We finally made it to Hiroshima and Miyajima. After a series of really wet weekends, the weather could not have been more perfect for our trip and I’d have to say that these two UNESCO World Heritage sites were well worth the year long wait. Even though they are extremely different, we enjoyed both of them very much and would go back there in a heartbeat.
We knew there would be lots to see and sacrificed sleeping in on a Saturday morning to be out our door by 7am. Since Miyajima was more difficult to get to, we decided to do that first, which meant buying lots of tickets and making lots of connections (from our subway, to the bullet train, then transferring to a regular train, and finally onto a ferry). Fortunately everything went smoothly and we were in Miyajima by 10am. We even managed to figure out the lockers at the train station so we could store our luggage while we explored the island.
While we were on the ferry, Robert was busy snapping pictures as I stood anxiously watching the torii gate approach. After seeing so many pictures of this torii gate, it was hard to believe we were actually here. The island (Istukushima) is very beautiful…it’s steep and very forested. The island is still considered sacred and pure in the Shinto religion. In the past, commoners were not allowed on the island, and all other visitors had to go thru the torii gate before stepping on the island. There are still some strict rules in place…no cutting down trees, no births and no deaths. The highest point on the island is Mt Misen which rises up directly behind the torii gate to a height of about 530 meters (1,750 feet). We had originally planned to take the ropeway up to the top, but Robert said his back was feeling fine, so we decided we would hike it instead.
Everyone visiting the island had smiles on their face….(you’d think you were at Disneyland). Tame deer roamed the streets, there were little chariots carrying happy couples around, and lots of quaint little shops. There were also lots of statues, lanterns, and traditional Edo period Japanese buildings. We didn’t have a map, so we just followed the crowds and wondered around – looking at everything. Occasionally we’d see signs, pointing us in the direction of Mt Misen. We also saw signs telling us not to pet or feed the deer, but the Japanese sign must have said something different because they were doing both constantly.
We visited the pagoda, walked around the “1,000 tatami mat” pavilion (Senjokaku) and explored the back streets of the village. We found a shop making the little maple shaped cakes (momiji manju), so we stopped and sampled their two flavors and had some tea. We eventually ended up at the main temple, Daisho, and spent a good hour taking photos and enjoying the scenery. Surprisingly, it wasn’t very crowded and some leaves were starting to change so we really took our time there. However, I knew it was getting late and we still had our hike to do, so we continued on our way.
Our hike up Mt. Misen (Mount Stair-Miser would be a better name) began near the temple. I don’t know if anyone has ever counted how many stairs there are, but I’d venture to guess there were at least a couple thousand (it took us nearly an hour to climb it). Some sections were so steep that it was very obvious there had been some recent landslides and extensive repair work had been made. At times I thought the stairs would never end. The views just kept getting better and better, so we kept going. We even had a fantastic view of the torii gate at low tide…all the people walking up to it looked like ants. The trail followed a stream/waterfall most of the way up. It was very shady and there were only a handful of other hikers. Thank goodness it was a cool day because I was extremely thirsty (I didn’t have my water bottle and there were none of those famous vending machines along the way). The views from the top were spectacular.
I would have loved to hang out there had we had picnic provisions, but since we were both extremely thirsty and hungry, and neither of us can tolerate walking down steep downhills anymore (darn knees!), we decided to take the Ropeway down. After a 15 minute ride we were back amongst the masses and the vending machines! The line to go up was incredibly long so we now know never to do that. Robert was craving some grilled oysters (yakikaki), so we waited about 15 minutes for our delicious appetizer and then moved on to find some anago-buri (eel on rice) for a late lunch. Again, (true to the Japanese tradition), we waited in another line at the restaurant. The anago-buri was amazingly delicious (oishii!). Sunset was approaching, so we figured we should make our way back to the ferry…passing the torii gate one last time, and delaying our departure as long as we could.
We went back to Hiroshima, retrieved our luggage and checked into our hotel. Fairly exhausted from our long day, we relaxed for a while, shared a beer and opted for a carousel sushi dinner. We got up early so we could experience the Peace Park with as few visitors as possible. It ended up being another beautiful day. We walked along the river to the A-bomb Dome – which is quite impressive indeed. It seems frozen in time. Stray cats run around it just like in some dystopian tale. It’s hard to write about our experience there, as a worthy description of both the Dome and Peace Park cannot be captured in words. It’s something that must be experienced first-hand.
The visit to Hiroshima completed a full circle for us. Some 20+ years ago, we visited the museum in Los Alamos, New Mexico – the birthplace of the A-bomb. I still remember that day vividly. It was an incredibly weighted experience (just as watching Schindler’s list was). It rendered both of us speechless and depressed for hours. It is shocking to realize the kind of destruction man is capable of. We have since then also visited Nagasaki (the site of the 2nd nuclear bomb dropping), and we live relatively close to where the 2nd bomb was initially intended to be dropped.
As horrible as that part of history was, it’s nowhere near the devastating nuclear capacity we have today. The recent events in northern Japan is a constant reminder of how dangerous a game we are playing.
At the end of the day, I left Hiroshima feeling hopeful – because I didn’t like the thought of it ending any other way.