“Yes you can sail the seven seas!” Well sort of. We got somewhat close to this on a visit to the naval city of Kure, around 30 minutes train ride from Hiroshima where we visited two museums: the Kure Maritime Museum and the JMSDF Kure Museum.
The Kure Maritime Museum – more popularly known as the Yamato Museum after the 1/10th scale model of the battleship Yamato in the central hall – presents the history of Kure, which is essentially the history of the modernisation of Japan. It focuses on the lives of people in the city, its culture, and main industries of shipbuilding and steel-making, as well as the history of the battleship Yamato, an iconic ship in Japanese naval history, and the largest battleship ever built.
The JMSDF (Japanese Maritime Self Defence Force) Kure Museum is mainly dedicated to the mine-sweeping activities of the JMSDF from the end of World War II, when the seas around Japan had been heavily mined by Allied forces. There is also an extensive history of submarines, torpedoes and submarine rescue, and visitors can access the interior of the 76m long Akishio SS-579 submarine, which was launched in Kobe in 1985 and served in the navy until 2004.
We spent a very enjoyable day touring both these museums, and seemed to be the only gaijin (foreigners) there that day. In the JMSDF Kure Museum we ended up being the last people out of the door when they were trying to close the museum without looking like they were trying to throw us out – probably because it was murder getting Philip out of the helmsman’s seat of the Akishio submarine!
As we waited for the train at Kure station they played their station music, just like we have encountered on many of Japan’s railway and metro stations. In Kure’s case it was the theme to “Space Battleship Yamato” or as Western anime fans know it “Star Blazers”. Robert had been singling this all day and Philip was happy to have finally heard a more tuneful rendition of the theme! Didn’t stop Robert from singing it all the way back to Hiroshima.
Hiroshima. Everyone knows its name for one reason: the first city ever targeted with an atomic weapon. As such you can hardly visit Hiroshima without visiting the Memorial Museum and the A-Bomb Dome, or Genbaku, which was previously the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall.
This was one of the few structures left standing after the explosion, located near the atomic bomb’s hypocentre, and it is now a symbol of peace and a UNESCO World Heritage site. The ruin serves as a memorial to the people who were killed on – and after – 6th August 1945. Over 70,000 people died instantly, and another 70,000 suffered fatal injuries from the effects of the explosion and of radiation.
It seemed only right that this is how we started our exploration of Hiroshima.
Next to the A-Bomb Dome is the Peace Park and located in this is the Memorial Museum. Although currently being renovated in parts, it still has the main exhibition detailing the atomic explosion and its aftereffects.
The Memorial Museum turned out to be one of the Japanese museums where you could take photographs. However, we both felt that this was somehow a little out of taste – the exhibits are fascinating but the stories and truths they tell are grim, and at times horrifying, sickening and very graphic. It seemed somehow wrong to capture them in photographic form as “holiday snaps”, and better that they remain etched in our memories.
But we did take one picture of the horrifying reality: a tricycle. Such an ordinary thing. The story of its former owner was like that of the thousands who perished in the immediate aftermath of the atomic attack.
Surrounding the museum is the Peace Park, which is a lovely green space and has many kinds of peace tributes set within it. The most significant of these is the Cenotaph for the A-Bomb Victims. This is a memorial arch under which is a casket containing a book that holds the name of every victim of the atomic attack.
After the imagery of the Memorial Museum we enjoyed a pleasant walk in the sunshine around the Peace Park, and here are a few pictures.
Hiroshima today is a beautiful city and, as we first thought, definitely has a European quality and feel about it (though we are not quite sure why this is) whilst still being very much a Japanese city. We would love to come back already and hope that one day we will.
Time to leave damp old Osaka and head further westwards, this time to Hiroshima. Once again the best way to get there is on the Shinkansen, this time on the Sanyo Line, which connects Osaka (Shin-Osaka station) to Fukuoka (Hakata station). Fukuoka is actually our next destination after Hiroshima and will be the most westerly point on our travels across Japan.
Tickets in hand, we duly turned up with time to spare and waited for our train.
While we were in Osaka we had spotted the following poster at the main station and gotten somewhat excited at the thought of an anime inspired train.
As some of you may know we are both fans of a number of Japanese anime series, and the poster we saw was for the special Shinkansen livery to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Neon Genesis Evangelion, one of our favourite anime.
While we were waiting for Nozomi 19 to arrive, what should pull in at the next platform but the JR West Shinkansen 500 Type EVA train. Ooh! OK it’s a bit geektastic, but we weren’t the only ones getting a bit excited. The platforms either side of the train were suddenly abuzz with people and every camera and smartphone was suddenly directed at the train. We had to wait a little bit for the excitement to subside and we could get a more uninterrupted shot.
Our train to Hiroshima was just the usual boring high speed N700 that whisks you from A to B in superfast time and comfort, not the 500 Type EVA. Oh well, you can’t have everything. 😛 Perhaps we can catch it when we move on to Fukuoka.
We arrived in Hiroshima on a slightly grey afternoon and headed into town to check into our hotel. We decided to opt for a hotel and not Airbnb on this stage of our travels as we had credit from previous stays booked on Hotels.com and thought we’d treat ourselves and have someone else tidy the room for a change!
In the taxi from the station to the hotel we both thought it looked and felt a bit European, with the bridges, rivers, trams, etc. This turned out to be somewhat ironic as we discovered on arriving at the hotel that the UK had just voted to leave the EU. Oh dear.
With an immediate ¥10 wiped off the £ to ¥ rate with the Brexit we’re glad we had our Japanese accommodations and travel costs paid already.
OK time to unpack and then we can start to explore Hiroshima.
Less than an hour’s train journey from Osaka is Nara (奈良), the once ancient capital of Japan. With being so close it seemed appropriate to take a look and see some of what the city had to offer: mainly temples and deer it seemed after consulting the guide book!
Nara was Japan’s first permanent capital city and was established in 710. After the influence and political ambitions of the city’s powerful Buddhist monasteries grew to become a serious threat to the government, the capital was moved to Nagaoka in 784 before moving again to Kyoto in 794. The Japanese capital doesn’t half move around a lot!
Two trains – via the Osaka Loop Line and Kintetsu Nara Line – saw us arrive in Nara in just under an hour; trains are definitely the way to travel around in Japan. Kintetsu Nara station is ideally located right on the western edge of Nara Park wherein are situated many of Nara’s attractions.
And the first thing you meet as you get to the park are the deer. And their smell. And poo.
The deer are the mascot of Nara and feature on pretty much every souvenir you can buy. Nara Park is home to hundreds of these deer that freely roam around, predominantly looking for tourists to feed them. They are very tame and have no real fear of humans, and they can be a bit persistent if they think you have food. There are bundles of deer crackers for sale around the park and it’s rather entertaining to watch the other tourists trying to feed the deer whilst struggling to get that all important selfie with them.
Suffice to say the park and anywhere associated with the deer – including the temples where they are allowed to roam – smells of deer doo-doo. And their poo is everywhere so you really do need to keep your eyes open if you don’t want to be taking home an unexpected Nara deer souvenir!
As such we were slightly surprised to encounter Nara’s Oktoberfest 2016, which was taking place in Nara Park. Firstly – and maybe this is being a bit picky but – it’s June not October 🙂 Secondly the beer and food tents are in one of the open spaces in the park and well, as previously mentioned, there’s deer poo and smell everywhere. We don’t think it’s quite the atmosphere you really want with your beer and bratwurst. Perhaps we’re just being fussy; there seemed to be plenty of others – locals and tourists – enjoying the event, so good on them.
Our first stop was the Nara National Museum, free for us courtesy of our Kansai region Grutto Pass – these passes for the different regions in Japan are a great idea and very good value too, especially as we have time to fully utilise them.
The Nara National Museum primarily displays Japanese Buddhist art and artefacts, and there was also a special exhibition on washi (和紙) – Japanese handmade paper. Established in 1889, the museum is formed of both the original building and a new wing. To reduce impact on the park they are joined by an underground passage, which is also home to the museum’s gift shop and café. Both wings display the museum’s permanent collection, which includes Buddhist statues, paintings, scrolls, bronzes, and ceremonial objects mainly from Japan. And yes, there is no photography allowed. Sigh.
The exhibits here were really very good, lots of wonderful items with many of them over 2,000 years old and we enjoyed a leisurely couple of hours strolling around. The museum was not too crowded and we were able to enjoy the artefacts on display and even get some background on them as there was information available in English.
Next, and in keeping with the Buddhist theme, was the Todai-ji temple (東大寺, meaning “Great Eastern Temple”). This was our temple of choice from the several that are situated in and around Nara Park.
The temple was constructed in 752 as the head temple of all the provincial Buddhist temples of Japan. However, it grew so powerful that the capital was moved from Nara to Nagaoka in order to reduce the temple’s influence on government affairs.
Today the Todai-ji temple is most well known for being home to the largest bronze seated Buddha statue in the world, some 15 metres high, as well as the main hall being the world’s largest wooden building.
Here are a few pictures from our wander around the temple.
Towards the end of our walk around the main hall we came across a horde of school children queued up have their picture taken as they squeezed through a hole in the base of one of the temple’s main pillars.
Odd, we thought. We subsequently discovered the hole is supposedly the same size as the Buddha’s nostrils and that it is said that those who can squeeze through this opening will be granted enlightenment in their next life. Like this mush here:
As we already have enlightenment we didn’t need to try our luck squeezing through the hole 😛
We thoroughly enjoyed our time in Nara, despite the perils of deer poo. We are happy to report that no squidgy deer souvenirs of any kind were collected, just some good pictures and good memories.
Hey Mr Ferry, what the hell is that? It’s big and yellow and bright and it burns our eyes! Oh, it’s the sun. You don’t get many of those to the pound in Osaka! Blimey, we’d best get out on the streets and take a look at life around the dining and shopping district of Namba in that case before the rain comes back (which it did the following day).
But before we immersed ourselves in the busy streets to soak up some of the atmosphere we decided to try and find the “mossy Buddha” we had heard about, which is literally a moss covered icon of Fudo Myoo, a deity of fury said to protect people against evil, conquer devils, and grant any wish; he sounds like a handy fellow to have on your side. Fudo Myoo is located in the Hozen-ji temple, which is hidden away in the back streets but, with some trusty Google mapping, we managed to track it down without too much trouble.
Despite its tiny size the Hozen-ji temple was definitely one of the most memorable we’ve been to and it was rather nice watching devotees give their offerings to the idols in the sunshine. We queued up to do the same, though admittedly with the intention of getting some better pictures rather than anything religious. No one seemed to mind our evident tourist intentions.
So with the quiet start to the day over, we plunged into the chaos and colour of Namba and in particular the area of Dotonbori, where we would catch sight of another famous figure, but one of a more modern origin than Fudo Myoo – the Glico Running Man.
In contrast to Fudo Myoo, the next picture shows the Glico Running Man. Glico is a prominent confectionery company in Asia and this athlete is their logo. This huge sign in Dotonbori is an iconic image in Osaka and has existed in various forms since 1935. He is certainly popular with the tourists all doing the raised arms thing in front of him.
We headed north towards Shinsaibashi and were pretty much sucked into the Shinsaibashi arcade, packed with all manner of shops, eateries, and people, all accompanied to the (sometimes getting hoarse) cries of hawkers shouting to drum up business.
Fortunately we made it out of Shinsaibashi alive and found ourselves in an area more akin to Covent Garden in London in both look and feel. It had bigger name stores as well as the more individual and trendy kinds of boutiques and shops and was clearly popular with young and hip Osakans. We stopped for a sit down and to soak up a little of the atmosphere; it was rather pleasant to find a place that did feel somewhat like home, though we’re not homesick just yet!
We (OK Philip) noticed the lampposts in the area were all different and done in a stick-man style as you can see here.
Our visit to Namba was quite the opposite from our visit to Cosmosquare in blog 38. Ghost Town. Both were enjoyable for their own aspects and quirks: sunny and rainy, hectic and relaxed, busy and deserted. And still plenty to see yet in Japan.
Oh look more rain – it must still be Osaka! As we are staying fairly near the harbour area we thought we would go and have a look at the exciting sounding Cosmosquare and nearby to see what was around. A look at the information online led us to think that, while it might not exactly be Odaiba (Tokyo) or Darling Harbour (Sydney), there would be something indoors to keep us amused.
Just a few stops along from our nearby metro station saw us arrive at Cosmosquare where the Chuo Line ends and connects with the elevated train service Nanko Port Line, which is somewhat reminiscent of London’s DLR and serves other parts of the harbour area.
First thing we decided to try after a check of the map was to take a look at the harbour-side garden, even if it was raining. So with umbrellas out and ready off we went.
We immediately noticed there was no one around – OK granted it was raining – but literally there was no one about at all after we exited the station. The only living creature we saw in the “garden” was a duck. The garden was really only some grass and a few trees in a thin stretch of ground beside the water, and very little of anything else. Certainly not a place to enjoy much unless it was a nice day and even then there didn’t seem to be any kind of services to enjoy; no shops or eateries.
Well let’s try the Asia & Pacific Trade Centre (ATC) instead as this looks like an interesting mall by the harbour. We had to brave the rain and cross some big wet roads with lots of lorries thundering past. But hey we’re Londoners, it’s fine!
A few minutes later, and somewhat damper, we made it into the ATC. It quickly became apparent that this mall was very quiet and the majority of people walking through were office workers and we could see from the directory that there were quite a lot of government and prefecture offices in the complex adjoining the ATC.
It was also apparent that the mall had either been designed for young children or by young children: it was all primary colours and blocky, like being in a giant child’s building set.
The ATC has twelve levels and the ground (or first as they will insist on calling it here in Japan) was the only level with the unit premises near 100% occupation. Of the rest of the building we saw mainly empty units. It really was something of a ghost town.
Up on one of the middle levels we found a huge furniture and homewares store; it all looked very nice with some good items, but we only saw one couple in there browsing. We did wonder how on earth a store like that could keep going. Perhaps it won’t and will just one day disappear to create yet another empty space.
The busiest shop we found was the Daiso on the ground floor. Daiso is a chain of shops that sells most anything you might want and all for just ¥100 – think Tiger stores but with even more. It’s stuff heaven / hell depending on your point of view. This Daiso was the biggest we’ve ever seen and Philip kindly granted unlimited browsing privileges just this once! 🙂
Some of the coffee shops and restaurants were doing some business, though these seemed to be office workers and a few people who looked like travellers as they had luggage – we guessed they were going to use the large Sunflower ferries that docked near to the ATC.
The closest we came to a crowd was when we were near a tax-free shop in the ATC and suddenly from seemingly nowhere a horde of tourists (Chinese we assumed from their speech) appeared and descended on the tax-free shop like locusts. Judging by the armfuls of stuff they were grabbing they were out to get some bargains come hell or high water.
Believe it or not – despite the somewhat irreverent tone of this blog – we did actually rather enjoy out day out in the “Ghost Town” as it was a different experience and a chance to see another side of Osaka. It was a strangely relaxing experience and after six weeks of being very busy in Tokyo and Kyoto it was definitely a needed slower pace day out.
The Osaka sun had finally made an appearance – or perhaps the rain had just run out of steam for a while – and so we hurried off to see one of our main agenda items: Osaka Castle. The castle is one of Japan’s most famous landmarks and it played a major role in the unification of Japan during the 16th century.
The castle is located in the centre of the city and was very easy to reach, being just a handful of stops away from us on the Chuo line of the Osaka metro. It is set within a huge area of green space; we didn’t get time to fully explore the gardens during our visit to the castle so we will be going back again for these as they are one of the main green spaces in Osaka.
The grounds of the castle are free to enter and explore, which we duly did. There were lots of information plaques around to explain the features and points of interest, and in particular some of the stone blocks used in the walls were truly massive – the picture below shows a couple of “stones” that are huge single blocks with smaller stones fitted around.
Our destination was easy to spot inside the grounds; the castle itself is pretty unmistakable, rising from its central position within the huge estate it dominates. It is very impressive and is very much the classic vision of a Japanese castle – a definitive focal point that we found was missing from Nijo Castle in Kyoto during our visit there a couple of weeks ago.
The main castle building itself is in fact the castle museum; there is virtually nothing left inside of the original features, which seems rather a shame. Set over eight floors you can learn the history of the castle and the most famous battles – the Summer and Winter wars – though the English information is somewhat limited but still enough to get an idea.
Once again, unsurprisingly, there is limited photography permitted, and the areas with the best and most interesting exhibits are banned for cameras. It’s very frustrating too to see people blatantly taking pictures with their camera-phones when the guards aren’t looking, while we are being good and diligent tourists. So unfortunately no pictures of the samurai armour and helmets, the battle drum, the silk screens, and other great artefacts we saw in the museum.
You can climb up to the top floor of the castle and get some good views over Osaka city – we cheated and used the lift most of the way up to save our poor feet.
Osaka Castle is definitely one of the most iconic – and beautiful – buildings we’ve visited so far in Japan, and we’re looking forward to seeing a little more of it when we return to explore the gardens.