From the Dome to the Castle

The group had planned a big travel day to explore more of Japan, and Don had gotten shinkansen tickets for the 2 hour trip to Hiroshima, more than 200 miles to the south of Kyoto. I ate in the main floor buffet at 6:30 since we had agreed meet in the lobby as a group within the hour. During our meeting, Don stressed the importance of bringing our JR passes with us on the outing. However, following the 20 minute walk to the train station, Grant (a student who had been wearing his ever-present headphones during the meeting) discovered that he had failed to bring his pass. Since our train left in less than 30 minutes at this point, Grant’s roommate, Ken (who happened to be on the Monmouth College track team), volunteered to run back to the hotel to retrieve the missing pass. After a somewhat unnerving wait, our runner returned to the station with only minutes to spare and we were able to board our train on time.

It was nearly 10 am by the time we arrived in Hiroshima and boarded a trolley that would take us to the International Peace Park there. By this time, it was a running joke among the students that Mitch was somehow connected with the yakuza in Japan, as this was the only explanation that made sense to them concerning his employee’s unquestioned loyalty as well as his ability to simply say the word to make virtually any wishes come true. As they boarded the trolley, the students would address the total strangers found there to assure them that “We know Mitch”. Although it was a rather warm day for January, the base boards of the trolley were cranking out heat onto our calves, making it a fairly uncomfortable ride. Hiroshima appeared like any typical large city, that is- until we pulled across from the A-Bomb Dome.

This structure, once the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall, was close to the hypocenter of the atomic bomb which was dropped on the city and was therefore the only building left standing following the blast (since it was almost directly under the bomb and the blast traveled outward in all other directions). The heavily damaged dome, unlike the rest of the rebuilt city, had been left in the exact state that it was found following the bombing, and stood as an eerie reminder of what had taken place on that August morning in 1945. We somberly walked along the shores of the river that bordered the dome, and soon crossed a bridge which led into the Peace Park itself. This large park in the middle of Hiroshima contained a number of different memorials to the victims of the bombing, including the Children’s Memorial, the Student Memorial, and an eternal flame which burned near a monument that held the names of all of the people killed by the bomb.

We then spend the next 30 minutes looking through the modern Peace Memorial Museum which dominated one end of the park. I was feeling by this point somewhat ashamed to be from the only country in the world that has used atomic weapons against people, not once but twice, and both in Japan. I was a bit surprised that the coverage of the events leading up to the atomic bombing in the museum were fairly balanced and not particularly accusatory in nature. The museum contained many photographs of the devastation as well as a number of relics salvaged from the wreckage. Especially iconic was a watch that was found in the rubble, its hands frozen at 8:15, the exact time that the bomb went off. The displays got more graphic after that, featuring various items of burnt clothing, stones from buildings with “shadows” of people visible on them following the blast, as well as full-scale models of people with their flesh melting off of them. The students, who had been fairly subdued most of the morning, were especially silent inside the museum.

Since we had agreed to meet back at the trolley stop at noon, we took in the rest of the Peace Park fairly rapidly, stopping to see a mound consisting of the ashes of 70,000 unidentified victims of the bomb, a full half of those who were killed, along with a large Peace Bell which could be rung by visitors, and a clock tower that was set to chime at 8:15 every morning. Finally, we walked across the T-shaped bridge which had served as the intended target for the bomb, and boarded the trolley for our return to the train station. Although we were left with only 30 minutes before our scheduled train left, Kristin and I wanted to have some authentic Japanese food for lunch. This was in stark contrast to the students, who all scurried off to find the nearest Western fast food establishment, having gone without for nearly a week! Kristin and I wandered around the station briefly but soon stumbled upon a restaurant which was dominated by a large grill, partially obscured by the short curtains which hung along its entryway.

The establishment ended up specializing in okonomiyaki, which is loosely translated “everything grilled”, and serves as the Japanese equivalent to pizza. There, one could choose different “toppings” that would be grilled together with cabbage (and bean sprouts in the case of the Hiroshima variety), sandwiched between two thin crepe-like pancakes, and covered in a special sauce. I had kimchi (spicy Korean fermented cabbage) stir fried with udon (fat white Japanese noodles). We couldn’t savor our wonderful lunches for long, though, since it was soon time to catch our next train.

We disembarked about halfway back to Kyoto in the city of Himeji, home to one of the most famous castles in Japan- Himeji-jo. This castle, which dated from the 14th century, was one of the few original castles in Japan, in contrast to those which were destroyed and then rebuilt at various times. It had been featured in the Shogun miniseries from the 1980s, as well as in the movie “The Last Samurai”. The shimmering white castle could be easily seen on a hill top above the city from the train station, so our group walked across town in its direction. The castle was everything you would expect from feudal times- complete with a moat, a main keep, as well as a slew of fortifications between the two. We had to climb many stairs on our circuitous approach to the keep and could see that the walls which surrounded us the whole way were replete with holes through which arrows could be fired at attacking armies. After the somber mood of Hiroshima, marching toward this glorious castle was an exhilarating change for our group.

The keep itself was 6 stories high, each of which had to be reached by climbing a steep stairway, more akin to a ladder, while wearing the ill-fitting slippers that were given to us upon our entry into the building, since no shoes were allowed inside. While the keep was not filled to the brim with relics, occasional weapons and suits of armour were displayed in cases along the ascent. Between these, I could almost imagine that I was back in the days of the shogun as I shuffled along the dark wooden floors in my slippers. The very top story contained a shrine, along with the best views of the castle grounds and the city of Himeji that one could imagine. After returning to the grounds, I broke off from the rest of the group to explore an out-of-the-way courtyard from which I was able to enter the interior of the walls which surrounded the castle, which proved to take me on yet another trip back in time. We returned to Himeji train station about 4 pm, for our hour-long return trip to Kyoto.

Once we arrived in Kyoto, a number of the students were interested in going to an English pub for dinner and drinks. Even though we had already experienced quite a long day, Kristin and I agreed to take them to one that was featured in my guidebook. Since I was unfamiliar with the public transit system in Kyoto, and was a bit too cheap to relish taking a cab to the pub, I offered that we should walk there from the train station. The pub was located in Gion, and, after having been there twice in as many days, I felt confident about finding my way there. What I hadn’t counted on, however, was the actual distance between our hotel and that area of town which, despite looking fairly close on the map, ended up being about 5 miles. As we walked, the increasingly tired and hungry bunch of students kept asking me how much farther it was going to be, to which I continued to reply “I think it is just up ahead, I can almost smell it from here”, as well as other things akin to that. After a long walking tour of Kyoto that stretched for more than an hour, we finally arrived at our destination.

The “Pig and Whistle” was very Irish looking on the outside, but its staff and clientele appeared to be mostly Japanese. We ordered an assortment of appetizers for dinner, along with a few rounds of drinks. The drinks weren’t particularly Irish either, and often ended up being quite different than what we had expected. One student in particular was horrified to find that the daiquiri she ordered had been made using bourbon, without the faintest hint of any rum. After dinner, the group broke up, since some students wanted to go out on the town, while others preferred to return to the hotel. Since we had both had a very long day, Kristin and I joined this latter group, but not before stopping by a convenience store to round off our appetizer dinner with some pork manju. We took a taxi back to the hotel, of course.

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