Monthly Archives: April 2020

Miyajima

Miyajima, Japan: Itsukushima Shrine

On my second day in Hiroshima I bought a slightly more expensive streetcar-and-ferry pass, and in the morning travelled down tram route 2 all the way to the terminus, Miyajima-guchi.  This was another transport surprise, because after a dozen stops in street-tramway mode, à la Leeds or Sheffield circa 1950, the streetcar turns a corner into a complicated little station and then becomes a fully-fledged railway, like the Fleetwood tramroad but far longer, with houses backing on to the track, stations at regular intervals and endless automatic full-barrier crossings.  A road-sign outside Miyajima-guchi station shows the distance back to Hiroshima as 23km, but the rail line is actually 16.1km.

The ferry takes about fifteen minutes to cross a stretch of water to a wonderfully picturesque island, Miyajima, with the steep, deeply forested mountains that you see in Japanese prints, and on the foreshore the Itsukushima Shrine, ostensibly dating back to the twelfth century but apparently last replaced in 1875.  Tourists flock to photograph themselves with their backs to this monument;  schoolchildren are brought in droves to line up for class photographs.  There are sacred deer, in Shinto belief the messengers of the gods, which are regularly fed by the tourists, despite notices forbidding it.

The Hiroden public-transport operator, through its subsidiary Hiroshima Tourism Promoting [Hiroshima Kankō Kaihatsu] runs a ropeway up the sacred Mount Misen.  The upper terminus is a thirty-minute hike to the actual summit at 1,755 feet but you can’t have everything:  the ropeway takes out 945 feet of that climb and every little helps.

The island has much else to offer, several temples and a pagoda, and spectacular displays of blossom in spring and maple leaves in autumn.  I could cheerfully return for a Japanese holiday on Miyajima, knowing that a day-visit to Hiroshima city is easily practical.

Moving streetcar museum

Hiroshima Electric Tramway, Japan: “Atomic bomb” tram 652

To make the most of my two days in Hiroshima, my first mission was to get my bearings.  Armed with a day pass for the streetcars, I walked to the nearest route and rode to the railway station to find my way to the Sightseeing Loop Bus.  This is a red single-decker with vestigial commentary with two overlapping routes that I did in succession.  My Japan Rail Pass gave me this for free:  the driver simply photographed the pass with a digital camera, but more recently the service has become entirely free [https://www.hiroshima-navi.or.jp/en/information/loopbus].

The red bus tour orientation enabled me to use streetcars for the rest of my day’s travels.  The streetcar system is a full-on transport facility, not by any means a heritage operation, though it’s billed as “the moving streetcar museum” because it runs up-to-date low-floor vehicles alongside earlier generations right back to two of the trams that survived the atom bomb, 651 and 652:  http://train.sakura.ne.jp/train/hiroden/carphoto/index.html.  Indeed, the streetcar company is proud that they had three of these trams back on the road three days after the bomb.

The tram and bus operator is the Hiroshima Electric Railway Co Ltd, known from the Japanese Hiroshima Dentetsu Kabushiki-gaisha as Hiroden for short.

I made use of my streetcar pass to explore the city.  I deliberately took a tram to the end of the line at Hiroshima Port, simply to gauge how big the city is.  (It has a population of around a million, equivalent to Birmingham.)  The ferry terminal provides passenger access to various outlying islands, and indicates that the harbour facility is enormous.  Otherwise there’s little to detain anyone.

The journey back in the rush hour was a farce.  The older streetcars have seats parallel to the windows, so you sit with your back to the view, gazing at the midriffs of standing passengers.  It’s impossible to see where you are;  the in-car signage is in Japanese with no indication of the stop-numbers and there was no PA system (which in Japan might be bilingual Japanese/English).  I eventually got off at a point which fitted with my mental map and took a tram in the opposite direction back to the point where I could walk back to my hotel.  I sense that the only way to deal with the Hiroshima rush-hour is to travel to the end of the line and bag the seat beside the driver.

Rush-hour is rarely fun anywhere in the world.  Hiroshima is a tram city, and though the sightseeing loop bus is useful for orientation, there’s no better way of getting around outside rush-hours than with a day pass on the streetcars.

Atomic Bomb Dome

Hiroshima, Japan: Atomic Bomb Dome

My generation were the first to grow up in the shadow of nuclear war, and images of the devastation of the Japanese city Hiroshima were printed on our youthful imaginations. 

It’s perhaps understandable, though regrettable, that Hiroshima, destroyed by atomic bomb on August 6th 1945, has always gained attention in precedence over the port-city of Nagaski, which was attacked four days later.

When I was offered to opportunity to attend a conference in Tokyo in 2016, I asked for my return date to be deferred so that I could see something of Japan, and my first priority outside the capital was to travel to Hiroshima, now once again a thriving city with a present-day population of over a million.

The Atomic Bomb Dome [Genbaku Dōmu], which I’ve always wanted to see, is surprisingly modest, a three-storey exhibition hall and office building that survived because it was almost directly below the hypocentre, so that the walls withstood the downward blast.  Everyone in the building was, of course, vaporised.

What was a densely populated suburb is now a formally landscaped, very beautiful park, with a river channel running through it.  There are more individual memorials than it’s comfortable to take in.  I was particularly taken by the Peace Bell, a modernist cupola containing a Japanese bell which you’re invited to ring, and which resonates for well over a minute, proclaiming the hope of peace in the world.

I could hardly get near the Children’s Peace Monument, which commemorates Sadasko Sasaki, a schoolgirl survivor who succumbed to leukaemia, attributed to the bomb, at the age of twelve in 1955.  She was convinced that if she made a thousand origami cranes she would be cured.  In fact, she carried on making more than a thousand until she was too weak to continue, and the paper crane has become a symbol of the prayer for peace.  This and other monuments in the park are constantly embellished with coloured strings of cranes, some of them sent from all over the world.

The Peace Memorial Museum [http://hpmmuseum.jp/?lang=eng] disappointed me, entirely because it was impossibly crowded.  The exhibits and the information are, as you would expect, difficult to take in by their nature, but the scrum of school parties and adult tourists, many with children and pushchairs, some taking flash photographs, made me wish I could be there on a rainy November Monday afternoon to appreciate more sensitively the power of the place and the memory of the victims. 

I gather the Museum is to be greatly expanded, which might resolve this difficulty.  It’s a place that should be openly accessible to present and future generations, comparable to the better-managed 9/11 Memorial and Museum in New York City.