August 31, 2010
Hiroshima’s most striking characteristic is how ordinary it seems. Save for a gargantuan train station loaded with restaurants and souvenir stands hawking merchandise covered in the logo of the town’s beloved baseball squad the Carp, the city rarely feels imposing. Directly outside the station sat a cluster of booths selling various Japanese festival foods. The skyline hardly made a dent in the cloudy sky. The busier streets, done in the familiar shopping arcade style, came nowhere close to rivaling the bustling enclosed spaces of Osaka or Kyoto. Instead of a train system, Hiroshima uses a tram. Usually theme park parking lots use trams. Yet so does Hiroshima.
Of course, Hiroshima can’t be just a regular city thanks to its ever-present past. The first time a nuclear weapon was ever used on other humans…a distinction both immensely tragic and partially responsible for how history played out after World War II, though I’m not nearly educated enough to try to tackle that…was over this city. I’ll let Wikipedia serve as your history book, though I don’t think any further readings are needed to know the atomic bombing and Hiroshima are…and always will be…linked together regardless of how much the city wishes to move on. Tourists flock to Hiroshima for the sole purpose of seeing the Peace Memorial Park, a small stretch of greenery featuring various tributes to those who died in the bombing and landmarks still standing from the attack in 1945. It serves a dual purpose…one, it makes the sleepy city a desirable place for tourists, but it also stands as a cry for peace from a place familiar with chaos.
The Atomic Bomb Dome sits near the front of the park, the area’s most photo-ready sight. The A-Bomb exploded over this building, causing all the windows to shatter and killing everyone inside, yet not knocking the structure itself over. The aged building stands in stark contrast to the rest of the park, a beautiful slice of land next to a river that in another time would be a great place to go for a morning jog. Whereas other memorials serve to educate people on what happened, the dome simply reminds, needing nothing more than a few signs to get its message across.
A short walk away is an area housing a small flame. I heard it will burn for as long as nuclear weapons continue to exist on Earth. This became the source of many cynical remarks…which I certainly wasn’t above…regarding how that flame is never going out. Which actually makes me more angry in retrospect, the futility of the whole affair. After that was the main museum, which does an excellent job documenting the lead up to the bombing and the aftermath in heart-tugging fashion. Since every writer who comes to Japan to write about the experience tends to devote a decent amount of text to the museum (see Dave Barry, for example, who wrote an essay about his experience in Hiroshima that stands as my least favorite piece ever written by him thanks to its dunderheaded American-excusing side), I’ll simply say it’s an opportunity that shouldn’t be skipped if you happen to end up in the city.
We came to Hiroshima on August 5th, a day before the 65th anniversary of the bombing. Accordingly, the amount of visitors skyrocketed and crews were preparing seating for the next day’s ceremony. The memorial erected to honor the children killed in the bombing especially overflowed with people, both European tourists and school kids from all over Japan dropping off strings of paper cranes. Again, I turn the reigns over to the anyone-can-update hands of Wikipedia to fill you in on why. We would be back for the ceremony, so we left in the late afternoon.
Hiroshima does boast one of the most highly touted culinary treats in all of Japan. Hiroshima-yaki, the city’s take on the pancake-like okonomiyaki, was made out by various travel guides to be a mandatory experience. What makes the food special is the addition of soba noodles to the thick treat…Osaka’s take on okonomiyaki doesn’t include noodles, and these dueling recipes have resulted in a “rivalry” between the two cities over who makes better okonomiyaki.
I’ll say up front…I still like Osaka okonomiyaki a bit more, but Hiroshima-yaki certainly gives it a run.
(Japanese Fun Fact #78 – A commercial featuring Los Angeles Angel Hideki Matsui has been playing on TV a lot recently. It features the eh-OK slugger doing the YMCA with the stadium grounds crew all while wearing some dad jorts/jeans. It’s weird but I’m still glad the Angels get so much air time over here…even if Texas has the division more or less wrapped up = (
August 21, 2010
Thus begins the series of entries where I catch up on what I’ve been doing for the past month. First stop…Tokyo.
Spending four days in Tokyo didn’t lead to any shocking new realizations about the sprawling metropolis as much as buffing up the views I already had. Tokyo, like New York City, seems so massive and crowded that it’s like an entirely different planet altogether. As many friends living out here in the country say, Tokyo isn’t really Japan…it’s on its own trip. That’s both a negative (way too many people, people thinking the ONLY place to see in Japan is Tokyo which couldn’t be more wrong) and a positive (a lot to do, very different than anywhere else in the country).
One benefit is being able to jump from district to district within the city and feel like you’ve ended up in a new town altogether. Case in point – Akihabara. Whereas Shibuya caters to the hip young things and Shinjuku offers nighttime thrills, Akihabara stands as Tokyo’s proud nerd center. The streets might as well be lined with manga, seeing as the buildings housing video game stores and other traditionally “geeky” hobbies already had more than enough anime characters painted on the side. After exiting the train station, we were greeted by a large gathering of people watching a nerdy spectacle. Various maids from the area’s numerous “maid cafes” gathered for some sort of competition/ritual that involved throwing water on the ground while chanting something. A rash of otakus armed with cameras stood in front of them, snapping photos of them. Some Imperial Stormtroopers also must have gotten lost, as they were just hanging out.
The allure of the maid cafe was one of the main reasons we zig-zagged on the Tokyo subway system to Akihabara. A maid cafe is, simply summed up, an establishment where you pay to be waited on by a “maid,” often dressed as a stereotypical French variety. Some places introduce themes…we saw a “Gundam Cafe” which raised many questions and I know one place in Tokyo is zombie themed – but the majority of Akihabara’s offerings stick to the traditional template. We found a two-story joint that looked as good as any. Up the elevator we went.
The doors slid open and there they were…maids. Most wearing the garb you’d expect, some clad in yukatas. We were led to a table against the wall and seated, punctuated by the word “master.” Despite the phrasing, the maid cafe didn’t seem nearly as creepy as I’d anticipated. I’d be willing to bet my salary more sexually depraved types exist in the places foreigners rarely end up, as we were certainly in a tourist maid cafe. They even had foreigner girls working as maids, speaking in English or Portuguese or whatever language was called for. For $15 we could have had an “anime voice acting session” and come out with a DVD gift. We opted instead to order the overpriced food, wherein one maid created this design on Eri’s meal:
After the maid let us in some incantation that “makes the food taste better” and involved saying the word “moe” twice and then screeching “CUEEEE,” we ate. Then we paid and bolted out. Though the maid cafe wasn’t nearly as creepy as I expected, it still managed to creep me out in ways I’m not sure of. It’s a strange experience I’d urge everyone to do once in there lives. We got out of Akihabara.
The rest of Tokyo wouldn’t be nearly as interesting to write about…just read the Lonely Planet…so I’ll post some pictures. We did meet one of Japan’s greatest heroes, though.
We also went to Yokohama. It’s the New Jersey to Tokyo’s New York. Take with that what you will. It did have a very nice Chinatown.
More to come….