blatherskite: (Default)
blatherskite ([personal profile] blatherskite) wrote2017-09-13 08:42 am

September 12: Travel to Hiroshima

Had a decent night's sleep, despite frequent waking, but couldn't manage to stay asleep much past 5. Around 6, we gave in to the inevitable and started our day with a quick e-mail check. Very, very relieved to hear that Sean and Tony and the boys and dogs came through Hurricane Irma with only minor issues. Here's hoping the other two that are currently brewing in the Gulf of Mexico will be equally kind to them.

Also, Ben Venue (our boy cat) seems to be surviving without us. He even came out of hiding and hung out with Bryana, our Catsitter. We're not sure if he's getting brave with old age, or just senile, but either way, it's a good thing that he's no longer quite so scared of her. He'll get through our absence much more easily if he has company; he's a very social guy and prefers to hang out with us.

After e-mail, we went out for a walk around the neighbourhood in search of breakfast. (Our ryokan doesn't offer breakfast, which is a big negative in my books. I have fond memories of a full Japanese breakfast from our last visit.) The hostess had told us the night before that if we wanted breakfast, the nearest possibility would be a local Denny's. Nope. We didn't come to Japan to eat bad American fast food . We had some hope that there would be little neighbourhood places, but the ryokan is in a primarily residential area, so the picking were slim. There were a few café-type places and bakeries, but they were all closed at 7 AM.

Some pleasant discoveries along the way, including tiny temples sandwiched in between residences and many tiny but pretty windowbox gardens. Ueno also seems to be the city of ravens (or possibly crows... didn't get a close enough look at their beaks, but they looked pretty big). They're everywhere. Ueno park was overflowing with them—or perhaps infested if you don't like corbids. But they were also abundant in the residential area. We also saw some funky parking lots with what seemed to be either anti-theft barriers or tools to ensure that you pay before leaving, sitting in the middle of each parking space. Basically, you drive over one, and a metal plate pops up, making it difficult to drive away without paying. Once you pay, the plate falls back down and off you go.

When we arrived back at the ryokan after our walk, we met a woman from close to home (St. Bruno) sitting in the entryway, waiting for her husband and brother. What are the odds? They're also going to Hiroshima, but after we've left. Chatted briefly with a young Australian man who was entering our ryokan as we were leaving, and he wished us a good time. I pointed out that given the city's history, "good" was perhaps not the right word.

We packed quickly, then caught the local shuttle bus (only 100¥) to the train station. Managed to confirm (with my limited Japanese) that this was the right bus. At the station, we picked up our Japan Rail passes, good for the next 2 weeks. We also bought a ticket for the train home from our final destination in Japan, from rural Kawaguchiko to Tokyo. It was important to get this early, because if the train was full, getting back would involve a long series of buses, resulting in much travel and not much tourism. The train is much more convenient.

Shoshanna was a bit anxious about getting on the train for Hiroshima, because we first had to travel into Tokyo, and then had to find our train at Tokyo station. Her anxiety is well-founded. Tokyo station has something like 24 Shinkansen tracks, covering many different lines, not to mention all the commuter rail lines—probably a couple dozen more. Fortunately, it's all very well signposted, but not a good place for those who hate crowds of people all moving quickly. We found the track for our train, found a place close by that sold boxed lunches ("eki bento") that we took on board the train, and reached the waiting lines outside the cars with only about 10 minutes to spare. (There were other trains later in the day, but taking them would have cost us at least an hour better spent touristing in Hiroshima. We both ended up with chicken rice bowls—yummy!—washed down with a shared Asahi beer.

Shinkansen are lovely, and are amazing bits of technology. We took the Hikari train, which is the garden variety high-speed train—Nozomi trains run faster, if you can imagine. Shinkansen sometimes feel smoother at 300 km/hour than Canada's Via Rail trains feel as they coast to a halt. It's amazing to think that we'll be traveling nearly 1500 km in only 5 hours! Makes it possible to span widely separated destinations in a wide swath of southern Japan in a single trip.

Our transfer point from the Hikari was to Shin-Kobe, where we planned to board the Sakura (cherry blossom?) high-speed train that would take us on the last leg to Hiroshima. It's slightly slower than the Hikari, not that you'd notice. We were expecting to miss our first possible connection (only 7 minutes between arrival and the next train), but the Sakura turned out to be on the same track, and we barely had time to hit one of the vending machines for a couple tins of ice coffee. Since I haven't mentioned the vending machines yet: they're a very Japanese thing. Every neighbourhood has one, and often several. Each is provided by one of the major Japanese drink conglomerates, like Asahi and Kirin. They contain a variety of drinks in several popular categories, like tea, coffee, cola, and energy drinks. Haven't seen any lately that sell beer and sake, but we saw them last trip. More importantly, there seem to be dozens of Japanese coffee brands, with milked and black varieties, and they're all excellent. You can sometimes get them hot, but more often cold, and very tasty—a nice balance between bitter and sweet, but with far less sugar and fatty milk than a typical Canadian-style commercial coffee drink. And they're reasonably priced, ranging from 100 to 150¥, versus 2+ times that onboard the train or at a café.

I'm writing this first part of the blog on the Sakura en route to Hiroshima rather than at the end of the day, as is more usual. But we have time to kill, and it's easy to take breaks to enjoy the scenery.

A good starting point for the remainder the blog: So why does Hiroshima call to me? For one thing, it's always seemed like standing at ground zero would be a profoundly moving experience. It's not like Europe lacks for sites where as many people died in a single day—restricting that category to civilians alone doesn't even narrow the number of examples dramatically, witness the firebombing of Dresden and Hamburg several months before Hiroshima. And it's hard to argue that Hiroshima was more horrible than either of the German cities. Perhaps the most significant difference is that Hiroshima (and later Nagasaki) was unnecessary. The war was essentially over, and whatever the supposed military virtues of bombing Hiroshima, it's always seemed to me this was mostly about the American generals wanting to try out their shiny new toy. Nuclear weapons represented something qualitatively different.

But Hiroshima is also an example of human resilience, and the ability to rebuild something beautiful from the ruins of something horrible, and that affects me deeply by somewhat mitigating the overall horror. So it will be very difficult to be here, and yet, it seems somehow necessary that I do it.

Because we made such a fast connection between Shinkansen earlier in the day, we arrived with plenty of time to go to the Hiroshima Peace Park the same day we arrived.

Even at 4 PM, the day was hot and humid, enough so even Shoshanna was sweating. Definitely not my preferred weather. But once we got going, we just persevered for the next 4+ hours.

So what was it like, actually being there? Powerful and sobering and tearful for both of us. It's hard to imagine the horror of such an event until you understand the thousands of people who died instantly, vaporized or blown to bits by the force of the explosion. And the tens of thousands who died shortly afterwards from wounds or long afterward from radiation sickness. The atom bomb tower, the only relic remaining from the bombing (others were torn down and replaced), is eerie. It's been preserved to remain much like it was immediately after the explosion, complete with twisted girders, brickwork protruding at weird angles, and blown-out windows. But that's just overt horror, no different from any other ruined building. The true horror is seeing things like the children's memorial—and what has me tearing up even now is the clock that's been installed atop twisted girders and that chimes every day just after 8 AM, the time when the bomb went off. And then there are the chains of origami cranes contributed by visitors from around the world. Heart-rending.

And yet somehow, the survivors built a beautiful modern city, clean and neat as any Japanese city we've visited, with a ton of greenery. And they don't seem to hate or resent western tourists or give us the evil eye. I'm not sure I could be that forgiving—one very big reason I've been unable to visit any Holocaust memorial site. It would reinforce parts of my personality I'm not proud of or fond of.

The park that has been planted along the river that runs through the memorial is beautiful, calm, and restorative. It does not conceal the horror so much as remind us that life continues afterwards, and that's surely a good thing.

Afterwards, we wandered along Peace Boulevard in search of dinner, a broad swatch that runs east to west through the centre of the city. We were headed for a place where something like a dozen okanomiyaki restaurants are packed into the same building. In case you're not familiar with these ambrosial creations., the basic notion is to start by imagining the love child of an omelette and a pancake and combining the best features of both, mixed with chopped cabbage, bean sprouts, and onions, fried on a grill with meat of your choice if so desired, then slathered in barbecue sauce and topped with a dollop of Japanese mayo. The Hiroshima equivalent is very different. The fillings are sandwiched between two very thin crepes instead of mixed into the batter, and topped with noodles that are fried into the whole mess. Having no way to choose among the dozen or so restaurants, we simply went with the first one. It was tasty and filling washed down with Kirin beer, though not as good as the traditional type. Shoshanna had pork and squid as her protein; I just had pork.

Afterwards, a bit footsore, we walked home again down darkened streets that never felt unsafe. Lots of others out taking in the refreshing night air, a nice change after a hot and sticky day.