At Shin-Osaka Station in Osaka I purchased a reservation for my shinkansen (bullet train) to Hiroshima. The shinkansen was set to depart Osaka at 1:09pm, and at that time of day you normally can get away with not purchasing a reservation, but my rail pass allowed me to make reservations for free and I figured it wouldn’t hurt to get one. All the window seats were already taken, which was a bummer for someone like me who always prefers having a window seat. In the grand scheme of things this wasn’t a big deal, and I still got a decent a view from my aisle seat during the ride. It took about an hour and twenty minutes to reach Hiroshima and once there I got on a tram out to the neighborhood where my hostel was. I got my first view of the Peace Park and A-Bomb Dome while on the tram. Most of Japan’s major cities were bombed in World War 2, but Hiroshima was particularly unlucky.
After checking-in, unloading my stuff, and buying some groceries, I walked over the Peace Park and A-Bomb Dome to collect some photos of the area. Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Park is a large park in the middle of the city that commemorates August 6, 1945, when the city became the first in the world to be struck by an atomic bomb. This part of Hiroshima used to be the city’s commercial and political heart, hence why it was the area targeted when the bombing was planned. While most of the rest of Hiroshima would be rebuilt in the decades after the war, the city decided to turn this area into the Peace Park we see today. When I entered the Peace Park I passed by the Memorial Museum—I’d go in there on another day—and came to the Cenotaph for the A-Bomb Victims, which is an arched concrete tomb that holds a register of people who died in the explosion and in the following days from radiation poisoning. From the Cenotaph there’s a straight line of sight to the A-Bomb Dome and I went there next. The dome is on the other side of the river from the Peace Park and used to be a promotional hall for Hiroshima’s local industries. It’s also extremely close to the epicenter of the blast and was one of the very few buildings in that area to survive the bombing. All the other large buildings in Hiroshima that were damaged by the bombing eventually got torn down, but the A-Bomb Dome has been left standing as part of the city’s memorial to that horrific day.
When I was done taking photos at the Peace Park and A-Bomb Dome I went over to walk around downtown Hiroshima for a while, including the pedestrian shopping arcade called Hondori Street. At one point I ventured into a store owned by Shounen Jump, a major anime and manga publisher. Back in my college days my roommate and I watched an anime called Bleach and while in the store I found a Bleach print that looked cool but would have been very impractical for me to carry around for the remainder of my journey through Asia. With a bit of sadness, I left it behind and exited the store. By the time I left downtown it was already after dark and I circled back to the Peace Park to gather some nighttime photos of it before returning to the hostel to end the day. The hostel I was staying at had rooftop clotheslines, so I did a bit of laundry and hung it out to dry overnight.
The next morning came I found myself doing some more laundry before heading out for the day. Ideally I wouldn’t have needed to be doing laundry as often as I was at that point in my journey, but with all the heat and humidity I had been experiencing I needed to be making full use of the rooftop clotheslines. While up there I also posed a photo of myself sitting at a table and looking like I was enjoying a morning coffee on the roof. I actually don’t drink coffee—because it tastes disgusting—but I know a photo opportunity when I see one. When that was done and I had finished preparing for the day I left the hostel and took the tram back to Hiroshima Station. My plan was to catch a shinkansen to the city of Himeji, however even though I left the hostel with a full 40 minutes before my intended train’s departure I very nearly missed it because the tram, for reasons unknown to me, was running really slow that day.
The city of Himeji is actually closer to Osaka than Hiroshima, as you can see in the map at the top of this post, but thanks to the shinkansens it only takes an hour to get there from Hiroshima. Had it not been for that one day of constant rain in Osaka I might have day tripped to it from there, but thankfully I didn’t have a ton to do while in Hiroshima so I could afford to use a large chunk of my Hiroshima time on Himeji. I was visiting Himeji for the same reason as nearly everyone else who comes there: to visit Himeji Castle. Also known as White Heron Castle because of the bright white plaster on its exterior, Himeji Castle is widely considered to be the greatest castle in all of Japan. It’s massive, complex, beautiful, and is one of the few original castles in Japan, meaning it was never destroyed by fire, earthquake, or war. Even though much of the town of Himeji was bombed flat in World War 2, the castle somehow didn’t take a single hit. Interestingly, Himeji Castle was also designated as the rally point for the shogun’s armies in the event that the Europeans ever tried to invade Japan. The castle sits on what used to be a critical strategic point between Eastern and Western Japan, and the plan was that everyone would gather there before marching west to repulse an invasion.
Himeji Castle dominates the skyline of the town and is less than a mile straight from the Himeji train station. I saw the castle out the window as the train pulled into town and then walked the 15 minutes needed to reach it on foot. Seeing as how the castle was my only planned event for the day, I was free to take my time exploring it. When I reached the field at the base of the hill that the castle is built on I found that it was mostly closed off while some sort of event was being set up. I took a few photos from down there and then explored a small garden off to the side before I made my way over to the main entrance to buy my ticket. Once you enter the paid area of the castle you can take a path that winds it way up towards the main keep but I chose to first visit the west bailey. There’s a few smaller buildings you can enter over there, most notably a hallway that tells the story of Princess Sen, a famous lady of the castle who tragically lost her husband and two children. I then started the long path up to the castle keep. The interior of Himeji Castle’s main keep is similar to the one in Kanazawa in that it’s mostly empty—and you have to take your shoes off when you enter—but it has a number of informational displays and you can see the internal architecture of the structure. At the top of the keep you can get fairly good views of the surrounding area, particularly the rest of the castle complex, and unlike Osaka Castle the safety nets are close enough that you can stick your camera lens between the gaps to get them out of your pictures. When you leave the castle keep you come down to an open area at its base and from there you can slowly make your way back down towards the main entrance. On the way down you’ll pass a well and a life-sized display of those fish ornaments you normally see on top of Japanese castles (these fish creatures were believed to protect buildings against fire). Before exiting the paid area of the castle I also went back to the west bailey because it had a spot with a good view of the castle keep and I also found a particular roof tile that I had been keeping my eye out for. Towards the bottom of the path leading up to the main keep you can spot a roof tile with an unusual emblem on it: a cross. The vast majority of roof tiles at Himeji Castle have traditional Japanese symbols on them and most are emblems of the lords who ruled the castle, but one of the lords was a Christian convert and he made the cross his family crest. That lone tile with a cross on it is one of those interesting historical footnotes that are hiding in plain sight and hardly anyone notices.
I spent over four hours in Himeji Castle but I when I exited it I still had some time to spare, so I went next-door to the Kokoen Garden. Formerly the residence of a feudal lord, the Kokoen Garden is nine separate, walled gardens, each with a slightly different style. One had a large koi pond in the middle, another had a small stream running through it, and a third was full on bonsai trees. As I got close to the final garden I heard music and singing but it stopped right before I reached it. In that ninth garden there was a stage with musical instruments set up, along with a group of chairs in front of the stage. I’m guessing that what I heard was a rehearsal for whatever performance was going to happen at a later time.
By the time I left the ninth garden it was after 5:00pm and both the castle and gardens were shutting down. I walked back to Himeji Station and while waiting on the platform I somehow got into a conversation with a Japanese guy who spoke English. Seriously, I don’t remember how we started chatting—I just remember it happening and there’s a sentence in my notebook confirming this. Anyways, he pointed out that a pair of shinkansens were about to be passing through the station and I got to see the trains rushing past me at high speed. When I told him I was returning to Hiroshima he suggested I try out Hiroshima Style okonomiyaki. I was already kind of thinking about doing it, but his suggestion tipped the scales and I decided to try it the next day. Soon my own shinkansen showed up and I rode it back to Hiroshima. A large contingent of Australians got off the train with me at Hiroshima and rather than try to squeeze into the tram with them and all their backpacks—a lot of them were doing the double-backpack routine where you wear a big backpack on your back and a medium-sized one on your front—I just waited for the next tram to show up and take me back to my hostel.
The next morning I took the time to pose another shot of myself on the roof of my hostel after I had eaten breakfast. The first shot had been good, but as I had examined it afterwards I realized that I shouldn’t have worn a white shirt since it blended into the bright background behind me in the photo. I then packed up my backpack and left it at the hostel’s front desk and set out for my final day in Hiroshima. There were three things left to do in the city before departure: the Peace Memorial Museum, Hiroshima Castle, and okonomiyaki.
Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Museum was the first in line. I had passed by it the first time I visited the Peace Park so now it was time to actually go inside. The museum chronicles both the history of atomic weapons and the bombing of the city in 1945. In the first area you go into there are large panorama photos of the city before and after the bombing then you move into an area detailing the bomb’s development and usage. The last part of the museum is probably the most moving—it holds personal effects of both people who survived and others who perished in the bombing.
After I left the museum I walked north through the city and made my way to Hiroshima Castle. Had Hiroshima not been bombed then its castle would have joined Himeji’s on the list of original castles in Japan, but unfortunately Hiroshima Castle was wiped out along with most of the rest of the city in 1945. In the decades after World War 2 the castle was partially rebuilt, with the main keep and a few other buildings restored but much of the castle grounds were turned into a park. I entered the castle and looked around for awhile but didn’t enter the main keep since there were signs outside of it informing visitors that restoration work was going on inside. It was also now midday and I needed to get my okonomiyaki dining experience before leaving town.
You can get okonomiyaki in a number of places around Hiroshima but I went to Okonomimura for mine. Okonomimura is a building in downtown Hiroshima with several floors full of small Japanese restaurants. Outside the building I read the sign listing each restaurant and what it was known for and I chose one on the second floor called Yamachan. The lady running the restaurant didn’t speak any English so I made use of Google Translate to place my order and then watched her build my okonomiyaki right in front of me. Okonomiyaki is a dish that’s available in many places across Japan but is most popular in the regions around Osaka and Hiroshima. The basic idea of okonomiyaki is that’s it’s made of batter, cabbage, and then a whole lot of other stuff depending on what else you want to put in it. In Osaka Style all the ingredients are mixed beforehand in a bowl, but in Hiroshima Style the ingredients are cooked separately and layered on top of each other. I remember my okonomiyaki had pork, egg, buckwheat noodles, and quite a few other things. I don’t particularly like cabbage, however the okonomiyaki came with some very tasty sauce so I was able to mask the cabbage flavor. Unfortunately I made a gaijin faux pas while eating my meal. When my okonomiyaki was finished it was placed in front of me, still on the cooking counter. I was given a bowl and bottle of the sauce and for some reason I thought you were supposed to break off a piece of the okonomiyaki and place it in the bowl to mix it with the sauce. It wasn’t until another two customers took a seat at the restaurant that I realized my mistake while watching them. What you’re supposed to do is eat the okonomiyaki right off the counter and the bowl is just for holding the sauce and pouring it on the okonomiyaki. Whoops. Before I finished my meal there were two other notable things that I remember happening at that restaurant. One involved me reading the mind of a fellow gaijin who came by the restaurant I was in (which you can read about here) and the other was that on a small TV in the restaurant there was some sort of Japanese soap opera playing. It was a daytime cop drama but I’m not sure what the plot of that individual episode was.
When I left Okonomimura it was time for me to head back to the hostel to grab my backpack. I almost had a problem when I got there because I had written down the wrong code to open the front door, but thankfully another hostel guest showed up with the correct code and I was able to get it. Then I hopped on the tram back to the train station. My next destination wasn’t far. In fact, it was just a short distance outside Hiroshima. I was going to the island of Miyajima.