sun having just set and watched the carp and terrapins swimming merrily in the moat. A giant-pincered crab of sorts scuttled across the path and we spotted some yellow lanterns in the distance, which we headed towards. The sight which lay before us was truly memorable; the rebuilt Gokoku Shrine was swathed with illuminated lanterns which swayed gently in the breeze blazing yellow against the darkening blue-black sky.
It was all just too beautiful and made for the perfect ending to our day. Actually, the perfect ending actually ended up involving us drinking ‘non-Mojitos’ in a tapas bar, but that is another story, for another blog.
The following day, we set off for Miyajima – “one of the 3 most scenic places in Japan” – as all the guide books would have it, and attributed to the neo-Confucian scholar Hayashi Gahō, who made the declaration on 1643 – and who am I to argue? We hopped on the boat for the 45 minute trip across the bay to this enchanting island, which is home to some very tame deer and one of the most photographed views in the world; the ‘floating Itsukushima Shrine. As we zipped across the water, overhead flew a number of Chinook helicopters, more evidence of the visitors who were due to visit Hiroshima that day.
It is hard to say anything about Miyajima without sounding like I am being paid to do so by the local tourist board, but it really is as beautiful as everyone says. Obviously, because of this, is also heaving with tourists and the first 20 minutes on the island felt like we were in the middle of a city centre again, with hordes of school children and tour groups milling around the shops and street vendors, taking photos of the deer and the floating torii. However, once we headed away from the shrine and up towards the cable car (or ‘ropeway’ as they charmingly called it) the crowds started to thin. We planned to get the cable car mid-way up the mountain, then walk to the summit and back down again. That seemed like a simple enough plan, but we hadn’t really reckoned on the 30 degree temperature and the 95% humidity.
Once we were on the mountain, the lush greenery of the forest, replete with the calls and song of dozens of unidentified birds, was overwhelming. It really was the most incredible place. As we walked, we passed by numerous shrines (and a surprising number of toilets and vending machines – the Japanese really know how to keep people hydrated, even at such altitude!) The walk back down the mountain took a good couple of hours, mainly because of the combination of heat, humidity and the stunning views. It was easy to keep stopping and staring, whilst regaining much-needed energy, when all around us were the most beautiful shrines and glimpses of the sparkling water in Hiroshima Bay through the trees. Oh, and there was the added hilarity of the threat of the highly venemous Japanese viper to keep us on our toes. Literally.
When we returned to Hiroshima late that afternoon, we managed to time our arrival to coincide with Obama’s speech, which meant that all cars were stopped from driving within a certain distance of the Peace Park. After a rather interesting exchange between our partially-sighted taxi-driver and a rather grumpy partially-deaf policeman, (I kid you not), we decided to get out and walk the rest of the way, and we arrived at the Peace Park, just at the closing moments of the ceremony. There was a truly joyous buzz in the air, a real party atmosphere, so we decided to plonk ourselves down at a riverside bar, order some much-needed Asahi beers & cocktails and just revel in the warm evening air. Hiroshima was alive and kicking and we felt very lucky to be a part of it.
The following day, we were due to head to Osaka to meet up with my lovely friend Keiko; however, we had one last thing we all felt we needed to do (rather than ‘wanted’ to do) and that was to visit the Peace Memorial Museum. Now, I am an absolute museum junkie – I love nothing more than poring over glass cases full of artefacts and oddments, but that morning, I felt a sudden sense of trepidation. We all did. Someone who had been to Hiroshima a few years ago, warned me about visiting the museum – ‘you can’t unsee what you have seen’ – and those words were swimming around in my head as we walked towards the building. And god, was he right. Words cannot express the horror of some of the things we saw, read and heard during our visit and I am not going to try to convey any of it here. Suffice to say, it was heart-breaking and beyond comprehension but the one thing which really had an impact upon me was the fact that the whole museum was not about anger, or bitterness, or retribution; instead it was a warning of what we need to do, to make sure this never happens again.
All I can say is – if you get the chance, go to Hiroshima and see it for yourself. It is gut-wrenching and horrific but it is incredibly important. The following week, we met 2 elderly men travelling on the Shinkansen back to Tokyo. The one thing that they wanted to know, when we told them of our trip, was ‘did you visit the museum in Hiroshima?’ When we said we had, one of them clasped his hands together and said ‘good,good……everyone should see that’. I concur.
When I started writing this blog today, I realised that I had unwittingly taken a photo of the A-Bomb Dome which is almost identical to the one Steve took in 1983 (see top image). Some 30 years later, it is only the addition of a flag on the building behind which is different.