Travel to Japan, Part 3: Hiroshima

07/28/2011

Day 6

Today I re-packed everything into my suitcase, and left Osaka for Hiroshima. Along the way I stopped in Kobe, a small town to the west of Osaka, to meet my friend David. David is a developer who’s been doing contract work for a company in Australia, and is spending the summer in Japan to tour around with his wife, and be in the same time zone as his employer. We had lunch at the train station there (had beef, but I don’t think it was “kobe” quality) and caught up on what we’re each up to. Despite both living in DFW for the last couple of years, we haven’t seen each other very often. He’s in Japan through July, and then will be headed to Seattle if he gets into a startup incubator he’s applied to, or to San Francisco with me if he doesn’t. Where ever I go, it seems David is there!

After lunch I hopped back on the Shinkansen for Hiroshima. The trains here are both amazing and horribly frustrating. Different trains (bullet, regional, subways) are all run by different private companies as well as municipal trains, and they all require different tickets and different entrances, and the quality of signage (and english assistance) varies a lot between them. Google maps will route train connections for me, but it’s all in Japanese on google, and the characters don’t seem to match what’s in the stations. It’s probably a lot easier if you can read Japanese, and American public transport is probably just as confusing for people who don’t speak english (and even for those who do), but I’m still griping about it anyway. It’s easy to get lost, but I suppose that’s all part of the adventure. Lets just say there’s a lot of room for improvement in “usability” of these cities.

Arrived in Hiroshima, which looks much like the other parts of Japan I’ve seen, but less dense than Osaka. I can imagine someone actually owning a car and finding a place to park it here, though there’s an extensive street car and subway system for those who don’t partake. Unlike other big Japanese cities like Tokyo and Osaka, however, Hiroshima has had the “benefit” of being rebuilt from scratch just 50 years ago with proper city planning. So the streets are in a grid system (gasp!) and the transportation system seems less cobbled together as well.

After checking into my hotel I quickly headed back out to visit the Peace Park Memorial/Museum before it closed. When I was in 10th grade a few friends and I made a documentary film about Hiroshima and the first atomic bomb. It was always something I was interested in and have studied a lot, and our video took “best of state (Arkansas)” in the National History Day competition in DC. A lot of the imagery I saw in the museum I recognized as material we had used in our documentary.

It’s a pretty sobering place, and I was interested to get the Japanese perspective. Somewhat surprisingly, it was very similar to the American perspective. They freely admit that they started the war with the US with the surprise Pearl Harbor attack (I still haven’t seen an explanation for why they did that, unless it was just them being overly ambitious after taking over most of the Pacific). The only new bit of info I saw on why the US decided to use the atom bomb, which popped up several times in reading through all the panels, was that Truman felt like they needed to use the bomb to help justify the $2 billion spent on its development.

Soon after I arrived in the museum I was approached by a group of school children who asked me if I spoke english, and then asked me if I could answer some questions for their school. They hand me a little booklet with 5 or 6 english questions and a pencil. “Where are you from?” and “why did you visit hiroshima?” were the easy questions, “what do you think the effects of the atom bomb have been?” and “what steps do you think we can take to achieve a nuclear free peace in the world?” were essay questions, not 1-sentence answer questions! I commented about this to the kids, but it seems outside their rehearsed introductions, they understood very little english. I wrote some simple but thoughtful answers for them, gave them my email address, and let them take a picture with me. I thought that was kind of cool. Then 3 minutes later another group of kids came up to me. “Excuse me sir, do you speak english?” I tried to explain that another group beat them to it, but again, they didn’t understand anything outside the basics, so I just wrote down for them what I wrote down for the others, and took another picture. I guess they’re short on foreigners for their english assignments this summer. I hear tourism is down 75% after the earthquake and tsunami in hit back in March.

I browsed around the peace park area and took a bunch of photos, and browsed around some of the shopping malls on the way back to the hotel. I had been advised by one of the people I met in San Francisco in May that I needed to go out to this place by the train station to try Okonomiyaki, Hiroshima’s food of fame. It was a good way back to the train station and the street car system wasn’t super clear to me yet, so I started searching for other places online. I found one near my hotel that looked good and had an english (sort of) website, so I set out.

I should mention at this point that I can’t imagine navigating my way around without google maps on my phone. If there are street signs, you can’t read them, and nobody seems to have a real address, except for purposes of mail. There are no numbers on the buildings or anything like that. Google maps and street view make getting around much much easier, it must have really sucked before that came along.

So with the help of google I found this place. Like everything in urban Japan, its a vertical establishment, so floors 2, 3, and 4 of this building all have Okonomiyaki restaurants in them, maybe 30 in total. Each one is basically a woman or two behind a long grill/bar, and they cook it right in front of you. So I tried the 3rd floor, and a woman at the very end of the hall gave me her very best beckoning with an english language menu, and so I sat down and ordered a beer and the “basic” okonomiyaki. It basically consists of a couple of crepe like pancake layers between chinese noodles (grilled), cabbage and sprouts, pork (bacon), sauce that’s kind of like barbeque sauce, topped with a grilled egg layer (tried to ignore that), some seasoning, and more sauce. Then you cut it up with these spatula things and serve pieces onto the plate that you eat with chopsticks. It was actually quite good, though the portion was huge and I was only able to eat half of mine.

There were 3 business men seated opposite me on the other side of the bar, who were trying to translate for the woman cooking when needed, as she spoke no english. I was complimented on my chopstick skills (not sure if that was high praise or small talk), and we had a chat about where I was from and where I was visiting in Japan. They recommended that I go see the O-Torii gate on the Miyajima island, which I was  planning to do the next day, and then told me that Lady Gaga had a big concert in Tokyo (where a couple of the guys were from). I was trying to ask them if Lady Gaga was very popular in Japan, but all I got back was “big concert.” I guess I’ll take that as a yes. I learned later that Lady Gaga was doing a bit campaign to try and boost tourism in Japan, so if she wasn’t popular before I think she is now.

Day 7

The next morning I headed out for Miyajima, a small island that is apparently one of the most scenic places in Japan. It was hard to disagree! The really cool orange ‘gate’ out in water is the famous landmark, but there were lots of temples and shrines (and tourist shops) to explore. The other thing the island is famous for are its deer, which are smaller than what you’d expect in the states, and they just wander around everywhere. There are signs warning that they’re wild, but they seem completely domesticated, and will come right up to you if they think you have food (or paper, or anything they could eat). I think the shop keepers have to occasionally chase them out of their stores.

It was a perfectly pleasant place in the morning with a steady sea breeze, but into the afternoon that asian sticky heat set in, so I ended up sitting in a Buddhist temple for an hour or so to cool down and relax. To enter the temple you have to remove your shoes, but they provide some foam sandals to wear. Unfortunately, I think the ones I got were made for 6 year old girls, as they were only about half the size of my feet. While I was there, I of course got a little bored, so I pulled out my iPhone. I had an alert that there was a Tim Minchin concert coming up in San Francisco when I would be out there, so I bought tickets right there. Then I had this epiphany: I’m sitting in a thousand year old temple on a little Island in the Pacific ordering tickets to a concert 5,000 miles away on my phone – this is what the future looked like 20 years ago.

Eventually I mustered up the courage to get back out in the heat again, and took a gondola up to one of the mountain peaks. It’s an amazing view from the top, with all these little jagged islands all around you. It was a bit hazy so you couldn’t see very far, but still really cool.

While I was up there (sitting in the shade again after taking pictures) a couple of women nearby asked if I spoke Japanese. I said ‘no’, and then they managed to piece together some english for the usual “where are you from, why are you here” questions. They were super friendly and we exchanged gifts (I gave them skittles) and talked about where I was going in Japan and such. We ended up hanging out a good bit – rode the gondala back down together, and bumped in some more down in the little shopping area near the ferries. I told them about the documentary I had made in high school about Hiroshima, and they seemed really surprised that it was something we studied in the US, and that I knew so much about it. They asked me what Dallas was famous for, and I had to think for a minute. “The TV show?” I suggested. “It was a soap opera in the ’80s. It wasn’t that great.” I said. “Also oil and cowboys.” They perked up about cowboys, that was something they knew. I tried to explain that cowboys in Texas are kind of like Samurai in Japan – they’re famous, but you don’t see them walking around.

I had to make the trek back to the hotel to take a shower before going out again looking for dinner, as I was just gross after hiking around all day. Next time I’m taking nothing but those quick-dry sports shirts; you can just rinse them off in the sink and they’re dry again in a few hours. Cotton will never dry.

On my way back to the hotel from dinner the previous night I had stumbled by a place that served “tacos and beer”. That sounded like my kind of place, so I was tempted to go find it again for dinner. But given my previous experience with Mexican food in Japan, I thought maybe I should stick to what they know, and found a little place just down the street from the hotel that at least had some food pictures. I managed to muddle my way through getting seated, ordering a drink (“Asahi or Sapporo?” – that’s what I know) and pointing to something that looked like orange chicken, but turned out to be pork. Whatever, it was still good. Seems like everything here is covered in sauces, which are really good, and it doesn’t really matter what the base food is since it’s completely soaked in sauce. Even still, I’m doing my best to avoid the unknowns! It was tough while I was on the island, because they’re apparently famous for their oysters and eel, which was in almost everything, and neither of which I was very keen on.

Tomorrow I’ll be back on the train toward Osaka again for a couple of days in Kyoto.

Continued in Part 4: Kyoto