Category Archives: Exploring Japan

Transportation in miniature

Hiroshima, Japan: City Transportation Museum, Chōrakuji

I had a couple of hours to spare in my last afternoon in Hiroshima, so I took to the Astram, opened in 1994, a people-mover built to connect with the major sporting arena up in the hills, Edion Stadium Hiroshima. 

The people-mover is remarkable, over eleven miles long, running underground beneath the central area and then mounting a continuous viaduct that never seems to touch the ground.  I’m not convinced about this rubber-tyred concrete technology:  it’s distinctly bumpy compared with rail and the infrastructure seems to be bulky and intrusive.

The route is up a steep-sided valley that reminded me of Halifax, or Hebden Bridge, in which every piece of flat land is built on, with low-rise housing, high-rise towers and the associated suburban public and commercial development. 

I was interested to see the Hiroshima hinterland, and I took as my destination the transportation museum at Chōrakuji, two-thirds of the way along the route.

The Hiroshima City Transportation Museum [], a five-minute walk from the Astram station, is in an expensive-looking modern building, and was not what I expected.  There are only two full-size vehicles in the whole place – a sports car and one of the atom-bomb trams, identical to the two I’d seen on the streets but painted in a different livery. 

A whole floor is given to an eclectic display of a couple of thousand models of trains, cars, ships and aeroplanes, with very perfunctory labelling in Japanese and English.  I had a go at driving a train simulator but couldn’t get on with it.

Upstairs was a two-storey hall, filled with a gigantic working model of a not-far-into-the-future city to demonstrate as many modes of public transport as possible – not only trains and cars and ships and aircraft but helicopters, monorails, travellators, even a fairground.

So there, under one roof, you can examine past, present and future transportation, most of it in miniature, some of it in motion.


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.  These are red single-deckers with vestigial commentary offering two overlapping routes which 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 [].

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:  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 [] 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.

Tokyo Skytree

Skytree Tower, Tokyo, Japan

Skytree Tower, Tokyo, Japan

The successor to the Tokyo Tower, transmitting digital broadcasting signals and other communications across the region, is the Tokyo Skytree, which, at 634 metres, is almost twice the size of its predecessor.  It claims to be the tallest tower in the world, and the second-tallest structure, after the 830-metre Burj Khalifa in Dubai.

Its design is both practical and elegant.  The footprint is an equilateral triangle, surrounding the central core, and the external lattice transitions gradually to a cylinder at around 350 metres.  There are two public observatories at 350 and 450 metres.

It was built 2008-2012 on the site of the Tobu Railway’s Narihirabashi Station, now renamed Tokyo Skytree Station, four miles north-east of Tokyo’s central station.  The railway company is a major investor in the tower and the commercial development around its base.

In a location prone to earthquakes the Skytree is seismic proofed, with a suite of devices including the same sort of tuned mass damper that stabilises the CityCorp Center in New York City.

Its colouring is carefully chosen:  it is painted a special blue-white, and is lit sky blue and purple on alternate nights.

The Tokyo Tower and the Toyko Skytree represent the best and most beautiful solutions to the same problem, a generation apart.

And now the city has two landmark high towers.

Tokyo Tower

Tokyo Tower, Japan

Tokyo Tower, Japan

When Gustave Eiffel received criticism over the appearance of his 1889 tower in Paris, he simply replied that he’d done the maths and the shape required to withstand the physical forces bearing on the structure was also the best aesthetic solution to the design.

Indeed, the shape has proved impossible to improve.  The canny Lancashire proprietors of the half-size version in Blackpool built a three-storey entertainment complex around the legs, with a circus at its base.   Sir Edward Watkin, the British railway magnate, began an abortive giant version next to the Metropolitan Railway at Wembley, where the stadium was later built.

Over thirty replicas – some closer to the original than others – have been built:

Of all these tributes to Eiffel’s design, there is no more sincere example of flattery than the Tokyo Tower, built in 1958, at a time of recovery from the devastation of war, to provide broadcasting transmitters for radio and television.

It stands on top of a hill in the Shiba-koen district, and has always been distinctively painted in white and international orange to satisfy the requirements of air safety.  In 1987 the original outline lighting was replaced by a more flexible floodlight system by Motoko Ishii, varying the customary colours, white in summer and orange the rest of the year,

At 333 metres, it was for long the tallest structure in Japan, and exceeds the height of the Paris tower by precisely thirteen metres.

At the base is a visitor-reception building, FootTown, which is not integrated into the structure as in Blackpool.  It’s possible to ascend to two observatories, at 150 and 250 metres respectively.  Indeed, those who wish can climb 660 steps to the first observatory by a staircase from the roof of FootTown.

The Tokyo Tower is not tall enough to provide full digital coverage across the region, but it will continue to carry FM transmitters and act as a limited digital back-up, and its status as a landmark and a tourist attraction seems secure.

Haven of quiet

St Luke's International Hospital, Tokyo:  Old Building

St Luke’s International Hospital, Tokyo: Old Building

When I visited Tokyo I found time to seek out St Andrew’s Cathedral and St Alban’s Church, two flourishing Japanese-Anglican churches with links to Bishop Samuel Heaslett (1875-1947), whose life story I’d discovered in the course of local-history research in Sheffield.

Relatively few buildings in central Tokyo predate the devastating bombing of 1945, but I read that the chapel of St Luke’s International Hospital was “one of the few original Anglican church structures in central Tokyo built prior to the Second World War”, and realised that it was located in Tsukiji, a couple of metro stops from where I was staying.

St Luke’s International Hospital was founded by an American physician and Episcopal missionary, Dr Rudolf Bolling Teusler (1876 – 1934), who began working in Tokyo in 1900.

His first hospital was ruined in the Great Kantō earthquake of 1923 and rebuilt to the designs of the Czech-American architect Antonin Raymond (1888-1976), who had trained with Cass Gilbert, designer of the Gothic Woolworth Building in Manhattan, and with Frank Lloyd Wright.  (After the war Antonin Raymond designed the timber church of St Alban, Shiba-koen, Tokyo.)

The replacement hospital of 1933, now the administration building of the modern St Luke’s, contains the chapel, completed in 1936.

The first floor landing leads into a high, Gothic Revival nave with a raised chancel and, above the entrance, an elaborate organ case, installed in 1988.  The walls are ashlar and there is geometrical stained glass in the east window.  There is a font, pulpit, lectern and choir stalls, and a lamp indicates the reservation of the Blessed Sacrament:

Notices forbidding photography were everywhere.  I was content simply to sit there.  It was the only place in Tokyo where I felt any sense of connection with the past.  It also provides, in the words of the hospital website, “quiet space to find comfort and strength in difficult times”.

Another more modern chapel, Teusler Hall, in the adjacent wing has the same sense of peace.  Indeed, the entire place is capacious, unhurried and dignified.  Corridors are embellished with flower arrangements and pieces of art.  Staff and visitors move about decorously.

Christianity is a minority religion in Japan:  its adherents amount to less than 1% of the population.  Nevertheless, St Luke’s carries an effective mission that has grown directly from the work of missionaries a hundred years ago.

Bishop Heaslett

St Alban's Church, Shiba-koen, Tokyo, Japan

St Alban’s Church, Shiba-koen, Tokyo, Japan

St Andrew's Cathedral, Shiba-koen, Tokyo, Japan

St Andrew’s Cathedral, Shiba-koen, Tokyo, Japan

When I explored the material in Sheffield Archives about the parish of St Cecilia, Parson Cross, I came upon a complete run of parish magazines from before the church was consecrated in 1939 until the mid-1950s.

The bulk of these magazines were edited by the first vicar, Fr (later Canon, and latterly Bishop) Richard Roseveare SSM (1902-1972), charting the sprouting of streets and houses on what had been farmland, the establishment of one of the biggest parishes in the Church of England with three churches and six or seven clergy, and the impact of the Second World War and its aftermath on the initial high hopes and ambitious plans for Parson Cross and St Cecilia’s.

He was a powerful figure, with a finger on the pulse of Sheffield working-class people – he formally opened the Parson Cross Hotel in June 1939 and ended up in the News of the World for his pains – and also a strict Anglo-Catholic who exhorted his parishioners to worship with due decorum.

St Cecilia’s parish started out with high-status helpers.  Lady Mabel Smith, the socialist daughter of the Earl Fitzwilliam, was a strong supporter until her death in 1951, and Mary Jane, Dowager Countess Ferrers, built a house on Halifax Road so she could help in the parish.

When Lady Ferrers died in 1944 her house became the home of Bishop Samuel Heaslett (1875-1947), who was Bishop of South Tokyo from 1921.  After the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 he was given a very hard time by the Japanese authorities, who couldn’t grasp the idea that a Church of England was not a government agency, and after four months’ imprisonment and interrogation he was expelled from Japan.

Back in England Bishop Heaslett was offered a role as Assistant Bishop of Sheffield and came to Parson Cross in 1944.  He returned to Japan with his opposite number, the Bishop of North Tokyo, an American Episcopal Bishop, Charles S Reifsnider, to help the reformation of the Anglican church in Japan, Nippon Seikōkai, in May and June 1946.

The cathedral that Bishop Heaslett knew had been obliterated in the bombing of Tokyo towards the end of the war.  A wooden replacement building, St Alban’s Church, opened in 1956, designed by the Czech-American architect Antonin Raymond (1888-1976).  It stands alongside the more substantial St Andrew’s Cathedral (Hisao Kohyama 1996).

Samuel Heaslett is commemorated in Sheffield Cathedral by a wall-tablet, and he appears in the Te Deum window in the Chapel of the Holy Spirit.

From the pages of dusty old magazines, a memorial tablet, a face in a stained-glass window, fascinating stories emerge of lives lived in times that feel very different from the present day.