Himeji, Japan. 3rd December 2014.
My time in Japan was drawing to a close. I’d booked the ferry that left on the 6th December and it was now the 3rd. I had one more major city to visit, Hiroshima.
Having left Yokkaichi, where Hiroshi lives, quite late I knew I wasn’t going to get there in one hit. I had identified a hostel in the town of Himeji but not booked it in case I didn’t reach there. My GPS took me off the tolled Expressway again and, once again found me the toll free one. Just as well because once I got back to Osaka and beyond all I kept doing was throwing money into toll machines or at toll collectors.
Eventually I came to Himeji and my GPS took me into the street the hostel was in. A miracle! There was no-one there so I looked around for an alternative just in case. All I could find was a ‘love hotel’ so I went back to the hostel. By now there was another guy waiting there so I stuck around. Eventually the owner turned up, having been to collect his kids from school.
The town of Himeji has an old castle in it which dates back to the 14th C, although the present building is from the 17th C. I didn’t have to be out of the hostel until midday, plenty of time to pay a visit before I left.
It was, of course, raining next morning. Even so I walked the short distance to the castle only to find that the main tower was closed for renovation. Typical!
It’s a big place, with three moats inside and with substantial outer walls. A proper castle, just how I like them. The main building looks magnificent. It has five levels visible from the outside but inside are seven floors. It’s constructed from wood and is covered in white plaster. It really looks the part.
I was able to visit the outer building and a long corridor which linked it to the main keep. The corridor itself was part of the living quarters and had plenty of displays to look at. Mostly of period clothing and weapons, although there was an exhibition which explained the life of a Castle Lord and his wife. All very interesting and worth the time and effort.
Back at the hostel I got changed, packed my gear and set off. In the rain, of course. Once on the Expressway I settled down into the ride. After 70 kms I became very unsettled and I realised that I’d left my backpack at the hostel. I daren’t tell you the words I used. So it was off the Expressway, turn round, back onto the Expressway and back to the hostel. I had a bit of lunch while I was there and set off once more, backpack on my back. Two and a half hours – wasted. One hundred and forty kilometres worth of fuel – wasted. Two thousand nine hundred Yen in tolls – wasted. It was galling to think that by the time I got back to the point where I realised I’d forgotten my backpack, I would have otherwise been in Hiroshima. One thing I’ve learned on this trip is no matter how far you ride it’s impossible to escape your own stupidity. It follows you around like a bad smell. The only small consolation was that it had stopped raining.
When I’d booked the hostel in Hiroshima they’d emailed me a confirmation and thoughtfully included their GPS coordinates. So I changed the ones that I’d worked out to theirs. Unfortunately they were wrong. I knew this as soon as I got to the area and the route took me up a steep hill along tiny, narrow streets. The hostel was near the station and no way in the world did trains come up this high! Fortunately I’d kept a note of the original ones so I re-entered them and they took me right to the door. Which, based on GPS experience so far, was a minor miracle in itself. Once booked in I generously offered the correct coordinates to the hostel staff.
Looking ahead a little, I got the GPS coordinates for Sakaiminato Ferry Port sorted out and checked the weather forecast for departure day, in two days time. Dry and cold in Hiroshima, cold and snowy at Sakaiminato. All seemed good.
Like all Japanese cities, Hiroshima has a good transport system, theirs being centered on trams and trains. The hostel staff gave me a map and explained it to me. My plan was to ride down to the bay and visit Miyojima Island then come back into the city to visit the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. The hostel staff had explained how I could save a fair bit of money by getting a combined train and tram ticket which also included the ferry to the island. Not too expensive at 840 Yen (a little bit over £5).
Miyojima Island is chock full of places to visit and sights to see. There are two shrines, two temples, two pagodas, a museum, two parks and any amount of tourist shops. One of the main attractions is the O-torii Gate, which sits in the water guarding the approach to Itsukushima Shrine, the biggest on the island.
A ten minute ferry ride followed the thirty minute tram ride from the station near the hostel. I soon realised that the island is not just an offshore museum but a small town with houses, schools and deer. Deer? Yes, wild deer wander the streets and will happily eat your hat or handbag if you’re not careful. Feeding them is absolutely discouraged.
The island is beautiful, with many scenic walks to the outer areas. There is a mountain (large hill really) at one end which you can take a cable car up. Itsukushima Shrine sits on the waters edge and is designed so that as the tide comes in it looks as if it’s floating on the water. It was built in 593 but remodelled in 1168, making it easily the oldest building I’d visited in Japan. For once it seems there’s a building that didn’t get burnt down by a mad monk!
The two pagodas were great too. One was unusual in that the lower section is square and the upper part round. The other one is five storeys high and really looks the part. Next to it is a large, very old hall with open sides. It is a temple and has paintings hanging from the rafters which show mostly domestic scenes and people at play. Most looked very old although some were clearly recent.
I walked around for two hours, mixing with all the school kids that were visiting too. I really enjoyed it and reached the conclusion that it would have looked beautiful in the summer.
Fortunately it seems to have been far enough away from the city centre to have been unaffected by the A bomb blast. Which leads me nicely to my second visit of the day.
Another tram ride took me back past my original station and closer to the city centre. I went to visit the Peace Memorial Park. This area is dedicated to the victims of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasak,i although most of the displays are about Hiroshima. The park contains various memorials and monuments although its largest feature is the Peace Memorial Museum. Of particular interest is the Atomic Bomb Dome, a building that was half destroyed by the blast and was left in that condition as a symbol of Hiroshima. Its message is to convey the horror of nuclear weapons and to appeal for world peace
A reminder about what happened. At 08.15 on 6th August 1945 the first Atomic bomb ever used in warfare exploded over Hiroshima. The effect was to almost level the entire city and to cause the deaths, by the end of that year, of 140,000 people. Although the bomb, dubbed ‘Little Boy’ because it was smaller than originally intended, carried around 50kgs of uranium 235, it needed the fission of less than 1kg to release the equivalent energy of 16,000 tons of high explosive and cause the devastation. The effects of the explosion were twofold. First was the extreme heat (one million degrees Celsius at the centre of the blast), second was the force of the blast. It was the combined effect of these two that caused the damage and most of the deaths. In the four months following, while the radiation levels were extremely high, the remainder of the victims mentioned above died. Thousands more died subsequently from radiation induced cancers and other diseases. The effects on the population are still present today.
So why did the US drop the bomb? They state it was to save the lives of US soldiers who were fighting the Japanese. An invasion was being considered and the US was also considering asking for help from the USSR. The third option was the bomb. The world entered the nuclear age that day.
I’m not going to comment on the rights and wrongs of that decision. What’s interesting is that the US had been developing atomic weapons since soon after the bombing of Pearl Harbour. They achieved a successful test in July 1945. They had been bombing Japanese cities for some time but having selected potential targets for an atomic bomb attack, bombing of those cities was prohibited. In the event of deciding to use the A bomb they wanted a ‘clean’ city so as to be able to assess its effects. They had selected four cities, each with an urban area of at least three miles. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the unlucky ones.
On my way into the park I stopped by a small street display put on by a guy who used to be a guide. There were three folders full of information about events leading up to the bombing, its effects and the aftermath. What interested me was how he quoted several military leaders of the time who said the bombing was unnecessary because not only was Japan pretty much beaten militarily but that Japan’s conditions for a surrender were ready to be put in place. This included the retention of the Emperor as the figurehead. The US would not have wanted to call on the Russians for assistance as they wanted to limit post war Soviet influence. In among his other theories was one which said that Roosevelt knew about the plans to bomb Pearl Harbour but decided to take no action because it would give him the excuse to join the war in Europe, something he had promised Churchill he would do as early as 1940. Fascinating! His website is: http://blog.livedoor.jp/mitokosei.
So, filled with conspiracy theories I headed across the park, stopping at various memorials en route to the museum. This is a building full of tragedy. All the displays were very informative, although there was little that wasn’t already known to me. However it was very evocative to see the photos and displays, read the stories and see the information. There were models of people to show the effects of the blast and many examples of clothes and personal possessions, showing how they had been affected. One exhibit was the front step of a building on which someone had been sitting at the time. They were vapourised, their black shadow burned into the stone.
Mounted on the wall was a model of each of the two bombs. Surprisingly small items considering the destruction they delivered.
After a while, looking at the exhibits started to get to me emotionally so I left. The museum and the rest of the park carried a simple message: such an event must never take place again. I concur. Japanese efforts are focussed on removing nuclear weapons from the world, something which I fully support. As they get ever smaller the chance of a terrorist group getting hold of one increases. When, not if, that happens then the theory of nuclear deterrence becomes meaningless.
Back at the hostel I gladly returned to more mundane matters and organised my gear ready for the ferry trip. Checking the weather revealed it would be dry but cold for the first part of the journey but rain and maybe sleet nearer to the port. Hiroshima and Sakaiminato are on opposite coasts, with mountains in between. I knew it wasn’t going to be a fun ride but there was no option. The ferry left at 18.00, I had to be at the port by 14.30at the latest to deal with customs and load the bike. If I missed that ferry the next one was a week later. That would mean I’d miss the plane I’d booked from Seoul to Auckland. No pressure then!
Next morning I was on the road by 8am. Cold but dry, as forecast. That only lasted about 15kms. I came onto the Expressway to find it covered in SNOW! That most definitely was not forecast. The snow depth was about 10cms but the lanes were clear so I pressed on. At one point all traffic was directed into the services, but then allowed out again. I saw people getting their snow chains fitted and I guessed they’d done it to encourage that.
I pressed on. There were a few sections were the snow hadn’t fully melted and I had a few ‘moments’ but was generally OK. At one point I was being followed by a police car but he turned off when the road cleared. Perhaps he was disappointed that he didn’t have any pieces to pick up. After a while the Expressway finished and I came onto a single lane, toll free through route, which was mostly OK. Therefore I will never know, nor understand, why the police directed everyone off this road and would only allow vehicles back on that had chains fitted. Needless to say, that excluded me. At this point it was sunny and relatively warm, with rivers of snow melt running down the road. I tried three times to get back on, at one point trying to explain that I had to get to a ferry. But no, they refused to let me use the safest road in the area and instead pushed me onto snow covered roads. I did my best to work out an alternative route and put some towns I would need to go through into the GPS. The guy who helped me pick up my bike when I dropped it the second time pointed me in the right direction and I set off on a journey I never want to repeat.
As I wandered around the snowy hills I could visualise the ferry sailing without me, and the subsequent consequences. I told myself off for having these negative thoughts as I needed to concentrate on getting there. If it hadn’t been for the relatively warm temperature I wouldn’t have got anywhere. At odd times I’d enter a snow free area and be thinking I’d cracked it. Then I’d climb up a hill back into the snow again. I’d ride through small villages where people would look up from their snow clearing work and gaze at me riding past, clearly thinking I was mad. They were probably right.
So I just pushed on, gradually getting through the small roads, some not even numbered. On a nice day I’d have really enjoyed such a mountain ride and at times I enjoyed this one. I pushed on when I could and slowed down when I had to. Apart from the one deeply snow blocked road I didn’t have to divert from my route and I was always heading in the right general direction. Eventually I came onto a well used road which brought me down off the mountain and out of the snow. At that point I knew I had cracked it!
I was aware that I’d be a bit late but even so I stopped about 15kms from the port to fill up with fuel, cheaper in Japan than Korea. I arrived outside the ferry office at 14.45, fifteen minutes late. As Tatianya saw me pull up she dashed out of the office to fetch the customs guys. I walked through the door, took off my crash helmet, knelt down and kissed the floor, much to the amusement of the guys in there. I’d made it!
The coffee was hot, the formalities swift
and before long I was riding Doris onto the boat deck. The deck hands got her thoroughly strapped down. It was going to be a rough crossing. In fact the ship almost didn’t sail. The sea had only just gone down enough to enable it to go ahead, Tataniya told me. I simply can’t imagine what my reaction would have been if the ferry hadn’t sailed after all. Is Hara-Kiri still an option in Japan?
As the ferry pulled away from its berth I stared at the departing lights remembering some of the fantastic times I’d had there. Beautiful places, amazing shrines and temples, fascinating cities but, of course, mostly the wonderful people Sae had enabled me to meet. Easily the best part of my Japanese experience.
As I left Japan Douglas Adams’ words from Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy seemed most relevant: Goodbye, and thanks for all the fish.