Running for the ferry to Hiroshima is something we had never thought we would be doing, but we made it. As we boarded the staff pulled away the passenger bridge and the ferry set sail. Luck had been on our side to make it to the ferry terminal with 3 minutes to spare. The lady at the counter allowed us to buy tickets, copy our passports and then showed us the way. Thank goodness for Japan’s great time keeping. The car ferry (budget friendly) takes a whole 160 minutes to reach Hiroshima from Matsuyama which is roughly 100 minutes slower than the speed jet ferry and half the price. We were glad we weren’t in a hurry, although it was ironic that we had needed to run for the slow ferry.
The ride was smooth and had some nice island scenery before we arrived at Hiroshima port. The well connected port has a tram station and we got a direct tram downtown to our hotel. Our first thoughts on Hiroshima were that it was modern and full of shopping arcades and restaurants just like any other Japanese city. We were hoping to delve a little deeper into it’s tragic history and also learn about some of its successes.
One of these successes is Mazda the car manufacturer, who have a large factory in the city. Normally, this wouldn’t mean much to tourists but Mazda offer free tours (book in advance) of the production line. They are located just two train stops away from Hiroshima station so that’s where we headed on our first full day. When we arrived there were lots of people milling around the lobby looking at a few cars and waiting for the tour to begin. A bus arrived to take us around the vast facility where they make a number of different models. They have buildings for design, clay modelling, pressing car panels, painting, assembly and also storage. First, we watched a promotional video about Mazda and Hiroshima, before starting our tour around the museum. The museum was well laid out taking us from the first 3-wheeled trucks to the 978B which won the 24h of Le Mons in 1987 and current research areas. Then we got taken into the best part – the assembly line. In this building all the car parts are joined together by robots and a couple of people to become working cars. The robots were impressive and well timed so that they didn’t get in the way of the workers or other robots. Each car takes around 15 hours to produce from start to finish, but based on what we saw assembly is only a very small part of this. We watched engines being installed, interiors being fitted and windows being lined with adhesive and glued in place. It was the best part of the tour but sadly we couldn’t stay as long as we wanted or see any other parts of the line. We also spotted a red herring: they were making a fiat too not just mazdas. Despite not being able to watch the cars being made all day it was a good tour and free.
Once back in the city we went to visit the central area of town. Hiroshima is famous for being the first city to have an atomic bomb dropped on it. A tragic part of history, but something we wanted to learn more about. The area that was turned to rubble near the hypocenter is now a peace park with various memorials and a peace museum. The largest remaining structure is the old city hall which is now known as the atomic bomb dome. We started here and were surprised how much of the building was still standing compared to the photos of the city we had seen. At first the building served only as a reminder of the horrors of 6th August 1945, but now it is a memorial to all the efforts to create peace. We found a book of information compiled by a man who survived in utero and lived to tell his story; it’s worth a read and a little more opinionated than the peace museum.
After a slow walk through the memorial park, we visited the peace museum. On the ground floor we found a clock, which has a counter since the last nuclear test (North Korea) and since the 6th August. The cogs below the clockface spin faster the more nuclear activity there is,and since the bottom cog is set in concrete, if a nuclear war was to begin the clock would self destruct. This and the memorials are part of Japan’s campaign for a nuclear free world. Ironically, although Japan is closing its nuclear power stations and has no nuclear warheads itself, it does have a pact with the US that if anyone attacks Japan with nuclear weapons, the US will respond. No matter your opinion of nuclear weapons, the museum is an informative and emotional exhibition of the current world nuclear situation and tales of the lives of people in Hiroshima. The impact of Little Boy not only killed thousands and destroyed a city, it tore apart families and left people struggling alone to come to terms with illness and loss. The witness accounts of the bright flash, searing heat and forceful blast were difficult to watch especially when they spoke of the people they had lost immediately, to radiation sickness in the days after and also to cancers which can be linked to the radiation exposure. One thing we had not realised was that the Allies and Japanese government had tried to cover up the true extent of the disaster to the rest of Japan and the world, and that victims were treated like guinea pigs for a scientific experiment, rather than given the help and treatment they deserved. The museum holds clothing artifacts, roof tiles and pictures of the burned victims which are really shocking to look at. However, in the depressing story of Hiroshima, there is a message of peace and regeneration that people the world over can identify with and live by.
After our visit to the museum, we were in need of a sit down to collect our thoughts and a coffee to enjoy one of life’s pleasures; cake. A little weary we went out for dinner at an okonomiyaki restaurant. Lots of people describe okonomiyaki as a Japanese pizza but really there’s no similarities. Okonomiyaki are a pancake covered with layers of vegetables, meat, fish, rice cake, eggs and cheese all topped with okonomiyaki sauce (similar to HP brown sauce) and fried on a hot plate in front of you. They sound strange but are really tasty and filling. We enjoyed watching ours being assembled and waited impatiently to try our first okonomiyaki. It was great, so great we went back two days later for another.
Our after dinner walk along Peace Boulevard was improved by an illumination festival where castles, boats and dinosaurs had been modelled out of rope lights. We got the chance to pretend to be princesses and saw a real unicorn.
The next day we planned a trip to Miyajima, the island of the gods. We took the tram and ferry from downtown and arrived into a very touristy Miyajima around midday. Miyajima is famous for the Infjdjfbfjf shrine and its floating torii. Tori are essentially gateposts that lead up to a shrine and they are normally painted red or orange. The one at Miyajima is special as it’s on the beach and at each high tide it appears to float on the surface of the sea. With high tides at 8am and 8pm we knew we wouldn’t see the giant torii float, but we still went to see it anyway. The shrine it is connected with is built upon the beach on stilts and is also painted orange. We bypassed the shrine in favour of hiking up Mount Misen. Mount Misen is 535m above sea level and was a little tougher than we expected. We probably unwittingly chose the hardest route but found ourselves walking up steps for around 75 minutes before we reached the summit. The views of the Seto Inland sea and Hiroshima were fantastic so we sat down for lunch with a view. We watched a lot of people struggling up from the ropeway station around 500m from the summit. On the way back down we found the easy and probably recommended route and reached town 45 minutes later. As a reward we tried some of the local speciality cakes – maple leaf shaped sponge filled with a variety of fillings. We opted for the deep fried version to warm us up a little. They were pretty tasty but not very unique, and thankfully we avoided the yucky bean jam. Back in town and hungry we went for another Hiroshima speciality of dipping noodles. These are essentially deconstructed ramen served with a hot or cold broth that you dip your noodles into. Tasty, but tricky to eat with chopsticks and not make a big mess. Since the hotels were ridiculous prices that night, we went to stay in a Manga cafe and helped ourselves to heaps of ice cream, drinks and the free meals.
The next day we were at a bit of a loose end as we had seen the city and Miyajima. In the end we decided to visit the city of Kure famous as the main port of the Japanese navy. Kure is around 40 minutes from Hiroshima by train but once there it’s very compact. We went to visit the Yamato museum. Named after the famous Yamato ship which was rumoured to be the most technologically advanced and powerful warship of its time, the museum tells the story of Kure and Japan’s navy from beginning to the present day. They have a 1/10th model of the Yamato and also lots of artefacts salvaged from the seabed or crashes. This includes suicide torpedos, planes and a submarine. It was an interesting museum but sadly the English audioguide was brief and most of the signs were in Japanese. We still learnt about the design and creation of the Yamato and how it was all wasted when she went on a suicide mission taking her entire crew with her to the bottom of the Pacific.
Next door to the Yamato museum is the museum of the Japanese self defense naval forces; easily recognisable thanks to the big submarine perched outside. Inside it presents the history of the navy since WWII and focuses mainly on mine clearing and submarines before taking visitors through parts of the submarine outside. Although free to enter and well presented, almost none of the information is in English and there are no audioguides available.
A couple of hours of sunshine on the docks later we headed back into town and waited for our night bus to Osaka.