Hiroshima is not far from Kyoto and I felt a sort of responsibility to pay my respects. I also wanted to understand how the community has survived the tragedy of its recent past. So I took a 2 hour ride on the bullet train and spent a couple of days visiting Hiroshima’s memorials.
Not surprisingly, even today Hiroshima is defined in large part by the atomic bomb that destroyed the city on August 6, 1945, killing almost 30,000 innocent people and affecting the lives of more than 300,000 more. The city’s Peace Park and museum share many moving stories and artifacts of the tragedy and both are very explicit in advocating for world peace and the elimination of nuclear weapons. For the most part, they refrain from interpreting or revisiting political history, although the museum shares a perspective that the US dropped the bomb — knowing Japan was about to surrender — in order to justify the enormous expense of its atomic research and to send a message to the Russians who, by that time, were not expected to be US allies.
I wondered how there could be a Hiroshima after the atomic bomb leveled its infrastructure and left so many with nothing but nightmarish memories. In honor of those who perished, Japan and Hiroshima’s residents decided to rebuild the city from nothing and, within 12 years, its economy was more productive than it had been in 1945. Amazing.
Hiroshima today is a very modern, bustling city with a lot of shopping malls and a lot of shoppers. It is also known for one of my favorite Japanese dishes, okonomiyaki, which is a sort of stuffed pancake made with a pile of cabbage and scallions and beat sprouts, meat or shrimp, with or without noodles. Restaurants serve the dish on heated grills at your table, which ends up carmelizing a lot of what’s on the bottom, yum. In the past week, I have tried okonomiyaki in several restaurants (all Bourdain-worthy) and each has a different style. The one I liked best had a lot of seasoning and sauce, topped with pickled radishes. The first person who opens a restaurant serving okonomiyaki in San Francisco is going to be very rich.
In addition to discovering okonomiyaki this week, I discovered another exception to my rule against day trips. A day trip is ok when your destination is a place you wish you could stay for a week, or forever, but can’t. For me, that would be the magical island of Miyajima. Getting to Miyajama is a short ferry ride from the mainland south of Hiroshima. Approaching Miyajima’s dock, you get your first view of the island’s most famous site, the Itsukushima Torii. The torii appears surreal, like it is floating in the harbor, its rich rust red contrasted against the muted greens and greys of the sky and sea and trees. The first torii was built on the site about 1,000 years ago. The current torii is the eighth and was completed in 1875.
The torii put me in a kind of spiritual daze before I got off the ferry and when I am like that I am one of those people you wish would get out of the way. I was brought out of my daze by the special greeters at the ferry dock.
For the rest of the day, Miyajima played with me this way — one minute, I was feeling a deep reverence and the next minute, I was laughing or indulging. From the ferry dock, I walked (with the other tourists) along the stony shoreline path where rickshaws awaited tired travelers and food stalls sold fresh barbecued oysters.
When I arrived at my first destination for a closer view of the torii, there were happy school girls taking photographs.
The path from the shoreline meandered up the hill and I found myself inadvertently but happily on a steep path through a forest, undoubtedly full of Japanese fairies, leading to the top of the island’s tallest peak, Mt. Misen. I knew from my guide book there is a flame that has been continuously lit for 500 years. Unfortunately, I didn’t read the fine print and I didn’t have water with me, so after an hour — and learning from other hikers that it would be another hour to the top — I turned around. But I wasn’t disappointed. On the way down, I stopped at Daisho-in, a Buddhist temple.
Daisho-in is different from any other temple I have visited (and I have been to a few temples in the past six months!). It is, like the rest of Miyajima, both spiritual and playful. As its stairways meander up the hillside, every corner of the site is full of surprises. I kept thinking I was ready to head back down the path when another attraction would catch my eye or make me laugh, and I would keep going. I think the monks at Daisho-in know a lot about human nature.
There was a nice message at the bottom of the hill…
OOPS — a couple of corrections from my last post. The round-ish containers are filled with rice, as I thought, but the rice is in its liquid alcoholic form — sake. The drum at the temple site is not a taiko drum. It’s a temple drum.