Thousands of Miles from Home


Going Solo: The Trip to Hiroshima, Miyajima, and Iwakuni

I have made it out alive from the sprawling mega city that is Tokyo, but before I can dispell the mysteries and events of the last four days I must go back to my previous expedition to Hiroshima and Miyajima.

It all started with an early 7AM train ride to Okayama station. I was surprised to find my friend Nano waiting for the morning train as well at the station in Tai. She was headed to the city for a piano recital so we spent most of the train ride talking about the piano (of which I know very little) and our favorite bands. She "played" me her impressive piano piece on the back of a notebook, and I did my best to imagine what it would sound like.

From Okayama station I ran up a few flights to stairs to catch my Shinkansen to Hiroshima. It was my first experience riding Japan's bullet train solo and I almost had to laugh picturing myself next to all the salarymen making their morning commute. I rode the Nozomi line, which to my knowledge is the fastest of the Shinkansen models, and made my way from Okayama to Hiroshima in a little under 40 minutes (at a smooth top speed of 200km/h). From Hiroshima I took a series of trains and a ferry to reach Miyajima island around 9. Miyajima, known for it's floating tori gate, is ranked in guidebooks and websites alike as one of the three most beautiful places in Japan (as to who is responsible for these rankings I am unaware). The ferry to Miyajima ran parallel to the island for a few minutes to allow foreign and Japanese tourist to snap shots of the famous water gate. Upon exiting the ferry the first thing (or rather scent) that came to me was the smell of apples. I actually stopped and looked around for an apple stand, or a box full of apples with a fan blowing apple-scent towards the direction of the ferry. To my disappointment I found neither.

Miyajima long considered a very mysterious island, boasted few inhabitants until the shrine was founded in 593 AD. The floating Tori gate was built over the water as to not offend the Miyajima Gods, and for many years no one was allowed to be born or die on the island. There are still no hospitals or cemeteries on the island of Miyajima.

I spent most of the morning walking around the small harbor town, eating a famous Miyajima sweet featuring a waffle with sweet azuki bean filling. Wild dear roam the island, and one followed me up a small mountain path until it found something more interesting and staggered back into the forest. The tides on Miyajima are strong, and by noon the water had receded far enough to be able to walk about halfway to the Tori gate. A small rock was calling to be sat upon so I spent a little while looking out over the water and contemplating life.

After I had my fill of meditation, I took a ferry and then a train back to Hiroshima station. My next stop was the Peace Park and Museum dedicated to the World War II bombing of Hiroshima. On the train I struck up a conversation with some high school kids who appeared simultaneously eager and scared to talk with me. I asked if it was possible to walk from Hiroshima Station to the Peace Park, and got a resounding answer of "muri" and "taihen" (both meaning "impossible"). I though to myself, people have walked the entire length of Japan, surely getting around by foot in one city can't be that difficult. Regardless, they gave me some detailed instructions for a set of streetcars but it seemed a little silly so after they exited the train I stayed on until Hiroshima Station. Coming out of one of the numerous exits, I spotted an arrow pointing me in the direction of the Peace Park, and it being such a beautiful day I decided the walk would be worth it. I stopped in a convenient store and bough some sandwiches and onigiri (rice balls) to eat in a small park by a river. The main street of Hiroshima is packed with towering buildings and I browsed a few locations (including the Tokyu Hands you-can-find-everything-here type store) before arrive at the Peace Park.

I had prepared myself for a solemn experience, but what I found in the end was truly mind-blowing. Along the walk to the peace park small plaques and signs had been posted on buildings and bridges recalling distance from the atomic blast, as well as photos taken after the bombing. The first major landmark I encountered was the Atomic Bomb Dome next to the T-shaped bridge of the Aioi river (The bridge was the target of the atomic bombing). It was originally constructed as an Industrial Promotion Hall and was one of the only buildings left standing in a 2 Km radius after the blast. The T-shaped bridge was also left intact, but due to the immense pressure exerted from the bomb jumped several meters into the air before landing back in it's original location.

I continued through the park toward the Peace Museum, passing the Peace Flame and thousands of small paper origami cranes from all over the world that have come to represent peace. I entered the Peace Museum, a large structure consisting of three buildings, and spent the rest of the afternoon viewing various exhibits and videos concerning the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. I was extremely impressed with the depth and description of all exhibits, including a history of the war before and after 1945, reasons behind the bombing, and why Hiroshima and Nagasaki were chosen as targets. Attempting to describe my feelings while moving through the exhibit is difficult, but to be truthful by the time I exited the museum I felt extremely disgusted and saddened at the whole situation and set of circumstances which led to the bombing. During my time in the museum I didn't feel burdened with nationality or race, but simply as one human being viewing the unnecessary pain and suffering of hundreds of thousands. I found traveling alone frustrating because I wanted to discuss my feelings with someone, but instead found a place where comments could be recorded so I could at least document and vent what I was experiencing. The only redeeming aspect I could find came while sitting in the Peace Park and looking out over the city less than 60 years after the bombing in a place where experts said nothing would grow for 75 years.

I went to a small ramen shop for dinner and talked with some people in the restaurant, which put me in a better mood. About that time I got a call from Angela, who said she would pick me up in 30 minutes with her friend Kat.

I found Angela (an English teacher in Iwakuni) through her blog of Japan. We had never met in person, but occasionally talked online and said she could offer me a place to stay if I ever came to Hiroshima. When she mentioned that The Killers would be playing a show which she and her friend were attending I jumped at the opportunity do to a little traveling and meet someone new. Angela is also starting a little club of people she has met online and then in person, so I was happy to be added to her list.

She picked me up in her tiny car and after some introductions sped away to find some dinner before the show. Kat, from England, is also an English teacher living near Iwakuni. I had made them some mix CDs, and we instantly realized that our music interests were very close. We did some shopping before speeding to the PARCO building and Club Quattro for The Killers concert. We arrived about 10 minutes early, which in America would mean a seat at the very back of the venue. Instead, I was shocked to find only 80 people at the club, and all three of us easily walked to the front near the stage. We talked with a guy who ended up being the brother of the bassist who told us that last week The Killers played to a crowd of 3,000. Yowza!

Concerts in Japan are distinctly different from what I had previously experienced elsewhere. The energy was high, but no one pushed or shoved to get to the front. Even though cameras were not allowed I got some great shots of the band, and the whole vibe of the club was like being back home at 123 Pleasant Street. After the show, which only lasted 1 hour (apparently the same set list as every other tour date but with no encore or opening band) we got to meet the guitarist and bassist. I also procured a broken drumstick that was (dangerously) thrown to the crowd.

It still being early we decided to visit a small Irish Pub in Hiroshima where I got to know Angela and Kat a little better before heading back to her house in Iwakuni. The Irish pub smelled like America, which was both surprising and welcoming. Kat spoke with a great English accent and combined with the Scottish accent of the man behind the bar I was having a foreign overload. Angela didn't turn out to be (that) creepy like all those weirdos you hear stories about meeting on the internet, and I had a wonderful time that evening in Hiroshima. Back in Iwakuni we stopped at a Conbini to get some breakfast and cruised to Ladytron all the way back to her place.

The next morning Angela took me to the Kintaikyo bridge which is constructed entirely out of wood and stone. The weather was yet again beautiful so we found some food for lunch (where I learned that inhaling through a piece of bread is indeed not deadly) then headed to Hiroshima for a little shopping. Angela gave me a mix cd of her favorite bands before we said goodbye at the Iwakuni train station and I took the Shinkansen back to Okayama.

In retrospect, an awesome midweek excursion. I didn't get horribly lost or injured, and meeting new people is always a blast. Stay tuned for the next broadcast of Tokyo.


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