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A day trip to Hiroshima

Japan day seven


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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 destroyed about 69% of the city's buildings were completely destroyed, 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 see will 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 is 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 (7)

A mountain town

Japan day ten


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

Something in the air

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Rickshaw passengers in Takayama

There was something special about Takayama. I could feel it in the air as soon as I stepped off the train – crisp, fresh mountain air, so refreshing after the heat of Kyoto. This mountain town captivated me with its lively morning market, friendly locals, and beautifully preserved old houses. I knew very little about Takayama before visiting, so what a lovely surprise it was to discover this charming town which was to prove one of my favourite stops on our tour of Japan.

During our short stay here we visited a couple of the old merchant houses that have been restored and opened to the public, as well as a number of interesting museums including one dedicated to the twice-yearly festival, which unfortunately we had just missed, and another to the traditional karakuri ningyo or mechanical puppets.

We also enjoyed some of the nicest meals on the tour here, eating the fabulous Hida beef cooked the traditional way (grilled on a hot plate) and in possibly the best beef burger I have ever had! Not to mention the sake breweries ...

But there was no time to visit more than one of the many shrines, nor to take the short trip out of town to the renowned Hida Folk Village. So, like Kyoto before it, Takayama left me wanting to see more, and could well lure me back.

By train to Takayama

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On the slow train to Takayama

We had been staying in Kyoto prior to visiting Takayama and travelled here by train. Firstly we took the bullet train to Nagoya, which took about 40 minutes and was as comfortable as always.

We had some time at the station in Nagoya to shop for bento boxes for our lunch, and then boarded the JR Hida Limited Express, a diesel train. This was considerably slower than the bullet train and much shorter in length, but it had comfortable seats with lots of leg room, and in some ways it was nice to be travelling more slowly and be able to appreciate the countryside we were passing through, especially as the route runs through a mountainous area with scenic gorges, forested hillsides and some lovely views. There were tourist-focused announcements from time to time, in English as well as Japanese, pointing out places of interest, features of the landscape and so on.

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Washington Hotel Plaza

The journey from Nagoya to Takayama took two hours 20 minutes, and from Kyoto to Takayama was about three and a half hours altogether.

When we arrived in Takayama we paused briefly at the tourist information booth immediately outside the station to pick up some maps and then headed for our hotel, which was just across the road. But we stopped only to check in and leave our bags, and hurried out again to explore.

The old town

We decided to go along with the group on a stroll through the old town. Takayama is a very walkable city, with all but one of its main sights located in and around the old town (the exception is the Hida Folk Museum, which we didn’t manage to find the time to visit, unfortunately). From the station, and therefore from our hotel, it is about a 10-15 minute walk to the most interesting older part, although we saw plenty to distract us as we walked, including some attractive shops which several of us resolved to visit before our stay here was done!

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There are several of these wooden sculptures dotted around the town near the river

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Small shrine by the river

It’s quite easy to orientate yourself here. The Miyagawa River flows through the city from north to south, with the historic town on its east side. To the west of the river lies the new town and the station, and the old town lies to the east. A series of bridges crossing the river links the two. There are plenty of signs to help you find your way to the various tourist sights, but unusually these are set into the pavement so you need to look down to spot them. And talking of looking down, watch out too for the decorative manhole covers which are among the prettiest designs of those we saw on our travels. They feature rhododendron flowers, the symbol of the city of Takayama.

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Manhole cover, Takayama

Preserved private houses

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Typical street in the old town of Takayama

The oldest part of Takayama consists of three main streets that run north to south parallel to the river Miyagawa. From west to east these are Sannomachi, Ninomachi and Ichinomachi. The northern section of each has the prefix ‘Shimo’ and the southern, ‘Kami’. All are lined with a variety of old homes, with perhaps the greatest concentration on Kami-Sannomachi. These have been preserved (not restored or rebuilt as replicas) and are regarded as one of the best-preserved Edo-era neighbourhoods in Japan.

Most of these houses are over 200 years old. They have dark wood lattice fronts which give the rows that line each street a sense of uniformity, even where they are now put to use as shops or restaurants, or (quite common here) sake breweries. Unsurprisingly the district has been designated an area of important traditional buildings by the Japanese Government. It is a very popular area to explore, so you need to be prepared for crowds, especially at weekends, but they don’t really diminish from the sense of the past that lingers here. And if you come back at night you will quite likely have the streets almost to yourself, as we were to find the next evening.

Sake tasting

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Sake barrels, Takayama

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Sugidama outside a sake brewery

Andrew had offered to take us to a couple of the sake breweries in the old town which he recommended for tastings. People have been brewing sake here for centuries. You can recognise the breweries by the large white barrels outside and the distinctive spheres hanging above the entrance. These are known as sugidama and are the traditional sign of a sake brewery. Originally they were hung up whenever a new lot of sake was brewed. Made with green, freshly picked needles of a type of cedar, Cryptomeria japonica, the ball would hang there until the needles turned brown, indicating that the sake had aged enough and was ready for drinking. Today these sugidama are no longer used to indicate the age of the sake but simply as a sign of a traditional sake brewery or a sake shop.

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Signs in the sake shop

The two we visited were both towards the southern end of Kami-Sannomachi, the main street through the old town. In the first we were able to taste a good range of different sakes. We paid 100¥ and were given a small pottery cup which we could afterwards keep as a souvenir. On one side of the room was a display of sake bottles on three shelves, and we were free to sample as much as we liked from any of them. The only stipulation was that each person who wanted to taste had to pay for their own little cup. Or as the signs above the shelves said,

‘Wish from a store.
The carrying out from this corner of sample alcohol should withhold.
I refuse that a cup uses about. Please purchase one person one cup.’

‘Charged sample corner
Please sample after purchasing one-piece [the cup with the sansya logo] of 100 yen.
Grass can be brought home’

The second of these signs shows clearly the confusion the Japanese have between our L and R!

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Sue, Phil and Chris tasting the sake

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Traditionally served sake

After we had sampled a number of the sakes here (and debated about the rival qualities of each) we moved on to a nearby establishment that operates rather differently. Here you pay for your sake by the glass, and it is served in the traditional Takayama style, with the glass inside a small wooden box. Actually, the really traditional way is to serve it directly in the box, but this is probably more practical! They also sell a lemon-flavoured drink a little like the Italian limoncello which was very popular with our group but which I found a little sweet for my taste.

This particular sake brewery has a lovely courtyard at the rear where you can relax over your drinks, and there’s also a restaurant attached. One couple in our group came back here to eat the following evening and reported it very good.

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In the courtyard

Once we had drunk as much sake as seemed sensible for the middle of the afternoon (OK a little more than that!), the group dispersed, and Chris and I decided to investigate an interesting art gallery which we had spotted on the other side of the road selling original art, good quality prints and greetings cards. I was thinking of buying some of the latter but we were seduced by a fairly large limited edition woodblock print. We managed to resist buying this however … for now!

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On the streets of the old town, Takayama

We spent the remainder of the afternoon simply wandering the streets and taking loads of photos, as well as popping into a couple more of the shops. One sold nothing but rabbits – soft toys, scarves with bunny prints, rabbit chopsticks, pottery with rabbit pictures on it and more. Another favourite Takayama souvenir is a traditional parasol but these are more unwieldy for travellers from abroad to carry home and I wasn’t tempted. I did however buy some pretty bangles made of kimono silk encased in perspex, from a shop on Kokubunji Dori.

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Traditional paper parasols

Sarubobo

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Sarubobo

I found these red-headed faceless figures a little spooky, but they are very popular and you will see them all over Takayama, used as symbols in promoting shops etc. and available to buy as a souvenir in all sorts of forms, from little charms and key rings to large stuffed toys. Traditionally, these sarubobos were made by mothers and grandmothers to be given to their daughters as an amulet to ensure a good marriage, good children and happiness. The name means ‘baby monkey’ and it is believed that as monkeys have quick childbirths, so will the possessor of this charm. Nowadays they are regarded as more general good luck amulets that anyone can carry.

The face is red like that of the Japanese monkeys but it is less clear why it is traditionally without features. One theory is that they were originally made from leftover cloth and by relatives, so they were kept simple. Another is that the absence of a face allows the owner to imagine it – thus when the owner is sad, they can imagine their sarubobo to be sad too, when they are happy it is happy, and so on.

Today you may see sarubobos with different coloured faces as their very traditional use has widened. Each colour has its own meaning:
The red sarubobo is for luck in marriage, fertility and childbirth.
The blue sarubobo is for luck in work
The pink sarubobo is for luck in love
The green sarubobo is for luck in health
The yellow sarubobo is for luck in money
The black sarubobo is to remove bad luck

The best-dressed dogs

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One of many cute dogs in Takayama

As we continued to walk Takayama’s streets we noticed lots of cute dogs, and I began to speculate that this town might just have the best-dressed dogs in the country! Not only were most of the dogs we saw very smartly dressed in little coats, but some were carried in bags and one even in a pushchair. The dogs of Takayama are obviously rather spoiled!

The proud owners of these dogs were all very happy for us to take their photos, and several of them to pose for me with their pet.

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The dogs of Takayama

But for the ultimate in pampered pooches, have a look at this little one below. He had his own chair in the window where he could sit and watch all the activity out on the street without having to get his paws dirty by going out. I did though find it slightly reminiscent of other windows I have seen in certain parts of Amsterdam!

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Window dog

We thoroughly enjoyed our wanderings and I was already falling in love with this appealing town, but soon it was time to head back to the hotel and freshen up for dinner. We retrieved our bags from their storage and settled into our room which was clean and comfortable but, as so often in Japan, very small. If you want to unpack your suitcase you will find nowhere much to store the contents, yet living out of it is difficult when there's nowhere to lay it flat on the floor.

We had arranged to meet up again with most of the group and go along to a nearby restaurant recommended by Andrew, Karakuri.

Great Hida beef

While Kobe beef is the best in the world, Hida beef is considered to run it a close second, and you can buy it everywhere in Takayama for a fraction of what you probably pay for much less good meat back home. As with Kobe, the secret is in the marbling and although it looks odd if you're unused to it to see fat running through the meat, it is this that gives it its tenderness and flavour.

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Exterior of Karakuri

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Traditional and western-style seating inside

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Hida beef

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Lighting the burner

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Accompaniments

Karakuri is a small family-run restaurant near the station, well-known in Takayama for their beef dishes. We had one of the set meals which, in addition to the beef (you can choose between diced or sliced – we both chose the latter), included some small bits of cold and pickled vegetables served as starter.

With the meat we had a bowl of rice, miso soup, salad (with a wonderful dressing) and an excellent dipping sauce. The slices of beef are served to you raw, and a burner is lit in front of you, where you cook each slice as needed to your own preference. You then take the slice of beef, dip it in the sauce and maybe take some rice too. And enjoy the melt in your mouth texture and superb flavour.

This style of ‘do it yourself’ cooking on a sizzling cast iron pan is called sukiyaki. Most of us really loved this meal but there were a couple in the group who were put off by the veins of fat and wished for a leaner cut of meat. I felt that was missing the point however, and I’ve rarely if ever had beef so succulent.

Almost all seating here is traditional, on cushions on the floor. I found it made my back ache after a while but adding a second cushion and leaning back (I’d chosen a spot in front of a screen) helped. There were a few stools up at the counter for those who didn't feel able to cope on the floor for a whole meal. Pride stopped me opting for one of those but these days I reckon comfort would come before pride!

This meal was a lovely ending to one of the best days of the trip so far - and tomorrow would be even better!

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Inside the restaurant

Posted by ToonSarah 04:00 Archived in Japan Tagged trains food architecture restaurant japan culture history drink dogs customs takayama Comments (5)

Back to Tokyo (via Matsumoto)

Japan day fourteen


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

A certain beauty

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When the skies cleared

It had rained for a day and a half. Kamikochi did have a certain beauty in the rain, but it had meant that the mountains we had come to see were hidden from view. But on the previous evening, our last here, we had been summoned outside by a member of the hotel staffto see ‘the white mountain’. There we found that at last the skies had cleared and we could indeed see the nearest mountain glowing palely in the light of the moon. It was bitterly cold, so we didn’t linger long, but that tantalising glimpse made us eager for the next morning.

And when we awoke it was to crisp, still, cold air and to a deep blue sky; to bright white mountains standing majestically around the basin that is Kamikochi; and to a heavy frost. We hurried breakfast and grabbed our cameras and warm jackets, rushing outside to make the most of our final hour or so here. The scene was transformed and wherever we looked there were beautiful views to be marvelled at and captured in our photos. We were so glad we had been granted a short time at least in which to experience this very different side to Kamikochi.

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Clouds rolling away

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Yakedake visible at last

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The Azusa River with backdrop of mountains revealed

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Mountain views

But all too soon it was time to leave, crossing a very different-looking Kappa-bashi to that on the day of our arrival - a little slippery with frost and surrounded by stunning mountain views. At last we could see why they call this the 'Japanese Alps'.

Leaving Kamikochi

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Kappa-bashi, early morning

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Sue and Jim on Kappa-bashi

We left Kamikochi as we had arrived, by bus, but this time bound for Shinshimashima. The journey took about an hour and the scenery was wonderful throughout. Unlike the day of our arrival, the sun was shining, the snowy peaks were visible and the views at almost every turn magnificent (apart from in the many tunnels).

But these tantalising glimpses of Kamikochi in sunlight left several of us yearning to stay, myself included. And my new friend Sue was so captivated by this place that when we left she wrote a beautiful song inspired by our time here:
'Kamikochi Mountains’ performed by Jim and Sue - lyrics and music by Sue Lee-Newman.

The bus took us past Taisho-Ike where we had been the previous day. How different it looked! Yesterday’s low cloud and the atmospheric mist that had shrouded the dead trees had lifted, and in its place we saw the glory of the surrounding mountains, Yakedake and Mount Hotaka, reflected in still waters. I was very pleased that I had a seat on the right-hand side of the bus and was able to grab a photo of a very different Taisho-Ike.

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Looking back at Taisho-Ike

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Train from Shinshimashima to Matsumoto

The bus took us directly to the station in Shinshimashima. There we had a 20 minute wait - just time to buy a drink and some fruit (wonderful Hida apples!) from the stall outside the station.

Then it was on to the small local train bound for Matsumoto, a journey of just 30 minutes. Matsumoto has a direct connection to Tokyo's Shinbuka Station, but we dropped our bags in the coin lockers at the station and took a few hours to explore the town before continuing our journey.

A few hours in Matsumoto

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Manhole cover, Matsumoto

Matsumoto lies in the heart of the island of Honshu and can be seen as a gateway to the Japanese Alps which surround the long valley in which it lies. For us however, it was more of an exit point.

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Monument in the town

And with only a few hours to spend here, the main sight we focused on was naturally the castle, which is one of the ‘National Treasures of Japan’ and one of relatively few original castles in the country, most having been lost to fire. It’s an impressive sight, surrounded by a wide moat and with a striking black and white colour scheme.

We also spent a bit of time browsing the quaint shops on Nawate-dori, visiting its tranquil shrine and grabbing lunch at a Western-style café that originates from Seattle USA. But there was no time for the well-regarded Museum of Art or any of the other museums in this culturally-minded city.

I left with fleeting impressions of a city that is well looked-after, with attractive street art, wide clean pavements and a laid-back air compared to the bustle of the large cities such as Tokyo and Osaka. It seems Matsumoto would make a good base for touring in this region at the heart of the country.

Matsumoto Castle

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Matsumoto Castle

The castle lies about 10/15 minutes’ walk from the station and we all walked there as a group, before splitting up to explore at our own pace.

This is one of relatively few original castles in Japan; as they were built mostly of wood they often burned down and were rebuilt, some many times. This though is one of just four castles designated as ‘National Treasures of Japan’ and is the oldest castle donjon still standing in the country.

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Matsumoto Castle

The castle was built at the end of the 16th century on the site of an earlier fort by the Ishikawa family. It has a striking black and white colour scheme, and three turrets. It is sometimes called 'Crow Castle' because of the black walls. Both the wooden interiors and external stonework are original. It is known as a flatland castle or hirajiro because it is built not on a hilltop or amid rivers, but on a plain. It is surrounded by a wide moat which makes for lovely photos, although some of the best I think would be from the far side of the castle (as you approach it from the ticket office) where a red bridge crosses the moat – an area of the park that was closed when we visited for construction work. So for us the best views were probably those from the park that surrounds it, as seen in my three photos above.

You can get these outside views of the castle for free but to get closer or to go inside you must pay the admission fee of 600¥, which we decided to do. We were given an informative leaflet in English and if you want can also get a free English language guided tour from a volunteer guide. We didn't do this as we only wanted a quick look round, but we did chat briefly to one of the guides whose English seemed OK and who was interested to chat about the differences between Japanese and English castles.

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Roof details

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Warning sign inside

Once inside the castle's precincts you can see some displays about its history and of course go inside. To do the latter you must remove your shoes and carry them in a plastic bag provided. Note that the stairs are all very steep and of polished wood - I found it tricky going in just socks! Various artefacts are displayed (swords, costumes, building materials etc) but very few signs are in English. At the top (six floors up) you get good views of Matsumoto and on a clear day, of the Japanese Alps in the distance – or so I understand. We gave up part way, deciding that the slippery steps weren't worth the trouble for relatively little reward when we had such limited time in the town.

But even if you don't want to go inside I reckon it's worth paying the admission to get a closer look at the castle and see the historical displays, and the guy dressed up as a samurai who I gather is usually there.

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Japanese tourist with 'samurai'

We also visited the gift shop as I had been advised by Andrew that this was one of relatively few places to buy wasabi chocolate. Yes, you read that correctly! It’s a white chocolate flavoured with the hot Japanese condiment. I rather liked it – but it won't appeal to everyone I suspect!

When we had seen enough of the castle we retraced our steps to an interesting street we had passed on our way here.

Nawate-dori

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Sign on Nawate-dori

This is a quaint, if slightly (but only slightly) touristy street not far from the castle. This street once formed the border between the Samurai residences and the commoners’ homes in the Edo era (1603 – 1868).

The name means ‘Frog’ street. It acquired this name at a time when the nearby river became so polluted that even the frogs died. The city managed to clean up the river, and named the street nearby after the frogs that returned to its waters. The name is also related to a pun on the Japanese word for ‘return’ kaeru. The mountains that surround Matsumoto could be treacherous, so frogs were given as a charm so that travellers would return safely.

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Nawate-dori, with giant frog

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Frog shop

We certainly would have found it hard to miss this street, as there is this very large fibreglass statue of a samurai frog by the entrance on Daimyocho Street. This was created by students from the Tokyo University for the Arts. The street is pedestrianised and not long – if you don’t stop to shop or browse you can walk it in about five minutes.

But there are plenty of interesting shops selling antiques and bric-a-brac, and others with gift items (one of which has only frog-related items!) I was very tempted by some antique sake cups but persuaded (probably rightly!) by Chris that we had already bought more than enough souvenirs.

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Shop window, Nawate-dori

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Nawate-dori book shop

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Garden on Nawate-dori

There are also some quaint corners likely to catch your eye if you’re a keen photographer, and several places to eat, both stalls selling local snacks such as soy bean dumplings, and more substantial sit-down places. We decided to have lunch in one of these.

Sweet Bakery

We had mostly eaten (and for the most part enjoyed) Japanese food on our travels, but there are times when you really crave the food of home - or at least of another country! So when we spotted this cosy bakery/café, with a menu of pizza, toasted sandwiches and soup, we thought it looked a promising spot for a more Western lunch for a change. And so it proved to be.

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Sweet Bakery on Nawate-dori

Sweet appears to be a Matsumoto offshoot of a Seattle bakery, and has been on this spot since 1924. It claims to have been the first shop to sell French-style baguettes in the region, a claim I find easy to believe!

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Cosy interior of Sweet Bakery

Inside we found a pleasant space, with old photos on the walls reflecting the bakery's establishment in 1924. There are also a few seats and tables outside, where smoking and dogs are permitted (neither is allowed inside, and after finding some Japanese cafės too smoky for my liking, I was pleased about this). Looking at the clientele, this place seems popular with local young mums. Chris found one of his favourites on the menu, a Reuben sandwich, and I had a bowl of clam chowder. We both enjoyed these dishes and they were just the right size for lunch.

Yohashira Shrine

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Carving detail, Yohashira Shrine

The main sight we found on Nawate-dori (in addition to the appeal of browsing the small shops) was this tranquil Shinto shrine. I haven’t been able to find out much about it, as the only website I could find was entirely Japanese, but if Google Translate was doing its job properly, the shrine was built in 1924 to replace an earlier one (1874?) that was destroyed by fire in 1888.

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Lion dog guardian, Yohashira Shrine

It seems to be something of a haven in the city for locals, several of whom stopped briefly to pray while we were here – I enjoyed seeing the little boy who was being shown by his mother how to ring the bell that draws the attention of the spirits or kami to the presence of the would-be petitioner.

It also seems to be a popular spot for pigeons – one man was feeding them here when we came, and there are several references to them among the brief descriptions of the shrine that I’ve been able to track down.

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Yohashira Shrine - feeding the pigeons and ringing the temple bell

We took a few photos here and enjoyed the tranquillity for a while but moved on when a small group arrived, armed with a set of metal steps, to set up a group photo in front of the main shrine. In any case, it was time to head back to the station to continue our journey to Tokyo.

Return to a very different Tokyo

We left Matsumoto on a limited express train service to Tokyo's Shinjuku Station. This journey took about two and a half hours, making Matsumoto just about do-able as a day trip from the capital. I learned that this train service is called the ‘Azusa’ or ‘Super Azusa’ limited express, named after the river we had enjoyed walking and staying beside in Kamikochi!

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Arriving in Shinjuku at night

We emerged from Shinjuku Station to a rather different Tokyo from the one we had experienced when staying in Asakusa at the start of our trip. There we had found relatively tranquillity in the almost suburban streets that surround its atmospheric shrine, Senso-ji. Here everything was modern and frenetic, constantly on the move. This is the Tokyo we so often see – a truly 24 hour city.

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Ibis Hotel, Shinjuku

Our base here for the night was the Ibis Hotel, just a few minutes’ walk from the station. We found the bedroom small, as they seemed to be in all the standard hotels in Japan - and, again as everywhere, we had everything we might need to make our stay comfortable: tea-making, TV (with, rare here, BBC World News channel), hair dryer, toiletries, robes and slippers, good free wifi.

We settled in but didn’t bother unpacking, as we would be leaving again the next morning. The bright lights of Shinjuku awaited!

Udon noodles galore!

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Outside Mentsudan restaurant - Andrew explaining the menu

This was the final night of our group tour and everyone was keen to have dinner together. Andrew proposed a visit to one of his favourite restaurants in Tokyo, Mentsudan, an unpretentious and great value udon joint. There are no frills here, but you can get a filling bowl of udon noodles in a wide range of styles for less than 1,000¥, and they are tasty!

It is self-service, but with the noodles cooked to order, and according to Time Out Tokyo ‘are handmade in-house by expert noodle makers from Kagawa, where the dish originates’. The first thing we saw on entering was the cooking area on the left, with the chefs hard at work and a small counter where we placed our orders. I didn't see an English menu but there were pictures to help us make our choice, and of course we had Andrew along to advise. On his recommendation we all chose a large portion, which for dinner I think is probably good advice.

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Place your order

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Rolling the noodles

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Udon noodles with tempura side

Once we’d ordered we sat on a bench opposite the counter to wait for our noodles to be prepared. I enjoyed watching the chefs in action as they rolled and cut the dough and cooked the noodles before topping them with our chosen sauces. Both Chris and I opted for cheese, again on Andrew's recommendation, and it was very good (a bit like macaroni cheese!)

Once we had our bowl of noodles we took our trays and proceeded along the counter choosing any additional dishes we fancied, all of which were priced at around 50-200¥. I chose a vegetable tempura dish, and Chris some potato salad. Others in our group had rice, other salads and different tempura including octopus and even a tempura bacon rasher! You can also get drinks - beer, sake, soft drinks. A few items are priced at 0¥ and can be added for free - I sprinkled some sliced spring onion onto my bowl of noodles and had some ginger paste on the side with my tempura. At the end of the counter we paid, took our trays to some available seats at one end of a long wooden table in the centre of the room, and tucked in. Yummy!

Oh, and also very cheap – for our two large cheese udon bowls, a couple of side dishes and two large beers we paid just 2,400¥ (about £15).

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Farewell group shot

After dinner we went back to the hotel and most of us had a drink together in the bar before taking a final group photo and saying our farewells. The next day most would be leaving Japan, but we still had a few more days to explore on our own while another couple were staying on in Tokyo. Some had to get up early the next day for flights home, but our train to Nikko wasn’t until mid morning. The night was young and the bright lights of Shinjuku were calling! So we went out to explore and take some photos.

Shinjuku at night

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Shinjuku at night

This is one of the most vibrant night-life areas of the city, and was a real contrast to Asakusa where we had stayed at the start of our trip – and even more to beautiful Kamikochi where we had been for the previous two nights. We wandered through the streets near our hotel and took lots of photos of the neon lights and all the activity. In some ways we could have been in any major city; in others, it was uniquely Japan.

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Shinjuku at night

I was especially intrigued by the narrow alleyways north of the station, known variously as Omoide Yokocho (which means ‘memory lane’), Yakitori Alley or more crudely, Piss Alley. They are lined with a myriad of the tiniest restaurants I think I have ever seen, most with just a counter and a handful of stools. Big bowls of noodles (ramen, soba, udon) bubble on the stoves and yakitori skewers are lined up on the grills. Fragrant steam rises on the air to tempt diners. Unfortunately we had already eaten so we just strolled through and took in all the sights.

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On Omoide Yokocho

A less appealing area for many will be Kabukicho, Japan’s largest red light district, which lies to the north east of the station. When we passed here I spotted several men obviously out to tout for business so we gave it a miss! It’s probably safe enough with so many other people around, but there were plenty of other streets to explore and bright lights to photograph.

82 Ale House

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Entrance to the pub

After we’d spent some time wandering around the brightly lit streets we decided it was time for another drink. We had spotted the narrow frontage of this bar and thought it looked welcoming so decided to give it a try. It was quite an interesting experience! The aim here is to recreate a British pub in the heart of Tokyo and I imagine for Japanese visitors it could feel very exotic and foreign. Certainly there were plenty of them there – the small space was almost full and mostly with Japanese drinkers though there were a few Westerners too. In appearance it has managed to create a fair impression of a UK pub (we were chuffed to see old pictures of Northumberland on the walls) and they have also replicated the custom of ordering and paying for your drinks at the bar. But it was very odd to be greeted at the door, after descending the short flight of steps to the basement, and seated as if we were in a restaurant – ‘Table for two? Over here please’!

Once settled at our table (which we were lucky to get) we found that there was a decent selection of drinks including some British ales, naturally, but also local ones. Chris had a Kirin while I was persuaded by the pub’s Jack Daniels promotion to try a cocktail based on their Tennessee Honey whiskey which was rather nice. We also shared a bowl of mixed nuts and rather enjoyed our experience of a Japanese take on a British night out!

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Japanese take on a British pub

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In the pub - note the Alnwick Castle poster!

Posted by ToonSarah 04:45 Archived in Japan Tagged landscapes mountains night trains tokyo castles food streets architecture japan temple hotel restaurants pubs city shrine national_park matsumoto customs kamikochi Comments (4)

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