Japan – Hiroshima, Miyajima and Koya-San
Japan so far:
This post is a photo tour of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, the shrine island of Miyajima, and the mountaintop temple complex and cemetery of Koya-san.
NOTE If you are reading this in a news reader such as Google Reader, or inside Facebook on a tablet, you might want to open this in a dedicated browser window as the photo layout may work better. And there are more photos from these locations available on Flickr.
Hiroshima is famous for all the wrong reasons. Back in August 1945 it was a military garrison town, but hadn’t been extensively targeted by the Allied bombing raids that had devastated many of Japan’s other cities. It was therefore thought a prime target to test the first atomic bomb deployed in anger. This was treated primarily as a deterrent to urge Japan to surrender, but touring the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum makes you realise that the US military also treated it as a scientific endeavour, wanting to see how much damage and how many casualties would be caused. This chilling experiment resulted in over 100,000 deaths, both directly and over time, and of course devastated the city centre.
In the islands that were directly under the centre of the bomb blast, several buildings half-survived and are preserved as UNESCO World Heritage Sites, chief amongst them the Atomic Bomb Dome.
The Atomic Bomb Dome is set in the Peace Memorial Park, which contains a number of moving monuments including the Children’s Peace Memorial, the Cenotaph, and of course the Peace Memorial Museum, which has a harrowing set of exhibits of items recovered from the blast site.
Of course, nowadays Hiroshima is a thriving, commercial city, and one thing it is famous for is a special type of okonomiyaki that is layered rather than mixed, as one would find elsewhere. In fact, in Hiroshima there is even a miniature okonomikayi theme park called Okonomi-mura with several floors of competing vendors.
A short train ride down the coast of Hiroshima Bay will bring you to Hatsukaichi, from where you can board a ferry to the shrine island of Itsukushima, popularly known as Miyajima. I made it here last time round, as you can see over on Flickr.
Before we could board our ferry, though, we ran into this odd couple who reminded us of our recent time in Fukuoka…
On the island itself, one of the most famous symbols of Japan is the bright red torii gate sitting out in front of the main Itsukushima Shrine. When the tide is high, it appears to float offshore. It is, of course, besieged by camera-wielding tourists like yours truly. However, a little persistence, and a disregard for little things like cold and sleep, can yield rewards.
The actual Itsukushima Shrine itself is no slouch in the looks department – it was built on stilts so that it too appears to float when the tide is in – and it boasts a lovely pagoda.
Finally on Miyajima, up a series of cable cars, is Mount Misen, where one can enjoy a walk through some scenic woods before enjoying a panorama of Hiroshima Bay. We rather foolishly did not allow ourselves enough time to do this venture justice, and had all of 10 minutes to look around at the top before throwing ourselves back down the mountain…
From Miyajima we had to rush to catch a train back to Hiroshima and thence to Koya-san. This was by far and away our most stressful day of travel, and went roughly like this: ferry, local train, bullet train, subway, local train, local train, an awfully steep funicular up a mountainside, and finally bus. But the reward was ending up in the serene mountain surroundings of Koya-san…
Once we finally got to Koya-san we hopped off our bus, glad that that our epic journey was over, and curious about the next 24 hours. Koya-san is nestled in a valley at 800m in altitude, surrounded by peaks of the mountain range of the same name. Koya-san is known as the spiritual centre of the Shingon sect, one of the mainstream varieties of Buddhism in Japan. The town exists to serve its temples, not the other way around, and the temples are an important centre for pilgrims adhering to Shingon, who can be seen wandering through town in white jackets, conical straw hats and walking sticks.
We were to stay in the Ichijo-in, one of the temples offering shukubo or temple lodging. This intrigued us as we knew that it was not going to be your normal ryokan experience: not only were we going to be served dinner and breakfast in our room, but it was to be shojin ryori – completely vegetarian. We were also curious about being invited to participate in the morning ceremony the following day, which would involve a 6AM start and, apparently, some meditation.
As we entered the gates we were immediately welcomed into the temple – by a monk – with a short purification ceremony in which we rubbed dried incense powder together between our hands. We were welcomed into a pretty decent-sized tatami room, with a comfortable electric blanket over the table’s seats, served tea, and then the host monk surprised us by launching into a fluent English conversation and asking us whether we wanted beer or sake with our meal. What followed was a surprisingly lush, well-presented and delicious meal which we meat-eaters found extremely satisfying. We had some time to relax after that and get an early night’s sleep before the next morning’s ceremony.
Early the next morning, we wrapped up tight into our warmest layers, put on our slippers and shuffled through the temple to the main hall, where we sat and listened to the head monk and the four acolytes chant sutras for over half an hour, while various supplicants made their way up to an offering box to find their fortunes, and we shifted from seating position to seating position on the tatami floor, all too aware that behind us, 70-year-old Japanese folks were calmly sitting on their ankles and not moving an inch.
Soon it was time to go out and see the town. We got an early start as we had heard that it was more atmospheric in the morning. It did not disappoint.
We walked through nearly-empty streets, eastwards towards Koya-san’s other main attraction, the Oku-no-in Temple and its surrounding cemetery. This graveyard is, for want of a better word, the most prestigious in Japan. It means something to be interred here, as it is said that the founder of Shingon Buddhism, Kobo Daishi, is merely resting in his tomb and will return one day – and if you are a Buddhist worth your salt then you want to be nearby when this happens. Many of Japan’s great and good, from important politicians, captains of industry, religious figures and so on are to be found resting here.
What has resulted is a seemingly endless forest full of mossy gravestones, memorial edifices, Shinto kami statues, torii gates, and even corporate-owned plots with branding intact.
As you walk deeper into the forest, and approach the main temple area – which is a sacred area in which you are forbidden to take pictures – you see more and more pilgrims on the paths. Once into the sacred area there is a small pagoda where the faithful can reach through a hole and try to toss a heavy stone up onto a grate to prove their spiritual purity. I am happy to report that I was able to achieve this, though how spiritually pure I was, I couldn’t tell you.
On our way out, just outside the sacred area was a stream, and a series of Jizō statues which one makes offerings to for the souls of children, unborn, stillborn or otherwise. This was a touching end to the cemetery walk.
On our way back into town we just had time to visit one more temple – that of the Kongobuji, the head temple of Shingon Buddhism. We enjoyed its rock garden and its spacious tea hall, where we rested our weary legs and supped matcha tea while we planned our next journey.
Koya-san was a memorable, exceptional experience that could only have happened in Japan.
Next up will be the final set of destinations in Japan: the refined temple metropolis of Kyoto, and the sleepy friendly mountain town of Takayama.