Sunday, April 9, 2017

Hiroshima

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We started off on the wrong foot on our trip from Kyoto to Hiroshima.  We’d reserved seats on the bullet train the day before, which had always been enough in advance, but apparently that Monday was a busy travel day; there was only one train that wasn’t fully booked, and we had to pick seats that weren’t together on that one.  That morning, checking ourselves out of the AirBnB took a little longer than we expected, and we missed the local subway car to the main station by seconds, which then cascaded into missing the J.R. train to Osaka that would have given us a comfortable amount of time to transfer to the bullet train we had reserved seats on.  We took the next available train, 30 minutes later, and which was scheduled to arrive 10 minutes before our bullet train would depart.  As we rode towards Osaka, we used our MiFi to download a map of Shin Osaka, and set to committing a series of escalators, stairs, and turns to memory.  We’d be arriving on the ground floor, on platform 16, and if we were fast and lucky, we’d be departing from the 4th floor on platform 20, after passing through the main concourse on the third floor, where we’d have to present our J.R. passes to get admitted to the shinkansen platforms.  We definitely appreciated our back-pack luggage, as we ran up four flights of stairs,  Fortunately, the signage was excellent as always, and our shinkansen was clearly labeled, so we had no hesitation at jumping aboard the very nearest car.  We’d boarded car 4, and our seats were in car 8, and as we started walking towards our seats, we felt the train start to move.  We’d made it, but we weren’t feeling the least bit cocky, just very lucky and out of breath.  The upside to this adventure was that although the train was nearly full, the seat next to Lana’s was empty, and we decided to sit together and see if the person who’d reserved it had missed their connection—they must have, as we got to Hiroshima without incident.

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Hiroshima is a bustling, vibrant city.  We got the feeling that there were more young people going about their business here than we’d seen in other cities.  Perhaps it was just the areas of the city we were in, or the time of day, but we saw more people in their mid-20s, in casual business attire, and fewer middle-aged, formal business men.  We came in to the city with a history-book context, but the reality we saw was a very optimistic contrast to that.

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We had decided for ease that we would stay in the Hotel Granvia, which was attached to the train station in Hiroshima.  This ended up being a great idea, easy and convenient for travelling on to Miyajima for a day trip the next day. After dropping our bags at the hotel, we immediately headed to the Peace Memorial Museum.  We were puzzled by this sign on the pedestrian bridge leading into the museum.  We didn’t see a single crow.  The Peace Museum was very well thought out.  Obviously it depicts horrific events, but even the name itself reflects the refrain of the museum and the vibe we picked up from the rest of the city, which is a forward-looking dedication to peace, and attempting to prevent a recurrence of what happened there.  While we were looking at a diorama of the city as it was immediately after the bomb exploded, a docent approached us, and asked us if he could tell us a little more.  We learned several things from him that we didn’t see presented in the museum.  One of the most positive was about the electric street car system which Hiroshima is known for.  The local tram company resumed service just 3 days after the blast by making emergency repairs to the bridges.  The sight of those trams running was incredibly reassuring to the survivors. Beyond being useful in bringing in supplies and moving the wounded, it was an element of normalcy in the chaos.  He told us that the locals have very strong feelings of affinity to the trams as a result, and it’s one of the few Japanese cities to not only maintain, but continue to invest in tram infrastructure.  It is jokingly referred to as the moving tram museum, because as other cities decommission trams, Hiroshima will buy their cars and equipment, and re-deploy them.  The first picture of this post is one of these trams; neither their oldest nor their newest. 

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Outside the museum, we visited some of the memorials in the park.  It was a little disturbing to watch people take selfies in front of the Memorial Cenotaph. In the above photo you can see the eternal flame and the A-bomb dome through the Cenotaph, which are nicely aligned.

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We also saw the Children's Peace Monument, which is surrounded by small exhibits of folded paper cranes sent here by school children from around the world.  The monument was started by friends and schoolmates of Sadako Sasaki, who was 2 at the time of the bombing, and who died of leukemia at the age of 12.  She hoped to have her wish to live granted by making 1000 paper cranes, from a Japanese legend. People continue to make and send cranes to the monument, which rotates out the cranes on display.

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We were wearing down emotionally, but we walked to the A-Bomb Dome, which is one of the few structures that has been preserved from the time of the blast, and has become a landmark of the park.  When we were there, we could see signs of structural preservation work, which has been an ongoing challenge, attempting to keep the outward appearance as unaltered as possible.  It was a somber, difficult afternoon, but not a hopeless experience.  It was comforting to see work-a-day Hiroshimans crossing through the park, talking happily as they went about their normal day.

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We walked to nearby Hiroshima Castle, and on our way, noticed a pair of flower vases made from drink cans at a parking structure.  Perhaps a memorial to someone struck down by the fearsome crows?

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The wooden structure of the castle was destroyed by the atomic bomb, and has been rebuilt.  We’re not sure why, but we had the entire place to ourselves, which was an odd, but pleasant change.

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Nearby, we visited Shukkei-en, a miniaturized garden built in the 1640s, and intended to recreate the elements of a rural estate within the confines of a “small” garden.  Above, you can see the view from the garden’s man-made mountain, Geiki peak, across the central lake and arch bridge, to the far side.

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The garden was beautiful, and full of surprises, including an herb garden, bamboo forest, and many interesting bridges crossing tributaries to the lake.

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The castle and gardens had been a pleasant counterpoint (though each with reminders of the bomb), but we were now getting physically worn out.  We took one of the city trams back to our hotel, with a newfound appreciation for them.

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After returning to the hotel to rest up and reset for dinner, we headed out to seek out the local specialty for dinner—okonomiyaki. They call it Japanese pizza in some travel guides but it bears little to no resemblance to pizza. The best but most overwhelming option is to head to Okonumi-mura, a 12 story building filled with small, 10 seat or less griddle-top restaurants. Our research indicated that they difference between restaurants was subtle, and to just pick a place that looked inviting, smelled good, or had seats and sit down. We made it through 2 floors before picking a place at random, in part because there were both available seats, and other people already eating there. This particular shop’s owners were huge fans of a local baseball team, and they had papered their establishment with memorabilia and photos of various players with one of the women, presumably the owner.

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Okonomiyaki is cooked on a griddle-top that essentially doubles as your serving platter and consists of a crepe-like batter base topped with cabbage, your choice of meats (Lana had pork and shrimp, David ordered pork, shrimp, and squid), spices, bean sprouts, a fried egg, and more crepe batter. It’s flipped on the griddle and then topped with a sweet soy/fish sauce and seaweed flakes. You can see some of the layers in progress below:

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As you can see it’s served straight on the griddle to keep it warm, and you use a spatula to cut off a piece and put it on a small plate in front of you, then eat from the plate. It’s served with more okonomiyaki sauce on the side, either regular or spicy. David had regular and Lana tried the spicy, which she loved. The heat really rounded out the dish.

After this we were stuffed, but wandered around for a while looking for a grocery store for some early morning in-room breakfast options. We had a full day scheduled the next day, including the island of Miyajima and onward to Osaka!