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Snow in the desert?

New Mexico day sixteen


View New Mexico road trip 2011 on ToonSarah's travel map.

White Sands National Monument

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Early morning shadows on the White Sands

It was the White Sands in part at least that brought us to New Mexico, and they did not disappoint. After seeing the wonderful photos taken here by a Virtual Tourist friend, Richie, I was really keen to see these scenes for myself, and that was one of the triggers for planning a holiday in this incredible state.

As we were staying in Alamogordo rather than in the park itself (where the only accommodation option is back-country camping), we made an early start that day, skipping breakfast in favour of juice and muffins which we had stocked up on the previous day ready to picnic later in the park.

We were at the gates soon after the 7.00 am opening time. I knew that the best photos are to be had around dawn and dusk, but for non-campers like ourselves arriving at opening time is the next best option. At that time, especially by October when we visited, the sun is still low enough to cast interesting shadows among the dunes, and not so bright that it washes everything out in the harsh white glare.

We paid the $3 per person fee at the gates, skipping the visitor centre which was still closed at that time (and which in any case was much less of a priority for us than seeing the actual dunes), and entered the park. At first the landscape was much like that of the rest of this part of New Mexico, flat scrubland. But we could see the white dunes ahead of us as we drove and were soon among them.

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Driving through White Sands National Monument

Imagine a desert with dunes that stretch to the horizon, dotted with a few hardy plants and baking under a hot sun. Now imagine that the sand in this desert is not yellow, but as white as snow, and you will have some idea of what it is like here.

But despite the name, this is not sand! The white crystals are in fact gypsum, and in this part of New Mexico the dunes cover 275 square miles of desert creating the world's largest gypsum dunefield. Not all of this though is part of the National Monument, as much of it is off-limits on the White Sands Missile Range – these wide open spaces are ideal for such activities it seems. But thankfully the National Monument does preserve a large portion of the dunefield and makes it accessible for us all to enjoy.

Interdune Boardwalk

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View from the Interdune Boardwalk

Our first stop, which I had planned carefully in advance, was at the Interdune Boardwalk. This offers a short easy walk with interpretive boards describing the plant life on the dunes etc. It was just right for a pre-breakfast stroll and got us in among the dunes while the light was still good.

The Interdune Boardwalk is an easy elevated trail of about 600 metres (there and back). It led us through a fragile interdune area to a scenic view at the top of a dune. Interdune areas are where all plant life in the dunefield starts. The interpretive boards here described the various plants that manage to grow in this harsh environment and also explained how they get their first footholds and gradually colonise the desert. It was an interesting introduction to this fascinating environment, and the plants themselves made interesting subjects for photography, although because of them the area lacks the other-worldliness of the deeper reaches of the park.

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Plant life near the Interdune Boardwalk

Back at the car we ate our simple breakfast picnic and then it was time to explore further. There are no restrictions on where you can walk here, as long as you pull off the road when you stop, so having found the Interdunes Walk just a little busier than we had expected at that early hour, we stopped again just a short distance up the road and scrambled up a small dune to get an overview of the scene around us.

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Panorama by the road side

Only a few yards from the road we found ourselves alone, and it wasn’t difficult to imagine how it might feel to be lost in this wilderness, or how the desert would have looked in the days before any roads were laid through it or visitor facilities provided. I also got some of my most striking photos here, proving that it is well worth taking the time and trouble to get just a little off the beaten path if at all possible.

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Lone grasses

Alkali Flat Trail

We then followed the road to the far end of the loop drive. There were several marked picnic areas here with grills, tables and seats, and these slightly surreal-looking space-age shelters to provide protection from the harsh midday sun in summer. It was still fairly early in the morning and the place was pretty deserted. I am sure it gets busier later, especially at the height of the season, but we rather enjoyed having it to ourselves as the shelters made great subjects for some rather different White Sands photos. At that time of day in October we didn’t really need their protection, but it was a fun place to relax for a short while and refresh ourselves with a drink, and we were also glad of the (primitive) restrooms provided here.

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Picnic shelters

Then we set out on our walk. The Alkali Flat Trail is the only trail of any real length in the park, at 4.6 miles round trip. This trail should not be undertaken without proper preparation, as there is no shade in this harsh environment, and walking on these shifting sands is not always easy.

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Trail marker

But even if you don’t feel you can walk the full length (and we didn’t), just ten minutes’ walk along here was enough to get us into a different world – the crowds were left behind and we had the dunes to ourselves.

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Panoramas of the Alkali Flat Trail

There are far fewer plants here, and the landscape is even more strange and striking. The Alkali Flat itself lies at the end of the trail. This is the dry lakebed of Lake Otero, a lake that filled the bottom of the Tularosa Basin during the last ice age and covered 1,600 square miles. We didn’t make it that far, but nevertheless the trail gave us plenty of opportunities, as the park brochure had suggested it would, to enjoy the spectacular scenery.

And despite the fact that sun had climbed a little higher by the time we got here (about 9.30 I think), the photo opportunities were still excellent. The white sand stretches for miles, and beyond the dunes we could just see the mauve-grey hues of the Organ Mountains, which we were to pass later in the day on our way to Los Cruces.

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Lone plant on Alkali Flat

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On the Alkali Flat Trail
- Organ Mountains on the horizon

After about half an hour or so of exploring and photography we made our way back to the parking lot. By now it was mid-morning, and we were surprised to see how much fuller the parking area had become. A large coach had just drawn up, disgorging its passengers, and most of them looked as if they would be content to admire the dunes from just where they stood – certainly few of them had the footwear for hiking on soft shifting sands. For them the White Sands would be all about the views to be had from the road-side, which thankfully are pretty great. But I was amazed that some of them did set off on the trail despite being dressed very inappropriately – I even saw one woman in high-heeled sandals! I suspect she didn’t get far, though we didn’t stick around to see

There were also quite a few family groups arriving and setting up for a day on the sands, just as if they were on a beach with deck-chairs to sit on and children playing in the sand! – although with no cooling water in which to take a dip, and no shelter (in this part of the park) from the sun’s heat, this would not be my idea of fun even in relatively cool October!

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Family enjoying the dunes

Visitor Centre

When we had arrived the Visitor Centre was as I mentioned still shut. Besides, we were too keen to get to the sands themselves to stop here even if it had been open. But we did stop on our way out, to use the rest-rooms, see the displays and check out the shopping opportunities.

The exhibition area wasn’t very extensive but I was interested in the information about how these gypsum dunes formed and developed, the wildlife that (perhaps surprisingly) thrives in this harsh environment, and also about man’s interaction with these wide open spaces, including the space programme and other scientific use, not all of it necessarily to be commended; the Trinity Site where the first nuclear device was detonated in July 1945 is now part of the White Sands Missile Range.

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White Sands plant life

I was also impressed by the shopping here – there were plenty of high quality gifts and souvenirs including Native American crafts, jewellery, and very good photos of the dunes. We didn’t buy any of the latter as we had been so busy taking our own! But I was pleased with the delicately painted Christmas tree ornaments that I bought as presents for family. We also got some cold drinks and snacks to enjoy at the picnic tables outside before heading south to Las Cruces.

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Footprint in the sand

Before leaving the subject of the White Sands altogether I want to share some thoughts about photography here that I first pulled together for Virtual Tourist, which I hope will be helpful if any of my readers get to visit this amazing place. This place is truly a photographer’s paradise – but also a photographer’s great challenge. The best photos are to be had around dawn and dusk, but if, like us, you don’t want to camp out, you will want to make an early start to be here when the gates open at 7.00. At that time, especially by October when we visited, the sun is still low enough to cast interesting shadows among the dunes, and not so bright that it washes everything out in the harsh white glare.

So you’re here at the right time. What next? Well, firstly if you want the dunes to look as white in your pictures as they do in real life, disable auto-exposure on your camera if you can, or over-ride it to over-expose slightly. This is just like photographing snow, and left to itself your camera will adjust to darken the scene, making the sand look more light grey than white. Of course if you are lucky enough to be there so early or late that the dunes are reflecting a sunrise or sunset, this doesn’t apply – the last thing you will want is white!

Next, look for something to break up all that whiteness. It could be an interesting plant, a footprint as in my photo, or simply the patterns made by the ripples in the sand. I made a point of taking a mix of images – some of the details, some of the wide open spaces. I also enjoyed using the panorama facility on my camera as it seemed the ideal way to capture the scale of this vast dune field.

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Exploring the White Sands

Lastly, don’t forget the human aspect. Seeing how people interact with the dunes adds a different element to the story your pictures tell, and as always in landscape photography, people give the viewer a good sense of scale. That small black mark near the top of the dune in my photo above is Chris!

Nearing journey's end

Leaving the White Sands behind us we drove southwest across the flat plain, with the ridge of the Organ Mountains ahead of us. These mountains derived their name, Sierra de los Organos, from the early Spanish settlers, for whom the pinnacles resembled the pipes of the great organs in the cathedrals of Europe. Today they are a National Monument, with a visitor centre and marked trails to explore, but we were coming to the end of our New Mexican adventure and still had a bit further to drive before spending our last night right in the south of the state, handy for tomorrow’s flight home.

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The Organ Mountains near Las Cruces

Mesilla

Our last night in New Mexico was spent right in the south of the state, in Mesilla. Mesilla is really a suburb of Las Cruces, but with a very separate identity and character. Its cluster of streets are arranged in a grid patter around the central Plaza and lined with buildings that date back to the colonial Spanish era. Of all the southern New Mexico towns we visited, it was the one that came closest to the historical identity of more northern Santa Fe and Taos, albeit much smaller. It made a lovely base for our last few hours in the state.

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Hanging out in Mesilla!

Mesilla was founded in the mid 19th century and for a part of its history lay in a sort of no man’s land between Mexico and the United States. But in 1854 the Gadsden Purchase declared the town officially part of the United States. As Mesilla was the most important community in this parcel, the treaty was consummated by the raising of the American flag on the town plaza on November 16, 1854. With increased stability came increased trade, and Mesilla found itself in a prime location on the cross-roads of two stagecoach routes. But the town chose not to have the railroad routed through the community, so it went ‘next-door’ to Las Cruces instead. The result was major growth for that city, while Mesilla remained small and retained much of its charm and character.

Today Mesilla is a little pocket of colonial Spain on the outskirts of more modern Las Cruces. There are only a few ‘sights’ (an attractive church, a small museum). Rather, it is a place to wander around and seek the serendipity of a pretty building here, an interesting shop there ...

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Emilia's

We arrived too early to check in to our hotel, but not too early for lunch! So we parked near the plaza and went in search of somewhere to eat. There are a number of good restaurants in the historical buildings in and around the Plaza, but some only seemed to offer more substantial meals than we like at this time of day. But Emilia’s (now renamed as Café Don Felix) looked promising, with several salads and sandwiches on the menu. There were also tables available in the pretty little paved area at the front, and the chance to have lunch outside on our last day sealed the deal!

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Avocado & Swiss sandwich

Our friendly waiter brought chips and salsa to accompany our fruit juices – so much for the light meal! Chris had ordered a salad with chicken and bacon (which was good), while I had the avocado and Swiss cheese sandwich which came with a small side salad. I found my sandwich a little dull (too much lettuce, too little cheese and avocado) but the blue cheese dressing that came with my salad was excellent and also served to brighten up the sandwich.

Mesilla’s Plaza

After lunch we explored the plaza and surrounding streets of the Historic District. At the time Mesilla was founded, the population of the town was concentrated around the Plaza for defence against Apache Raiders who were a constant threat to the settlement. In November 1854 the Plaza was the site for a major historical event, when the Gadsden Purchase declared the town officially part of the United States. As Mesilla was the most important community in this parcel, the treaty was consummated by the raising of the American flag on the town plaza on November 16, 1854. With increased stability came increased trade, and Mesilla found itself in a prime location. It became an important stop on two stagecoach, mail and trade routes – the El Camino Real, from Chihuahua to Santa Fe, and the Butterfield stage route, from San Antonio to San Diego.

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Gazebo in the Plaza

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Paper flowers on the gazebo

Thanks to its major role in the history of the state and of the US, the Mesilla Plaza was declared a New Mexico state monument on September 10th 1957. It was listed on the National Register in January 1982, as a National Historic landmark, and the entire Historic district added in February 1985.

The Plaza and the gazebo at its centre were refurbished in 1978 to suit the growing status of the town as a tourist destination. It is the focal point for any celebration in the town such as Cinco de Mayo and Dia de Los Muertos. It is also home to a Farmers Market on Thursdays and Sundays, but we were only here on a Friday-Saturday so missed that.

However we did come across a couple of local musicians playing very enthusiastically by the gazebo – we weren’t sure if they were there officially to entertain the tourists or were busking. I was also not quite sure of the reason for the paper flowers which decorated part of the gazebo; maybe they are always there, or maybe they were left over from some special celebration? Either way, they were rather pretty!

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Musicians on the Plaza

Basilica of San Albino

The north side of the Plaza is dominated by the Basilica of San Albino. The first church in the town had been a small log and mud construction on the south side, but when the town was transferred from Mexico to the United States as part of the Gadsden Purchase, it began to grow, and a new church was needed. This church was built in adobe in 1855, but soon acquired a more European style, thanks no doubt to the influence of Bishop Lamy who was so averse to adobe architecture, as I explained in my blog entry about Santa Fe: Fanta Se.

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The Basilica of San Albino

The church was completely rebuilt in its present form in 1906 and dedicated in 1908. It did however keep its old bells, cast in the latter half of the 19th century. These include two, named Sagrado Corazon de Jesus and Maria Albina, which were cast in 1886 and the largest of them all, Campana Grande, cast a year later. The church’s website says that, ‘In keeping with Catholic tradition the bells, including Sagrado Corazon de Jesus, were christened and given godparents to care for them’. I have never heard of that tradition elsewhere, but it sounds a lovely one.

In November 2008 the church was granted minor basilica status by the Vatican, an event commemorated by a plaque on the wall outside.

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The Basilica of San Albino

The basilica was advertised as being open from 1.00-3.00 pm daily, but unfortunately was closed when I tried to get in – a shame, as it appears to have some lovely stained glass windows. It was also hard to get a good photo of the church as it faces south and there were cars parked immediately in front of it.

Historic district

Strolling the streets around the Plaza is the number one activity here. Many of the adobe buildings built during the colonial era remain today, and most have been converted into interesting shops, galleries and restaurants, but the district retains a lot of its character and although popular with tourists seemed to us much less busy than somewhat similar (though larger) Santa Fe and Taos.

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Shop sign, Mesilla

We browsed a few of the shops, even though we really had bought enough by this point of the trip! There was some interesting folk art in one, work by more contemporary artists in another. In Scentchips (now closed down) you could mix your own combination of scented wax chips to use as potpourri or in a burner; the owner was most informative and even gave me a small free sample!

We also rather enjoyed the Billy the Kid Gift Shop on the south east corner of the Plaza. Although we found the items on sale to be not really to our taste, the building itself is worth seeing. It was the former capitol of Arizona and New Mexico and later became the courthouse in which Billy the Kid was sentenced to hang. It still has the old viga ceilings and original 18 inch adobe walls.

We got a free leaflet here which detailed the Kid’s connections to Mesilla. This was to be the last of our several encounters with him on this trip; one on which he had seemed to be with us for much of our journey through the state where he grew up, lived his short and ignominious life, and was shot.

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Mesilla building details

Our last night in New Mexico

We had hoped to be able to stay in one of the few bed and breakfast places in the heart of old Mesilla, but one was fully booked by the time we came to make arrangements and the other very expensive. The Meson de Mesilla seemed from my research to be the next best option, and I think that proved to be the case, being a smallish hotel within walking distance of the Plaza, so that we could leave the car behind and both enjoy a few drinks on our final evening. But this hotel seems to have gone through some upheavals since our visit, to say the least!

At the time of our stay I wrote the following in my Virtual Tourist review:

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The Meson de Mesilla

It would be churlish to complain about the comfortable stay we had here, were it not for the exaggerated claims made by the hotel itself on its website. This is not a ‘boutique hotel’, nor is it any sort of bed and breakfast, let alone the ‘finest Bed and Breakfast in Mesilla’ – breakfast is not even included in the room rates. What it is, in fact, is simply a mid-range mid-priced hotel with some nice design features in its rather small bedrooms.

I had read some reviews that referred to the smallness of the rooms, and as it was our last night and I knew we would want to unpack and repack, difficult in a small space, I chose to pay extra for the middle of three room options, the Veranda Queen room. But it was still definitely on the small side. The queen bed was very comfortable, though bizarrely high from the floor. The bathroom was stylish and had lovely thick towels, but there were few toiletries provided, such as one would have expected from a real boutique hotel. We had a small TV, but no fridge or mini-bar.

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Our room and bathroom


That was in 2011. In 2014 Gordon Ramsey featured the hotel, which was struggling by then, in his ‘Hotel Hell’ TV series (see https://www.realitytvrevisited.com/2014/08/season-2-meson-de-mesilla.html). From what I can read in some rather conflicting reports, the owner appears to have accepted some of his changes and reversed others, and more recently has refurbished again and brought in someone else to run the restaurant, to largely positive reviews. Maybe the Meson de Mesilla has life in it yet! And as I said, its location certainly suited us, giving us an easy stroll back to the Plaza for our last night out in the state.

Peppers

We were keen to find somewhere nice in Mesilla for our final meal of the trip, and at first tried La Posta which got good reviews. But not only would we have had to wait for a table, we were also put off by the rather over-touristy, over-gimicky décor, and I objected to the caged birds in the entrance area (cruel and unnecessary – what’s New Mexican about macaws?) So we looked elsewhere. The equally-historic Double Eagle seemed to be more expensive and fancier than we usually look for in a holiday meal (special occasions excepted) but then I remembered reading that it had a cheaper more informal section, so we went to check that out. The menu for this part, Peppers, wasn’t posted outside but as soon as we went in and asked to see it, our decision was made – and what a good one it turned out to be!

Peppers may be the cheaper end of the Double Eagle, but we wouldn’t have known it to look at it. The tables were set out in an atrium area with lush plants and plenty of dark wood, in keeping with the décor elsewhere in the building. The rather small but very attractive bar opened off one side and was lively with drinkers, while the restaurant area was busy enough with both locals and tourists to make us feel comfortable but not crowded. Our waiter was friendly (and patience personified with the moaning group on the next-door table, who twice changed their order while claiming it was his error!)

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In Peppers

The menu was extensive, and while the steaks were perhaps a little pricey, the rest lived up to the ‘good value’ billing. Starters were a New Mexican take on tapas, and a selection of these would have made a great lunch. But we decided sharing just one would be enough, given the usual size of portions around here. So we opted for the ‘Green Chile Cheese Wontons with Pineapple-Jalapeno Salsa’ which were delicious, especially the unusual but very successful salsa. My only complaint was that there were five of them – either four or six would have made sharing easier! We also had a complimentary serving of chips and salsa, as we had had almost everywhere we had been, and the salsa was great too.

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Carne Asada Tacos

For my main course I chose the Carne Asada Tacos. The beef was excellent – very juicy and with a good amount of spicy heat. There were so many accompaniments that when I later wrote my VT review I had to cut and paste from the menu on the website:
‘Grilled, marinated and seasoned beef morsels with sweet onions, three soft corn tortillas, guacamole, pico de gallo, shredded lettuce, tomato and crumbles of Chihuahua style queso fresco cheese. Choice of black beans or refried.’

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Traditional margarita

Chris meanwhile opted for the simple Old-fashioned Burger, which he also enjoyed. He had a couple of beers – one with the meal and one for desert. I did likewise but with margaritas! My first choice was the house margarita, which was fine but nothing special. For my second I took our waiter’s advice and ordered a ‘Traditional’. He was right – it was well worth the extra $1 it cost, as it was stronger, made with freshly-squeezed lime juice, and was strained into a martini glass rather than being served on the rocks, meaning that it retained its full flavour right to the last drop!

Our total bill although not cheap, was, we felt, a very good price to pay for a delicious meal in a lovely historic setting and with attentive service. A great way to round off our trip!

Time to go home

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Chris plus muffin plus coffee

The Meson de Mesilla, despite calling itself a ‘bed and breakfast’ in some of its publicity, charged extra for breakfast in its restaurant. Besides, when travelling in the US I am always on the lookout for a good cup of coffee, especially at this time of day, and that isn’t always the case with restaurant breakfasts. I had spotted The Bean in our Moon New Mexico Handbook and was pleased to see that it was just down the road from the hotel.

It sounded like just our sort of place, and it proved to be exactly that – warm (it was a chilly morning), friendly and inviting, with excellent coffee and great baked goods. They roast and grind their own beans too, so there was a wonderful smell lingering about the place. And on a Saturday morning it was very busy with a steady stream of locals – some getting take-out but many obviously using it as their regular Saturday morning hang-out.

The building that houses the Bean is an old gas station. It wasn’t fancy but it was nicely decorated with modern art and had lots of character. There was a small dining area in front of the service counter, where we managed to get a good table, and a larger one to the side, which seemed to us to have a bit less cosy an atmosphere. There were also a few tables outside, but it was a very chilly October morning – Mesilla is quite high above sea level, so nights are pretty nippy here by this time in the year!

We enjoyed our good mugs of coffee and large muffins, and would have loved to have lingered over a second cup but sadly we had a plane to catch ...

So we drove the short distance south back over the border into Texas and to the airport in El Paso. We handed in the hire car that had served us so well, checked in and were soon on our way – firstly on a domestic flight to Charlotte NC and then across the Atlantic to London Heathrow.

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Our plane at El Paso Airport

It was at Heathrow that things got, briefly, ‘interesting’. We stood at the luggage carousel watching all the bags from our flight arrive and be taken by their owners. As time passed I began to get that feeling, familiar I’m sure to all regular flyers, that ours were not going to appear. This had happened many times before (and has happened many times since), and the cases had always turned up, but not today. Luggage stopped coming down the chute, we waited in case there were more bags to come and gradually realised that this time our luck had run out. I went to the desk to report the bags’ non-arrival, handed over the necessary ID slips, and a helpful lady looked them up on her computer, quickly identifying the problem. There had been two flights leaving El Paso around the same time, both connecting with a London flight – one via Charlotte, and another via LA. It seemed that while we had flown on the first of these our bags might have been on the second. I was a bit taken aback at this information, as I’ve always understood that planes won’t take off carrying luggage that isn’t clearly the possession of someone on board. The lady at the desk confirmed this and said it was quite likely that our bags had been taken off the flight before it took off from LA, but if we cared to wait that flight was due to land in less than an hour and we could at least see if the bags came with it before filing a missing baggage report.

Although tired from our overnight journey we decided to do this and sure enough an hour later there were our suitcases, tumbling out of the chute onto the carousel with all the other bags from LA. We weren’t sure whether to be relieved to see them or disconcerted to learn that sometimes planes do take off with unaccompanied luggage in their holds. But relief won the day and we headed off home on the Tube, bags in hand. It had been a fantastic trip and a few worries over delayed baggage weren’t going to change that!

Posted by ToonSarah 01:05 Archived in USA Tagged landscapes food architecture desert road_trip history church square shopping restaurants photography national_park new_mexico Comments (13)

First full day in Tokyo

Japan day two


View Japan, Essential Honshu tour 2013 on ToonSarah's travel map.

Exploring the city

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On a festival float at the Edo-Tokyo Museum

On our first full day in Tokyo we woke early, excited to get out and explore, although no doubt our jet lag would have been helped by sleeping a little longer. We ate breakfast in the hotel; it was served in the lobby area and consisted of a small but adequate buffet of mainly Japanese items (miso soup, rice) but also small pastries and slices of cake and decent coffee which we supplemented with juice from the inevitable vending machine.

Leaving the hotel we walked south to Kuramae station on the Toei Oedo line which would take us directly to Ryoguku subway station, just one minute walk from our destination.

Edo Tokyo Museum

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Museum entrance

This modern museum, which opened in 1993 in a rather striking building, is devoted to the history of Tokyo from the Edo Period which started at the end of the 16th century) to the post World War Two reconstruction and recovery. Displays include original artefacts, models and large-scale reconstructions. Despite suffering from considerable jet-lag that day (the worst I have experienced) I still found it absolutely fascinating – one of the best museums I have visited anywhere!

We bought our tickets on the 3rd floor concourse and took the striking red escalator up to the 6th floor where visits to the permanent exhibits begin. From our first arrival in the main exhibition area, with its replica of the Nihonbashi Bridge which you cross to reach the first Edo period displays, I could tell that I was in a museum that takes pride not only in its collections but in their presentation and curation. This early 19th century bridge was the gateway from Edo to such places as Kyoto (to the west) and Nikko (to the north). The original was 51 metres in length of and 8 metres wide. This replica is of the same width as the original but half its length.

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The replica Nihonbashi Bridge

As we crossed the bridge we could see below us the replica Kabuki Theatre, or rather the entryway into the Nakamuraza Playhouse where Kabuki Theatre was often performed. On this occasion some museum staff were busy setting up some musical instruments here so we lingered on the bridge and eventually were able to hear the start of a lovely performance on the koto (a traditional Japanese instrument) and some kind of flute. I made a short video of the koto player while we watched, and later the music followed us as we started to explore the rest of the exhibits in the Edo zone.

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Part of the playhouse

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The koto player

Koto performance

These included some very good models of Edo period buildings, both town houses and rich Samurai homes; a row of replica town houses from various periods; a fascinating display about wood-block printing (showing how each differently coloured layer of the image is built up one by one); and lots of artefacts from the time.

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Model of a street in the Edo period, with town houses

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Another Edo period street model

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Samurai mansion from the mid 17th century

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Replica of a print shop

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Replica of a print shop

The Tokyo zone which portrays the city’s more recent history is also very well done, although by the time we reached it jet-lag was kicking in and my body was screaming at me that it was now 2.00 am and I really should be in bed and asleep! Nevertheless, I was interested to see how European influences gradually crept into building design and shocked to see the devastation caused by the Tokyo fire bomb raids of World War Two. I was in this area when a guide was giving some American tourists a tour and I stopped to eavesdrop on what he was telling them – apparently more people died in these raids and in the fires they caused than in Hiroshima and Nagasaki as a result of the atom bombs – horrific. More positively, a small section near the end describes how Tokyo recovered and rebuilt, and how Japan as a whole embraced a technological revolution that led to its current strong position in the world economy.

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My coffee set

Once we had seen as much as we could take in we went back to the ground floor and got coffee and a bite to eat in the coffee shop there – a coffee plus a cake 'set' for 650¥. I chose ice cream with rice dumplings and a sweet bean sauce, and Chris had pancakes with chestnut puree. This revived us and we were ready to tackle some more sightseeing.

Sky Tree Town and Sky Tree

I had wanted to go up the Sky Tree as soon as I read about it when researching our trip, and had planned to do so this afternoon, but the light rain that had been falling all morning was becoming more persistent and any chance of views from the top seemed remote. But we decided to head over in that direction in any case, optimistic that the clouds might lift. We were becoming more familiar with the subway system so the short but slightly more complex (two changes) journey to Oshiage station was easily accomplished, but we emerged from the station to find that the top of the tower so lost in the clouds that visibility would have been close to zero.

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Sky Tree

So we had to content ourselves with snatching glimpses from below, and with exploring the bustling modern shopping centre that sits at its foot, Sky Tree Town or in Japanese, Solamachi. This apparently has over 300 shops and restaurants, and I can believe that! On this Saturday afternoon it was packed with locals, mostly young, and was a fascinating place to watch young Tokyo at play.

We didn’t shop but we did enjoy seeing the range of goods available and the different displays. We were struck by how cutesy much of the clothing and the accessories were – we’re used to seeing Hello Kitty at home, but she looks positively sophisticated next to some other Japanese trends! There are also a lot of food shops and we were offered some free samples as we browsed.

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Chocolate cake in 100% Chocolate

We stopped off for refreshments at the appealingly-named 100% Chocolate cafė, where I had an excellent iced mocha and Chris a regular coffee and small chocolate cake. The cafė also sells tablets of its own chocolate in a wide range of flavours (56 of them to be precise). I was tempted - but buying chocolate gifts so early in our trip seemed a bit impractical (they would never have made it home!)

Soon after this it was time to head back to the hotel; our Essential Honshu tour was to start officially that evening and we were meeting up with our tour leader and travelling companions for a briefing and to go out for dinner.

Meeting the group

The group briefing took place in the lobby of our hotel, where we had eaten breakfast. By now my jet-lag had subsided and I was able to enjoy meeting everyone and hearing a bit more about the plans for the next couple of weeks from Andrew, our tour leader. There were also some practical details to attend to – he needed copies of our insurance documents and also took our passports as he had offered to go to collect our JR Passes the next afternoon, leaving us more time for sightseeing.

Andrew was to prove an excellent tour leader. An American, he had lived and worked in Japan for quite a few years – initially in a Japanese company and more recently for Inside Japan. This gave him great insights into the culture while ensuring that he understood what we would find most puzzling and/or intriguing. He was also good company and very flexible – happy to lead people around but not at all bothered if anyone preferred to go off and do their own thing, and full of helpful advice to assist us in planning our individual explorations.

After this initial meeting he invited us to join him for dinner, and nine out of our group of thirteen accepted. While this meal wasn’t included in the tour price, it seemed to us a good idea to benefit from his local knowledge and also use the time to get to know our travelling companions a little better, so we were among that nine.

Andrew proposed one of his local favourite spots for dinner, one of the Watami chain of izakaya (Japanese-style pubs) on Kaminarimon Dori, about ten minutes’ walk from the hotel. On arrival we all removed our shoes and put them into the lockers provided. We had a large group table on the third floor with semi-traditional sunken seating (much easier for Westerners than sitting on the floor!)

Andrew suggested a selection of dishes and as we were all still pretty new to Japanese food we were happy to go with his ideas. A good decision, as everything he picked was very tasty, including spicy udon noodles, delicious pork dumplings with hot sauce to dip them in, and chicken minced and formed around cheese on skewers. Most of us had dessert - I chose the ‘citrus sherbet’ (sort of like a lemon sorbet) and Chris had a really good chocolate fondant. We both drank draft beer (Santory) which was very good too. The whole meal, with the drinks, was excellent value, and we had a great evening out with our new friends.

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In Watami

Our tour had officially begun and the next day we would explore more of Tokyo together ...

Posted by ToonSarah 04:01 Tagged tokyo japan history restaurants city museum music Comments (9)

A full and fabulous day!

Japan day five


View Japan, Essential Honshu tour 2013 on ToonSarah's travel map.

Making the most of the Hakone Free Pass

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At Owakudani Hot Springs

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Our bedroom

I slept well on my futon in the Fuji-Hakone Guesthouse – a little to my surprise as I had expected the floor to seem hard. Most of us were up early, eager to see what Hakone had to offer and with most of the group opting to join Andrew on a full day out in the region. The shared bathroom facilities meant a bit of polite juggling but we were all soon at breakfast which was served in the adjacent house just a few steps away. Although this is a traditional guest-house, the breakfast was Western in style, with fresh fruit (pineapple and banana), bread for toasting with a selection of jams, yoghurt, cereals, tea, coffee and orange juice.

The plan for the day was to make the most of our Hakone Free Pass and, guided by Andrew, take in some of the major sights using a variety of means of transport. The element that could not be planned was to see Mount Fuji. Fujiyama is a fickle lady and too often shrouded in cloud, but today the sun was shining and we hoped for the best!

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On the funicular
from Gora to Sounzan

We took the bus from Sengokuhara to the small town of Gora, where we changed to the funicular to Sounzan. Confusingly the Japanese call this a cable car, and what I would call a cable car they term a ‘ropeway’! But whatever you call it, this is a useful little service that links Gora, one of the main transport hubs in Hakone, with Sounzan where you can catch the ropeway / cable car proper to Owakudani and onwards to Lake Ashi.

The journey from Gora to Sounzan only took us about ten minutes, with brief stops at a number of stations – one serving a hotel while others seemed to be used by a few locals and walkers.

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Funicular from Gora to Sounzan

In Sounzan we changed to the rope way. This is a cable car system that links Gora to some of the main sights of the region, including Owakudani Hot Springs and Togendai on Lake Ashi. I love travelling in cable cars but a few of our group were less enthusiastic, especially one who had a fear of heights. We were able to reassure her, and all piled into a car for the eight minute ride up the mountain.

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On the way up to Owakudani

There were some lovely views as we went (though there would be better ones still on the way down, as you will see) and we were soon alighting at Owakudani. Here we found ourselves in a rather incongruous modern building with shops and cafės, but a quick look outside the picture window showed us a very different scene.

Owakudani

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Owakudani Hot Springs

Beyond the modern cable car station we were in a landscape that seemed to be from another world. The earth is steaming; this is truly the ‘Great Boiling Valley’ that the name, Owakudani, declares it to be. It also lives up to a previous name, O-jigoku, meaning Great Hell.

We started to climb the path towards the hot springs, but before reaching them we were stopped in our tracks by another sight. There is no more recognised symbol of Japan than Mount Fuji, and every visitor to the country hopes to see this iconic volcano, so perfectly conical in shape, just as a child would draw one. But the weather in this region (indeed in most of Japan) is not especially reliable, and on many days Fuji is shrouded in cloud. For several days before our visit here the talk in our group often turned to this topic - would we see Fuji? And now, suddenly, there she was – completely clear and also, unusually, devoid of snow. Andrew was very surprised by this latter sight as he had never before seen Fuji snow-free.

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First view of Mount Fuji

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Mount Fuji from the path to the hot springs

Andrew promised us an even better view later in the day, when we would, he said, be able to photograph the volcano with Lake Ashi and one of its red torii gates in the foreground. But as I have said, Fuji is elusive and does not reveal herself willingly. By the time we were to reach this spot, however, the clouds would have descended and Fujiyama be hidden from view. But no matter – we had seen what all visitors dream of seeing, a dream that only some are able to realise.

I am getting ahead of myself. For now, after taking loads of photos of the mountain, we continued up the path. As we climbed the steam rose and swirled around us, and there was a strong smell of sulphur in the air.

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Owakudani Hot Springs

The trail leads up and loops around several of the pools, but there are many more on the hillside above. This eerie landscape was created when Mount Kamiyama erupted around 3,000 years ago. Standing here you are in fact in its crater – no wonder the ground hisses and boils beneath your feet. As a visitor to Japan you will have been aware that it is a seismologically active country, with earthquakes a fact of life; here you can really appreciate what that means.

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Kuro-tamago: black eggs

At the point where the path divides to make a loop around the geysers there is a small hut and in one of the hot pools nearby a man was boiling eggs. Eating one of these eggs is said to add seven years to your life! They look black but are just ordinary chicken eggs – the shell turns black due to being boiled in the hot sulphur spring. You can buy them in bags of five but it isn’t advised to eat more than two, however desperate you are for those extra years! However one guy in our group ate three and didn’t seem to suffer any ill effects, although whether he was successful in adding 21 years to his life remains to be seen!

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The egg man

Once you can get over the blackness of the shell I found these really don’t taste much different to regularly boiled eggs. The bags have sachets of salt in them if you want to add it, but the eggs seemed to me to be already a little salty from the chemicals in the water. If you really don’t fancy the eggs, or want something sweet to take the taste away afterwards, the hut also sells chocolate-covered almonds – presumably because their pale interior and dark coating mimic the eggs.

After walking the loop path round the springs it was time to head back to the cable car station and continue on our journey. Rather than return to Sonzan we continued in the same direction along the rope way, with our car ascending further before dropping down to Lake Ashi. Andrew warned us to have our cameras ready as the descent started and we soon saw why, as again we saw Mount Fuji dominating the horizon. Drifting almost silently above the mountains with that distant view of Fuji is something I’ll remember for a long while.

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Descending from Owakudani on the cable car

Cruise on a pirate ship!

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Pirate ship on Lake Ashi

The cable car took us to Togendai on the lake shore, and here we changed to yet another form of transport, the most unusual of them all. When I heard we were to travel on a pirate ship I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I don’t think it was this! The ships are really just regular lake boats ‘in disguise’, with masts added, and with sails and even ropes moulded from plastic. The pirates are equally artificial, being just models (I think I had expected that the crew would be dressed up!) Apparently the ships are modelled on medieval sailing vessels, but once on board they are fairly indistinguishable from any modern boat.

Nevertheless this was a fun ride and the scenery around Lake Ashi is wonderful. We got one more view of Mount Fuji from here, while around the shore are wooded mountains and some brightly coloured torii. On our busy day this was a relaxing and scenic way to travel.

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Pirate ship and torii on Lake Ashi

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Pirate ship with Mount Fuji behind

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Lakeside hotel and pirate ship

This beautiful lake, also known as Ashinoko, lies about 720 metres above sea level and has an area of seven square kilometres, making it the largest lake in this area. It is a crater lake lying along the southwest wall of the caldera of Mount Hakone and was formed after the volcano's last eruption 3,000 years ago.

This is the place to come for views of Japan’s most famous mountain, although by the time we were crossing the lake on our ‘pirate ship’ the clouds were just starting to creep in, and were soon to cover her completely and hide her from view.

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Lake Ashi

The name 'Ashinoko' means lake of reeds (ashi is reed and ko means lake). According to legend Lake Ashi is home to a nine-headed dragon, and to appease this it is presented with an offering of traditional red rice at the Hakone Shrine Lake Ashi Festival on July 31st each year. But no dragon made an appearance to disrupt our journey, which was pleasant but uneventful.

Hakone-Machi

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Soba noodles, Meihika

We got off the boat in Hakone-Machi, a small town on the shore with several hotels and restaurants catering to visitors. Andrew recommended one of the restaurants, Meihika, so most of us went there together for lunch. There was a good selection of dishes and the menu was thankfully in English and with illustrations. Many of the dishes were noodle ones and I chose one of these – soba noodles in a soup with seaweed. Chris had the curry rice, a popular Japanese take on that Indian staple with a simple curry sauce over the rice. Both were tasty, though my soup was so generous a portion that I didn't finish it. Another dish that proved popular with our group included the raw tuna with rice. The service was friendly and when we paid at the till on leaving we were all given a small gift of an origami fish to thank us for our custom.

Hakone secret boxes

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Craftsman making secret boxes

After lunch Andrew suggested that we visit a shop where a craftsman would demonstrate how Hakone’s famous secret boxes are made. As we approached the shop and entered I was anticipating the all too common ‘quick demo then hard sell to the gullible tourists’ that we have experienced in some other places, but this was much more than that – we saw a real craftsman at work.

The traditional craft of the Himitsu-Bako, or Secret Box, is over 100 years old. The boxes are made in various complexities, and require a precise series of small moves to open them. The difficulty of opening a box goes up as the number of sliding panels involved increases. They must be manipulated in the correct sequence, and there can be as few as two moves needed, or (so I have read) as many as 1,500! But most usual are boxes ranging from five to around 60 moves. The number of moves is one factor in determining the price; the size and (most important) quality of craftsmanship are the others.

However, the craftsman we met is not a maker of secret boxes, yet his work is just as skilful, just as traditional and an important element in the intrigue of a secret box. Many of these are covered in intricate inlaid patterns that mask the secret panels that are the key to eventually opening the box. The technique used to make these patterns is known as Yosegi Zaiku and it originated in the late Edo Period. The Hakone Mountains are noted for their great variety of trees and the local craftsmen make the most of the various natural colours of woods to create these intricate designs. The one we met also made beautiful marquetry pictures known as Japanese inlay work or Zougan, but it was the Yosegi Zaiku techniques that he demonstrated to us. The patterns are created by assembling together thin sticks of wood in different colours and then shaving very thin layers off the assembly across the grain to reveal the design. By using the wide variety of tree species and colours available here, he can create complex and surprisingly vivid designs. The thin layers can be applied not only to the secret boxes but to many other items, from coasters to furniture.

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The sheets of shaved wood patterns

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Tools of the secret box trade

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Our little secret box

As we watched the demonstration the man shaved off and passed round a number of strips, enough for us each to have one as a souvenir. He also showed us how the secret boxes worked. There was absolutely no pressure to buy, but of course we were all intrigued by the boxes and we all browsed around the shop, with several of us succumbing to temptation, including us – we bought a small seven move box for which we paid about 1,500¥ (just over £9 or $14). It still sits on a shelf in our front room but unfortunately I have lost the slip of paper illustrating the moves, or possibly (and stupidly) left it inside the box when I last opened it. Either way, for now the box is sealed to me as I can’t get past the second move!

Hakone Checkpoint

Leaving the secret box shop we walked along the street to this reconstruction of a checkpoint on the Tokaido Way, the old highway which linked Tokyo with Kyoto during the feudal Edo Period. This was the most important of the highways, and connected Edo (modern-day Tokyo) to Kyoto. At intervals there were checkpoints like this one, known as sekisho, where travellers had to show the permits that were necessary to allow them to travel the route.

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Entrance to Hakone Tokaido Checkpoint

The sekisho had two main purposes: to control ‘incoming guns and outgoing women’, i.e. to prevent weapons from being brought into Edo and to prevent the wives and children of feudal lords from fleeing from Edo. At Hakone the second purpose is thought to have been by far the more significant. I found this dramatic story on a website which brings to life the harsh reality of the purpose of the checkpoints:

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In the officers' quarters

In February of 1702, a young girl was captured by authorities in the mountain area behind the Hakone Check Point (barrier station). She didn’t have legal permission to pass through the gate and so she tried to secretly cut across the mountain. After being detained in prison for about two months she was executed, and her head put on display in public. The poor girl’s name was Otama. She had wanted to go back to her parents’ home in Izu, leaving her place of employment in Edo without permission. If she had finished her apprenticeship, she could have gotten a legal pass. But she hated working there and ran away. She was accused of breaking through the barrier – a very serious felony at that time.

The checkpoints were removed soon after the Meiji Restoration, which saw the end of the feudal period. But in recent years this one has been restored exactly as it would have been, thanks to the discovery of some old records which showed every detail of the buildings here. This has the somewhat disconcerting effect of the various structures looking incongruously new. But a visit is worthwhile as the work has been very carefully done and the role of the checkpoint cleverly brought to life. We visited the reconstructed officers’ quarters and the much less spacious ones allocated to the lower ranks. Shadowy grey figures have been used effectively to show the activity that would have taken place in each part of the buildings – sleeping, cooking, checking permits and even inspecting the long hair of female travellers for hidden weapons. Apparently researchers were not able to discover enough details about the colour or design of their clothing, so the models were created like this, but I also found it rather evocative – almost as of the ghosts of the past officials still linger here.

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Checking papers

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Officers

In the open area between the two sets of quarters the tools used to catch criminals (those trying to evade the checkpoint by passing around it) are displayed, and they look pretty effective. I didn’t take a photo but you can see one on the website – nasty!

After visiting these quarters we climbed a hill to the lookout tower. It was a bit of an effort on rather large steps, but we were rewarded with a good view of Lake Ashi (but not Mount Fuji). From here the soldiers would keep watch over the lake as it was prohibited to cross it by ship and thus evade the checkpoints. We also went in the small museum which has displays about the checkpoint and about the Tokaido, but unfortunately no English signage whatsoever, so many of these were lost on me. I did however find the video of the restoration work quite interesting.

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View from the lookout point - Hakone Tokaido Checkpoint

The Tokaido Way

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Path through the cedars on the Tokaido Way

Just north of the checkpoint we were able to walk along a short stretch of the Tokaido Way. This was the most important of the Five Routes or highways during the Edo period, and connected Edo (modern-day Tokyo) to Kyoto. Tokaido means East Sea Road – this was a coastal route along the sea coast of eastern Honshū (there was also a less well-travelled inland route).

The name lives on today in the Shinkansen (bullet train) line linking Tokyo with Kyoto and Osaka, and the highway itself can still be found in a few places. Here in Hakone-Machi the path runs for about 500 metres, to Moto-Hakone, the next settlement on the lake. The path (which was an easy walk but a little muddy in places) lies between rows of ancient cedar trees, some as much as 400 years old. They were planted by the Edo government to provide travellers with shelter from winter snow and summer heat, and approximately 420 of them remain to this day. The trees reach up to 30 metres high, and some have a girth of over four metres. Walking here you are following the route taken centuries before by travellers to Edo. Most would have been on foot, as we were, though some higher-class people would have been able to afford to travel in a kago, a form of litter or sedan chair carried by a team of men.

At one point on the path you can apparently get the classic view of Mount Fuji, with the red of the Hakone shrine in the foreground, Lake Ashi beyond, and the mountain rising majestically above them both. I say ‘apparently’ because, having been blessed with great good fortune earlier and some fantastic views of Fujiyama, by now our luck had turned and she was hidden in the clouds. But we had nothing to complain of, and did not. We knew that many come here to Hakone and never see her at all, so we were all simply grateful that we had been honoured.

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Torii seen from the path

At the end of this stretch of path we walked down to the boat landing in Moto-Hakone. There we caught another pirate boat back to Togendai where we caught a bus to Sengokuhara and to our guest-house there.

Koto music and kimonos

When we got back to the guest-house our hostess there announced that she had been able to arrange a treat for us. She had invited a local woman, a retired teacher who has been playing the koto for a number of years, to give us a demonstration. This is a traditional stringed instrument, played horizontally on the floor. The 13 strings sit on moveable bridges which can be adjusted to change the pitch.

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The musician

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Koto detail

The musician had set up a small area in the lounge with a screen as backdrop and fabrics to create a sort of stage. She started by explaining something about the instrument and the different styles of playing, both traditional and more modern – she herself plays in a traditional style. She then told us the story of the song she would perform – a cheery piece about a general who kills a young boy fighting on the opposing side despite realising how much he reminds him of his own son, and afterwards feels such remorse that he renounces warfare and becomes a monk. Then she played and sang.

I think you maybe need to have grown up listening to traditional Japanese music, or to have had your ear trained over many years, as to most of us it seemed very strange, even discordant. If you want to hear what I mean, check out my short video. It certainly didn't have the haunting quality of the koto music we had heard a few days previously at the Edo-Tokyo Museum -maybe that was the more modern style, although that seems unlikely in a museum devoted to history.

But the performance was certainly interesting, and the musician couldn't have been more charming. As well as singing and playing for us she had brought gifts for each of us of origami figures, little dolls which she asked that we take with us on our journey and remember her as we travelled. I have carried mine ever since in my travel wallet!

She also brought some kimonos and with the help of the guest house owner and one of the staff offered to dress a few of us up in them so we could find out for ourselves what it was like to wear one. I volunteered and loved the experience of wearing such a beautiful garment, though it was a revelation to see how much binding, padding and clipping goes into the dressing process.

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Group photo, with some of us dressed up

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Zen garden, Hoshino An

After the performance it was time for dinner. There were no restaurants within an easy walk of the guest-house so as on the previous evening we all agreed to Andrew’s suggestion that we go with him to one of his favourites, this time Hoshino An, some way out of Sengokuhara. Because of this isolation the restaurant arranges pick-ups from local hotels if pre-booked, so we piled into the cars that had come to collect us and set off.

The setting of the restaurant was lovely, with a pretty Zen garden. We ate in the first floor area, where the seating was that perfect compromise between traditional and modern – low tables but with a well for your feet so no need to sit cross-legged.

There was an English menu, with photos. Most of the dishes came as part of a set meal with soup, pickles and an oddly salty egg custard dessert. The soup was a DIY affair; we were all brought a bowl with a few small mushrooms and spring onions, and a larger one over a flame with steaming miso soup. We waited till this was hot enough, then ladled it into the bowl of vegetables and tucked in!

The main course dish I chose was of salmon with steamed rice, while Chris had a similar one but with chicken. Also in the dish were a few vegetables - carrot, peas, radish, and a large tasty mushroom. I rather enjoyed my salmon dish though some of our group who aren't keen on fish were a little disconcerted to find that even the non-fish dishes tasted fishy (we think because the rice here may be cooked in fish stock). And as mentioned, the dessert was weird!

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DIY soup and chopsticks, Hoshino An

Still, all in all this was a good experience. The service was friendly, the beer cold and the meal tasty enough and reasonable value. Afterwards it was all back to the guest-house and over the road to stock up on evening treats (plum wine in my case!) at Lawson’s before relaxing in the cosy lounge and later in the outdoor onsen, as on the previous evening.

It had been a long but fabulous day!

Posted by ToonSarah 07:10 Archived in Japan Tagged landscapes mountains lakes boats restaurant japan history hot_springs cable_car funicular crafts hakone Comments (6)

Onwards to Osaka

Japan day six


View Japan, Essential Honshu tour 2013 on ToonSarah's travel map.

Modern Japan – with a touch of history

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Waterfront in Osaka at sunset

For a slice of modern Japan you could do much worse than visit Osaka. It has some striking modern architecture, a vibrant nightlife scene and tasty local cuisine.

Osaka is Japan's third largest and second most important city. It might even have become the capital had Tokugawa Ieyasu not moved the government to Edo (now Tokyo) when he came to power in 1603. While it has some historic buildings, the main impression it left on me was definitely of modernity when compared to the other places we visited in Japan – even Tokyo. But there’s nothing wrong with modernity!

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At Shin-Osaka Station

After our two nights at the cosy Fuji-Hakone guesthouse in Sengokuhara we said farewell to our friendly hostess and took the bus back to the station at Odawara to catch the bullet train to Shin-Osaka station.

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Bento box bought at
Odawara Station

Although we had been on the Shinkansen (the proper name for the bullet train) from Tokyo to Odawara, this was a much longer ride (2.5 hours) and it was the first time we had experienced the train getting up to full speed. Everyone says how smooth the ride is on a bullet train and they are right – you would never know that you are going as fast as you are. Of course, the landscape outside rushes past, but inside it is hard to accept that you are travelling at 170 mph (270 kph). I had thought that there would be displays in the carriages showing the speed as I have seen in (much slower) Italian express trains, but there was nothing – so you just have to have faith! Actually, it’s easier to appreciate the speed if you watch one of the trains flashing past, as we did while waiting on the platform at Odawara – maybe my short (very short) video will demonstrate this better than I can describe it (although I think the trains slow down for the stations even when not stopping).

Shinkansen passing through Odawara

Travelling on this route meant that we were on the original Shinkansen line, which was built in the early 1960s to link Tokyo and Osaka - the so-called Tokaido line (named after the ancient route of the same name).

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Umeda OS Hotel

When we got to Shin-Osaka we took the regular JR line the single stop to Osaka Station which was near our hotel. The reason for the two mainline stations so close to each other is that in several cities, Osaka among them, the introduction of the Shinkansen necessitated the construction of a new station to handle the faster (and I think longer) new rolling stock.

From Osaka Station it was about a five minute walk to our hotel, the Umeda OS. It was only late morning, and we weren’t able to get into our room, but we could store our bags in their luggage room which already held the larger suitcases we had sent directly from Tokyo using the excellent luggage forwarding service offered by Japan Rail.

Leaving the hotel we headed back to the station to catch the JR Loop line to Osakajo Koen Station. From here we had a fifteen minute walk to our first Osaka sight, the castle.

Osaka Castle

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Osaka Castle

The first thing to say about Osaka Castle is that it is not as old as it looks. This is a concrete 1930s copy of the first Osaka Castle, which was built in 1585 by Hideyoshi Toyotomi. This was considered the finest in the country and was a powerful symbol of Hideyoshi’s supremacy – it was he who brought an end to the wars of over a century, thus unifying the nation. He was succeeded by his son, Hideyori Toyotomi but the latter was challenged by Ieyasu Tokugawa (Hideyoshi’s former retainer) who, in 1615, vanquished the Toyotomi family and destroyed Osaka Castle. Tokugawa moved the shogunate government to Edo (present-day Tokyo).

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Osaka Castle from the moat

In 1620 the castle was rebuilt by the Tokugawa shogunate who held it until 1868, although the main tower was struck by lightning three years before that and destroyed in the ensuing fire. The remaining structures were also destroyed in the battle between the Tokugawa shogunate and the New Government Army. Under the Meiji Restoration the castle precincts were requisitioned and in 1931 the main tower was reconstructed according to the original 16th century design, as it had been under Hideyoshi Toyotomi. It was used as a military base and arsenal, and during World War Two 60,000 workers were employed in the armouries here. It was targeted repeatedly in the bombing raids and badly damaged, with a particularly bad attack on August 14, 1945 destroying 90% of the arsenal and killing 382 people working there.

The main tower was fully repaired in the 1990s, and despite being now made of concrete, externally retains its historic appearance, although inside there are modern touches such as lifts. Meanwhile the 1620s boundary walls came through these various disasters relatively unscathed and are still today pretty much intact, made out of interlocked granite boulders without mortar.

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Roof detail

You can enter the castle precincts without charge and wander the grounds, from where you can get some good photos of the dramatic castle perched high above. To enter the main tower you must pay a fee of 600¥ (adults, October 2013 price), which Chris and I decided to do (having travelled here as group we split up on arrival to explore, as was usually the pattern for this trip). Once inside we were directed to the lifts as you have to start your visit on the top floor, working your way down by the stairs.

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Looking up at the eighth floor gallery

The first thing we did on arriving on the eighth floor was to get outside, where you can walk all round the tower and get some great views over Osaka. We also had an excellent close-up look at some of the detailing on the castle tower itself, including the gilded shachihoko, sometimes also called orcs – a mythical creature, a fish with the head of a tiger.

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Osaka skyline from the tower
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In the garden around the castle

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Close-up look at a shachihoko

Once we’d seen our fill of the view we started to explore the museum, which has a comprehensive collection. On the top-most (seventh) floor, dioramas tell the story of Hideyoshi Toyotomi’s life, and on the fifth (the sixth isn’t open to the public) there are miniature models of the Summer War of Osaka (in which the castle fell and the reign of the Toyotomi family came to an end) and a folding screen telling the story of the battles fought. Although not normally especially interested in military history, I found these some of the most appealing exhibits because of the level of detailing of the costumes etc.

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Model of the Summer War

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The castle moat

On the fourth and third floors there were various artefacts and models of the castle during different periods. These are the only floors where photography is not allowed – I imagine that they might be concerned at flash damaging some of the more delicate objects. The ‘stars’ of the second floor displays are the full size replicas of one of those golden shachihoko and a fusetora (crouching tiger). There is also an area where you can dress up in a kimono, wear a helmet or try on some armour (all replicas, naturally) and have your photo taken for a small fee as a souvenir of your visit.

Once we had finished exploring all of this we were hot and a bit weary, so we were very happy to spot ice creams on sale at one of several refreshment booths in the grounds. We enjoyed a tasty mango soft scoop cone (chocolate, vanilla and green tea also available) and a chat with an elderly local who stopped while cycling through the park, keen to practice his English and find out what we had been enjoying in Japan – a pleasant way to while away the last part of our visit here.

We met up with the rest of the group and Andrew proposed a visit to the aquarium. Most agreed but a few opted to go back to the hotel to rest. I was in two minds, as I was quite tired and inclined to think that I could visit an aquarium anywhere, without coming all the way to Japan to do so. But Andrew enthused about this one so much that I decided to give it a try, and I was glad that I did, as this is quite a special aquarium!

So we walked the ten minutes or so to Morinomiya station on the Chuo subway line, which we took to Osakako station about five minutes’ walk from the aquarium. As we walked towards it we saw a huge Ferris wheel which looked like fun – something for the to-do list in the probably unlikely event of a return visit to Osaka.

Osaka Aquarium

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Giant tank at the Osaka Aquarium

This very well thought-out aquarium presents the marine life of the Pacific Rim in a really effective way. At its heart is a huge tank with whale sharks, smaller hammerheads, rays and many other Pacific fish. You wind you way down a gentle spiral around this tank with multiple opportunities to enjoy watching the fish at all levels, from near the surface to the ‘ocean’ depths. The experience is enhanced by the carefully chosen background music, and seats are provided at intervals so you can sit and admire the spectacle.

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Whale shark

But there are other delights too. We loved the river otters and their marine cousins, the rainforest fish and monkeys scrambling overhead, and the huge leggy king crabs. Among other highlights for me were the penguins (I do love penguins!), who have the experience of gently artificial snow drifting down on their heads, though I felt their tank area was a bit small. And the beautifully lit jellyfish drifting against another well-chosen background track were mesmerising.

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Jellyfish

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Emperor penguin

The creatures are housed according to the area of the Pacific Rim where they live, so you will visit, for instance, the Gulf of Panama, Monterey Bay and the Tasman Sea. An excellent balance is struck between education and entertainment, with touch tanks for children (and adults!), informative displays about climate change and so on.

Having said all this, I have to acknowledge that these beautiful creatures are captives here and their lives would be better lived in the open seas where they belong. In particular, the main tank, while huge, is still a very confining space for the larger fish that are kept there. It is wonderful in some ways for people who will never get the chance to dive or snorkel to see and appreciate these magnificent fish, but the animals pay a high price for our education and entertainment.

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Standing on the right

Chris and I left the aquarium a little before some of the others in the group, keen to have a little time back at the hotel to settle into our room and freshen up before a planned group outing to see something of Osaka’s famed night-life. So we took the subway back to Higashi-Umeda station right next to the hotel. As in Tokyo, we found it easy enough (with the help of a map) perhaps because we are so used to the London Underground system. We were surprised though to spot one difference from Tokyo. In Japan, the general rule on escalators is to stand on the left, the opposite of what I am used to in London. This surprised me a little as the Japanese drive on the left just as we do in Britain, and I thought that like us they would also climb their escalators on this side. But no – you stand on the left and walk on the right. And being the Japanese, they all stick to the rule. But when you get to Osaka, suddenly it’s all change. In Osaka they like to do things differently, so here you stand on the right and walk on the left!

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Our bedroom at the Umeda OS Hotel

Back at the hotel we retrieved all our bags from the luggage store and settled into our room. This was on the top (17th) floor with a great view of some of Osaka's skyscrapers – particularly good at night. The room was small (as is usual in Japan) but comfortable, with everything we needed. Two large twin beds, a sofa, small desk and large TV were all neatly fitted into the space, while the bathroom had a good shower over a 3/4 size tub. A good range of toiletries, hair dryer and sundries were provided, as well as light dressing gowns and slippers, and there was free wifi too.

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View at night

But there was little time to make use of the wifi or to take photos, as we had arranged to meet up again with most of the group in the hotel lobby for an evening out together. We took taxis from our hotel for speed and comfort, after the very long day’s sightseeing, and were soon in Dotonbori.

Dotonbori

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Entrance to Dotonbori

Osaka generally is known for its nightlife, and in Osaka one of the best places to spend an evening is Dotonbori. This single street draws both locals and tourists in their thousands to eat, drink and play, and has done so for centuries. First built in 1612 as part of a development programme in this part of the city that also saw the construction of the nearby canal of the same name, it was declared the entertainment district of Osaka in 1628 by the newly established Tokugawa Shogunate. Within 35 years the avenue offered as many as six Kabuki theatres and five Bunraku theatres, plus the unique Takeda Karakuri mechanical puppet theatre. Many restaurants and cafés sprung up to cater to the hordes of people who thronged here nightly.

But interest in these traditional forms of entertainment declined and with the interest, the theatres themselves. The five that were left at the time of the Second World War were all lost in the bombing raids. The restaurants, bars and cafės however remain. In Japan, Osaka is famed for its cuisine, and Dotonbori is the main destination for food travel in Osaka. You can get anything here, from local specialities through fast food to high-quality meat and fish.

We were heading for a restaurant recommended by Andrew which serves an Osaka speciality – okonomiyaki. But first we took the time to stroll along the street and observe all the action and bright lights. Many of the establishments here have become known for their extravagantly large decorative features that aim to lure diners, such as the giant crab of Kani Doraku. I also spotted giant sushi, a huge dragon and a rather fierce looking chef. There are neon lights everywhere and a real buzz in the air from all the people out to enjoy themselves. This is definitely a great place to see Japan at play!

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On Dotonbori

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Cooking takoyaki
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Our takoyaki

We stopped at one of the food stalls to sample takoyaki, another Osaka speciality. These round octopus dumplings are sold by street vendors and stalls in Dotonbori and elsewhere. The octopus is chopped and mixed with other ingredients such as spring onion, covered in the batter and cooked in special takoyaki pans. A sauce is added (typically a brown sauce similar to Worcestershire sauce) and other flavours such as green laver (a seaweed) or bonito (dried fish flakes) sprinkled on. The ones we bought also had some cheese inside which added to their deliciousness and also to the challenge of eating them – they are served piping hot and are quite liable to burn your mouth if you bite into them too soon, as of course we did!

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Stall selling takoyaki

The takoyaki were a great appetiser, and now we were ready for the main course. Andrew had called ahead to reserve a couple of tables at Warri-Wa which specialises in okonomiyaki (most of the restaurants in Japan serve only one style of cooking). These are often described as Japan’s answer to pizza, but we found them to be more like omelette. The base for the dish is a batter made with flour, eggs, grated yam and shredded cabbage. Various ingredients are added to this to give the different flavours, just as you add toppings to a pizza or fillings to an omelette. These can be seafood, meat (usually thinly sliced pork), vegetables or cheese. In Osaka the ingredients are all mixed together before grilling, while in Hiroshima, where the dish is also a major culinary tradition, they are cooked in layers.

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Enjoying a beer in Warri-Wa

Our tables were upstairs on the first floor. Okonomiyaki are traditionally mixed and grilled on a hot plate at the table by the diner – you order your fillings of choice which are brought separately to the batter for you to mix to taste and cook. But in some places they come ready-made, and Warri-Wa is one such, so although our table had a large hot plate in the centre, this was just intended to keep the okonomiyaki hot as we ate.

My okonomiyaki, with a filling of pork and squid, was delicious, though I'd have welcomed more squid (I found just three pieces!). Chris had a similar one but with pork and shrimp. The okonomiyaki come topped with a special sauce (similar to Worcestershire sauce but thicker) and sometimes other toppings are added – we had dried fish flakes (bonito) at the table to add ourselves, and some of the options on the menu had salad leaves on them too. They were very filling and tasty – one of my favourite of the various Japanese delicacies we tried on this trip.

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Two variations on okonomiyaki

After dinner we wandered around a little more before again choosing to take taxis back to the hotel. It had been another long but fascinating day in this most fascinating of countries.

Posted by ToonSarah 05:40 Archived in Japan Tagged night osaka castles fish streets japan history restaurants museum aquarium Comments (4)

A day trip to Hiroshima

Japan day seven


View Japan, Essential Honshu tour 2013 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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Paper cranes, Peace Memorial Park, Hiroshima

Osaka is just two hours from Hiroshima by bullet train, making this a practical option for a day trip – especially if you have a JR Pass as we did and can travel ‘for free’. So on our second day staying in Osaka that is what we opted to do, and had an excellent day out.

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In the Peace Memorial Museum

When, at 8.15 am on August 6th 1945, the first atomic bomb was detonated over Hiroshima, the city became in an instant one of the most famous in the world; but what city would ever have wanted that sort of fame?

The bomb killed an estimated 80,000 people instantly. It flattened an area of five square miles (13 square kilometres) and completely destroyed about 69% of the city's buildings, with another 7% severely damaged. Three days later the second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, and five days after that, Japan surrendered.

But the effects of the bomb were much longer term, with estimates suggesting that the final death toll was about 140,000, (out of a population of about 350,000), including those who died later from radiation. Many also suffered long-term sickness and disability as a result of the bomb’s radiation effects. Hiroshima would never be the same again.

Today Hiroshima, while never for a moment forgetting its past, has become a lively modern city which has turned its notoriety to advantage in order to campaign for a non-nuclear world; and also, it has to be said, to attract visitors who come to learn about that past and, the city hopes, leave sharing some of its values and ambitions for peace. Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, the city has succeeded in reinventing itself as a modern city that pays tribute to its past in the best possible way – using those terrible events as a platform from which to campaign for peace. Its memorial park and museum are not ‘Bomb Memorials’ but ‘Peace Memorials’ and this ethos pervades everything you will see here and the people, especially children, whom you will meet.

Travelling to Hiroshima

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On the bus

There are some that consider a visit to Hiroshima to be a bit macabre, but we didn’t feel we could be so near and not see the city for ourselves. We travelled to Hiroshima by bullet train, along with some of the others in our group (most though had opted to go with Andrew to visit Nara instead). There are several trains an hour from Shin-Osaka station, and the journey takes about 90 minutes. The trip was covered by our JR passes. As this was an independent day out, rather than part of our tour, we had no pre-booked seat reservations. We could have queued for some at the station before boarding but decided to take a chance on finding seats in one of the unreserved seating carriages. This was a good call, as lots of people got off in Osaka and it was easy to find seats together.

To get to the Peace Memorial Park from Hiroshima station we took the trolley bus. The fare was a flat 150¥ which you pay on leaving the bus. We weren’t totally sure about this system when we first boarded but a friendly local man showed us what to do, using mime and sign language, and also kindly let me take this photo of him.

We got off the bus by the Atomic Dome. From here you can walk across the bridge on to the island that was once a built-up area but is now totally devoted to the memory of what happened in August 1945 and to trying to ensure that it never happens again.

Genbaku Dōmu: the Atomic Bomb Dome

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Genbaku Dōmu

The first sight we saw on leaving the bus was the stark silhouette of the Genbaku Dōmu or Atomic Bomb Dome. The intended target point of the atomic bomb dropped on Monday 6th August 1945, at 8.15 am was the nearby Aioi Bridge but it missed this slightly and exploded almost directly above this building, which was at the time an exhibition hall known as the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall. Because the blast was felt from immediately above, hitting the structure vertically, a surprising amount remained intact even though, of course, everyone inside was killed instantly.

For some years after the war the skeleton of the building remained as it was. There were some who felt it should be pulled down and the site redeveloped, while others argued for its restoration and yet others for its preservation as a ruin, to stand as a memorial to what had happened and to those who had lost their lives. The latter group won the day, and in 1966 the city council declared that it intended to preserve the building, undertaking only the minimal work necessary to ensuring its stability. In December 1996 the Atomic Bomb Dome was registered on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Its listing was based on its survival from a destructive force, the first use of nuclear weapons on human population, and importantly its representation as a symbol of peace.

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Images of destruction, Genbaku Dōmu

This is a stark introduction to the Peace Memorial Park which lies beyond it, and seems to have become a focus for individual local people who are keeping the memory of what happened on that day alive to express their feelings and, in some cases, share personal experiences with visitors. We saw several displays near here which had been set up by local people – some artefacts from the devastation caused by the bomb such as roof tiles, posters campaigning for peace and some old photos of Hiroshima at the time, both before and after the bomb.

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Campaigning for peace near the Atomic Bomb Dome

One of the displays held a rack of paper flyers promoting a blog by the son of parents who survived the attack (his mother being pregnant with him at the time), in which his mother describes the events of that day and the subsequent death of her father, his grandfather. I followed this up after our visit and found a simply told, powerful first-person testimony: My Father's sixth of August, 1945 in Hiroshima. In this he transcribes his mother’s account of the day the bomb fell:

‘That day, fifty-eight years ago, is something I still can't forget. It is also something I certainly don't want to remember or talk about. Even if I do talk about it, no one can feel what it really means. I don't want to think about it. It makes my heart ache. However, if I don't want it to ever happen again, it seems wise that I should write it down somewhere.’

The blogger, Mito Kosei, used to work at the museum but at the time of our visit (October 2013) was working as a volunteer guide at the Peace Memorial Park showing English-speaking visitors around. He said in the blog that he prefers to work independently as it gives him more freedom to campaign against all forms of nuclear activity.

Mito was one of the hibakusha, which translates as ‘explosion-affected people’, as he was affected by the radiation in utero. Wikipedia explains:

‘The Atomic Bomb Survivors Relief Law defines hibakusha as people who fall into one of the following categories: within a few kilometres of the hypocenters of the bombs; within 2 km of the hypocenters within two weeks of the bombings; exposed to radiation from fallout; or not yet born but carried by pregnant women in any of these categories. As of March 31, 2013, 201,779 hibakusha were recognized by the Japanese government, most living in Japan. … Hibakusha are entitled to government support. They receive a certain amount of allowance per month. About 1%, certified as suffering from bomb-related diseases, receive a special medical allowance.’

Memorial Tower to the Mobilised Students

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Detail of a dove, Memorial Tower to the Mobilised Students

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Memorial Tower to
the Mobilised Students

Before entering the Peace Park, we visited this nearby monument, behind the Atomic Bomb Dome. The Second World War caused a major labour shortage in Japan, so the government brought in the Student Labour Service Act in August 1944 which required students in middle school and above to work in munitions factories etc. Later that year, in November, the edict was extended to cover the work of tearing down homes and other buildings in order to create fire-breaks to limit the spread of fire in the event of air raids. Many were working on these projects in Hiroshima when the atom bomb was dropped; of the more than 8,000 secondary school students mobilised at building demolition sites, approximately 6,300 died. Many students who were working at various factories around the city were also killed.

After the war, the government only permitted mobilised students killed in the atomic bombing or in air strikes to be enshrined in Yasukuni Shrine if their names and date of death were known. In response to this, bereaved families began a campaign to create a list of all the dead and donated funds to build this tower in their memory.

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Paper cranes at the Memorial Tower to the Mobilised Students

The tower was dedicated in July 1967. Its design incorporates eight doves and a statue of the goddess of peace, arranged on and around the five storeys, which widen towards the top. At the base are plaques with scenes of: 1) working to increase food production; 2) female students sewing; 3) factory work; and 4) Hiroshima’s Lantern Floating Memorial. Behind the monument is a list of 352 schools attended by mobilised students throughout Japan who died during the war, from air raids as well as the atomic bombings. An epitaph reads:

‘Mobilised students working as volunteer labourers for increased production efforts number well over 3 million throughout Japan. Of those students who sacrificed their youth and opportunity for education, more than 10,000 fell in the ravages of war, approximately 6,000 of which were killed in the A-bomb. These mobilized students had high hopes and goals and dreamed of taking flight into their futures, but instead died for their country. This monument was constructed by friends and family members to console the spirits of the deceased students.’

Peace Memorial Park

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Peace Memorial Park seen from the Peace Memorial Museum

From the Memorial Tower we crossed the bridge to the Peace Memorial Park itself. This promontory between two rivers in the centre of Hiroshima was once the city’s busiest downtown commercial and residential district, known as Nakajima. It had been a thriving commercial area since the Edo period, with boats coming up the river to unload goods here. In the Meiji era (1868-1912), it was the political, administrative, and business heart of Hiroshima, home to the City Hall, the Prefectural Office and various commercial facilities. It was also heavily populated, with an estimated 6,500 people living in its seven cho (neighbourhood units) at the time of the atomic bombing.

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Models of Nakajima in the museum, before and after the bomb fell

Following the war, the city decided that rather than reconstruct Nakajima as it had been, the entire district would be developed as a park that would not only serve as a memorial to all who had lost their lives but also as a focal point for the city’s new commitment to advocate for world peace and an end to nuclear weapons.

The park covers approximately 122,100 square metres. There are a large number of monuments and memorials dotted around it. Some are dedicated to individuals, some to particular groups of people (e.g. teachers and students, or those working in specific industries such as coal, civil engineering and agriculture). Others are more general, dedicated to peace or to all who died in the war.

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In the Peace Memorial Park

Almost as soon as we arrived in the park we were greeted by a group of three school girls who approached us and asked, in hesitant English, if they might ask us a few questions. We naturally agreed and, armed with a clip-board and a work-book with a set of these questions, the girls proceeded to ‘interview’ us. They were to be the first of many! Our progress through the park was regularly interrupted as group after group spotted us, hurtled towards us, paused, maybe giggled or nudged each other, and then began: ‘Excuse me, may we ask you some questions?’, spoken in chorus and with mixed levels of English, from the reasonable to the almost non-existent. On one occasion there were even two such groups fighting over us!

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Chris and Phil being 'interviewed'

After each interview we might be asked to write something in their work-books – our names, where we lived, and in one, our message for peace. They posed for photos for us, and asked us to pose with them. And often there were gifts – a paper crane, a hand-made bookmark, a photo of their school. I think we must have given about ten of these ‘interviews’, but I have to confess that in the end we did tire of them a little and learned to take a circuitous route around the classes we saw ahead of us. Not that the experience of meeting these kids wasn’t a special one – it was – but we had lots to see in the park and a train back to Osaka to catch at the end of the afternoon. But we left with their halting English voices and shy smiles as lasting memories of the positive side of Hiroshima and its efforts for world peace.

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Young interviewers

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Some of the schoolgirls we met

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Posing for our photos

But in talking about our departure I am running ahead of myself, as there was so much to see in the park and we spent the rest of our day here without even seeing all of it.

The first monument we came to was the Peace Bell. This was added to the park in September 1964 by the A-bomb Survivor Hiroshima Hope Fruition Society with the declaration:

‘This temple bell/temple hall is standing at the dearest wish of Hiroshima aiming at the creation of a world of a true peaceful coexistence without any nuclear weapons or wars, and was built as a symbol for this spiritual and cultural movement. We wish that the sound of the bell resound in each corner of the world and reach the hearts of each and every human being.’

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The Peace Bell

The bell was designed by Masahiko Katori. On its surface is an embossed world map without national boundaries and the ‘sweet spot’ where the log hits the bell depicts the atomic energy symbol, expressing hope for the abolition of atomic and hydrogen bombs. Visitors are encouraged to ring the bell for world peace and you can hear the mellow deep toll ringing out repeatedly as you stroll through the park. In 1966 the sound of the bell was selected for the government Environment Agency's ‘One Hundred Sounds the Japanese People Wish to Preserve’.

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Chris ringing the Peace Bell

Our next stop was at the nearby Atomic Bomb Memorial Mound. After the bombing the bodies of some victims were claimed by relatives, but very many were unidentifiable and thus unclaimed, while others had no relatives left alive. This area, like much of Nakajima, was strewn with dead bodies after the bombing. Innumerable corpses, including those pulled out of the river, were brought here and cremated on a temporary altar at a temple on this site. There were also many who were effectively cremated by the bomb itself.

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The Atomic Bomb Memorial Mound

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Atomic Bomb Memorial Mound

In 1946 a temporary memorial mound, vault and chapel were built here to house their ashes, funded by private donations. In 1955 Hiroshima City took over the site and rebuilt the dilapidated vault. Unclaimed ashes that had been kept in various other places were also brought to this new vault. The vault lies under the mound and contains the ashes of roughly 70,000 victims. Those that were cremated as individuals have their own white porcelain urn and, if their name is known, it is inscribed on the outside. Each year the local newspapers publish the list of these names, and each year several are claimed and transferred to family graves elsewhere in the country or even abroad. As of 2010, the latest figures I could find, just over 800 remain here of the original named 2,432 placed here in 1955.

But the vast majority of those whose ashes lie here don’t even have the dignity of these urns. Behind curtains that hang in the vault are pine crates marked with the names of sites where human dust and bits of bone were found—a factory or a school or an apartment block. Beyond that, the ashes are anonymous. Thousands may still grieve for these victims but there is no way that they can ever be separated or identified. Under this mound therefore, in a handful of wooden boxes, are all that remains of a quarter of the population of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. A sobering thought as we stood before it.

But some of the memorials here carry a message of hope rather than of grief. The Children's Peace Monument is one such. This is probably the most striking of the memorials in the park and, from what we observed, the focal point for the many school groups that visit. I made a video of one such group as they sang a song in front of the monument, having previously laid their paper cranes at its foot.

The monument, which was erected in 1958, is dedicated to the memory of Sadako Sasaki, a two year old girl living in Hiroshima when the atomic bomb was dropped in August 1945, about a mile from ground zero. She survived the blast, despite being flung out of a window, but in 1954 developed leukaemia and died the following year. Shocked by her death, her classmates put out a national call to ‘build a monument to mourn all the children who died from the atomic bombing.’ With the support of students in more than 3,100 schools around Japan and in nine other countries, the Society raised enough to build this monument to Sadako and to all the other children. The pedestal is topped with a statue of Sadako holding a golden crane, and on each side are suspended the figures of a boy and a girl symbolising a bright future and hope. At its foot is a black marble slab on which is inscribed in Japanese: ‘This is our cry. This is our prayer. Building peace in the world.’

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The Children's Peace Monument

Thousands of paper cranes are offered here every day by the visiting children and others, and are displayed in glass cases around the monument. These paper cranes have become a symbol of Hiroshima’s efforts for peace and you will see them all over the park. The reason for this can be traced back to Sadako Sasaki, the young victim whose memory inspired the Children’s Peace Memorial. When Sadako developed leukaemia in 1954 she was given, at the most, a year to live. While in hospital she started to fold the traditional origami paper cranes so beloved of the Japanese. Her aim was to make a thousand, as an ancient Japanese story promises that anyone who folds a thousand origami cranes will be granted a wish by the gods. One version of her story says that she didn’t manage to achieve this, having made ‘just’ 644 before her death in October of that year. Her school friends completed the task on her behalf and all thousand cranes were buried with her. However, an exhibit in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum asserts that by the end of August 1954, she had achieved her goal and continued to fold more cranes.

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Cases of paper cranes at the Children's Peace Monument

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Children waiting their turn to lay paper cranes

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Paper cranes recently laid

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Paper cranes in
St Paul's Chapel, NYC

Whatever the details of Sadako’s mission, she has inspired several generations of Japanese children. Her legacy is a custom that brings colour to the memorials here and provides a visible reminder of the thousands that pay tribute to the victims. It is also a custom that has travelled the globe. When we were in New York some years ago we visited St Paul’s Chapel, a small church that stood almost in the shadow of the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers, but miraculously escaped any damage in the attack of 9/11. In the months following, it served as a refuge for rescue workers, a triage centre for victims, and as a beacon of hope for the city. It is now a place of remembrance and among its exhibits are paper cranes sent by the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as a sign of their empathy with their counterparts in New York – a wonderful manifestation of Hiroshima’s commitment to world peace.

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The Peace Flame

Beyond the Children’s Peace Monument we came to the focal point of the park, the Pond of Peace with at one end the Cenotaph and at the other the Peace Flame. Coming from the north as we were, we reached the Flame first. This was added to the park in August 1964 and has burned continuously since it was lit. The city has vowed that it will continue to burn until all nuclear bombs on the planet are destroyed and the threat of nuclear annihilation has been eliminated.

The pedestal that supports the flame is designed to suggest two hands pressed together at the wrist and bent back so that the palms point up to the sky. It expresses comfort for the victims unable to satisfy their thirst for water, and a prayer for nuclear abolition and enduring world peace. The flame is sometimes used to light others as a symbol of peace for various events, and in 1994 it lit the flame of the Asian Games which were held in Hiroshima City.

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The Peace Flame burns before the Atomic Dome building

The Pond of Peace links the Peace Flame and the Cenotaph. Originally this was a simple two metre wide moat around the latter, but it was later extended to 17 metres wide and 70 in length, when the Flame of Peace was added. Every August 6th this is the focal point for the park’s Peace Memorial Ceremony, designed to console the victims of the atomic bombs and to pray for the realisation of lasting world peace. This ceremony is attended by families of the deceased and people from all over the world. Coloured lanterns are floated on the pond and a declaration of peace is read out by Hiroshima’s mayor and displayed for the rest of the year in the museum.

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The Cenotaph

The Memorial Cenotaph at the southern end of the pond was one of the first monuments built on the open space set aside for the Peace Memorial Park on August 6, 1952 – the seventh anniversary of the bomb. It is designed to resemble an ancient arch-shaped house, to shelter the souls of the victims from the elements. Its Japanese inscription translates as ‘Let all the souls here rest in peace, for we shall not repeat the evil.’ But this is an approximation of the meaning, as in Japanese it is possible to omit the subject of the sentence. Thus the real reading is ‘Let all the souls here rest in peace, for … shall not repeat the evil.’

In this way they sought not to attribute blame either to the US and their allies who dropped the bomb nor to their own people for their part in the atrocities of war. An explanatory plaque in English makes the subtlety of the wording clearer:

‘The inscription on the front panel offers a prayer for the peaceful repose of the victims and a pledge on behalf of all humanity never to repeat the evil of war. It expresses the spirit of Hiroshima — enduring grief, transcending hatred, pursuing harmony and prosperity for all, and yearning for genuine, lasting world peace.’

The stone chest beneath the arch holds the register of all those known to have died from the bombing, of all nationalities. Names are added to the list whenever anyone related to a death makes an application. As of August 6, 2001, the registry comprised 77 volumes that list a total of 221,893 names.

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Crowds around the Cenotaph

At this point in our explorations we were more than ready for lunch. We had bumped into another of our group, Phil, and we all agreed to go for some lunch together. Following the advice of my Lonely Planet guidebook we explored the streets to the south of the park, beyond the museum. A floating restaurant in a boat on the river looked appealing but was a bit fancy for our needs. Then in a side street we came across a couple of places side by side and chose the first of these, Umaimono-Ibakaya.

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Umaimono-Ibakaya, outside and in

On entering we found that there was no English menu or plastic food display to guide us. Instead, near the door, was a machine with a lot of buttons and a lot of (to us incomprehensible) Japanese writing by each. Pictures of some dishes were displayed above but we weren’t sure how to relate these to the buttons or what to do about it! Luckily a friendly waiter hurried over to explain; his English was limited but he was keen to be helpful and between that and our collective sign language efforts we made progress. We understood that he was recommending two of the dishes as the most popular in the restaurant so all three of us chose one of these, a soup with noodles. We put our money in the machine, pressed the relevant button, and a slip of paper emerged which he then took as our order. He also showed how we should choose a drink from the small number available – Phil had a cola while Chris and I chose a Japanese orange-flavoured soft drink (somewhat like Fanta). We were then ushered to a table to wait for the food.

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Phil making his choice, helped by the waiter

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Ramen soup

When the bowls arrived we were all impressed with the quantity we got for our 750¥. What’s more, it tasted great! The soup itself was flavourful, and it was full of ramen noodles and vegetables such as pak choy and spring onion. A thick slice of pork floated on the top.

The restaurant had a cosy local atmosphere. If there were other tourists here, they were all Japanese. Being so close to the Peace Memorial Park that surprised us a little – this cheap and friendly place deserves to be discovered.

After lunch we decided to focus on the museum for the rest of our afternoon in Hiroshima, and Phil came along with us.

Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum

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Children in the Peace Memorial Museum

The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum was established on the tenth anniversary of the atomic bomb, in August 1955. It is dedicated to documenting the events surrounding the bombing and its effects, and to the promotion of world peace and an end to all nuclear weapons. It is the focus for the many visiting groups of school children and as such is always crowded (over a million people a year visit it), but I was glad we didn’t let the crowds put us off. You really shouldn’t come to Hiroshima and not see the powerful and moving exhibits it holds.

We entered through the newer East Wing and paid the very reasonable entrance fee of 50¥ for adults – kept deliberately affordable to that no one is excluded from visiting. This two storey building focuses on the history of the period before and after the dropping of the bomb. Models show the city before and immediately after the bombing, as do numerous old photos. One section I found especially interesting was the one devoted to the background to the decision to drop the bomb, including some fascinating documents detailing the process that went into choosing which city it would be dropped on. These accounts reveal the almost random manner in which Hiroshima met its fate.

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Position paper by scientists

Firstly, the Allies could have chosen to use the atom bomb against Germany, as they had developed the technology in time. But they rejected the idea, believing that should things go wrong and it not detonate, the Germans had sufficiently advanced skills to quickly learn from the bomb and develop their own to be turned against the Allies. So Japan it was.

Secondly, they could have opted not to use it at all. Several leading scientists of the day argued unsuccessfully that merely having (and demonstrating that they had) the capacity to build and use atomic weapons would be enough to ensure US post-war supremacy, and that indeed using the bomb would restrict that supremacy as it would speed up its acquisition by other powers. The position paper displayed in the museum states:

We believe that these considerations make the use of nuclear bombs for an early unannounced attack against Japan inadvisable. If the United States were to be the first to release this new means of indiscriminate destruction upon mankind, she would sacrifice public support throughout the world, precipitate the race for armaments, and prejudice the possibility of reaching an international agreement on the future control of such weapons.

Much more favorable conditions for the eventual achievement of such an agreement could be created if nuclear bombs were first revealed to the world by a demonstration in an appropriately selected uninhabited area.'

But the scientists were ignored.

Thirdly, there was an initial long-list of 17 Japanese cities, and then a short-list of four, and Hiroshima and Nagasaki (where the second bomb was dropped) were just two on this list. The criteria for the list included factors such as not having any prisoner of war facilities (the Allies didn’t want to bomb their own people), plus of course being of some strategic importance (a significant number of troops were stationed in Hiroshima and its port was one of the most important in the country). Also, to some extent the dropping of the bomb was an experiment by the Allies; they didn’t know exactly what impact it would have. So to ensure that the effects could be accurately observed, potential target cities had to have an urban area at least three miles in diameter (about 4.8 kilometres). Interestingly, at one point Kyoto was apparently considered as a possible target, but the wife of a senior US general reminded him of the wonderful honeymoon they had spent there and pleaded that its temples should be spared, so they were.

Finally, they had a shortlist of four: Hiroshima, Kokura, Niigata, and Nagasaki. But in the end it all came down to weather. On the morning of 6th August 1945 the skies were clear over Hiroshima, so Hiroshima it was. The Peace Memorial Museum website describes what happened:

‘The bombardier was ordered to conduct a visual bombing, the most reliable method at the time. Before dawn on August 6, weather reconnaissance planes took off for Hiroshima, Kokura, and Nagasaki from Tinian, Mariana Islands. Three B29s took off later: the Enola Gay carrying the atomic bomb, a second bomber carrying scientific observation equipment, and a third with photographic equipment. Receiving the report that the sky over the primary target was clear, the Enola Gay headed straight for Hiroshima. The aiming point was the T-shaped Aioi Bridge in the central part of the city. At 8:15 a.m. on August 6, the atomic bomb was dropped and detonated approximately 600 meters over the Shima Hospital, located about 300 meters southeast of the Aioi Bridge.’

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Photo showing the devastation, with just a few buildings left half-standing

This wing also explores the impact on the fabric of the city, and ends with information about the nuclear age and the city’s efforts for international peace. From here we proceeded to the older West Wing across a raised walkway. I found this is altogether more personal and more harrowing. It concentrates on the damage caused by the bomb, both to the city and to the lives of its inhabitants. It is divided into sections such as Material Witness (clothing, watches, hair, and other personal effects worn by victims of the bomb – the most distressing section); Damage by the Heat Rays (looks at what happened to wood, stone, metal, glass, and flesh in the intense heat); Damage by the Blast (the destruction caused by the after-shocks); and Damage by the Radiation (the health effects suffered by survivors and also the challenges they faced in being accepted in society). Viewing all of this was not a comfortable experience but it brings home the individual impacts caused by the bomb in a way that the big numbers quoted in relation to the various monuments cannot do.

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Glass bottles fused by the heat

Photography is allowed throughout the museum but I felt uncomfortable taking pictures of the most personal exhibits so took most of my pictures in the more impersonal East Wing.

By the time we came out of the museum the afternoon was getting on and all three of us felt we had seen and absorbed enough, so we took the trolley bus back to the station, where we bumped into two more of our group, and travelled back to Osaka together.

An evening in Osaka

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Ganko

On the way back to Osaka Chris and I arranged to meet up again later with Phil for a drink, but meanwhile there was dinner to be found. So after freshening up back at the hotel we explored the arcades just behind it and chose a small restaurant, Ganko, on the strength of the availability of an English menu that was advertised outside, the attractive appearance and the presence of plenty of locals. These were all good signs, and we were not to be disappointed with our choice.

Seating is at the counter or Western-style tables and chairs – we chose the latter, in a nice booth from where we could still watch the sushi chefs working behind the counter and the kimono-clad waitresses. We both had the tempura salmon with tartare sauce - a good choice. It had lovely light tempura batter coating a good piece of salmon, and while the sauce was not like our tartare, having a milder flavour and with egg in it, it was tasty. We shared a Japanese radish salad which came with a nice dressing (with a hint of ginger) and fish flakes – again, good stuff! This was a relatively light meal so we had room for dessert and both chose a tempting-looking sundae from the picture menu - a scoop each of vanilla ice cream and berry sorbet, and frozen berries.

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Sushi chefs at work in Ganko

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Kimono-clad waitress

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Tempura salmon with tartare sauce

Apparently ‘ganko’ means stubborn - an odd name for a restaurant and one we could see no reason for. Certainly the service was anything but, and we enjoyed our meal here and the accompanying draft beer. The restaurant seems to be part of a small Osaka chain with three branches in the city – as well as the one we visited in Umeda there’s another on Dōtonbori and one in Kyobashi near the castle. There are also branches in Kyoto and Ginza I think.

Every city with any claim to a nightlife must these days have at least one Irish bar. We don’t make a habit of frequenting these, but we were tempted by what we read about the Blarney Stone in my Lonely Planet guide-book and decided to give it a go, so we had arranged to meet up here with Phil after dinner. And we had a fun time, helped perhaps by the fact that for several days previously we hadn’t had much chance for a night out.

This wasn’t the easiest place to find. It’s hidden in the maze of lanes behind the Umeda OS Hotel on Mido-Suji, on the one that runs parallel to the main road immediately behind the hotel. We spotted the sign outside a narrow and anonymous entryway and took the lift to the sixth floor. We were wondering what we would find at the top and were not entranced by the corridor that looked more like a cheap office building than anything else. But push open the door marked Blarney Stone and you are immediately transported – if not (definitely not!) to Ireland, at least to a weird and fascinating image of what the Japanese expect Irish pubs to look like. This is a cross between a US sports bar, an English (rather than Irish) pub and something uniquely Japanese. It’s cosy, down-to-earth and strangely appealing.

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In the Blarney Stone

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Bad Luck and Trouble

I’m not sure if there was a particular reason for cocktails being on special offer that night, but when I saw that they were all just 400¥ I had to indulge. This was a bargain price for my good (though not especially strong) Cosmopolitans, but beer was more expensive at 700¥ a pint for local brews and 900¥ for imports such as Chris's very good Kilkenny.

There was live music from a band of three US guys who were obviously regulars here and were pretty good. It was fun to watch the antics (I can't really justify calling it dancing) of some local lasses who were trying to impress a handful of older Western men – and who to be fair did seem easily impressed! There was no cover charge despite the live music, which according to the website is the pub’s regular policy (and there’s music every weekend night). I think from info on the same website that the band we saw are called Bad Luck & Trouble!

This was an enjoyable way to spend our last evening in Osaka. Tomorrow we would be leaving for Kyoto.

Posted by ToonSarah 06:09 Archived in Japan Tagged people children night trains osaka food monument japan history restaurants museum hiroshima customs war_and_peace Comments (9)

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