Japan (2019)

Hiroshima – A beautiful city with a sad past

Shikoku knew how to say farewell to us: We picked up Bentos for the ride in a small shop near the Awa-Ikeda train station and unfortunately the older lady, apparently the boss, and her younger colleague only spoke Japanese and the sentences typed into Google Translate by us were not understood at all. After what felt like an eternity, we placed our order with hands and feet and sat on 2 chairs while the ladies prepared and packed our food. The boss came to us at some point and talked to us again in Japanese, but except for “Gomenasai” (English: Sorry) and “America?” we didn’t understand anything. We were able to answer the last question at least with “Deutsu” (Japanese for Germany), which impressed the boss very much. Armed with our food, we made our way to the train station. While we had to take the ferry from Wakayama to Shikoku, we could go to Hiroshima by train as there was a bridge to the main island on that side of the island.

Our accommodation was a small room with a bunk bed and a bathroom and was very centrally located within walking distance of the Peace Park. On the way to our accommodation, we saw the famous Atomic Bomb Dome, the ruins of one of the few buildings that were left behind when the atomic bomb was dropped over the city on August 6, 1945 at 8:16 a.m. local time, which has made the city sadly famous.
Nowadays Hiroshima is a very young city with rivers running through it, with lots of students, and with countless bicycles. Of all the major Japanese cities we’ve seen, Hiroshima is arguably the prettiest.

We spent our first day inspecting the immediate area and checking off one thing that was still missing on our Japan ToDo list: visiting an animal café. In our case it was an owl café. Since many people cannot allow themselves pets due to the working and living conditions in Japan, there are cafes that usually specialize in a certain animal species. You pay admission, usually get drinks and then pet one or more animals, depending on the species. The classic among the animal cafes are cat cafes, but I didn’t dare go there due to my cat hair allergy. So when we found an owl café nearby, it quickly became clear to us that we definitely wanted to try it out. Inside there was a lot of activity, so we had to wait a bit. Finally, we were assigned a seat and we could take a closer look at the owls. These were located along the wall, one after the other, sitting on poles. Behind each owl was a sign with the name and a brief description. In addition, we got a few laminated sheets on which the handling of the owls was explained and on which it was assured that the owls are being kept in a species-appropriate manner, as apparently many people complain that the owls sit on the perches all day. This was justified by the fact that owls generally sit in one place a lot during the day and that outside of the opening times they come to a separate hanger with an airfield where they can fly around freely. You could tell that the owner definitely stood behind her animals and made a great effort. Whether the whole thing is species-appropriate or not is an open question. There were also eagles and falcons as well as hedgehogs and an aquarium with a turtle. Here, too, it should be stated again whether the whole thing is species-appropriate or not. Animal welfare is such a thing in Japan anyway, but one can at least acknowledge the fact that the animal cafes prevent people from rashly acquiring pets. So while we were reading the materials, an owl named Ibuki watched us and danced on the pole the whole time. When each of us had to look for an owl to pick up, I briefly considered taking Ibuki, but then decided differently because Ibuki was one of the larger specimens and it was recommended in the information materials not to select too large owls if one is inexperienced with these animals. So I decided on Bisco, who looked a bit like a penguin in the shape of an owl. Kevin also opted for a smaller one. His owl was called Queenie. It was my turn first. The owner put a glove on me and sat Bisco on it. Afterwards she spread towels on my legs, just in case something should happen, and explained to me the best way to pet owls. From then on I had some time to pet Bisco and watch it up close, which was really fascinating. Next up was Kevin. Unfortunately, Queenie actually had a little mishap, which ended up on his shoes and which was quite uncomfortable for the owner. Nonetheless, Kevin was also very satisfied with his owl. We later read that Queenie was actually the most frequently chosen owl in the cafe. In addition to petting the owls, we also paid the extra charge for feeding them. We were given a pair of tweezers and a bowl of meat along with another explanation and could now walk around and feed owls of our choice on the bars. In addition to our two owls of choice, Ibuki also received a reward, of course. We looked around one last time, took photos and thanked the owner again before we left the owl cafe.

We got our dinner in Okonimura, which is also known as Okonomiyaki village. Okonomiyaki already existed in Osaka. This is also a specialty in Hiroshima, but they are prepared a little differently here. While the ingredients for Osaka okonomiyaki are mixed together in a pancake-like manner, in Hiroshima the ingredients are stacked on top of each other with a layer of noodles on top. There has been a longstanding discussion among Japanese about which okonomiyaki are better. In fact, it is difficult to compare because they are vastly different, but both are incredibly tasty. We found the Osaka okonomiyaki a tiny bit better, but the difference is absolutely minimal and you should definitely try both types of okonomiyaki. Okonimura was a building made up of tiny okonomiyaki restaurants that were actually just indentations with a large table with a hot plate. We looked for two free seats and enjoyed our first Hiroshima okonomiyaki. A perfect start to our Hiroshima stay.

Hiroshima Peace Park – A city as a reminder for peace

The next day we went to the Peace Park, probably the most famous place in Hiroshima. The park is located near the epicenter of the atomic bomb at the time and is home to the Atomic Bomb Dome mentioned above. The Peace Park is a place that shokes you but also gives you hope for the future at the same time. Peace activists gather there, collecting signatures for nuclear disarmament or promoting similar actions. The whole time there was a consensus in the air that something like this should never happen again and so the whole park is under the sign of peace. There are various memorials and statues that commemorate certain groups of victims, such as a memorial for the Korean slave laborers who were in the city at the time, and who were therefore murdered by the bomb. There is also the so-called “flame of peace”, which can only be extinguished when there are no more nuclear weapons in the world. At the end of the park is the Peace Museum, which is one of the places that you should definitely visit, but which at the same time keeps you depressed for the rest of the day. It is full of leftovers from the said day paired with harrowing photos, facts and fates. The museum was very full, so it was only going very slowly, but that was okay, because you should take your time here one way or another to really read the information texts. We were lucky, because on some days of the week there were optional lectures by survivors or their relatives, which were even offered in English 1-2 times a week and we were able to attend just such a lecture. A woman told the story of her mother-in-law, who saw the bomb as a little girl and lost her parents in the process. The lecture was accompanied by drawings of what had happened. This was an incredibly interesting and harrowing talk, and if you get the chance, don’t miss it. Visibly moved, we walked through downtown Hiroshima for the rest of the day.

Miyajima – Deer, snakes, dogs and no torii

The next day we boarded a ferry again, this time with the destination Miyajima, which incidentally was the only place in Japan where we had absolutely no cell phone reception. There are a number of sights here, the most famous of which is probably the Itsukushima Shrine with its red torii standing in the water. Unfortunately, the said torii was just being renovated so that we could only see it behind scaffolding. However, the shrine as such was really beautiful, as it was partly located in the water and we walked from one area to the next via footbridges. Another attraction are the deer that live here. When I think of deer in Germany, I think of elegant but shy animals that, with luck, you can sometimes meet in the forest. The Miyajima deer were the exact opposite of this. They were everywhere and weren’t afraid of people at all. On the contrary, they even actively approached people in the hope of finding something edible, whereby edible is defined quite broadly here. For example, a thieving deer stole the city map from a man who was walking along with his trolley suitcase and ate it right up. In general, the deer were really everywhere, which also made it possible to take good photos with them. The third big attraction was Mount Misen in the center of the island. Here a discussion broke out between Kevin and me. There are two ways to climb the mountain: on foot or via a cable car. While I wanted to go up on foot, Kevin pleaded for the cable car. In the end we agreed to take the cable car up and walk down afterwards. In retrospect, that was a really good compromise, as the mountain was bigger than expected and you even have a really nice view of the island from the cable car. From the upper cable car station it was another 30 minutes’ walk to the actual summit. On the way we passed several shrines, the largest of which was a very special one. This is the Yumi Katsura Lover’s Sanctuary, a love shrine where, among other things, newly wed couples prayed for a happy marriage. What a coincidence that we were there as a newlywed couple 😉
So we bought a prayer tile from one of the monks, on the back of which we wrote down our wishes for a happy marriage and then hung it up in the main hall.

Arrived at the summit there was a viewing platform where we rested briefly and took photos before going back down. The trail down was really very nice. It led across the beautiful landscape of this mountain. Around every bend you could find either beautiful stone formations, hidden Buddha images or small waterfalls. For some, the numerous warning signs warning of Mamushi, a highly poisonous species of snake, could probably be unsettling. Admittedly, encounters with Mamushi are rather rare, which is why we weren’t particularly afraid. Once something actually darted through the bush, but it could just as easily have been a lizard. Finally the path ended at another temple called Daisho-in with a really nice garden. Once at the bottom we went to one of the numerous restaurants to have lunch. While Kevin ordered his beloved curry again, I tried grilled eel on rice, which was again very tasty.

Our last stop was another animal café. There was a Mame Shiba Café near the ferry terminal. Mame Shiba are a smaller version of the Japanese dog breed Shiba Inu, which is Kevin’s favorite dog breed. After our adventures in the owl café the day before, we now wanted to pay a visit to this café. Unfortunately, this was the most disappointing animal café we saw in Japan. The dogs were kept anything but species-appropriate. They walked around the room all the time, trying somehow to avoid people. Instead of letting the dogs out regularly or going for a walk with them, they had cages with suction mats for their left-overs, which were supposed to work in a similar way to litter boxes. Since dogs are not cats, of course, that didn’t work, so that the employees had to wipe up something over and over again. All in all, I had to admit that I felt sorry for the cute little dogs, because in contrast to the owl café, where the owner might not have done everything perfectly, but was noticeably standing behind her animals, the welfare of the dogs was probably not the top priority here.

Impressions from Hiroshima

The next day we grabbed two rental bikes and drove to Hiroshima Castle. Of course, the castle was also destroyed in the atomic bomb attack, but it has been rebuilt and inside there is a very nice museum, which is similar to the museums in Japanese castles that we have already been to. From the tower one has a very nice view of the city. There is also a machine where on can punch coins with a custom text. Kevin came up with the idea to create a coin with our names and our wedding date. It turned out that it wasn’t that easy, as the coin machine not only made an absolutely terrible and loud sound every time a button was pressed, but the positioning of the text was also quite complicated. But in the end we made it and now we have a nice little souvenir from our honeymoon. There is also a beautiful castle garden with a moat with koi carps and even with turtles.

Next we cycled on to the train station to climb the Futabayama, a small mountain right next to the train station. At the beginning of the ascent we passed a pretty shrine. Then it went uphill for a while past a cemetery. The so-called peace pagoda awaited us at the summit. This is a metal Buddhist monument in which some of the ashes of Buddha are kept. Even if you can already see the peace pagoda from the train station on arrival in Hiroshima, nobody was there except us and it is suppressed in many travel guides, which is a shame because it is a nice uphill walk to get there and you are rewarded with another beautiful view. One of the many little things that seem natural in Japan, but which is appreciated by us, was that there was a free public toilet even upstairs at the Peace Pagoda. As for worldly needs, you really don’t have to worry in Japan 😉
Back at the train station, we got a huge shock at first. Our bikes were gone! Admittedly, we didn’t chain them up either, but since there is next to no petty crime in Japan, it is usually not necessary. The next moment, however, we began to grin, relieved. So of course no one stole our bikes. Instead, someone neatly lined them up with other bikes. Typically Japan 🙂

Finally we went to downtown Hiroshima. While we were walking along the shops, someone gave us a flyer: Japanese archery. It wasn’t really expensive and we had time, so we decided to give it a try. The “studio” was on the top floor of one of the buildings on the main shopping street and was quite small. So it happened that we had to wait a little longer because someone else was trying out archery. Of course the whole thing was mainly for tourists, but it was still interesting. The employee knew a lot about the sport and tried to explain everything. In order to have incomplete knowledge of English, he spoke each time into a small device that translated the sentences from Japanese into English and back. If we wanted to say something, he held the device out to us and then listened to the translation before he spoke his answer back in and played it to us. It actually worked amazingly well. The archery itself was of course much more difficult than it looked and in the end Kevin did a little better than me. All in all, it was a nice pastime that I can recommend to everyone who has some time left in Hiroshima.

The story of how we raised out glasses to our marriage with Japanese businessmen

In the evening we visited Sankanou, a small okonomiyaki restaurant whose owner, according to Wikitravel, is a big manga fan. Although we were there at lunchtime that day, we stood in front of closed doors and were told that it was only open in the evening. Now we were there at the right time of day and entered the restaurant. It was a small izakaya, a kind of Japanese pub. The approximately 15 square meter shop area consisted of a large table with the well-known hotplate and a television that was hanging on the wall and was airing a soccer game. Most of the places were already occupied by stereotypical Japanese businessmen. We sat down on two empty seats and shortly afterwards a young woman, who turned out to be Korean, entered the shop. The owner and another woman who helped him took our orders and immediately started to prepare our okonomiyaki on the hotplate in front of us. The businessmen’s beer was already flowing and the mood was correspondingly funny. For the sake of a language barrier and an obvious foreign appearance, we were used to the Japanese being a little more reluctant. That was actually not the case here. The owner and his colleague spoke English quite well and joked about our order and asked us about everything, starting of course with where we come from. Each of our answers was translated aloud for all other guests, which was often commented on with a typical Japanese “Aaah” or “Oooh”. Some of the businessmen also tried to speak to us directly in slightly broken English. So we were integrated from the start and part of the community, which is something very special, especially in Japan. The highlight was of course when we announced that this was our honeymoon. Immediately all the businessmen raised their glasses in a toast to our marriage and everyone else joined. The only thing missing now is to mention that the okonomiyaki were of course also incredibly tasty 😉

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