Itinerary: Tokyo – Nikko – Kamakura – Hakone – Tsumago – Kyoto – Nara – Koya-San – Osaka – Himeiji – Hiroshima – Miyajima – Kumamoto – Mount Aso – Nagasaki
Off to the land of the rising sun! Japan, or Nihon as the inhabitants call their country, is a ten-hour flight from the Netherlands. The country is made up of 6,800 volcanic islands, of which Honsu, Hokkaido, Kyushu, Shikoku, and Okinawa are the five largest. Its 128 million inhabitants occupy only a quarter of the surface of Japan (the rest consists mainly of forests) and the population of Japan is one of the most homogeneous in the world – only one million is of non-Japanese descent.
In the nineteenth century Japan still had a traditional feudal society. Rapid industrialization was followed by the devastation of the Second World War. In the second half of the last century, Japan experienced strong economic growth and although growth halted in the 1990s, Japan is still the third largest economy in the world after the United States and China. I expect to find a hypermodern and at the same time somewhat mysterious country with a special culture.
I depart from the Netherlands on a Saturday afternoon and arrive at Narita International Airport on Sunday morning at 8:30 a.m. local time. Before landing, I have to fill in the customs form, with questions like whether I’m carrying a sword (of course I am) or “obscene or immoral materials” (what does that say about Japanese culture?). Passport control goes quickly and after collecting my luggage I can go straight through customs. I first go to the service center of Japan Rail (JR) to exchange my voucher for a Japan Rail Pass. Travelers to Japan have to buy their rail pass before entering Japan. The rail pass allows me to travel unlimited by train for 21 days. Japan has arguably the best train network in the world, with modern trains and quite a few high-speed lines. A perfect way to travel in Japan.
From the airport to Tokyo, however, I don’t take the JR train, but the Kensai Skyliner, which is faster and goes directly to Ueno station, near which my hotel is located. In forty minutes I am in the heart of Tokyo. My hotel room is not available yet, so I leave my luggage behind and after freshing up a bit I’m ready to go into town.
Where now is one of the largest cities in the world, in the fifteenth century there was only a castle: Edo. In 1868, the Japanese emperor settled in Edo and renamed the city Tokyo. Geographically, the city is located more or less in the center of Japan, on the east coast of Honsu Island. Tokyo has been destroyed several times throughout history: in 1657 three quarters of the city was reduced to ashes by fire, in 1923 half the city was swept away by a major earthquake and the city was heavily bombed during World War II. Today it is a modern city, with a lot of concrete and steel and in that sense a city like so many (world) cities. But in between you will find remnants of traditional Japan everywhere.
I walk to the Asakusa district. The street names of the somewhat larger streets are indicated in Roman script in addition to Japanese, and with a map it is not difficult to find your way in Tokyo. I soon find out that cyclists ride on the sidewalk here. And that everyone waits in front of a red pedestrian traffic light (in The Netherlands that’s considered optional by many). It is Sunday afternoon and not very busy on the street. But when I get to the Nakamise-dori (dori = street), the peace is over.
The Kaminari-mon (mon = gate) marks the beginning of a pedestrian zone that leads to the Senso-ji temple (ji = temple). There are souvenir shops on both sides and it is very busy. I see western tourists, but a visit to Senso-ji also seems to be a popular Sunday afternoon outing for Japanese. The Hozo-mon is the gateway to the temple complex painted in striking red. It is my first encounter with a Japanese temple – and many more will follow this trip.
After my visit to the Senso-ji, I walk back to Ueno. On the way I get lunch and take it to Ueno-koen (koen = park). This park is also a popular place to spend a Sunday afternoon. The park is known, among other things, for the cherry trees that bloom exuberantly in the spring. The cherry blossom season came early this year, but there are still trees blooming. In the park, overlooking the Shinubazu pond, there is a small temple, the Kiyomizu Kannon-do (do = also temple), a red building dating from 1631. And on a peninsula in the Shinbazu pond is another small temple, the Benten-do, which is surrounded by small food stalls.
From the Ueno park I walk south to the Kanda district. Part of Chuo-dori is closed to traffic on Sunday, allowing pedestrians to walk across the wide road. It is also very busy here. On both sides of the street are electronics stores, department stores, manga and anime stores, and cheap restaurants and fast food chains. Japanese are crazy about manga and anime. You see it everywhere on billboards and in advertisements and in the many manga and anime stores it is crowded everywhere. In between you see vending machines on every street corner, often with bottles of drink, but also with cigarettes, small plush animals and – yes – food. You press the picture of what you want to eat, pay and then pick up your ordered food at the door next to the vending machine. Crazy. I also see many of those vending machines with grippers that you see at fairs in the Netherlands, with which you can ‘grab’ huge stuffed animals.
Amidst that cacophony of sights and sounds, you turn into a side street only to suddenly find an old sanctuary, where a serene peace reigns. The modest black Yushima Seido is dedicated to Kong Fuzi (known to us as Confucius) and founded in 1631 to teach the teachings of Kong Fuzi. After I walked back via the Chuo dori, I briefly dive into the Ameyokochi, a busy shopping street with market stalls where, among other things, fish and fruit are sold. It strikes me how neatly the fruit is arranged, even the cherries are neatly arranged in their packaging. And apparently (because seen a lot) fruit on a stick is a popular snack.
On my second day in Tokyo, I get up early to visit Tsukiji (officially the Tokyo Metropolitan Central Wholesale Market, but that name is so long nobody uses it). A large covered market takes place here six days a week, where wholesalers sell their fresh fish, vegetables and fruit to shopkeepers and restaurants. The most famous part is the huge fish market, where you will find 1,600 stalls where fresh fish is processed and sold. It is a lively market, where carts come and go to bring out the crates of sold fish.
After spending some time here, I head towards the Imperial Palace. It’s cloudy and drizzling, a good reason to pop into a Starbucks for coffee and a sandwich. The Imperial Palace, Kokyo, is located in the middle of Tokyo, on the site where the Edo Castle once stood. The palace, where the current emperor lives as well, is surrounded by a wide moat and a wall of large granite stones. On the southwest side of the complex is the seventeenth-century Nijubashi-mon, a photogenic spot.
I walk around the Higashi Gyoen (literally: the eastern garden), along the Oto-mon and through the Kitanomaru-koen park to the north. Here you will find the Yasukuni-jinja (jinja = shrine), Japan’s most controversial shrine. Yasukuni is the memorial site for the fallen from the Meji Restoration to World War II. Since 1978, however, it has also been the memorial site of a number of war criminals from the Second World War. Visits by Japanese politicians on the day the Japanese defeat in World War II is commemorated (August 15) has been controversial ever since. However, for most Japanese, the Yasukuni jinja is simply a place to commemorate compatriots. And it is a beautiful wooden building, at the end of a long path with a large also wooden gate.
Then I take the train to Shinjuki. This is the heart of contemporary Tokyo. High-rise buildings, department stores and an exuberant amount of billboards. This part of the city also runs on shopping. Especially on the east side of Shinjuku station there are modern, beautifully designed buildings, but there are also many uninspiring office blocks. And everywhere small restaurants where you can have an excellent lunch for little money. South of Shinjuku is a park that houses the Meiji-jingu, Tokyo’s main Shinto shrine and built in honor of Emperor Meiji, who died in 1912.
Shinto is a nature religion: it is believed that gods are present in every natural phenomenon. The Japanese are Shinto by birth, about half of the population is also a practicing Buddhist (Shintoism is a very tolerant religion, so it is fine to have a second belief). Under Emperor Meiji (1890-1945), Shinto was the state religion of Japan and closely associated with the nationalist politics of the Empire, and shrines throughout Japan are still there to honor Shinto gods or former emperors. Like the Meiji-jingu. Via a number of beautiful gates you can enter the courtyard from three sides, on the fourth side is the main building. It is nice to see the customs of visitors to temples and shrines. For example, you can buy small wooden signs here on which you can put a wish and then hang it on a wall with similar signs. Visitors toss a coin into a bowl in front of the shrine’s altar, bow slightly, and then clap their hands twice. Aand at temples you often see a gong, which is sounded by visitors.
With the Japan Rail Pass you can also use the aerodynamically designed high-speed trains: the shinkansen. The trains are very comfortable, spick and span, spacious and with reclining seats. There are no waste bins, but there is no waste anywhere, not even a piece of paper. No one has loud music on and you make phone calls in the vestibule, not in the compartments. In Dutch trains all this would be unthinkable. At the stations and in the trains, all information is given in two languages (Japanese and English) and the trains run 100% on time. On the platforms it is precisely indicated where the doors of the train will be and neat rows of passengers form there. No jostling like in the Netherlands. And the trains go fast, wow! The local trains, which are more like a metro and also run every few minutes, are often quite full in cities like Tokyo, especially in the morning rush hour and especially with men in suits.
With the shinkansen Yamabiko and the JR Nikko line you are in Nikko in two hours. The village itself is not that special and it is still early when I arrive, most of the shops are still closed. At the end of the main street is the red Shin-kyo arch bridge, originally built in 1636, but the current version is of a later date. An uphill path leads to Rinno-ji, a Buddhist temple founded in 766. The main building of the Rinno-ji is currently undergoing renovation, a job that will take no less than six years and involves dismantling, renovating and then reassembling the entire wooden temple part by part (which for this purpose is surrounded by a large shed). An impressive job. A few Buddha statues that can normally be seen in the temple can be viewed, the temple itself will only be open again in 2020…
Another path leads to the Tosho-gu, the main complex in Nikko. Tosho-gu is the shrine in honor of Emperor Tokugawa Ieyasu, who died in 1616. Completed in 1634, the impressive complex exudes the wealth and power of the Tokugawa dynasty in everything. The stone torii (a Shinto gate that you see at every Shinto complex) has been there since 1617, the five-storey pagoda was once destroyed by fire and therefore a replica. Via the Omote-mon you enter the courtyard, where there are several beautifully designed buildings, all with detailed carvings. Then there are two more gates, the Yomei-mon, with a drum tower to the left and a bell tower to the right, and the Kara-mon, before you reach the main building of the complex: the Haiden. The style of this building is very different: it’s all white and gold. Despite the large amount of mainly Japanese tourists, it is an impressive complex.
The last temple I visit in Nikko is the Taiyuin-byo, which looks less exuberant (especially because the complex has been painted in subdued black), also attracts fewer visitors, but is worth a visit. With that I have seen enough temples and shrines. Back in Tokyo, I still have time to visit the National Museum, which is located on the north side of Ueno Park. The museum offers an overview of the history of Japan, on the basis of excavated items, writings, paintings, samurai swords, clothing, et cetera.
The train from Tokyo (Ueno) to Kamakura takes about an hour. The ride goes through urban area all the time. Tokyo and its suburbs have a population of eight million and every square meter here seems built-up or otherwise in use. It is only just before the Kita-Kamakura station that the buildings give way to hills. After a power struggle between the secular emperors and influential Buddhist monks led to several wars, militiamen, the shogun, took power in Japan in the early twelfth century. The first shogun to become leader of Japan, Minamoto Yorimoto, established his government in Kamakura in 1185. In the years that followed, several temples and shrines were built here. The Shogun endorsed Zen Buddhism and that culture, brought over from China, flourished at the time. In 1333 the empire was restored and Kyoto became the capital of Japan.
Seven centuries later, Kamakura is still dotted with Zen temples. I start the (beautiful sunny) day at the Engaku-ji, founded in 1282 in honor of the Japanese who died in the wars with the Mongols in 1274 and 1281. You enter the complex via the impressive San-mon, a handsome wooden construction with beautiful carvings. Next you come to the Butsu-den, the Buddha Hall with, you guessed it, a large Buddha statue. The complex has other beautiful buildings, such as the Shari-den and the Butsunichi-dau. It is an impressive temple complex, the most beautiful I have seen so far.
So far, because a little further is the Kencho-ji, the largest and most impressive temple complex in Kamakura and also the oldest Zen training complex in Japan. The temple was founded in 1253. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, some buildings were lost, but they cleverly solved that by dismantling, transporting and reassembling similar buildings from Tokyo and Kyoto piece by piece . The entrance gate, the San-mon, is even bigger than the one at the Engaku-ji, the enormous temple bell dates from 1255. A path leads to the Butsu-den (originally in Tokyo), in which no statue of Buddha this time, but of Jizo, the patron god of children. Behind the Butsu den is the Hatto. Both are brown wooden buildings, but the white and gold Kara-mon in Chinese style is quite different from this. School classes are everywhere and I am asked by a group of students to take a picture with them.
If you follow the other tourists in Kamakura, you will automatically come to the next attraction: the Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gu. This is the shrine of the clan of shogun Minamoto. At the top of a long staircase, the bright red complex was built in 1063 and moved to this site in 1191. The god worshiped there is Hachiman, the god of, how could it be otherwise with shogun, war. In any case, what you don’t want to miss when you are in Kamakura is the Daibutsu, or the big Buddha. This thirteen-meter-high bronze Buddha statue was made in 1252 and has withstood rain, wind and earthquakes ever since. It is a huge statue with a calming aura, very beautiful.
On Thursday morning I leave Tokyo and take the shinkansen to Odawara. There I get a Hakone Free Pass that gives access to transport in Hakone National Park. I bring my luggage to the hotel in Hakone-Yumuto and first have a coffee, before I, like most visitors, do the standard tour of Hakone. First you go by train to the higher Gora. From there, the mountain is too steep for a regular train, so you change to a cogwheel train that takes you to Sounzan, at 750 meters altitude. From there a cable car goes up the mountains to Tokendai. Although it was sunny in Hakone-Yumuto, here in the mountains there are quite a lot of clouds, so that the Fuji volcano is unfortunately not visible. In Togendai you transfer to a boat (a kind of fake seventeenth-century galleon) that sails across Lake Ashino-ko to Hakone-machi. The last part goes by bus back to Hakone-Yumuto. It is a nice trip, but very touristy and not very spectacular.
Every country has its idiosyncrasies and Japan has a few too. In Japan, for example, you have to be careful when you enter a house or a traditional hotel (ryokan). You leave your shoes at the door and put on slippers. A row of slippers by the door reminds you of that. But: you shouldn’t step on a tatami floor with your slippers: take them off first. And if you go to the toilet, you will find special toilet slippers at the door. Funny are also the toilets that, when you sit down, make the sound of flushing, so that people outside do not hear unwanted noises. I personally find the mirrors in the bathroom to be particularly useful. They are partly heated when you are in the shower, so that there is always a part of the mirror that does not fog up.
On Friday morning I leave Hakone again and take the shinkansen Hikari towards Nagoya. There I change to the Limited Express Shinano to Nagiso. In total a journey of more than two hours. My destination today is Tsumago, a small village in the Kiso Valley in central Hunsu. This is where the old mail route ran from Edo (now Tokyo) to Kyoto. Of the eleven villages on the Kiso section of this route, three remain, including Tsumago. Just me and a Spanish couple get off the train in Nagiso. Because the bus to Tsumago only leaves in an hour and a half, we share a taxi. It turns out it’s not even a ten minute drive.
Tsumago consists of a pedestrian main street (Terashita) and some houses around it. All buildings are made of wood. After the postal route was abolished, the village fell into serious disrepair, but in the 1960s the whole village was refurbished and now it is a popular tourist destination. And rightly so: the village largely looks as it must have looked in the seventeenth century, that is, if you ignore the tourists and souvenir shops. I can leave my luggage at the tourist information, take a leisurely stroll down the picturesque street and eat at one of the many restaurants.
I walk to Otsumago, where I will spend the night in a ryokan, a hotel/guesthouse in traditional Japanese style. My room has a tatami floor, sliding doors and a low table with cushions where the tea is already waiting. You sleep on a futon, a thin mattress that is stored during the day. After tea I take a walk in the surrounding area, to the Odaki and Medaki waterfalls. Along the way I run into a Japanese TV crew that is filming, so I may be on Japanese TV soon. The overnight stay at Hanaya includes dinner, which is served promptly at 6 p.m.. After that I can start looking at the manual ‘How to make a Japanese style bed’ that I found in my room. The English is hilarious, I wonder what they mean by step 2: “The sheet is multiplied”??
My next destination is Kyoto, where I will stay for three nights. The Limited Express Shinano and the Shinkansen Nozumi take me to the former capital of Japan in two hours. The weather is beautiful. Kyoto is located in a valley with mountains on three sides and you immediately notice that: it is a lot warmer than the past few days. I bring my luggage to the hotel and then visit two sights in the northwest of the city.
The first is the famous Kinkaku-ji, the Temple of the Golden Pavilion. The pavilion was built in the fourteenth century as part of one of the residences of shogun Yoshimitsu. After the death of the shogun, the complex was turned into a temple. The golden pavilion is beautifully situated on a pond (Kyoko-chi), in the midst of a Japanese garden. The pavilion has three floors, two of which have gold leaf. On the roof is a golden phoenix. It’s a beautiful picture, things don’t get more photogenic. Further on is an old tea house from the Edo period and a small temple building.
Two kilometers away is the Daitoku-ji, one of the largest zen temple complexes in Kyoto, established in 1319. You enter the complex through the large red San-mon and behind it you will find the Butsuden and Hatto halls, but on the property there are about twenty other ‘subtemples’, all located in beautifully landscaped Japanese gardens.
The next day I visit the eastern part of Kyoto, which is bordered by the Kamo-gawa (gawa = river). First I go to the Sanjusangen-do. What’s special about this Buddhist temple, which dates from the twelfth century, is that it consists of one large hall, where 1,001 (!) gilded statues are housed. They are modeled after the god Kannon (the god of mercy) and they all have slightly different clothes and facial expressions. It is an extraordinary sight, all those statues so neatly arranged in long rows. Unfortunately, photography is not allowed…
After I have found a terrace to have coffee, I visit the Kiyomizu-dera, which you enter through a red painted gate and the other buildings of this temple complex are also red. There is little to see in the Hon-do (the main building), because the statue of the god Kannon can only be seen once every 33 years. The temple is located on a hill and from above you have a nice view over Kyoto. It is very busy there. It strikes me that in Kyoto there are many women in traditional clothing, more than in other places I have been so far.
From the Kiyomizu-dera, two ancient streets lead north: the Sannen-zaka and the Ninen-zaka. Along these streets are traditional wooden houses (machiya), which have been there since the Edo period (although most are nineteenth-century replicas). At the end of the Ninen-zaka you will run into the Todaj-ji. This temple, founded in 1605, looks very different from the previous ones: the buildings are white with dark brown and are surrounded by a beautifully landscaped garden. Several photo shoots with women in traditional clothing are underway in the Maruyama-koen park, a little further away. Some don’t mind posing for a passing tourist with a camera. North of the park is, again, a temple: the Chion-in. Whoever designed the gateway must have believed that size really matters. This also applies to the Daisho-ro, with 67 tons the largest and heaviest bell in Japan. The temple was founded in 1175 and is the headquarters of the Jode sect within Buddhism.
In in the 19th century, when Tokyo became the capital of Japan instead of Kyoto, the Heian-jingu, a shrine honoring the first and last emperors who resided in Kyoto, was built. Built in Chinese style, the shrine is bright orange with green roofs, surrounding a large courtyard. After all these sights, I walk down the Hanamikoji-dori in the Gion district, which traditionally revolves around kabuki theater, tea houses and geishas. You will also find old machiya houses here. Many of them have exclusive tea houses, where guests are received by geishas. Contrary to popular belief, Geishas are not prostitutes. They are companions who have been trained in song, dance and conversation during their five-year training. They are recognizable by their traditional clothing and their white-painted faces. Many teahouses look closed from the outside to prevent passers-by from prying eyes. Most of the geishas you see on the street are rushed and disappear into houses as soon as they can.
Kyoto is dotted with temples, but I’m really not going to visit them all. I’ve seen enough for now. On my third day in Kyoto, I do pay a visit to Nijo-jo, the castle that Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu (to whom Kyoto owes many of its monuments) built in the seventeenth century to serve as his residence. The castle, which is surrounded by a moat and massive walls, took 23 years and was not completed until the third shogun of the Tokugawa dynasty (Iemitsu). The castle is actually more like a palace, or actually two palaces: Ninomaru and Honmaru.
In Honmaru, shogun Tokugawa Yoshinobi declared in 1867 that the power of the emperor would be reinstated, ending the rule of the shoguns, which had lasted 270 years. Ninomaru consists of five terraced buildings where the shogun and his family resided and received guests. Unfortunately, photography is not allowed inside. A pity, because the rooms with tatami floors and panel doors and walls painted with landscapes and animals are worth a visit. They are the most beautiful interiors I have seen so far. The corridors around it have so-called ‘nightingale floors’, or squeaky floors to identify intruders.
Kyoto also has a modern city center, where you will find department stores, shopping arcades, souvenir shops, tea shops, cafes and coffee shops. There has been a daily covered market on Nishikikoji-dori since the seventeenth century. While in Japan, my favorite snack has become onigiri: triangles (also rolls) of rice in nori with a filling of, for example, tuna or shrimp, which are ingeniously packaged so that the nori remains crunchy.
The weather has been beautiful in Kyoto for three days, but on the day that I leave it is raining. And it does in Nara as well, an hour south of Kyoto by train. Nara was the capital of Japan before Kyoto. It was the time when Buddhism flourished in Japan, so you guessed it: Nara has a number of temples worth visiting.
First I bring my backpack to the hotel and borrow an umbrella from the hotel to stay dry. Nara is compact and everything in easy walk. Of all the temples and shrines in and around Nara, I visit two. First I go to the Kofuku-ji, founded in 669, but ‘only’ since 710 at its current location. In the eighth century it was one of Nara’s most important temples. The main building is being restored, but the buildings around it, such as the eight-sided Tokon-do from the fifteenth century, and the large pagoda can be visited. Unfortunately, photography is not allowed in the Tokon-do again, because the images that are there are very beautiful. The same applies to the eastern hall, the Kokuhokan, which is also full of beautiful (Buddha) statues.
The other temple I visit is the ‘must-see’ Todai-ji. Founded in 745 by Emperor Shomu, the temple is the headquarters of the Kegon sect of Buddhism. Construction took 15 years and the main building of the Todai-ji is the largest wooden building in the world. The current copy is the third, after earlier versions were destroyed by fire in 1180 and 1567. You enter the site via the large Nandai-mon, flanked by seven-meter-tall statues of two guardian deities (Nio). The main building is the Daibutsu-den, or the great hall of Buddha. Here you will find the largest gilded Buddha statue in Japan: fifteen meters high. It is an impressively large statue. Especially if you consider in what time and with what means the image was made. So old and it’s still there.
Fifty kilometers south of Osaka is Mount Koya, one of Japan’s holiest mountains. Here you will find the main temple of the Shingon Buddhist school, Kongobu-ji, plus over a hundred other Buddhist temples and monasteries. The Shingon School was founded in the ninth century by Kobo Daishi, who had studied Buddhism in China and who, in addition to Buddhism, made important contributions to Japanese culture in many other areas. From Osaka the train moves slowly into the mountains, a beautiful ride. Koyasan itself is a small village on top of the mountain (accessible by a cogwheel train and a bus) and consists of some shops and restaurants, not very special. I’ll be staying at the Shojoshin Temple for the next night.
After dropping off my luggage, I walk to Okunion, a large cemetery in the middle of the forest, home to thousands of tombstones, toriis, and stupas of all shapes and sizes, many covered with moss. Very special, all those graves and the damp forest give the cemetery a special atmosphere. At the end of a long path is the Lantern Hall, where 10,000 oil lamps are permanently lit in honor of Kobo Daishi. Behind it is the tomb of Kobo Daishi (who of course is not dead, but has achieved ‘eternal meditation’…)
I also walk along the Kongobu-ji and then go to Shojoshin. In this 150-year-old temple I get an atmospheric room in traditional Japanese style: tatami floor, sliding doors, a tea table and even sliding doors to a small balcony that overlooks a Japanese garden. At half past five dinner is being served, consisting of shojin-ryori, Buddhist vegetarian food, all small dishes with rice and tea. All guests have their own (low) table, shielded by folding screens. Apparently privacy is paramount to socializing here.
The next morning, all guests are expected to attend the morning ceremony at the temple. That ceremony turns out to be 45 minutes of fairly monotonous chanting by three monks. As a non-Japanese you obviously don’t understand anything (and unfortunately you don’t get any explanation either).
After the tranquility of Koyasan, the bustle of the big city is a bit of a switch. For the first time I have trouble finding my hotel. After I have found it, I go to the Osaka Civil Rights Museum, which takes some time to find too. I am the only visitor to the museum, which runs entirely on volunteers. The displays are in Japanese, but I am given an English leaflet with information. The museum details all kinds of human rights issues in ancient and present Japan, such as discrimination against the Ainu minority (the original inhabitants of the Japanese islands), child and women abuse (one in three Japanese women says they have ever or regularly been victims of domestic violence) and ideas about traditional and modern lifestyles (the norm is still the traditional family where the man goes to work and the woman raises the children). It also discusses the class system that Japan had until 1871, in which your status and future profession were already determined at birth.
Osaka is a large, busy port city, modern, with busy expressways and flyovers right through the city and in my opinion it’s not a very atmospheric city. I walk around a bit, past large shopping malls, gambling halls with a very loud noise and countless small restaurants and food stalls. I sit down at one of the stalls to try takoyaki (octopus dumplings, a local specialty). They are piping hot and taste wise not really worth repeating.
The next day, Friday May 2, I move on, with the shinkansen Hikari from Osaka to Hiroshima. 345 kilometers in an hour and a half. I planned to make a stopover in Himeji to visit the seventeenth-century heron castle, Himeji-jo. But it is currently being restored and will not be ready until 2016. Unfortunately, yet I will visit Kumamoto later and there is a similar castle there.
Trams run in Hiroshima, which is handy because my hostel is a bit further from the station and the stop is in front of the hostel. The sun is high in the sky and it is a pleasant 27 degrees. My first impression of Hiroshima is that it is a modern, spacious city. A pleasant city, with modern shopping streets. But then again the city is not even seventy years old. At 8:15 a.m. on August 6, 1945, the first atomic bomb ever deployed in a war exploded 580 meters above Hiroshima. It was a clear day, just like today. The bomb exploded right above the Industrial Promotion Hall, a stately building opened in 1915. Because the building was in the center of the blast, parts of the inner walls and the dome above survived the blast. The only thing still standing in a three kilometer perimeter. In one blast, 70,000 buildings were destroyed and 80,000 people were killed (in the following year, another 60,000 people died as a result of the bomb). I only have one word for it: criminal. Seventy years later, the battered dome, now known as Genbaku Domu (the Atomic Bomb Dome), still stands on the banks of the Motoyasu-gawa River, in the middle of the completely rebuilt city. As a silent witness to history. I think it’s a very, very impressive place to be.
On the other side of the river is Heiwa Kinen-koen, the Peace Memorial Park. The war memorial, the Memorial Cenotaph, is a modern stone arch at the end of a shallow pond. The arch is aligned with an everlasting flame and with the dome. Very nicely done. Under the arch is a stone box with the names of all (known) victims of the atomic bomb. There is a separate Children’s Peace Monument and the Peace Memorial Museum tells the story of the atomic bomb. From the development of the bomb (with the help of Albert Einstein), via the run-up to the decision of the United States to deploy the bomb, to the day it happened and the consequences in the short and long term. All in all, this is the most impressive place I’ve been in Japan.
If you go to Miyajima Island on a Saturday, you know one thing for sure: you are not the only one. Apparently a visit to this island southwest of Hiroshima is a popular outing. It takes me about an hour to get there by tram, train and ferry. Miyajima is located in an inland sea, Seto Naikai, between the islands of Honsu and Shikoku. The island is best known for the Itsukushima jinja, a Shinto shrine, and the orange O-torii that stands in the sea in front of the shrine. The Itsukushima jinja is also called the ‘floating shrine’ because it is built over the water. It consists of orange corridors with lanterns and dates from 1168. The torii is of a later date: 1875. Behind the Itsukushina-jinja, the higher pagoda Senjokaku towers above the trees. It is extremely busy on the island, with mainly Japanese day trippers. There are countless souvenir shops and food stalls (all of which sell the same souvenirs or snacks). Still, the extremely photogenic O-torii is worth coming here.
Kumamoto and Aso
When I arrive in Kumamoto after a ride of an hour and 45 minutes with the shinkansen Sakura, I have arrived on the southern island of Kyushu. Kumamoto is not a special city, but you will find one of the most beautiful castles in Japan: Kumamoto-jo. The castle was built in the early sixteenth century by order of Kato Kiyomasa. In 1877 the castle was almost completely destroyed by fire, but in 1960 it was completely restored. The main building of the castle is located on top of a thirty meter high defensive wall. More defensive walls with watchtowers have been built around it, one of which survived the fire of 1877 and is therefore still original. It is an impressive structure and I can imagine that it was indeed an impregnable fortress, as it is known.
It is a bit weird to speak of a ‘Japanese garden’, since here such a thing is simply called a garden. Anyway, Suizenji-koen is one of the most famous in Japan. Originally laid out in 1632 it’s not really a park to lie down in the grass (unfortunately), but more one for strolling and there is a tea house. A nice place to escape the hustle and bustle of the city.
The next day I have planned a day trip to the Aso volcano. No flashy Shinkansen this time, but the Hohi Line, the regional boom. The train rides quietly uphill; this part of Kyushu consists of elevated grasslands and mountains that are the result of volcanic activity. In the center of this is the Aso Crater, the largest volcanic crater in the world. The crater was created 100,000 years ago when the volcano collapsed and covers an area of 18 by 24 kilometers. Much of it is now fertile grassland. Continuous volcanic activity has formed five mountain peaks, collectively called Mount Aso, which are between 1,300 and 1,600 meters high.
Of those five, only the Naka-dake is still active. And I visit it today. Instead of the cable car that takes you to the rim of the crater, I choose to walk the last part, a walk of about twenty minutes. Huge clouds of steam rise above the Naka-dake crater and it smells of sulfur. At the edge of the crater you have a panoramic view of the entire crater, with the crater lake in the depth, which is green, but turns gray as the water warms (today the crater lake is gray). It’s very special to be able to get so close to the edge of an active volcano.
With the Shinkansen Tsubame and the Limited Express Kamome I arrive in Nagasaki on Tuesday, May 6 around noon. Nagasaki is the last stop on my journey in Japan. And it is the second city to be hit by an American atomic bomb, three days after the Hiroshima bombing on August 9, 1945. After I take my luggage to the hotel, I take the tram to the Urakami district, north of the train station. . This was the epicenter of the explosion. There is now a Peace Park and a Peace Memorial Hall. It’s all kept a bit simpler than in Hiroshima, but the Memorial Hall is very impressive, especially because of its modern, sleek, sober design.
After the two nuclear attacks, Japan surrendered and World War II came to an end. Japan was occupied by the United States until 1952. In those years, Japan’s constitution was reformed, a secular democratic government was installed (but the emperor remained the head of state), the country was demilitarized (the military and the Ministry of Defense were abolished), and the constitution states that Japan rejects war.
Nagasaki is hemmed in on three sides by hills (on the fourth side is the waters of the East China Sea). The Nishizaka neighborhood is built against the hills and in this quiet neighborhood you will find a seventeenth century Zen temple, Shofuku-ji, which was rebuilt in 1715, but subsequently survived the atomic bomb. It is a small complex of ancient buildings, surrounded by bamboo trees and palms. It’s a beautiful, quiet place, I’m the only visitor there. If you walk a bit up, towards the cemetery, you have a nice view over Nagasaki. Strange that no one else seems to come here. It is perhaps the nicest temple I’ve been to, because it’s so quiet and unexpected.
I walk along the Nakashima-gawa, the artificial river that runs through Nagasaki and that used to play an important role in trade. A number of arch bridges have been built across the river, the oldest of which is the Megane-bashi from 1634. In 1570, the Portuguese first opened a trading post at Nagasaki, on an artificial island off the coast: Dejima. However, the Portuguese also tried to spread Catholicism in Japan, which was not much appreciated. The shogun had the missionaries persecuted, fearing that the Christians would gain political influence. In 1639 the Portuguese were ordered to abandon their trading post.
Two years later, the Dutch took their place. The Netherlands had supported the Shogun in their struggle. For the next two hundred years it was the Dutch and a number of Chinese traders who were the only ones allowed to trade with Japan. Otherwise, shogun-led Japan was completely cut off from the rest of the world. The Dutch and Chinese formed the only link with the outside world for the Japanese. The seclusion lasted until 1853 and shortly afterwards, in 1867, the empire was restored. Due to land reclamation the man-made island of Dejima is now enclosed within the city, but Nagasaki is in the process of restoring the island to its former glory. The original quay walls have been excavated and the buildings on the former island, where the Dutch traded with Japan, have been renovated.
My last day in Japan I take it easy. I walk about the center of Nagasaki and the (small) Chinatown (where you can have a delicious lunch) and take a look at the harbor. Nagasaki is the only place in Japan I’ve been that is on the water. A modern quay with restaurants and terraces has been constructed along the water. And that concludes my trip in Japan. Tomorrow morning (Thursday 8 May) I will take an early train to Fukuoka International Airport, from where I will fly to Busan in South Korea.
In Japan I expected to find a somewhat closed, exotic, a bit mysterious culture. The traces of that traditional Japan can be found everywhere, but Japan is also a very modern and accessible country. It is a very safe country, clean and efficient, there is an awful lot to see (until you can’t handle any more temples) and the people are very friendly, helpful and extremely polite. I didn’t expect it, but Japan turns out to be a very easy country to travel. It was a great trip! Off to South Korea!