Hiking Miyajima Island, Plus Hiroshima & The Peace Park

View of Torii Gate

View of the Famous Floating Torii Gate

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.

Close-up of Doe & Fawn

Doe & Fawn

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.

Robert eating the Maple Leaf

Snacking on Maple Leaves – yum!

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.

View near top

View from Mt Misen

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.

YakiKaki !

Grilled Oysters!

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.

A-bomb dome View

A-bomb Dome

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.

Sisters’ Visit: Kumamoto & Arita Pottery Festival

Spouts from Both Sides

Tsujunkyo Bridge

Friday we leisurely drove to Kumamoto by taking back roads and stopping every time something interested us.  The roads were curvy and narrow but not too bad.  It was only scary when a bus was coming from the opposite direction.  We were driving through canyons most of the time, so there were not many views around us other than whatever river we were following.  Any wide area seemed to have a town or rest stop.  We stopped one time to try and find some waterfall, but the path down nearly required climbing equipment (an elevator would have been best), so we ditched that idea.  Next we stopped in a pretty area where they sold gifts and had some food stalls.  We shopped a bit and had some coffee and french fries (sold in a popcorn cup).  We had a fairly large Japanese breakfast buffet at our Japanese Inn, so we really weren’t that hungry yet.

We continued on our way.  A last minute decision had us trying to find some bridge that spouts water from both sides.  It’s not well marked, so we were about to turn around figuring we’d never find it, when all of a sudden there it was and we pulled over.  There wasn’t any water coming out, but lots of people were hanging out looking like they were waiting for something.  It was a pretty area and the weather was perfect, so we thought we’d wait and see if it was like Old Faithful and went off every hour.  Sure enough, about 10 minutes later, water started gushing out of the holes in the center of the bridge from both sides.  We could hear it from where we were.  Though fairly far away, we really had a great viewing spot.  It was fun to watch and listening to everyone ooh and ah just added to the entertainment.

Front of Castle

Kumamoto Castle

We were back on the road in no time and the traffic started getting heavier as we approached Kumamoto.  Driving downtown proved to be quite a challenge, since in addition to cars, bikes and pedestrians there were also streetcars and one way roads.  We passed our hotel since we couldn’t make a right into the valet parking.   Our voice navigation system had stopped since she “arrived at our destination”, so we had to figure out ourselves how to get back to the hotel.  We ended up taking some one way side streets to the back entrance (service entrance) and eventually found their basement parking.  I was pretty happy my sister was driving and not me. 🙂  We couldn’t check in until 2pm, so we had a lite lunch in the lobby while we relaxed and talked for 30 minutes.  We checked-in, admired the fabulous view of the castle from our room, and then walked down to the castle to meander around the grounds.  The old turret was the most interesting to me, followed by the newly reconstructed grand hall.  A rather energetic middle age women was our private guide – I think she was excited to practice her English with us.  A “samurai” took our picture, he lived in Alabama for a while and he was very friendly too.   The castle grounds are quite extensive and it took us almost 3 hours to see everything.  We walked back through town and up and down their shopping streets.  We eventually bought some wine to share in our hotel before we had dinner.

At Arita Pottery Festival

Arita Pottery Festival

The next morning we hoped to get some breakfast at Starbucks, but they didn’t open until 8am (very typical in Japan), so we left.  On our way out of town we visited the Suizenji Garden which represents the 51 stations from Tokyo to Kyoto.  It was very artistically done, but much smaller than I had envisioned.  That ended up being a good thing, since we had a ways to go to get to Arita for the pottery festival.  Traffic was now noticeably heavier on the expressways, but we never went slower than 80 km/h.  The landscape eventually became hilly and full of trees.  Approaching Arita and having no idea where to park or where the festival actually was, we figured the train station was a good place to park…and we were right.  We only had to walk a block to get to the main street.  It was nowhere near as crowded as everyone had told me it would be.  It was an overcast, misty day, so maybe some people chose not to come that day.

I’ve never seen so much pottery in one place in all my life.  It must have gone on for two miles.  A huge range of pottery was represented from the mass produced 100 yen stuff to the expensive porcelain.   Amongst all the pottery were some food stalls, so throughout the day, we ate – okonomiyaki, fried chicken, and ice cream.  We shopped until ‘closing time’ when they opened the street to cars.  I would definitely return – maybe for their fall pottery fair.  This town seems to have lots of character and it is in a beautiful area.  Our English GPS guide was on the blitz that evening (probably from the rain).  She had us going in circles to get out of town… nearly getting us stuck on a train track in the process.  Alas, we made it out of there safely and to our Japanese Hotel.

A Visit to Karatsu City

Karatsu City and Castle

Karatsu City from Castle

We are slowly getting braver.  We took the local train and actually ventured out of Fukuoka prefecture and into Saga prefecture (prefectures are equivalent to counties in the USA).   The town of Karatsu is about an hour south and it is known for it’s Castle, pottery, and the Niji-no Matsubara Pine Forest (one of the 3 largest in Japan according to our tourist information lady).  Robert loves the name of that forest – he would not stop saying it.  After briefly chatting with Charles Bronson’s brother on the train (you don’t want to know), we had a chance to admire the coastline and some rural countryside from our train window.  We also noticed leaves starting to change on some varieties of trees (some trees have actually lost their leaves already, which is puzzling, because it’s not even close to being cold yet).  The highlight of the train ride was getting a glimpse of that huge pine forest that skirts along the beach.  It looks like an awesome place for a bike ride…maybe next time – since the bike “rentals” are free!

Following Maureen’s advise to stop at the information desk, we sat down with a very helpful women who gave us an English map of the city (colorfully drawn and illustrated, and worthy of framing and hanging in our house).  She highlighted all the things to see and gave us a suggested route which we followed almost exactly.

Grounds of a shrine in Karatsu

Traditional Japanese Wedding at Karatsu Shrine

The downtown area has been setup as a shopping arcade.  Several of the streets have been covered and tastefully decorated.   After doing some window shopping, we visited their main shrine which we were lucky to witness a newly wedded couple leaving (dressed in traditional attire).  We quickly stopped by the exhibition hall which houses the 14 floats that will be carried through the city during their annual festival next month.  The lady at the information desk informed us that all these lacquered washi paper floats are more than 130 years old, and one of them weighs 3 tons!  We will have to come back here just to see that festival – either this year or next year.

We followed the stone walled promenade to the Castle.  Aside from the incredible views from the top of the Castle, there was a massively huge wisteria vine.  I’m sure it is incredibly beautiful when it is in bloom.  I had no idea they could get that big.  Housed inside the castle is a museum which I’m sure is really interesting…but it was basically useless to us, since we can’t read the Japanese descriptions about the artifacts.  After climbing up and down what seemed like 14 million stairs (and walking all over town), we were pretty hungry, so we picked up some sandwiches and sat in a nice sunny courtyard listening to music and planning the rest of our afternoon.

First of many pottery stores

First of many pottery shops

After lunch, we visited several pottery shops that displayed work by many of the local artists and then we meandered down a back street which housed some of their most prominent potters creations.  Their studios are in a residential area, so it was hard to know if it was really a studio or someone’s house. I knew we were in the right area though, because the entire street was made of clay tiles.  The pottery in these locations was really expensive.  Ranging from about $30 for one small tea cup to over $2000 dollars for a plate.  I don’t think I need any piece of pottery that bad.  I love the style though, which is earthy yet elegant.

We actually came to Kuratsu to see the castle, but we found much better reasons to come here.  It’s a friendly and quiet seaside town, great for walking, biking, and escaping the hustle and bustle of the big city.

Ohori Park and Fukuoka Castle Ruins

Lake at Ohori Park

Lake at Ohori Park

We got up pretty early (not as early as we wanted) today so we could ride our bikes to Otori Park and the Fukuoka Castle Ruins. I am pretty sure that there was not a cool time during the day but we gave it a shot. We were out the door around 8:15am. It took us about 20 minute to ride to the park.  We were told to look for the Mister Donut sign by Jay at the American Consulate (he was at our dinner outing on Friday, and the consulate is next to the lake in the park). Sure enough, Mister Donut showed up and we were there.

The park is very nice and it has a great running/biking loop around the lake. Rose said that it was between 2-3 kilometers long. The running part of the loop is made of some sort of synthetic material that I am sure is better to run on than concrete. The place was packed! There were little kids and old folks and everything in between all out running, walking and biking.

Fukuoka Castle Wall Ruins

The local Japanese schools had groups of kids there doing their workouts. Imagine the high school track team from your local school showing up on Sunday morning around 9am, wearing their uniforms, and putting in a hard interval workout. This is just NOT going to happen back home – at least not where I am from. (NOTE: To make my fellow caffeine addicts feel more at ease…there is a Starbucks on the lake. Rose and I did not stop – at least not today.)


After the park, we made our way to the Fukuoka Castle Ruins. Very quiet…it was like we were the only ones there. I bet this place is beautiful in the fall when the leaves start to change. Nothing too eventful here, but very peaceful.

We took a different route back home…the roads are starting to make a little more sense to us, and we are starting to get more and more comfortable making our way around the city on our bikes. We have not finalized plans for next weekend yet but I am sure whatever we do will push the limits of our explored territory.