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I turned, gazing about me, spotted this scene and thought instantly of Hayao Miyazaki

I turned, gazing about me, spotted this scene and thought instantly of Hayao Miyazaki

Hello, and yes, I’m still working on the Japan photobook I talked about in my last post.

I wanted to highlight this photo I took the very first time I went to Iwakuni castle. It’s on the top of the mountain ridge above Niziki River and looks far beyond the city of Iwakuni and off to the sea. This tree could very well be the highest thing around, except for the castle.

Though my 5-month job turned out to be in Japan purely by chance, I felt grateful to have a fledgling background in things Japanese through my daughter. Miss T introduced me to Japanese anime and taught herself two dozen words in the language simply by watching so many subtitled shows and listening to the native speakers and singing along with the theme songs.

She would insist sometimes that I watch with her. Sometimes I did.

She introduced me to Studio Ghibli and the incredible stories woven by Hayao Miyazaki, who directs many of the movies from that studio.  One of the things that drops my jaw in wonder during his films is the use of landscape in animation. It had never occurred to me, before I became better educated, how animation can be an art form for actual art. Not just some crude figures scrawled onto a page to help tell a story, but – for example – that an animated film could pan across a wide field while wind rustles the grass in waves (this blew me away in the movie Spirited Away). I began to pay much better attention.

So, as I stood beside the castle, and turned and gazed and tried to soak up Japan, my eyes framed this animated shot and I recognized it. Not really, of course, but I recognized that the landscapes Miyazaki brings to me are not fanciful as they seemed to me before, having never seen this gorgeous country. Rather, through his work I have seen real landscapes drawn from real Japan. He (and obviously the vastly talented artists with him), can see the art in real life and make it come to life on screen. So watching his work was teaching me about Japan all along. It’s nice to know that.

The water is so still it looks as though the boats are floating in the air.

The water is so still it looks as though the boats are floating in the air.

No story today. I am beginning to go through my photos to select those to be included in my Japan photobook. I took this shot near the beginning of my time in Japan, and it remained one of my favourites all year. I just thought I’d share it with you.

This is right next to the famous Kintai Bridge in Iwakuni. With this photo, you get no sense of the press of people or of what a tourist destination it is. The river is spectacularly clear, and filled with fish. There are locals fishing all day long every day. Many with a fishing pole, many with boats like these in the photo, and a few also employ an ancient fishing method using cormorants. Yes, the birds. Cormorants have a loop around their necks and are tethered to boats. When they catch a fish, they return to the boat, where fishermen tighten the loop and the bird gives up the fish. Every so often, the birds get to keep a fish, to maintain their cooperation.

A lush valley of rice fields surrounded by browning bamboo forests

In 17 weeks I have not hit every tourist attraction, but one thing I have seen more than the average visitor sees, is scene after scene after scene of Japanese countryside, cities and towns. This post is dedicated to the indisputable beauty of the country of Japan. I am going to take this opportunity to display only train-related images. I took all these shots. Please click any photo for a larger version.

Glimpse of the sea as the Shinkansen passes north between the islands of Kyushu and Honshu

Murals at the Shin-Iwakuni station

Rice fields and green hills

Rocky cliffs exposed

Since June I have been riding trains in this country. The small ones I call the “clickety clack” trains. And then there are express trains. There are subways. There is the deservedly world-famous Shinkansen! I’ve been on all of them. Sometimes I’m crammed in and forced to stand; sometimes I’m practically alone; sometimes I find myself on the wrong one! Often I am the only non-Japanese person around.

From the new shin side of Tokyo Station, viewing the old Marunouchi side. The red building you see is Tokyo Station as it was constructed in 1914.

castle

Every train is a potential adventure, and many trips turn out to be an actual adventure. All trains provide a seat and a window. I provide the camera.

Because they are my medium of travel, my portal to another world, the trains themselves fascinate me. The tracks that carry them. The stations where they stop.

I hope the trains and tracks and stations are not boring to you. They hold such electricity for me when I look at them; I simply can’t help myself but take more photos. My external hard drive here in my room is bursting at the seams with train photos.

Station stop for the Iwakuni Shinkansen station.

I know the routes so well that once I realized I was on the wrong train because I heard the announcement in Japanese for the next stop of Tokuyama, and realized I was heading south instead of north. I know the sights so well that I noticed a photo incorrectly placed in my digital folder for Misawa. It was a photo of Hakata station, which is not on the way to Misawa.

I know there are more pines in the north of Honshu, not only because I have seen them, but I can smell them up there. There are more tunnels for the tracks in the south. From the train in southern Kyushu, I can spot fields growing grains other than rice. There are more snow-capped peaks in the north.

With a quick glance, I can see easily that this is Hakata Station

So that’s it for today. Just photos. I’ve been spending the weekend catching up on very late blog posts, and publishing them with the correct dates, so if you’re interested, you can scroll back the last few months and find some new gems tucked in there.

I love this photo. Little sweetheart tired girl, waiting with the bags while her mom is taking care of something. It’s rare to see a child alone, but this is an example of how SAFE Japan is, even if a child must be alone for a few minutes.

An example of a clickety-clack train from up in Aomori Prefecture. When I ride this one, it’s typically two cars long, has no announcements, and no signs in English.

Express train for Huis Ten Bosh theme park on Kyushu. These trains are smooth and pretty fast, like a step between clickety-clack and shinkansen.

Nose of the shinkansen glides in slick like the head of a snake. These trains are thrilling to watch as well as ride. Cameras always come out when one shows up. The ride is smooth as silk, quiet, luxurious, and perfectly precisely on time. Like…to the second…

…except on September 17, 2012. These are the signs at Hakata station during Typhoon Sanba. The only time I have ever seen the shinkansen late. It apparently takes a typhoon to put a glitch in the schedule.

Tokyo station at night. Yes, most Japanese men do typically wear white shirts and black pants.

 

Seats inside the express train to Sasebo. Roomy, but not as nice as the shin.

Spring fields and a tractor preparing the soil for the year’s crops. In most of Japan, the season only allows one harvest of rice.

You can barely see the rice plants, set by hand, and now flooded to begin the growing season. Notice the houses set a few feet up on retaining walls, to keep the foundations dry.

A little later in the season, this is in northern Honshu, as you can see snow on the mountains. Rice is coming up in rows.

One field harvested; the others still maturing.

Wheat fields on Kyushu

Industrial center at Tokuyama seaport.

People waiting for the train at Yokogawa Station, south of Hiroshima

Beautiful Gothic style cathedral

yellow door

Ships and islands visible in the Seto Inland Sea

Going through Sendai made me just a little nervous so soon after the meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.

Gazing out across the tracks.

Very typical view of densely populated valleys swelling into the foothills when the space becomes needed.

Maybe it looks boring to you, but I love this view from Hiroshima station! There is a cacophony here, even when I stand still and silent. Look at the men waiting at this small local station – it’s a peaceful scene in reality. But to me: this sight is ferociously loud.

View of Nagasaki at night from the observatory

Friday afternoon, Ian and I shook off the somber mood of the Atomic Bomb Museum, and went out into Nagasaki to see what else there was. First of all, we were starving, so we had to find a place to eat. We rode the streetcar back toward the center of town. We wandered through streets for awhile, taking the time to poke into curious areas in our search for food. We found an underground market, but it turned out to sell mostly raw seafood, and we had no way of cooking it.

The underground market had many stalls displaying fresh fish

The eyeball of this huge fish was nearly 3 inches across!

After eating, we went to a landmark in Nagasaki called Spectacles Bridge, because the reflections of the two arches in the water look like round spectacles. There are several beautiful stone bridges along the river in that part of town. Spectacles Bridge was built by Zen master Mokusu Nyojo, and is the oldest stone bridge in Japan.

At one point in the river, rainbows of koi fish were hovering, as if waiting to be fed by people on the shore. A few people appeared on the stone ledge beside the river, and the fish moved to them in a group, sloppy carp mouths gaping above the surface.

Meganabashi, Spectacles Bridge, the oldest Chinese-style stone bridge in Japan

People cross on the stepping stones, and fish wait hopefully for food

We saw signs pointing up a hill, so we walked along narrow streets till we saw red painted beams of a temple above rooftops, and were able to find our way to it. We had discovered Kofuku-ji, the first Obaku Zen temple in Japan, its origins dating to around 1620. Interestingly, Mokusu Nyojo was one of the masters at this temple. This was the first of a series of temples built by Chinese immigrants determined to make a grand display of their loyalty to Buddhism, so that people would be less inclined to suspect that they were Christians (since Christianity was outlawed).

Tohmeizan Kofukuji

fabulous flower

Behind the temple was a cemetery that stretched far up the hill behind it. Ian and I climbed between the gravestones, through a maze of stone steps, trying to get a higher vantage point and possibly see the end of the cemetery. Hundreds of rectangular family plots are carved into the mountainside, each with its own hand-built, narrow, concrete and crumbling steps. But it truly was a maze! I would follow steps up to a dead-end, back track, try different steps to another dead end. I would spot a different path from there which seemed to lead higher, so I would go back down, try the new route, only to be stopped at another dead end. Ian was doing the same thing in a different part of the cemetery. He came down to where I stood and pointed to another section, “It looks like you have to start over there,” he said. I followed his hand, and saw that we would have to find the beginning of the trail from the other side of the temple grounds. So we hopped down all the little steps and walked through the temple grounds and buildings again, with an eye out for a way to get behind them to the path we sought. We made it all the way to the other side, but every path to the back was blocked.

Cemetery stretches up and out of sight on the hill behind the temple

Kofuku-ji closes at 5:00 pm. We discovered this when worried caretakers began stealing glances our way, and closing doors to areas we were no longer visiting. We were also feeling a little self-conscious about trying to get into a different part of the cemetery only in order to climb higher into it, and not for mourning someone’s passing or paying respect to the dead.

Farther along the Nakashima River are more stone bridges

We wandered back toward the river, and back to the streetcar line. Ian wanted to find the observatory at Nagasaki before nightfall, so we would be able to watch the sunset from the summit.

A shrine beside the river. The symbol of a swastika (called manji) in Japan, is the infinity character, and signifies a Buddhist temple.

For 1200 yen each (about $15) we purchased tickets for the tram that would take us to the observatory. We waited with a growing group of other sunset-seekers, and found vending machines to quench our thirst while we explored the shrines there. Our timing was good, and we arrived at the top while the sky was still light enough to illuminate the scene below us. A three-story circular building perches at the top of the hill, allowing viewers on the observation deck on the roof to have a clear view above the trees. We could see in every direction.

View of homes below the tram as we sailed through the air

People atop the building, looking out across Nagasaki city

The observation tower, with a restaurant and resting area inside, and an observation deck on top.

We remained at the observatory till it was completely dark, watching as lights below grew brighter. Then we rode the streetcar back to the train station, and made the long journey back to Sasebo.

Path down to the torii entrance to the shrine and tram boarding station

Stray cats waiting for the train with us

A sunset view

Ian, beside the river

Nagasaki City Peace Hall viewed across the reflecting pool of the Nagasaki National Peace Memorial

My brother Ian and I agreed that Nagasaki was on our list of things to do. Friday I was free to spend the whole day out touring with Ian, so we made plans to take the train south along the western edge of Kyushu and see the famous city.

Rain crashes onto the train that will take us to Nagasaki

We were up early (Ian assisted by vestiges of jet lag), but we lagged in preparations because it was raining pretty hard outside. We went across the parking lot to the Harbor View Club for breakfast, but the rain continued. After some discussion, we agreed that rain or no, today was the best day to see Nagasaki.

Boy howdy, did it rain! We stopped first at the NEX (Navy Exchange) to buy umbrellas (I think I own six umbrellas now, since I kept getting caught without one). We slogged through the downpour to the train station. We bought tickets and climbed aboard absolutely soaked through.

Part of the Huis Ten Bosh European theme park

Japanese houses in the rain

Rice fields mature beside the tracks on our way to Nagasaki

The small train went slowly to Nagasaki. After an hour and a half we had arrived, and the weather had improved dramatically by the time we arrived. What a relief. Ian proved resourceful, and while I was still trying to think through how we should begin getting around, he found information on how to get an inexpensive day pass for the streetcars. We found maps of the city in English at the Information shop where we purchased the pass.

entrance of the train station

one of the streetcars that took us around the city

First stop was the atomic bomb museum. I was eager to compare this one to the one I had seen in Hiroshima. (Please see my blog post from my first visit to Hiroshima Peace Park.) Many people had told me they preferred the Nagasaki peace park/ museum complex. It is less polished than the one in Hiroshima, and for some that makes it more real.

twisted metal {click to enlarge}

from the church

I found myself less distraught at the complex in Nagasaki. Perhaps because I was with my brother and made an effort not to let myself get too emotional, whereas in Hiroshima I was with Tara, and we are comfortable crying together.

ruined bowl

What struck me the most in Nagasaki was seeing how much of their Christian community had been destroyed. Of course, Nagasaki was a wonderfully diverse city at that time, and contained worshippers of multiple faiths, but before this summer I would never have guessed how many Catholics were there. I wonder how many Americans knew about this after the bomb: we hadn’t vaporized alien beings, but Christians, and sacred Catholic churches and artifacts. This realization was consistent with the little bit of Japanese history I learned this summer when I read Shusaku Endo’s compelling book, Silence, about Jesuit priests that snuck into Japan in the 17th century to minister to the faithful who had to worship in secret under penalty of death if discovered.

melted rosary {click to enlarge}

Information board at the museum:

The Urakami district of Nagasaki was the site of Christian missionary work from the latter part of the 16th century. The people of Urakami suffered persecution constantly from 1587 when Christianity was outlawed until 1873 when the ban was finally lifted. Over the course of 20 years, these faithful people built a church, laying one brick upon another. Their labors were rewarded in 1914 with the completion of the grandest church in East Asia. The church’s twin 26 meter high spires were completed in 1925. But the explosion of the atomic bomb blew the spires down and reduced the church to a hollow shell of rubble.

inside the atomic bomb museum

Another very compelling sight was the famous image of the man and ladder “burned” into the side of a building at the instant of the deathly bright flash of the bomb burst, and also the image similarly captured by vines on a wall. These things make it very real: the tragedy, the instantaneous destruction, the power of the bomb.

“About 4.4 kilometers from the hypocenter. A lookout was exposed to the flash of the atomic bomb explosion after coming down from the roof of the Nagasaki Fortress Headquarters. The tar exposed directly to the flash burned and disappeared but that in the shadows remained.”

wood burned by flash of bomb, but protected where the vine grew

live vine

There are other things to see on location, so after the museum, we toured the Yataro Noguchi Art Museum. Works in the small museum were primarily by the named artist, but we found paintings by other artists that impressed us more than the impressionistic paintings of Noguchi.

mahjong

Then we walked through the Nagasaki Museum of History and Folklore.

Finally we found the entrance to the Nagasaki National Peace Memorial Hall for the Atomic Bomb Victims. The hall is underground, and the entrance is through a water sculpture that creates a reflecting pond on the surface. Water only about an inch deep covers 70,000 tiny fiber optic lights representing the 73,884 deaths attributed to the atomic bomb and the nuclear fallout.

remembrance hall atrium

The underground peace memorial hall was cool, modern, peaceful. It is built for prayer and reflection and remembrance. Architect Akira Kuryu did an excellent job of creating the right kind of mood down there. In the main hall atrium, there are 12 lit green pillars that soar upwards to a skylight. At one end of the row of pillars is an equally tall column holding shelves with cards, each card containing the written name of a victim. There is a book for people to write in, on a table that also holds dedications. These often consisted of folded paper cranes for peace. The paper cranes are found all over the site here in Nagasaki, as well as in Hiroshima.

Our wanderings led us up and out of the complex after that, and we wandered back into the city to look for more sights to see and hopefully some food, as well. Sadly, we did not realize that the bomb hypocenter was very close to us, though hidden behind trees. Thus we did not make our way to that final sobering memorial.

Looking west from the observatory, a view of the Kujukushima

Looking west from the observatory, a view of the Kujukushima

My third and final visitor was my brother, Ian. He told me that of all the places in the world he wanted to visit, Japan topped the list. I was stymied by this statement of his, having never suspected such a love for Asia in my brother. I remained curious about his declaration only until he actually showed up and I discovered what it was all about. Cars! Ian loves vehicles with a passion, and has consistently loved them since he was old enough to say “car.” In Japan, two-thirds of his photos were of cars that he can’t see in the states.

I had to work during the weekdays, so our exploration was in the evening. Norm told us about a free shuttle bus that left from the train station and went to a hotel on the top of the hill looking out over Sasebo. The shuttle ran into the evening hours.

Yumihari no Oka Hotel, on Mt. Shokan-dake above Sasebo. You can also see the sharp point of the roof over the observatory, rising above the trees farther up the hill.

Yumihari no Oka Hotel, on Mt. Shokan-dake above Sasebo. You can also see the sharp point of the roof over the observatory, rising above the trees farther up the hill.

Sasebo ginza from the bus on our way to the hotel.

Ian and I walked from base to the train station, and were pleased to see Norm and his wife, Kiyomi, waiting for the same shuttle. They were having a business meeting over dinner at the Yumihari no Oka hotel restaurant. The shuttle stop is out on the street and marked only with a small metal sign, so their presence was reassuring to us that we had found the right place.

The bus took us on this fabulous narrow and winding road up the side of the mountain. I haven’t mentioned yet that in Japan, there are often two-way streets that are only wide enough to accommodate one vehicle. Motorists must always be ready for oncoming traffic, and be prepared to avoid a head on collision by pulling off to the side into a wide spot. The road up to the hotel was one such narrow road. The driver was obviously comfortable with his route, and powered up the steep slopes, zoomed around curves, turned the wheel to the left, the right, the left, braked, stepped on the gas and wound deftly between houses built right up to the edge of the paved road. The ride itself was part of the adventure!

The hotel pool from their balcony

The hotel pool from their balcony

At the hotel, Kiyomi explained to the extremely gracious attendants that we were there to take photos, and though we were not customers, they led us to a lovely balcony off the dining room. From there we had a stunning sunset view of the Sasebo Navy Base directly below us to the south, and of the 99 Islands (Kujukushima)  to the west.

When we were done taking advantage of our hosts’ incredible balcony, they told us there was an observatory at the top of the mountain. Observatory turns out to mean, in Japan, a viewpoint.

We walked a short distance up to Saikai National Park where we were treated to a stunning 270 degree view of the city and ocean below. There is a nicely developed area with paths, information signs, and a roof. Over the western ledge, a wooden walking bridge out to another observation platform, led us to a wide vista. From there we could see the Kujukushima Islands that stretch out into the sea into a postcard-perfect scene. My camera was kind enough to lighten up the shot for me, pulling most available light into its lens and making the islands easier to see in the photos than was possible with our eyes.

The entrance to the wooden walkway to the west-facing observation deck

Sasebo Navy Base below the Yumihari Observatory

Sasebo streets at night

Across the bow of the USS Denver, I can see the food and activities tents down below, set up in front of the stage where the 7th Fleet Band will perform.

I showed up at Fleet Activities Sasebo on August 5, 2012, unaware that there was any kind of event happening on base. That is…until the taxi driver did not take me through the Front Gate, but entered the base around back instead. As he maneuvered the car carefully through hundreds of pedestrians, I could see that a festival was underway.

It was still early afternoon, so I checked in to NGIS Bachelor Officers’ Quarters, and then made my way back along the esplanade, toward all the people. I grabbed some hot dogs and a soda from the USO, then bought a couple of Tomodachi memorial tshirts. In the aftermath of the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11, 2011, the United States military and Japan Self-Defense Forces worked together successfully in Operation Tomodachi to provide immediate humanitarian relief to the Tohoku region. From what I can see in my travels this summer, it seems like the Navy provided actual people on the ground to assist Japan, and other branches provided most of the air support.

Flags flying at Fleet Activities Sasebo: United Nations, U.S., POW, and Japan

It was exciting to see the base filling with Japanese families, who were invited to walk right onto the base from the streets of the city. It felt like a wonderful gesture of transparency: “Please, come on in and have a look around.” But then,  I needed to remind myself that this is a Japanese base too. We not only stand still every morning and every evening for our own anthem, but for theirs also. On all three bases I visit, one must stand at attention if in uniform, otherwise with hand over heart while the U.S. flag is raised or lowered, and the U.S. national anthem is played. We also stand respectfully while the Japanese flag is raised or lowered, and the Japanese anthem is played. I’ve heard the Japanese anthem so many times now I believe I have the tune memorized.

There was live music in the field over by the gym, so I made my way that direction, but got distracted by all the people heading toward the ships. The ships! It looked as though we could get very close. Dare I hope: go on board?

USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD-6) from NGIS, where I sleep when I’m on base. This photo does not convey the awesome immensity of the ship.

Walking toward the ships (USS Denver with USS Bonhomme Richard behind)

The deck of the BHR is so vast you can’t even tell you’re on a ship!

 

A Japanese ship docked off the stern of the BHR

 

From inside the BHR

And just like that, I got to step onto the USS Bonhomme Richard, the gigantic amphibious assault ship I had been in awe of during every visit to Sasebo. It’s docking location is directly across the rectangle bay from where I stay at BOQ. Every evening, every morning, I look over there in total admiration of the huge vessel. Today, I got to walk right inside, climb the stairs, and walk upon its enormous deck.

Next I went on board the USS Denver, right next to BHR. It’s an older ship, which made the control room very cool for a civilian like me. I like to see all that old awesome equipment, mixed in with the newer, digital stuff.

Control room of the USS Denver

Making myself at home on the USS Denver

Finally, I went down many flights of stairs and made my way back out and onto shore. A big, brassy sound was coming my way. The tune reminded me of all the great stuff Tara and I have been hearing on the cable show Treme, which we were watching on Netflix, prior to my coming to Japan. If you love the sound of New Orleans blues, I recommend you watch the show too. In any case, what I found was the 7th Fleet Band. As the band wrapped up its final song, the sky began a drip drop here and there, and by the time the band had packed up, it was a solid rain. No one was too upset, since it was still about 85 degrees while it rained. We just got wet and a little cooler.

7th Fleet Band

The full moon, birds, and construction towers, viewed from my room at the Kintai Inn on the Marine Base at Iwakuni.

August 2 was a full moon. The window of my room at the Kinati Inn on Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni is perfectly positioned to capture views lit by the rising sun. And thus, perfectly situated to snap some shots of the full moon. At first I was cursing the unnatural-looking construction towers in the foreground. But now that I look again, I like the effect.

Moon and birds. Or bats?

Iwakuni Castle glows in the morning sun. Another great view from my window.

August 4 was a huge festival at the Kintai Bridge in Iwakuni. There would be the biggest fireworks show of the year, apparently. I walked over there in the evening, using the small concrete dam I often walk along, as a shortcut. Families were set up with picnics and umbrellas along the dam, waiting for the show. Kids were swimming in the river and catching fish with nets.

When I got closer to the bridge area, I saw that it was teeming with people. I was not in a people mood that night. Often, I am not in a people mood. I turned right around, though the fireworks had begun, and went back to the dam.

View of the fireworks over Kintai Bridge, from the concrete dam. Iwakuni Castle, lit up at night, sends a long column of white into the water.

I didn’t have a tripod, so I had to set my camera on the rocks in front of me. I didn’t use the timer, just took a bunch of shots trying to keep the camera still. Some of them turned out ok.

My unsteady hand makes an interesting photo with the lights of the double bridge.

Green sparks reflect off the water

Red smoke drifts into the air

But more than fireworks photos, what I experienced this night was the warm quiet of happy families on a summer night. People spoke in murmurs, with little chuckling laughs. It was hot, so I took off my shoes and sat with my feet in the Nishiki River. No one paid any attention to me, partly due to the politeness of the Japanese custom, partly due to anonymity of darkness, partly because others enjoyed the peace and quiet as much as I did. We were perfectly content not to extend ourselves outside our fuzzy dark night bubbles of serenity. The booming of the explosions was out of sync with the cascades of sparkling lights, due to the distance. The cicadas droned their ceaseless instruments. I could have laid back onto the concrete – still holding the warmth of the afternoon – and fallen asleep.

Families (and their bikes) sit along the dam, watching the fireworks.

The Hiroshima Exhibition Hall was completed in 1915. On August 6, 1945, it was one of the few buildings of brick, stone, mortar, and steel, and thus remained standing when all the flimsy wooden buildings were flattened.

Too soon, the day came when I had to send my little girl home without me. It had been a great visit, albeit “visit” was all it was. I had to focus on work again, and Miss T had to get back to summer with her dad in California. Her plane would leave from Hiroshima on Monday. Sunday we took the train north to see the city and stay the night to avoid having to rush the next morning.

We were extravagant in Hiroshima! I wanted to have the most enjoyable time possible, because it was so sad for us to be separated again. The shuttle bus to the airport was right outside the train station, so I didn’t want to go too far in search of a hotel. We spotted a Sheraton only steps away, but of course we knew it would be expensive for such convenience. I did a little calculation in my head and said to Tara, “Ok. We’ll go see if they have room for us and how much it is. I’ll set my spending limit at…. 16,000 yen.” We didn’t tell the man behind the counter anything about our discussion, so it was a little surprising to hear him announce: “One room for two, one night, that would be 16,000 yen.” It’s a lot of money. I looked at Tara. She said, “Well, that’s your limit,” and shrugged. So I took the room.

Our expensive – but very convenient and luxurious – room in Hiroshima.

From our room we could see the Hiroshima Carp baseball stadium, and thousands of people walking to it for the evening’s game.

We both took showers and changed our clothes, then we struck out. Directly in front of the hotel was a plaza filled with taxis (I’m telling you: we paid for convenience). We got into one and asked to go to Peace Park. Our plan was to wander around the Peace Park and museum, then sight see as we walked through the ginza on our way back to the hotel. {Note: in every single search I run, the Internet tells me there is only one “Ginza” and it is in Tokyo. However, I frequently heard the local shopping districts in smaller cities referred to as the ginza. If I am wrong, I plead forgiveness. I am only copying local habit.}

Only later did I check the weather in Hiroshima on Sunday and discover that it was in the 90s all day, peaking at 97 degrees, with 75% humidity. We were irritable and unmotivated the moment we stepped out of the cab. Ugh, what horrible weather. How can locals endure it for a lifetime? How can visitors choose to stay here, as I see so very many American servicemen do? My own reaction to the weather must be related to living most of my life in the arid West.

Tara and I walked a wandering path, not knowing where to go, but aiming for the trees, and their promise of less heat. We had our umbrellas up for shade, but there was really no relief to be had. Beneath the shady trees, we spotted across the river what is now called the Atomic Bomb Dome. It was the main thing I had come to see. The only atomic bomb landmark I knew.

Sitting in the Peace Park, across the river, Tara looked at the destroyed building across from us, its famous steel dome skeleton attracting her gaze. “See how it’s bent to one side? I wonder if that’s the direction the bomb came from.” Later, at the museum, we found out she was right. And more than the empty shell of the building, the steel support beams squashed to one side made this so real to me.

We walked to the tip of the island the Park occupies, walked out along a bridge to where it intersected another bridge and made a “T.” We turned right to cross the river to the bombed building. We had no idea that we had carelessly walked across a target. August 6, 1945, the Enola Gay aimed for that exact T, hoping to drop the bomb called “Little Boy” onto it. She missed, but only a little, proving a remarkably accurate drop for conditions in 1945.

We walked solemnly around the rubble left at the base of the building, reading the information signs and feeling the enormity of destruction this place signified. High school girls were collecting signatures in support of world peace, and were delighted to take both of ours.

The back of the bombed out building, with rubble remaining at the base of the walls.

We saw a man seated in the shade, who asked in English, “Are you Australian? British? American?” We said American, and he began to tell us his story. Mito Kosei was in utero at the time of the bombing. His harangue was health care rights from the government of Japan for those injured by the radiation poisoning. He needled us with arguments and incensing comments, using a 3-ring binder filled with images and newspaper clippings to press his point. How very terrible the radiation was. We agreed. And how very terrible it still is and how the government of Japan refuses to acknowledge that there is any remaining health effect, and the government of the U.S. is in cahoots with Japan in denying the existence of any health damage resulting from radiation poisoning. He showed us his own health care card, provided by the Japanese government, that acknowledged him as a survivor.

I wasn’t exactly sure what his angle was. Why was he so angry? We stood there long enough for him to touch on other topics. One of the pages was a full 8×10 of his mother, whom he spoke of with great affection. “She lived to 92,” he said. When I raised my eyebrow, he quickly added, “My father, who died before her, lived to the age of 96. My parents lived a long, full life,” he said, beaming with pride. And again, I wondered what his personal complaint was, regarding radiation poisoning. Of course I acknowledge that radiation poisoning is terrible, but this particular person was feeling personally wounded. But I couldn’t tell from what. His parents had lived very very long lives, he himself appeared healthy, and even had the support of his government to receive health care benefits. It touched a nerve, I guess, and reminded me of U.S. veterans. Receiving so much, so much, from their government, yet remaining angry and accusatory.

Inside the Hiroshima Memorial Peace Museum

Watch stopped at exactly 8:15 a.m., the time of the world’s first atomic bomb used as a weapon.

We crossed the bridge again to return to the shade, and slowly made our way back to where the taxi had let us loose. Neither of us was eager to see the inside of the museum, because what we had seen so far was very sad. I had been getting tears in my eyes just reading the information panels at the atomic bomb dome. But we suspected it would be air conditioned, so we went in.

It was devastating to both of us. The museum is beautiful, thoughtful, thorough, brutal. It’s three stories high, with a skywalk over to an additional section that went down through another three stories. Tara and I got through the first floor, most of the second, and then that was all we could take. I had been crying for half an hour. We left the museum.

A 3D display shows the actual location of the detonation site. 600 meters above ground, the bomb destroyed nearly every structure within a 2 kilometer radius, and killed thousands of people instantly. Thousands more died soon after, flesh dripping off them, with nausea, fever, diarrhea, loss of hair, and internal bleeding. And then many more died after that, due to sudden bouts of cancer.

Tara blows to cool her ramen.

Next we entered the shopping area. The main item on our agenda was to find a manga bookstore for Miss T. We wandered only a block before Tara spotted a ramen restaurant. We were instantly distracted from manga to food!

This place was perfect for us. Huge bowls of ramen came out with sliced pork and green onions on top, and rice and deep fried chicken pieces for side dishes. And next to our table: a bookcase filled with tattered paperback manga for us to read while we ate. I selected an issue of Fullmetal Alchemist. True, I couldn’t read it, but one can figure out a graphic novel without the use of words.

Miss T in her element.

Only a few blocks away, we found the manga  shop we sought!

Covered outdoor shopping in Hiroshima

beer

The shopping districts in every town are covered and allow foot traffic only. It’s such a good idea: protects people from the weather and traffic, and encourages shopping. Why don’t more cities in the U.S. use this idea? Hm. I suppose a mall is the same idea, except it’s indoors. I like being out of doors, with a roof.

We stopped at a coffee shop with tables near a big front window. Tara and I each got an iced fruit drink and sat, resting our feet, while we gazed out the windows. After some time, Tara remarked to me: “It looks like those guys are going up to pretty women who pass them, and talking to them.” I looked out the window, and in a few minutes I was certain she was right. I also knew exactly what I was looking at, because I had read the post of another WordPress blogger who wrote about “Nanpa.”

Would you go out with me?

These were single guys, hoping for a date. They stood in the center of a busy intersection, and tried to make a connection with every eligible-looking female who passed them. They never had any luck the whole time Tara and I watched.

Hiroshima in the setting sun. Every city in Japan is on a river, surrounded by mountains. It makes for postcard images.

Street lights counter the growing darkness

As we walked, the sun dropped, and the weather became less obnoxious. Our spirits lifted a little. We reached the river, which provided some lovely reflecting views. We chased river crabs around, trying to get their photographs. We passed tired and somewhat dejected Carp fans returning home from the game. {I had read earlier that the Carp fans are wildly supportive of their team, despite many losses for the players. It reminded me of Boston fans.}

Restaurant lit up along our long walk back to the hotel from the Peace Park.

Red crab beside the river

We wandered the streets and crossed several bridges, always wending our way toward the train station. We did finally make it to the train station, but were stuck on the wrong side of it. Full of confidence, I led her into an underground tunnel, but when we came out again, I saw that I had led us even farther away from the hotel. I checked our map, trying to discover where the proper tunnel was, and which way we should go to find it. As we sat there on a wall, looking at the map, a Japanese man came up to us. He did not look like most Japanese men, who have short hair, a white shirt, and black slacks. This man had long, unkempt hair in a ponytail, filthy grey t-shirt, and ragged olive cargo pants. He was barefoot. However, he talked to us with total confidence, and he gestured at the map.

It was easy to explain our problem: I simply pointed at the hotel on the map, and he saw we were on the wrong side. He said something to us, gestured for us to follow. Part of me was unsure how to handle the idea that an unkempt Japanese man now knew where our hotel was, and that we were lost. But Tara trusted him immediately. I had been in Japan long enough to know that crime hardly ever occurs here, and that people are mind-blowingly honest. So, we followed him.

It would have taken us an hour to discover the path he took us along in only 10 minutes. Through throngs of people, down one block, around a corner, down two flights of stairs, into the tunnel, a long, long tunnel, turning corners, intersections within the underground tunnel, and finally choosing one set of stairs, among several others, to climb. We resurfaced only steps from our hotel. Tara and I gushed our thanks, and in seconds, he was gone.

Miss T showing a lack of eagerness to begin her day.

The next morning we played around in the room awhile, trying on the complimentary kimonos, checking out the mini-bar with things written in Japanese, and ate a fabulous {and expensive} breakfast buffet and watched some London Olympics. I believe it was Judo. Japan and Korea were contending, and the members of the lobby were very fired up about it, men and women alike!

goofing around in my hotel kimono

Finally it was time to go to the airport. We showed up very early, since it was an international flight, but Hiroshima is a small airport, so there wasn’t much for us to do once we checked in. We wandered around the place for a few hours, did some last-minute gift shopping, and the heartbreaking part: I waved goodbye at her while she went through security and out of sight. Well, she had made it all the way to Japan by herself. I suspected she would make it back to the states just fine too. But it was still a very sad day for me, and I stayed sad during all the hours it took to get back home to Iwakuni.

Tara reaches out to comfort the buck. This Nijonjika (Japanese deer) was the first one we saw. It soon became evident that something is terribly wrong with the deer on this island.

After visiting Maneki Neko, the Cat Café, Tara and I hopped back on the little local train to head south again. We got off at Miyajimaguchi Station, in hopes of finding our way to Miyajima Island. I had been told it was easy to find the ferry boat. That turned out to be true: we spotted the ferry while still inside the train station. So, we bought tickets for the ferry at a vending machine nearby. (All tickets can be purchased at a vending machine. Indeed, sometimes it’s the only option. Luckily, they are pretty easy to figure out. Luckier still, when I guess wrong, there is nearly always a forgiving official who can get it straightened out for  me.)

At the ferry dock by Miyajimaguchi station

The ferry ride was cool, breezy, relaxing. A welcome respite from the stifling July heat and humidity. Tara and I brought umbrellas for shade, but there is no way to escape the brutal weather of a Japanese summer.

Soon we spotted the huge red torii in the waters of Miyajima island, which is just offshore and a bit south of Hiroshima. The island is famous for its shrines, and the primary one is Itsukushima Shrine, for which this torii is the gate, or spiritual entrance. If you’ve only seen one photo of a giant red torii in Japan, it was probably this one. From the ferry, the famous torii of Itsukushima Shrine is quite noticeable, and drew my eye as we drew closer and closer.

Water-resistant camphor wood was used to build the torii, which can be approached on foot at low tide.

Looking past Itsukushima Shrine to the island of Honshu – Japan’s largest and most populated island.

Deer begs Tara for ice cream

This island is also famous for its deer. I had seen deer at the base of Mt. Fuji, but I don’t typically see wildlife here except birds, insects, crabs, frogs, fish, and lizards. These are a species of Sika deer, which do not lose their spots in adulthood. The deer were apparently sacred here at some point in the past, likely because a Shinto Buddhist belief is that deer are the messengers of the gods. However, they are currently considered a nuisance by local residents and Japanese officials.

After quick research, I cannot find when the ban on feeding went into effect, prohibiting people from feeding the deer. Until the ban, food for the deer was sold to visitors, and the large population of the deer was due to total dependence upon tourists. I found an unreliable resource that stated it was in 2007. I found a “please sign our save the deer petition” and the first signatures were dated 2002. PETA apparently became involved in 2008. Travel guides mention the issue in 2010.

The most official resource I could find is this publication from the Hatsukaichi City website with a city plan for fiscal years 2009-2013 (Heisei 21-25) to deal with the deer.  Disturbingly, one claim in this document is the intent to build a facility to “rescue unhealthy deer.” It’s disturbing because the city officials of Hatsukaichi are confessing that they should be responsible for detecting and treating unhealthy deer, but in 2012 I stood there on the island and witnessed many starving, deformed deer with skin diseases.

Patting a pregnant deer with patches of fur missing. This is just before another one snuck up behind me and tried to eat papers out of my bag.

Deer graze on what they can find at the creekside.

Before you make any assumptions, please know that I am no vegan tree-hugger. I grew up eating deer and learning how to shoot them. I’m merely pointing out some shockingly poor resource management. And I’m not bashing Japan. There are cases in the U.S. where local deer populations exploded when deer became reliant on food provided by people. It’s a terrible mix: people food and wild animals. And most tourists are too dumb to see the problem, as they gleefully feed cold french fries and paper ice cream wrappers to the deer, then post their videos on YouTube.

Deer and people mix in every open space. I think that one is trying to figure out how to get inside the restaurant.

I’m glad the Internet references to this issue become more common recently. Perhaps it means that local people will be pressured into coming up with a more effective plan. What that plan would be, I can’t guess. I saw no vegetation around for the deer to eat, but maybe there is some tucked away in the hills. I suspect if there was another option besides begging from tourists, the deer would choose to eat grass instead of starve to death.

Sorry about this depressing post. I intended to write about the beauty of the shrines, the photogenic torii (what’s plural for torii? toriii?), my lovely daughter sharing Japan with me, and of course, the agony of the abominable damp thickness of the furnace we had to endure day after day… oh. I mean, the weather.

But you know, as cool as the sights were, as impressive the shrines, as fun as the ferry rides were, the deer made it depressing. Tara and I didn’t really talk about it, but it was the elephant in the room. The deer themselves reminded us how unfortunate they were, every couple of minutes, as they hovered nearby and followed the movements of our hands hopefully, as though they might contain food.  I was so disappointed not to have been alerted to bring food ahead of time.

Deer with deformed leg eats food powder.

At one point, a woman showed up with some kind of food. It looked like rabbit pellets mixed with powdered chicken feed. She spread it all over the ground and deer showed up in herds to eat it. But a lot of the powder was wasted when it got mixed into the sand. I watched two rear up on hind legs and bash each other with their hooves, fighting over the powdered food in the sand.

Tara took this photo of me in front of the torii

I’m resting at the base of the five-tiered pagoda

Tara beneath a towering granite torii

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