I had often wanted an opportunity and reason to use Japan's Shinkansen (Bullet train). As I was visiting Osaka, it seemed a good idea to try this service to do a day-trip to Hiroshima. For some reason the Shinkansen ticket machines are the only ones on the entire JR system that don't have a button marked "English" and at £45 one-way, I wasn't about to guess which was the correct button. I went to the ticket office armed with just three words in Japanese: "Shinkansen", "Hiroshima" and "Nozomi", which is the service type - the fastest. Fastest is relative here though, as they are all fast. The Nozomi service just happens to make a couple of less stops. I said these three words to the girl behind the ticket counter, who promptly asked me in perfect English which departure time I'd like. Shortly after I was heading up the stairs onto one of Shin-Osaka's many platforms, and then shortly after back down again as I realized I was on the wrong platform. Shin-Osaka station is a big place. As expected, the train arrived exactly on time and due to the fact that they stop in exactly the same position every time, I was in the right place to get my seat as the platforms are marked with carriage number. The train itself glided into the station with its long pointed nose and expression of wanting to take the next piece of track and kill it. This was the baddest looking train I'd ever seen. It turned out to be the fastest and most expensive (to build) of the Shinkansen. There are only 9 of these, as Japan Railways soon moved to a cheaper model which while being almost as fast, looks like a duck with wheels and would certainly lose a fight with any of the other Shinkansen it might meet on a dark siding. I got the duck train on my return trip from Hiroshima. Both types have a 3 seat -aisle- 2 seat configuration inside and are fast, smooth and spacious, and arrive exactly on time. They are also expensive, but worth doing once. All these trains are conventionally powered and run on normal rails. So many people were asking me about magnetically levitating trains and things like that, so I guess that is a popular misconception. About one quarter of the journey to Hiroshima is in tunnels, and the rest of the view is large mountains and hills, with flat plains between them. The journey time is an impressive 1 hour and 21 minutes, for what is quite a long distance. Probably the best train journey I have ever taken.
I really wondered what to find in Hiroshima. The place is so dominated by one event that I really had no idea what else to expect apart from the half destroyed atomic dome building. Hiroshima is just like any other Japanese city when you're walking around. Apart from the peace park, peace museum and atomic dome, there's nothing else to suggest what happened there. There is a castle, which is a like a smaller, wooden version of the one in Osaka, and a couple of other tourist type things, but the main focus of tourism is the area connected with the atomic bomb - all contained within one park/river/museum area, with various memorials to different groups of people, including the particularly sad children's memorial. There is also the atomic dome building itself, which probably is one of the most famous modern ruins in the world. I spent about 2 hours in the peace museum, reading all about what happened. There are many eye witness accounts, and many pleas from the city of Hiroshima for an end to war and nuclear disarmament. It is all rather sad-but hopeful at the same time. At least some people understand the message, even if the price they paid for that understanding was high. It is a very odd feeling to stand somewhere knowing that a nuclear weapon was detonated only a few hundred meters above you some time ago in history, trying to imagine the suffering and destruction that place has known. The influence of the event here is so prevalent in so many aspects of modern Japanese culture that despite the fact that it's not an upbeat place to visit, it's certainly worth the trip and is if you take the Shinkansen is comfortably easy to do in one day when based in Osaka.
I certainly knew what to expect from Kyoto. Temples, temples and more temples. This is the Mecca of Japanese temples. It also has Gion, the Geisha area. I didn't see any real Geishas moving silently from building to building, but it is not hard to imagine. This seemingly pedestrianised area (until a taxi crept up behind me) is old and traditional looking but well kept, and is like stepping on to a very very tidy film set of paved streets with low wooden buildings and mysterious looking lanterned doorways that made me really curious as to what, if anything, was going on inside. This is a world that is quite unknowable for a foreigner, but it's nice to look at and wonder. Gion is a particularly beautiful and calming area, equally attractive at night with lanterns and dimly lit doorways, further hinting at the mystery inside. The buildings and doorways have a simple but elegant wooden construction that I'd really like to copy for the interior decoration of my house. I just wish they'd stop letting random cars and small trucks up and down this area.
Apart from the fact that you'll find a temple every 15 minutes if you're walking, there are a couple of temples in particular that are worth mentioning. The first is Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion) , which is unfortunately quite hard to reach being on the edge of the city. The trip is well with it however. I found it impossible to take a bad picture of this place. The lake and setting and reflection of the Golden Pavilion make it a postcard-shot every time. I was lucky to be in Japan in early December, so the Japanese Maple trees were at their full strength autumnal red and the weather cool but comfortable. Nearish to the Golden Pavilion is Ryoanji temple, the site of which contains a famous rock garden. I don't quite understand all the Zen at work here, and since it was a public holiday there wasn't quite the time and place to contemplate it all. I can't even quite think of a word to describe the effect of the large areas of raked stone with some rocks in amongst it, but it's certainly calming. Perhaps it’s better appreciated alone for a long time with no tourists around.
I think by this point in my travels around Asia, I have probably seen more than 100 temples over the last 12 years or so and I am beginning to tire of them a little, however...the second temple complex worth seeing is the Toji temple, which contains, amongst other things, Japan's tallest five storey pagoda. There are many other temples worth seeing in Kyoto, but this and the Golden Pavilion were my favourites. You can easily fill a couple of days in Kyoto looking at nothing but temples. The railway station is also very impressive, and you'll certainly see this if you take the 60 minute local train trip from Osaka. On my first arrival there was a fully painted Geisha girl performing a tea ceremony on a small stage outside the station, with a large crowd of mostly Japanese tourists. The first of my 2 days in Kyoto was a public holiday in Japan and I can say that this probably isn't the best time to go, as the buses, trains and attractions are very crowded. The second day was a few days later and things had calmed down quite a lot. Compared with Osaka, Kyoto is a very peaceful and quiet place. Everything is low-rise, and there's lots of greenery compared with the concrete jungle that is Osaka. It can be easier to observe normal Japanese life here, people's comings and goings and the suburbs and normal living areas are easy to walk to, with the near deserted narrow backstreets that form people's yards. In Kyoto I also found several used car lots, so I could go and browse there too, frustrating as it is to discover a pristine condition Toyota Chaser or Mazda RX-7 at a bargain price save for the fact that it's about 10,000 miles away from my house and I know little Japanese to be able to arrange a personal import.
Nara is a smaller town only about 40 minutes away from Osaka by local train. It contains several temples similar to those in Kyoto, which whilst quite impressive, on their own would not merit a special visit. However, there is also the giant Todai-ji temple, the world’s largest wooden building. This I had to see, and I was not disappointed. Even from a distance it looks big, and once close up, it's just huge and contains a giant Buddha statue inside. As large Buddhas go, this one has got to rank in the worlds top ten I think. I just hope they keep Todai-ji well guarded to avoid anything as stupid as the arson attack on Seoul's wooden tourist attraction, the Namdaemun gate, something I'll now never see. If you're taking a trip to Nara, be confident that all this is within 30 minutes walk of the main train station. Like Kyoto, Nara is also another small, quiet place.
Kobe is only known in Europe as being the site of a large earthquake in the mid-nineties. There's little evidence of that now apart from a preserved stretch of harbour front. Most things seem to have survived just fine, and the impressive double-decker Hanshin expressway has been rebuilt after a long section fell over. I did feel a little concerned standing in a known earthquake zone however, even more so at the top of the 100m Kobe Port Tower. The Tower is a strange squeezed cylinder that looks like it's just sucked in a breath for a photo, but the view from the top is pretty spectacular, given its harbour front location you can see all across Kobe, Kobe port and through the city to the mountains and trees behind the city. You can also see the giant Hanshin Expressway, a double decker elevated motorway that lines the sky above the coastline. Next to the tower is some once-used water vehicle that resembles nothing so much as one of the Thunderbirds.
Whilst walking through Kobe from the tower to the woods, I went through Chinatown. Whilst many non-Asians don't know or care to know the difference, it is quite easy here to see how Chinese culture differs from Japanese. Chinatown is ablaze in red and gold, with lanterns everywhere and an abundance of freshly cooked streetfood lining both sides of the main Chinatown street, bathing the streets with the smell and sounds of cooking wontons and barbecued meat. 3 Chinese Gates are on the main ways in and out of Kobe Chinatown, the second largest in Japan after Yokohama. After being immersed in Japanese temples, lanterns and street food, the difference with the Chinese ones is easy to see here.
Kobe is also famous for its beef. I had planned to try a steak whilst I was there, but that was only before I saw the price list. I could get a one way ticket to Hiroshima for the price of a medium standard Kobe beef steak, so I decided to pass on that and take a photo of a Kobe beef sign instead. It's not quite the same, but a whole lot cheaper.
One unusual thing about Kobe is the presence of the foreign houses. Built by the first gaijin to be allowed to settle in Japan, there's a whole street full of European style architecture in the Kitano area. The whole lot is very incongruous, with the German house, English and French styles and others all nearby, especially when you throw in a bunch of Japanese tourists into the mix. The tourist office of Kobe is also located in this area, where the smiling lady inside loaded me up with more maps and pamphlets than I could possibly need. Further up the hill from this area is countryside and there are many walking paths here (from my recently acquired map) so I followed one round the back of the Kitano area and up-round-over-down into another part of town, back closer to the train station to take me back in Osaka. Whilst Kobe is far from the top of anyone's tourism list (Nara and Kyoto are full of much more traditional Japanese treasures), it's a day well spent if you're in the Kansei area long enough.
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Copyright © M.F.Hughes 2008