Chuugoku 1: Iwakuni and Yamaguchi

I left my job at the end of March, and as I don’t start my new one until the end of April I had a few weeks off to fill. I tried to get back to England for a bit, but my new job requires changing my visa type which due to Japanese bureaucracy takes time to process during which I wasn’t sure whether I was actually allowed to leave the country or not.

As such, I found a cheap flight to Hiroshima and headed west for a few days to an area of western Japan known as the Chuugoku region. The name itself is a little confusing, as it is exactly the same as the Japanese word for China (the kanji 中国 meaning ‘central country’, as it lay between the early settlements in Kyushu and the old capital in Kyoto).

I started in Hiroshima, a city I first visited 5 years ago. As I’d been there before, I didn’t spend much time there this time; however I did drop in at Itsukushima Shrine on Miyajima island to see the famous red torii gates, which last time was under construction after suffering some damage strong winds!

From Miyajima, a short 20-minute train ride takes you to Iwakuni station, from which another 20-minute bus ride takes you to the Kintai-kyo bridge. Iwakuni is famous for the 350 year-old wooden arched bridge, spanning the Nishiki river and I was lucky to visit at a time when the cherry blossoms were in full bloom, which added a perfect backdrop to what is already a stunningly beautiful bridge. It costs 300 yen to actually cross the bridge, I assume to cover maintenance, but if you don’t want to pay you can always just cross at the parallel road bridge 150m up river.

Another bus and train takes you from the bridge to the prefectural capital, Yamaguchi city. Yamaguchi is supposedly known as ‘little Kyoto’ for its temples and pagodas, and in walking around the town once again I could take advantage of the cherry blossom trees to provide an excellent background to my photos. At the end of a nice stream flanked on both sides by the cherry trees, there was a rather delightful 5 storey pagoda, although the temples of the city were much the same as you’d find anywhere else in Japan.


Hiroshima 広島

The majority of the first week of May is public holiday in Japan, and known nationally as Golden Week. I asked my students why it had an English name and not a Japanese one, but most of them had no idea. Still a bit confused about that one!

Anyway, I had the week off and decided to do some travel in Japan. I’d been meaning to get around a bit for a while, but with the distances involved and the prohibitive cost of the shinkansen, I needed enough days off in a row to be able to get somewhere by coach and still have enough time wherever I was to make going there worthwhile. I’ve been delaying Osaka and Kyoto as I’ll be going there when my family come to visit in June, so Hiroshima won.

Needless to say, if I ever go back, the coach will definitely not be an option. I arrived knackered in Hiroshima a cool 12 hours after leaving Tokyo, and was shattered! I think the shinkansen only takes 6 hours, but was more than three times the price (the coach was about 100 quid and I thought that was a good deal! Intercity travel in Japan is so expensive!)

I arrived early in the morning, so had some breakfast and then, cos it was raining, I went off to the Peace Museum as it was fairly central, and still too early to check into my hostel.

It was very powerful: the first room was about Hiroshima’s functions during the war, how local soldiers were deployed (mainly to aid Japan’s war effort in China and Manchuria), and how Hiroshima ultimately came to be chosen as the target of the bomb, including copies of secret US communications, and photos of the Potsdam conference. There were also before and after scale models, which really reinforced the total annihilation of the whole city.

Upstairs, the second room was dedicated to Hiroshima’s aim of eradicating nuclear weapons in the future, featuring the different types of weapons different countries have, their effects (they obviously know there better than most) and a graph which showed the total numbers in the world since 1945; I never realised just how many America and the USSR had at the height of the Cold War, was scary stuff.

The final room was the after-effects of the bomb. The remains of clothes, lunch boxes, even bits of gates and houses, charred, contorted, and completely obliterated, Photos and testimonies of survivors. The long term effects of the radiation, which the Americans hadn’t even considered.

Outside the museum is the Cenotaph and Memorial Peace Park, with an eternal flame which will continue burning until the last nuclear weapon is disarmed. I took a photo through the Cenotaph, past the flame showing the genbaku A-bomb dome in the background.

The next day, I hopped onto the train with the intention of seeing the famous ‘floating shrine‘ on Itsukushima island, about 40 minutes from Hiroshima. Indeed, I did see it; however due to a typhoon a couple of weeks before, it was under scaffolding for protection, and was really underwhelming! It was a nice day for a change, so I climbed to the top of the mountain on the island with two Swedes I was with from my hostel, but really the big draw of the island was the shrine and that was a big disappointment!

On the third day I went to Hiroshima castle, but that was pretty disappointing too to be honest, and as it was raining again, I decided to head straight to the station to wait for my 12 hour coach ride back.

Coming from Tokyo, there wasn’t really that much happening in Hiroshima. Obviously the big draw is the history, and even though it’s all been regenerated now there is still a slight sombre air hanging around the place. I’m glad I’ve been there though.