Thursday, 4 October 2012

Final few days in Japan; Kyoto and Hiroshima.

I departed Tokyo on another night bus. Like before, I failed to get to sleep and took the opportunities when the bus stopped in service stations to stretch my legs. I'd catch a glimpse of myself reflected in a glass window and feel a twinge of excitement stir through the dull ache of tiredness, realising here I was, racing through the Japanese night, and observing it almost like an out of body experience. A hiss of brakes at 5am indicated that we had reached Kyoto, and I stepped off into the quietest hour where the sky was a rich deep blue and the stars and planets hung like distant Chinese lanterns. It was too early for public transport and too early to check into my hostel, so I dragged my bag and my body up into the train station terminal and slept on the floor.

Departing Tokyo at 10pm.
My body stirred reluctantly awake to a rush of commuters. I'd been hearing the bustle for a while but I had no interest in moving. Eventually I decided to go and seek some breakfast, and then take the subway to my hostel. After checking in I went for a wander to see some of the things I had intended to visit last time I was here but had missed, partly due to some bad weather. I wandered north from my hostel to the Heian Shrine, which appears in the movie Lost in Translation, before taking the 'Path of Philosophy' up to the Ginkakuji Temple, also known as the Silver Pavilion. The path follows a canal lined with cherry trees and there are several temples and shrines along the way; but I was more interested in looking at the fish in the water and wondering how I could catch them without a line, than looking at any more boring shrines.

Entrance to Heian Shrine.
Inside the shrine. 
Prayers or wishes are tied to the branches - Scarlett Johansson does this in Lost in Translation.
A spider along the Path of Philosophy. 
Something else along the way.
Ginkakuji Temple
A Zen garden - raked sand and gravel as far as I could tell.
Looking down onto the Silver Pavilion. 
In the gardens. 
In the evening I went out for dinner alone. I'd found Japan to be quite a lonely experience, perhaps amplified by the relatively alien culture I was surrounded by. I hadn't met many fellow travellers in Japan, it's not really a backpacking destination, and the people I did meet tended to be on business trips or short holidays and so had no need to form quick bonds like fellow backpackers do. The one big party night I had in Japan I spent half of it alone, and the rest of my social experiences tended to be limited to a few conversations on a few evenings.

Dinner: I didn't fall in love with Japanese food, my favourite things were the fried dumplings. 
I went for a walk around the neighbourhood after dinner. I was staying in Gion, which is supposedly the Geisha district; I saw some girls in kimonos but I didn't spot any with all the make up on though. I did see lots of young women in cocktail dresses walking alone, accompanied only by a clunking of high heels, and they seemed to be rushing to appointments in bars. The other predominant group in the area were middle aged businessmen in suits, laughing and prowling in packs along the pavements. I wondered if these were the young women I had read about who have affairs, or at least lavish attention on older married men, in exchange for gifts and being spoilt. 

Kyoto nights.
The following day I headed west from Kyoto to Hiroshima, again taking the bus as it was the cheapest option. This bus was much more comfortable than the previous two, and ironically I managed to get a good bit of sleep, despite it being the middle of the afternoon. The bus pulled up in the station at dusk. It felt strange to walk with the thought that 67 years ago, where I was standing was devastated by the biggest single act of violence and destruction the world has ever seen. I looked at the faces of the people rushing about and imagined them as the victims, and the history of the city felt tragic. My hostel was situated a 25 minute train ride away from Hiroshima city centre, in a suburb right on the coast. The evening was in full swing by the time I reached Miyajimaguchi, where a ferry terminal was busy spitting out passengers.

The ferry terminal in Miyajimaguchi. 
Jellyfish in the harbour. 
I took the train back into Hiroshima centre at lunch time, and then after much open-mouthed squinting I figured out the trams, and hopped on one that would take me to the Atomic Bomb Dome and Peace Memorial Park. The Atomic Bomb Dome is a ruined building left as a memorial to the people who were killed by atomic bombing of the city, on 6th August 1945. Over 70,000 people were killed instantly, and another 70,000 died following the fallout from the radiation. The building was previously a landmark of pre-war Hiroshima, designed by a Czech architect and served as an exhibition hall. It was almost directly underneath the detonation of Little Boy, the name of the bomb, and was one of the few buildings in the city left recognisable after the event.

The Atomic Bomb Dome in Hiroshima.
I didn't know very much about the bombing of Hiroshima before visiting the city, but within the Peace Memorial Park was an excellent museum, and it only charged a 50 Yen (about 40p) entrance. It explained all about the recent history of the city, starting with Japan's 19th century Imperial history and how Hiroshima played an important role as a port with heavy industry and military garrisons stationed there. It was interesting to visit a museum talking about the war from 'the other side', and although it was fairly balanced I did feel a sense of guilt, and the museum had (quite rightly) underlying preachy tones against the use of nuclear weapons. If answering from a Western perspective as to why Hiroshima was bombed, it would be to try and bring the war to an end with minimal cost of allied lives, which would be the priority of any government. The museum was keen to paint a more complex and accurate picture, if on the surface a little cynical. The reasons focused on by the museum narrative was firstly the development of the bomb had cost $2billion, and the American government didn't want to be embarrassed by an inquiry into why that money was spent and wasted, if the bomb was never used, so they felt forced to use the bomb for political reasons. Secondly was geopolitics, the Allies didn't want the Soviets to become involved in the war with Japan, as then they would gain influence in any postwar decisions, and the US would not have the Pacific postwar supremacy that they did have. Ending the war quickly with minimal Allied lives and no ground invasion of Japan seemed more of a footnote for the museum. After having felt guilty, I also felt a little defensive of my nation's involvement in the bombing. The horrors and crimes committed by the Japanese were not really mentioned, apart from the most passing of references to Nanjing, where somewhere between 100,000 to 300,000 civilians were raped and killed. These figures were not mentioned by the museum, but I was informed the Japanese army units who were deployed to Nanjing were from Hiroshima. My brain lurched towards Japanese crimes committed as justification for the bombing, though reading of the horror and destruction, it's hard to ever justify the use of such indiscriminate force.

A Japanese couple survey a photograph of the destruction of Hiroshima, with the Atom Bomb Dome in the foreground. 
I found lots of the museum fascinating and realised how little I knew about Pacific history, even discovering that the British governed Hiroshima for the first six years after the war. There were glass bottles and roof tiles you could touch, which had been melted and twisted by the heat of the blast. This blog is not the place for a second hand history lesson however, and I have to be careful to not be drawn into discussing it at length, I'll save it for a conversation for the pub.

The museum also reinforced my unquestioning opinion that nuclear weapons are beyond abhorrent and should have no place on this world. Whilst the Non Proliferation Treaty is unjust as it maintains the monopoly of the nuclear powers, it's not the great treaty it's held up to be as it does nothing to attempt to remove the weapons from humanity altogether. The Russians tested one bomb, that was 17 times more powerful than all of the ammunition and bombs used during the Second World War. Terrifying. Why would you want to create something like that?

Whilst I was absorbing insightful yet horrifying information, I noticed a Japanese woman I felt incredibly attracted to; I ached for her. I timed my reading of the exhibits to a rhythm that reflected her pace. It was one of those attractions that exists on a much more ancient level. She wasn't the prettiest or best dressed girl in there, it was beyond what my eyes could see, but when the double helix in your DNA knows it's found some sort of genetic treasure trove. I left and would never see her again. Such is life.

The Dome, again.
Taking the trams around town.

I had another day in Hiroshima, and wasn't sure what to do, so I boarded the passenger ferry heading to Miyajima, the island across the harbour from where I was staying. The ride took less than ten minutes, and it was really popular with Japanese tourists, along with a few foreign ones. It's also known as Shrine Island and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but it was quite commercialised with plenty of expensive souvenir tat shops and stalls selling food. The first thing I noticed were the deer, which are usually such timid animals but here were roaming amongst the people as confident as dogs. I'd brought a little picnic along and as I sat down to tuck in some deer came along to pester me for food, and I ended up having a tug of war as it tried to run off with my carrier bag in its mouth. I gave it a slap on the nose to try and assert some authority; I wasn't prepared to be mugged by Bambi. I've since read the deer here are considered sacred and messengers of the Gods, which would explain the dirty looks some Japanese gave me when they saw me assault the animal. I'd punch God himself in the nose if he tried to steal my sushi and sandwiches, so I'm not going to feel bad about this cultural faux-pas.

I wandered around the island for a couple of hours, but the clouds were pregnant with rain and ready to burst at any minute, so I wasn't prepared to commit to too much exploration. The shrines themselves I've began to find a little boring and sterile, they don't seem to have the history or architectural interest of European churches, but I guess I'm not equipped with the skills to read these buildings. I headed inland into the forest for a bit but I could feel the rain waiting to fall, and so decided to head back to the ferry. It started pouring down halfway back to the harbour.

Miyajima Island - the torii in the water welcomes people to the Itsukushima Shrine, seen behind on the shore.
Holy deers - bold as brass.
They'll eat anything, I saw quite a few digesting the morning papers.
The big gate thing in fron of the shrine at low tide.
My time in Japan had come to an end. On my final day I took a local and slow train from Hiroshima down the coast to Shimonoseki, where my boat departing for South Korea would be waiting. This train journey reminded me of the very first one I had taken on this trip, from Peterborough to London. I'd been sat with my sister, and the light on the agricultural fields, and the dust on the window, was identical to this journey. It was easy to find the ferry terminal and check in, after I'd spent over £10 on a Subway meal. The expensive cost of living in Japan was one of the main factors I wasn't staying longer in this country. If my pockets were deeper I could have happily spent another few weeks there, but I'm on a limited and disappearing budget, and an expensive day here is a cheap week somewhere else.

On a Japanese train.
Shimonoseki train station.
The ferry crossing was quick and quiet. The boat was bigger than the previous one I had taken with more facilites, but I didn't do anything or speak to anyone. I'd booked into the Japanese style dorm, with sleeping mats on the floor - but by chance I was the only one in my room so it was a  lonely luxury. The journey was a bit choppy, there must have been a good swell on the sea and I started to feel a bit nauseous. The kind of sickness you feel when your hangover kicks in while you're still drunk and the room spins like a violent carousel. I distracted my mind by watching The Sopranos on my laptop, before falling asleep knowing that in the morning I would be in Busan, South Korea.

My dorm on the boat, with just me in it.

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