Japan part 3: Whistlestop tour of the Land of the Rising Sun

(Note: This blog post will be a bit more terse, since there is so much to cover)

January the first dawned cold and clear. We were in Hiroshima, and decided to visit the Atomic Bomb Museum, as it is unofficially known. The museum is very tasteful and respectful, while also being informative, and promoting the worthy idea of global nuclear disarmament. Outside the museum is the Peace Memorial Park, which also incorporates the iconic A-bomb dome, the building closest to the blast that remained standing (barely), largely due to the bomb actually exploding above it. A very sobering way to start 2013.

An exhibit in the Atomic Bomb museum showing the position of the blast itself, and the buildings left standing after the blast.
An exhibit in the Atomic Bomb museum showing the position of the blast itself, and the buildings left standing after the blast.

The Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima.
The Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima.
The Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima, the iconic A-Bomb dome. UNESCO world heritage site.
The Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima, the iconic A-Bomb dome. UNESCO world heritage site.

We then took the train followed by a short ferry ride to Miyajima, an island in Hiroshima bay famous for the floating tori. The island was overflowing with tourists, so we trekked up the hill, and accidentally embarked on a 5 kilometre long trail. We turned round when we realised the length of the project, but really enjoyed the smell of pine tree forest and winter.

The floating tori in Miyajima. UNESCO world heritage site.
The floating tori in Miyajima. UNESCO world heritage site.
Tide is going out at this point.
Tide is going out at this point.
Low tide. Getting close.
Low tide. Getting close.
View over Miyajima from the path we found.
View over Miyajima from the path we found.

That evening, we took the Shinkansen to Fukuoka, before transferring to a slower, but still fast, train to Nagasaki. This was all in all a four hour trip, but Nagasaki was very much worth visiting. That night we slept in a very homely hostel: cheap and clean, guesthouses and hostels in Japan are highly recommendable. The next day, we walked around Nagasaki, passed by a nice museum which unfortunately had all its exhibits explained in Japanese, and ended up at Dejima, a small artificial island that was the only point of contact Japan had with the outside world during its long years of self-enforced isolation in the 18th and 19th centuries. On this island, only the Dutch East India company was allowed to maintain a presence. The island is no longer an island, the surrounding sea being reclaimed in the 20th century, but certain buildings have survived from the late 19th century, and they are rebuilding the rest of the island in the style of how it looked during the Dutch presence. The island mostly functions as a museum, and a very good museum at that. All the buildings had exhibits in them, and all the explanations were dual-lingual. Very informative.

The oldest bridge in Nagasaki, named the Spectacles bridge, due to the way the bridge and its reflection look like a pair of glasses.
The oldest bridge in Nagasaki, named the Spectacles bridge, due to the way the bridge and its reflection look like a pair of glasses.
Dejima island in Nagasaki, the main street.
Dejima island in Nagasaki, the main street.
Dejima is no longer an island.
Dejima is no longer an island.

In the evening, it was time to travel again. We had initially planned to go to Aso, in the centre of the island of Kyushu, but decided, while on the train, to go to Kagoshima instead, the southernmost major city in Japan. One small problem presented itself though upon arrival, the hostel the guidebook listed was full. But with the help of the friendly tourist information centre at the station we booked a guesthouse, also cheap, clean and friendly. They also had bicycles for rent quite cheaply, which we used the next day to visit the Museum of the Meji restoration, dealing with the political and economic changes in Japan following captain Perry’s forcing open of Japanese ports, and cycle a 40 km trip round Sakurajima, the active volcano in the bay outside Kagoshima.

The museum of the Meji restoration had a theatre piece with robotic puppets.
The museum of the Meji restoration had a theatre piece with robotic puppets.
Sakurajima seen from Kagoshima.
Sakurajima seen from Kagoshima.
The volcano erupted while we were cycling around it. This is the cloud of smoke the eruption produced. Note the fields of ash.
The volcano erupted while we were cycling around it. This is the cloud of smoke the eruption produced. Note the fields of ash.
A previous eruption buried this tori on Sakurajima island.
A previous eruption buried this tori on Sakurajima island.
View from Sakurajima.
View from Sakurajima.

That evening, we travelled to Beppu, a hot spring resort on the north-eastern side of Kyushu. Here, we met a young American lady, who was teaching English in northern Japan, and using the new year holidays to travel round Kyushu. Together with her, we toured some of the Jigokus, literally “hells”. These are volcanic vents and springs that for various reasons look interesting. Pictures included below. After this, Amos and I lounged in one of the many Onsen in Beppu. This one was mostly frequented by residents of Beppu, giving it a nice local character. The water in the common bath is 43 degrees, and strict nudity is enforced. A brief how-to use an onsen goes something like this: Buy ticket, find the section for your gender, strip naked, putting your clothes into a locker. Walk across to the bath, but do not step into the bath yet, you are not clean. Take a bucket from the stack, and scoop out water from the bath. Use this water to clean yourself thoroughly. Only now may you step into the bath. Enjoy the extremely warm water, do not move around too much, it is not a pool for swimming. If you know the language, it seems you might end up in light conversation with others. If, like us, you don’t, just enjoy it.

The Sea Hell (Umi-Jigoku) in Beppu.
The Sea Hell (Umi-Jigoku) in Beppu.
The Sea Hell (Umi-Jigoku) in Beppu.
The Sea Hell (Umi-Jigoku) in Beppu.
Another hell. Volcanic bubbling mud.
Another hell. Volcanic bubbling mud.
I wonder what it looked like before they put the ornamental stones there.
I wonder what it looked like before they put the ornamental stones there.
The onsen we went to in Beppu.
The onsen we went to in Beppu.
Very cosy atmosphere inside the onsen lobby.
Very cosy atmosphere inside the onsen lobby.

Departing Beppu in the afternoon, we arrived in Kobe in the evening. We had only a vague idea about what to do in Kobe, since this was essentially just a stop to break up our journey to Kanazawa, but at the hostel we met a very friendly group of people (tourists and English teachers on vacation as well). We agreed to go to the Earthquake museum the next day, and find a Sake-brewery. The earthquake museum dealt with the great Kobe earthquake of 1995, and mitigation of natural disasters in general. The sake brewery had a detailed explanation of the production process of this popular Japanese rice wine, and free tastings, which inevitably lead to me buying a bottle as a souvenir.

The earthquake museum in Kobe. No photography allowed inside.
The earthquake museum in Kobe. No photography allowed inside.
For brewing sake, rice is polished. The better the sake, the more of the grain is removed.
For brewing sake, rice is polished. The better the sake, the more of the grain is removed.
Retro sake advertisements.
Retro sake advertisements.

Kobe to Kanazawa was also a long trip, since Kanazawa is not connected to the Shinkansen network. But Kanazawa was probably my favourite city of this tour, not only because it was covered by a pretty layer of snow. The guesthouse we stayed at was essentially just a private house, where the owner had decided to turn the ground floor into lodgings. The rooms were in the traditional Japanese Tatami mat style, and the owner was extremely friendly and helpful. I went for a walk round town in the evening, in search of a Jazz club listed in the guide book, but it turned out to be totally empty. The next day though, we had two main points on our itinerary, the Kenroku-en gardens, commonly seen as one of the top three gardens in Japan, and the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art. But on our way to the gardens, we happened to pass by the castle, outside which something very curious was happening. Men dressed in colourful costumes were doing acrobatics on ladders, the ladders being held up by other men. A large crowd was gathered round, and slow, almost religious chanting was blasting from loudspeakers. It initially seemed religious, but turned out to be the annual celebration of new recruits for the fire brigade. It also included such things as turning on twenty hosepipes at the same time, pointing them into the air, and having men only wearing traditional linen underwear run around underneath these water jets. All this in temperatures just under freezing. The gardens were beautiful, but the enjoyment was slightly tempered by the rain that was starting to fall, so we did not linger long, before going to the art museum. This museum is described by my guidebook as “the one thing not to miss on the entire Sea of Japan coast”, and I would agree. There were two exhibits, both containing thought-provoking abstract art, and various free exhibits were also scattered around the museum. Not to mention the building itself.

Our room in Kanazawa.
Our room in Kanazawa.
Firemen in Kanazawa at their traditional annual performance.
Firemen in Kanazawa at their traditional annual performance.

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The fire engines, which would later be used for the hosepipe performance.
The fire engines, which would later be used for the hosepipe performance.
Kenroku-en gardens.
Kenroku-en gardens.
Kenroku-en gardens.
Kenroku-en gardens.
Kenroku-en gardens seen from inside a tea house.
Kenroku-en gardens seen from inside a tea house.
The exterior of the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa.
The exterior of the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa.
An exhibition of children's art.
An exhibition of children’s art.
One of the permanent exhibitions in the museum, the swimming pool.
One of the permanent exhibitions in the museum, the swimming pool.
...which has a surprising twist. The people underwater are also museum guests.
…which has a surprising twist. The people underwater are also museum guests.
Inside the museum.
Inside the museum.

After this, we walked around the historic Geisha district of Kanazawa, had a nice bowl of Matcha green tea, and planned how to get to Tokyo, since this was the last day of our rail pass. All in all, this stage of our Japan trip was probably the most hectic, packing and unpacking every day, and spending two to four hours on trains every evening, but at the same time, it probably showed Japan at its best, how travelling is so easy. Where else could you travel around 2300 kilometres in seven days by train, visiting a new city every day, and not having to plan more than a day in advance? Trains run often enough to make timetables redundant, and genuinely helpful people seem to abound almost everywhere. Cheap, clean, conveniently located hostels go for around 2000 yen (20 euros) for a bunk bed, and exist in almost every city, and good food can also be had at reasonable prices from noodle bars and convenience stores.

Next post: Tokyo.

The Geisha district of Kanazawa.
The Geisha district of Kanazawa.
A traditional Japanese back garden.
A traditional Japanese back garden.

Author: jpamills

Website: www.jpamills.dk

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