Two weeks in Japan | Part One | Osaka to Hiroshima

Two weeks is nowhere near enough. Japan was amazing, the best country we’ve visited on “Le Grand Trip” and probably the best country I’ve ever visited (it certainly feels like that now, but it may be the PJSD – post-Japan stress disorder – talking). Recovery takes some time, and I’m nowhere near over it yet.

There are only two positives to be taken from the relative brevity of our sojourn; firstly, we left craving more and will return to see more of this fabulous, fascinating place. Secondly, we avoided bankrupting ourselves. Japan is many things, but it is not cheap.

Attempting to “do” the country in so little time meant haring around at breakneck speed, still missing huge swathes. We began in Osaka and took in Koyasan, Hiroshima, Miyajima Island, Kyoto and Hakone before finishing in Tokyo, the biggest, brightest, boldest, brashest, and busiest of them all. And that in global terms, not just Japanese – Tokyo’s metropolitan area is home to around forty (40) million people. Let that sink in for a second. There are around 65 million in the entire UK.

On our journey Koyasan, Miyajima and Hakone provided a nice balance of rural to the urban and as I wrote in the immediate aftermath of our departure, to summarise, it’s crazy inside the cities, and crazily beautiful outside them.

Arguably second only to Tokyo in the big/bright/bold/brash/busy stakes is Osaka. This was our starting point and we went straight for its jugular, Dotonburi, the bustling, throbbing epicentre. It was exactly like the movies – Bladerunner in particular, which was shot there – a kaleidoscope of dazzling neon flashing manically, brilliantly bright against the dark sky. High and low, near and far, reds and whites and greens and blues lit the night. Shops, bars, and restaurants blazed resplendently, huge adverts – with audio – chuntered down at the masses below.

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The multitude of advertisements blaring at full volume from huge screens with booming voices intermingled and often indistinguishable sparked thoughts of dystopian nightmares, state broadcasts and brand brainwashing, but there’s nothing sinister (aside from the obsession with sexed up kids in Manga cartoons), only a violent cacophony of noise and neon battling ferociously for attention.

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With necks cricked and eyes wide, the reflected glow of our faces changing colour by the second, each night was spent in or around this Dotonburi/Ameramura axis of bedlam, a crazy contemporary modern day future.

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In daylight hours we sought a contrast; we absorbed the history of Osaka castle, wandered through local markets, explored the quiet backstreets for a taste of everyday life. Speaking of everyday life we popped into a couple of Pachinko halls and a handful of arcades – they are EVERYWHERE, and incredibly popular. We thought the Balkans loved a bet but Japan is something else. Many gambling opportunities are outlawed and Pachinko (slot machines) are a popular way to scratch the itch.

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We gawped ceaselessly at just how Japanese everything was (except the comedy show we went to see, which did nothing to improve my opinion of British expats). The people, the food, the cars, the shops, the transport, the… the everything. It really is another world, a world where humankind progressed along a slightly different route to Western Europe.

On this route everyone lives in tiny houses. Our AirBNB was minute, although not comparatively; it’s common for a couple to live in a 12 or 15 m2 space, and businessmen and visitors often sleep in capsule hotels, collections of “pods” which give you a private, albeit small, domicile for the night. And little else. Urban space is at a premium – you’ve probably seen the minimalist Japanese interiors where furniture and appliances fold into and out of the walls in Tetris-cum-Lego arrangements – you pay for every inch. Furthermore, the Japanese obsession with the “new”, with regeneration, means houses are recycled/rebuilt every 38 years, on average. This is not a land of period properties.

Here we had our first taste of real Japanese cuisine; we (all) know Sushi, Ramen, Teppanyaki. Here we were introduced to Okonomiyaki, a traditional Osaka dish best described as a vegetable-based omelette cooked, dressed, and slapped onto a hot-plate between two people, big enough and designed to share. That is my big bald head.

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We also tried, and fell in love with, Takoyaki. This is best described as octopus balls; deliciously indulgent fried lumps of deliciousness (flour, eggs, and dashi, Japanese soup stock) lashed with unknown but immensely tasty sauces and spices.

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And finally, Kushikatsu, largely unidentifiable fried meat, fish and vegetables on sticks. They were pretty horrible. Read here for more on Osaka’s cuisine.

Osaka was the only place we had sufficient time; three days (and three nights) was enough. Indeed it made us impatient to leave, eager to see what else Japan had to offer.

Our next stop was a radical departure. We took the train to Mt. Koya – Koyasan – a sacred site for Shingon Buddhists (n.b. oddly 90% of the Japanese population identify as Buddhist… and 90% identify as Shintoist). Atop the mountain, reached by picturesque funicular, is “temple town”, a clutch of religious monuments built amongst woodland, the first constructed by Kobo Daishi way back in 826 (eight, not eighteen…). His mausoleum sits in Okunoin cemetery, an incredible collection of ancient tombs and memorials. I’ve detailed reaching my temple limit (at length) but traditional Japanese pagodas are still impressive, the art, history and architecture of some of these awesomely so.

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Okunoin cemetery was something else. Over two hundred thousand (200,000) tombs, some up to twelve hundred (1200) years old, set amongst a two-kilometre stretch of ancient forest, huge one thousand (1000) year old Cedar trees towering over the path. It’s astonishingly old and atmospheric.

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The decorative torii gates, shrines, stones and marvellously intricate Japanese carvings made for a visually delightful and wonderfully eerie stroll. We returned at night to find the mysterious aura amplified tenfold, the silence and darkness – the path dimly lit, the temple illuminated by over ten thousand (10,000) Japanese lanterns – creating a magically spooky experience. It was special.

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One curiosity was the proliferation of brand names upon the monuments. There were whole tombs dedicated to the likes of Panasonic, Toshiba and Hitachi, titans of Japanese industry. It was quickly pointed out to us this was a donation – NOT ADVERTISING – a seemingly important distinction. Whatever you call it, the Japanese are not afraid to commercialise their sacred sites, something we noticed on a recurring basis. A particularly noteworthy tomb in the more modern section of Okudoin was laid by a pest control company, a memorial for all the bugs their products have killed. Japan is brilliantly weird sometimes.

After a slightly uncomfortable night on a futon in a Temple – “shukubu” living – (one thing we hadn’t done was sleep in one) and a delicious dinner of traditional Shojin Ryori (a Buddhist specialty vegetarian tasting menu) we, with no time to waste, hot-footed to Hiroshima, a city with a dark, dark history but, decorated in neon, a bright today.

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The memorials to the 1945 US atomic bombing – the A-Bomb Dome, the Children’s Monument, the Cenotaph and the Museum – are all inside Hiroshima Peace Park. The A-Dome is the remains of the Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall, back then an important building in Hiroshima, one of the few concrete structures, and one of the few to survive. In part. Now a designated UNESCO site it is and will be preserved in its current condition (the condition it was left in after the bomb) in perpetuity. Nearly everything else within a ~2km radius was razed. 200,000 were killed. It remains the biggest mass murder in human history. Dulce et decorum est.

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The Children’s Peace Monument and its colourful array of paper cranes marks the memory of Sadako Sasaki, a girl who died ten years after the bomb was dropped. More from the official website:

Sadako was two years old when she was exposed to the A-bomb. She had no apparent injuries and grew into a strong and healthy girl. However, nine years later in the fall when she was in the sixth grade of elementary school (1954), she suddenly developed signs of an illness. In February the following year she was diagnosed with leukaemia and was admitted to the Hiroshima Red Cross Hospital. Believing that folding paper cranes would help her recover, she kept folding them to the end, but on October 25, 1955, after an eight-month struggle with the disease, she passed away. Sadako’s death triggered a campaign to build a monument to pray for world peace and the peaceful repose of the many children killed by the atomic bomb. The Children’s Peace Monument that stands in Peace Park was built with funds donated from all over Japan. Later, this story spread to the world, and now, approximately 10 million cranes are offered each year before the Children’s Peace Monument. 

A tragic and emotive story brought to the fore each time the memorial bell is rung by a visitor, usually amidst respectful silence.

Finally, the excellent Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. We should have visited this first (thanks tour guide), it explains the harrowing events and subsequent fallout – literal and nuclear – clearly and concisely, without totally vilifying the US (unlike the Vietnam War Museum).

Most know the basics of the first nuclear bomb ever dropped on a populated area but here facts and artefacts tell a more detailed story, a story of death and destruction, a story of tragedy, a story that vividly conveys the horrors of atomic warfare. A great deal is made of Japan’s pro-nuclear disarmament position and after visiting it is difficult to disagree. The country was far from an innocent victim after the horrors they inflicted in WWII (and in fairness they don’t claim to be) but it’s a depressing journey into the depths humanity will plunge to in the name of war.

This gloomy day was alleviated somewhat by more Okonomiyaki and then copious amounts of ice cold Japanese lager – Kirin and Asahi the beverages of choice – followed by our first serious foray into the world of Japanese whisky. And what a world. The industry began in 1870 but it’s only relatively recently they have made waves internationally.

Before 2000, the market for Japanese whiskies was almost entirely domestic, though this changed in 2001 when Nikka’s 10-year Yoichi single malt won “Best of the Best” at Whisky Magazine’s awards. Link.

The likes of Yamazaki (the first commercial Japanese whisky and amongst the best), Suntory, the aforementioned Nikka, Mars and others, once decried as pale imitations of Scotch now give the Scots – and the Irish and Americans – a run for their money.

Awaking with sore heads we headed to Miyajima Island. If there’s a better day of sightseeing in the world, I haven’t heard about it. A short ferry ride from Hiroshima Harbour, it is simply breathtaking. A mountainous, tree-covered interior – Mt. Misen the high point – falls down to rocky coves and beaches, and the town. Smaller outlying islands dot the bay. There are numerous ancient worship sites including Itsukushima temple and the remarkable “floating” Grand Torii gate.

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There are trails and hikes to and from each amazing sight and up and down the mountain, with a cable car for the less energetic. The island is sprinkled with temples and shrines and they decorate the routes, making for exceptional walks, every few furlongs turning up another beautifully preserved historic monument. The view from the top of Mt. Misen is one of the best I’ve ever seen, perhaps – PJSD notwithstanding – knocking Cat Ba into second place.

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Miyajima town contains a wealth of shops and cafes ranging from boutique to tourist trap, as well as old merchant houses. There is so much to see all around the island, the sheer density of sights surpasses anything I’ve ever experienced. Did I mention there were hundreds of tame deer wandering around?

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Miyajima done, legs aching, a few more whiskies inside our tired bodies, we prepared for Kyoto. Coming in part two.

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