05/07/2013 - 16/07/2013
After waving goodbye to our new Buddhist friends we continued south to Hiroshima, a city still struggling to emerge from the shadow of its tragic history. Since the dropping of the atomic bomb in 1945, 'Hiroshima' has become synonymous with death and destruction, a name still half-whispered with an accompanying shudder. However in the wake of that day the people of Hiroshima rallied, and continue to do so; the rumour that nothing would grow for 75 years proved to be false, the city rose from the ashes, and now Hiroshima has much more to offer than just its painful history.
Our exploration started, inevitably, at the A-Bomb Peace Memorial Park, an area dedicated to the memory of the bomb's victims. The most striking feature of the Park is the skeletal A-Bomb Dome that stands just across the river from the main memorial site; after miraculously surviving the explosion it was decided that this building would remain as a hard-hitting reminder of the power of the bomb.
The park's main feature is the Peace Memorial Museum, two buildings joined by a long glass tunnel and both packed with enough information to keep us busy for several hours. The first building focuses mainly on the political and historical elements of the story, while the second is more distressing, outlining the short and long-term health risks and even sharing some personal stories. The museum's focus is not limited to the events of Hiroshima; there is also a sizeable section dedicated to the subject of nuclear weapons worldwide and their potential threat to humanity. Every time a country begins a new nuclear weapons experiment, the mayor of Hiroshima writes them a letter of protest, showing that the city is still very much affected by its harrowing past.
However Hiroshima has much more to offer than just its ghosts. Our most memorable experience was our day spent on the island of Miyajima, about a 40-minute train ride and 10-minute ferry crossing out of the city centre. The island's most famous attraction is the floating torii gate in front of Itsukushima Shrine, a huge red gate built in the sea that, when the tide comes in, appears to be floating on the water. We were lucky enough to see it at both low and high tide.
The island's other big draw is the view from the top of Mount Misen, Miyajima's highest peak. There is a cable car available to take you to the top but we, in a fit of madness, decided to opt for the hiking trail to the top instead. What folly that turned out to be. Although the walk to the summit is only a distance of 3km, the climb is steep and the extreme humidity of Japanese summer makes you feel like you're inhaling more water than air. By the time we got to the top we were aching and exhausted, and then found to our dismay that the views were almost completely obscured by mist. It was still pretty spectacular though, and we enjoyed a sense of achievement not shared by the 99% of visitors who took the cable car. We did however take the cable car back to the bottom.
One 9-hour night bus later we were in Osaka, a city best-loved on the traveller circuit for its location; although slightly lacking in notable sights, it is a great base for visiting nearby wonderlands, as we discovered. However, wanting to give Osaka opportunity to reveal its delights, we spent our first day exploring the city. Our first stop was Osaka Castle, an impressive structure built by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a powerful Japanese general who ruled Japan in the 1500s. The inside of the castle is now a museum on the castle's history, which was surprisingly interesting. We also visited Dotombori, Osaka's 'neon district', where the shops and restaurants seem to exist under the impression that a ridiculously oversized or flashing sign is essential for success.
The following day we set out for Nara, a nearby town that, even by Japan's standards, has more than its fair share of temples. A large part of Nara's appeal is that the majority of its sights are situated in Nara Park, a huge green space that stretches across half the town; the green lawns and tree-lined paths make for a very pleasant sightseeing setting. You just have to remember to stay alert, as the park is home to many over-friendly deer who will eat your map and train tickets if you let your guard down. We spent about four hours wandering around the park and saw most of the main temples including Kofukuji and Toda-ji, which boasts a beautifully carved wooden entrance gate.
However our next trip was to be far-and-away one of the best experiences of our trip. We made an early start in order to make the highly-recommended pilgrimage to Koya-San, a mountain-top village that is home to the headquarters of Shingon Buddhism and one of the most spiritual places in Japan. The mountain is so remote that it takes two hours, two trains and a cable car to reach it from Osaka, but it was worth it. The temperature is cooler, the air is fresher, and despite the number of tourists the town maintains an amazing sense of peace, as though everyone is walking around in a daze of hushed awe. Our first stop was Okunoin, a huge cemetery where Kobo Daishi, the founder of Shingon Buddhism, is believed to be resting in meditation as he awaits the arrival of the Buddha of the Future. It is believed that he will be the only person able to translate the words of this Buddha, and therefore everyone who can afford it is buried here to get a front row seat for the second coming. Over 200,000 tombs are erected here, and we spent an hour wandering among the carved stones before finally finding our way to the main hall.
Unfortunately photos are not permitted inside the main temple, Torodo Hall, but it is absolutely breathtaking. The inside is all black polished wood and glowing red lanterns, and the monks lead services at intervals throughout the day. My favourite room was the hall's basement, where thousands of tiny Buddha statues sit in countless rows and the ceiling is completely covered in red hanging lanterns, casting a gloomy glow over the whole room. As we walked towards the exit, the sound of hundreds of chanting monks floated through the trees; it was the perfect end to our visit to such an intensely spiritual place.
We headed back to the centre of town and spent the rest of the day in the grounds of the main temples, Kongobuji and the Garan complex. Kongobuji is the head temple of Shingon Buddhism and therefore the more important site, but I personally preferred the buildings in the Garan complex. Each building is made of wood and exquisitely carved, and the Konpon Daito Pagoda, painted bright reddish-orange, is particularly striking. A fountain splashes quietly in the middle of the adjoining lake, and we took a short break just to sit on the bridge and absorb the unique atmosphere of this amazing place.
After a few final days in Tokyo we found ourselves back at the airport, ready to embark on the final stage of our journey. Our month in Japan has flown by far too fast, but we will not be sad as this is certainly not the last time we will see this beautiful country. But for now, China and a whole host of new challenges await...