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Japan for the weekend

5 Oct

For most Korean women, Chuseok is an exhausting holiday of cooking, cleaning, cooking, shopping and cooking for their mother-in-laws. But for me, it was an extra 3 days holiday and that means one thing only: the opportunity to travel again. With that, we boarded our ferry at Busan and sailed to Japan for the weekend. Here are some of our impressions.

Highlights

Hiroshima

For me, the most famous historical event around Japan, is the explosion of the mushroom cloud atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki which ended World War 2. With only a few days in Japan, we choose Hiroshima and visiting the A-bomb memorial site was lifetime highlight.

What remains of the spot where the bomb exploded on 6 August 1945

The atomic bomb actually exploded in the air (about 600 metres above the ground.) The building directly below the explosion maintained much of its structure, although all the people inside were killed immediately. Surrounding the memorial and the museum are beautiful, green parks and a woman, returning to Hiroshima after a few days in an outer city hospital, recalls: 

Weeds already hid the ashes, and wild flowers were in 
bloom among the city's bones. The bomb had not only left 
the under- ground organs of plants intact ; it had stimulated 
them. Everywhere were bluets and Spanish bayonets, goose- 
foot, morning glories and day lilies, the 
hairy-fruited bean, 
purslane and clotbur and sesame and panic grass and feverfew. 
Especially in a circle at the centre, sickle senna grew in 
extraordinary regeneration, not only standing among the 
charred remnants of the same plant but pushing up in new 
places, among bricks and through cracks in the asphalt. 
It actually seemed as if a load of sickle-senna seed had 
been dropped along with the bomb.

                                                                       Text taken from John Hersey’s “Hiroshima” 

The American bomber missed his target of the T-bridge by a few 100 metres and instead hit the blue building below. To be honest, I usually hate museums but we spent hours in this museum. Next to the memorial site, we visited the Children’s memorial where thousands of origami birds are displayed, inspired by the death of a 10-year-old girl who discovered she had leukemia (a product a radiation sickness). She followed the old Japanese belief that if you make one thousand origami birds, your wish will come true. Hers didn’t.

You can see the T-shape bridge and the blue build to the left. The bomber just missed his target.

Although incredibly moving, it was also incredibly heavy and we left Hiroshima with a deep heaviness on our hearts. As with all wars, innocent Japanese people suffered and, displayed at the exit of the museum, are letters of protest to countries which continue to make atomic bombs.

Miyashima

On a lighter note, a short ferry ride outside of Hiroshima took us to the most photographed shrine in all of Japan (and Japan has a lot of shrines). In high tide, The Floating Shrine, looks like it is floating in the sea. The island of Miyashima is very quaint with lots of tourists shops, Japanese food, and deer so tame, they’re like dogs – one which snatched the local map out of my hands and Baden had to pry it from his mouth like a ball from a dog. 

The Floating Shrine, Miyashima

Kyoto Geisha

Going to Kyoto to see a Geisha is like going to Kruger to see a lion. Kyoto has so many national heritage sites that it’s impossible to see everything without being completely templed-out. With only 2 days in the beautiful city, my top goal was to see a geisha. A few years ago I was enthralled by the novel, “Memorias of a Geisha” so one evening we took a stroll from the station area into Gion, which is known for geisha. At first, I was staring at every woman who was wearing a kimono believing they were geisha. By the time I counted 9, I realised that kimonos are, in fact, fashionable in Japan and aren’t only worn by geisha. Towards the end of the evening, we headed towards ShinBashi which is said to be the most beautiful street in all of Asia (I’d say that Hoi An, Vietnam is actually prettier). Baden ducked into a watch shop and I waited outside trying to get some pictures…when a beautiful white faced, kimino wearing, pinned-haired geisha-lioness walked past me on her wooden shoes. I just stared at her open mouthed and watched as she elegantly walked past me and disappeared into a gorgeous Japanese style building. In that moment I really understood the mystery and enchantment of the captivating geisha. 

Bamboo Grove and other Shrines

During our time in Kyoto, we did see the amazing bamboo grove and some other beautiful shrines. Baden made me jump over a fence to get into the bamboo grove to take some fun photos. It felt very blair-witch projecty with the leaves swaying in the wind and trees as far as the eye can see, amid some very nasty looking Asian spiders.

Hiding in the bamboo grove, where we jumped the fence.

We also visited Fushimi Inaris which has a thousand gate shrines which formed together to make a peaceful journey for the soul. Unfortunately, it was fairly populated which didn’t make it extremely peaceful.

The thousand gates

Accommodation

In both Kyoto and Hiroshima, we stayed in Hana Hostels, which were simply gorgeous. Both were very near to the station and both had incredibly friendly and helpful staff with great facilities – like a comfy living room with couches and TVs, a fully kitted kitchen with free tea and coffee, excellent backpacker information and traditional Japanese bedrooms. The hostel in Hiroshima, unfortunately, directly faced the train station so every few minutes a train zoomed and trudged past which made for a light sleep. The second hostel in Kyoto only had shared bathrooms – which I anticipated being terrible. But, in fact, the bathrooms were very clean and, despite a full hostel, were always available.

Japanese room, Kyoto Hana Hostel

In Fukuoka, the night before our return ferry, we stayed at Smile Hotel. It was very similar to Korean love motels and the first room we were given stank of smoke. The hostel was very obliging when I asked to be moved and our second room smelt like roses. It was convenient because it was a 5 minute taxi ride to the station.

Transport

Japan definitely has the most efficient transport system I’ve ever seen. The bullet train is incredibly quick; the trains are very frequent, most of them are very new and clean and they go all over the country. That said, public transport in Japan is very confusing. They have the Shinkansen which is the bullet train, then they have a number of different local trains, they have a subway system, they have trams, they have buses and they have taxis. There are about 10 different ways to get to one place but some take the long route while others are direct. And it’s difficult to know which is which. We made the mistake of taking the long train from Osaka to Kyoto which took 50 minutes instead of 15. 

Before arriving in Japan, we’d bought JR passes which are only available to foreigners and they allow you to ride JR trains for free. But no one really checks what train you’re on and we rode the JR trains to Kyoto – although our pass should have stopped us at Osaka. 

Our only bad experience on the bullet trains was on the trip from Hiroshima to Osaka. At one stop a Japanese announcement was made and hundreds of people started climbing off the trains in a hurry. We waited for some English instruction (which never came) and we sat on a virtually empty train for around 20 minutes, with 2 other Asians (who we realised could have been Korean and also didn’t understand the announcement). This delayed our trip by about an hour and eventually we realised that the train, originally heading for Tokyo, would stop at Osaka due to the typhoon in North Japan. All trains heading for Tokyo were cancelled due to heavy rain.

Lowlights

  • 4 days in Japan cost us around R12 000
  • We took sleeping tablets on the ferry to Japan which drugged us into drowsy, grumpy people.
  • Baden got motion sickness on the ferry back to Korea.
  • It was a bit rainy because of the typhoon in North Japan.

But we returned home happy and content – and now we’ve seen one more place.

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