April 28, 2008

Miyajima - Mount Misen

Our morning in Miyajima kicked off with a quick playground/deer petting walk outside with the kids, followed by a nice Western breakfast at our Ryokan. Jacob decided that he wanted a deer as a pet. (We may have to consider it, but only if once he is old enough to walk him!)

Our activity of the day was taking the scenic Ropeway Cable Car up Mount Misen where we could watch the native monkeys, check out the views of the surrounding islands in the Seto Island Sea, and hike in the surrounding park.

It is a great view from the top, and although a bit overcast, we could still see all the way across to Shikoku Island.

As for the monkeys, we were warned to put our bags in lockers at the ropeway station; or else "the monkeys will take it." We did. But they seemed pretty cute to us.

Although we weren't quite up to a hike all the way up to the top of Mt. Misen with the kids, we did a nice little family hike and then passed the time watching an entire school (maybe 150) of Japanese high school girls in matching green outfits hike on past us up to the peak. These kids had not taken the cable car; rather they were hiking all the way from Momijidani Park at the base of the mountain all the way to the peak (quite a good hike). Our kids greeted each passing wave of the "green team" with a hearty konichi wa, which was enthusiastically returned with shrieks of kawaii. The whole scene was quite humorous.

After a nice day up on Mount Misen, we took the Ropeway back down, had some lunch, and grabbed our last couple of fried momiji manjus, before taking the ferry back to the mainland.

We were back home on Rokko Island by 5 PM. We grabbed some Subway sandwitches and some supermarket sushi rolls, and spent the rest of the day playing out near the fountains.

April 27, 2008

Miyajima - Itsukushima Shrine and Exploring The Town

It took about 35 minutes (a 25 minute train ride and a 10 minute Ferry ride) to get from Hiroshima Station to Miyajima. On our way onto the ferry, we were handed some stringy looking food, which turned out to be really tasty cured squid. (Think squid jerky - trust us, it was good. Unfortunately, we were never able to find the store that sold it.) As the ferry pulled up to the pier, we were able to view the O-Torii Gate of Itsukushima Shrine floating in the ocean as it was high tide. This gate is the main attraction of Miyajima and truly an unacknowledged wonder of the world. More on this later.

Upon our arrival, we dropped our bags at our place of lodging, a Ryokan named Yamaichi Bekkan, just a few steps from the pier. Deer (shika) roam freely on Miyajima. You notice them as soon as you get off the boat. These deer (while they will track you down if you have food) were a lot tamer than those we encountered in Nara. Miyajima has a seaside mountain village feel, and is loaded with souvenir shoppes, amazing street food, and several notable historical/cultural sites.

First, the food: The signature food of Miyajima is momiji manju, maple-leaf shaped cakes filled with bean paste. If you prefer, these tasty delights may also be filled with cream, chocolate, almond, etc., and some stands even sell them freshly fried (our personal favorite). As we wandered down Ometesando Shopping Arcade, the smells of tempura fishcakes, okonokmiyaki, fresh oysters roasted in the shell and tons of momiji manju wafted through the air. Each momiji manju store is equipped with its own momiji manju press, which cooks up and pumps out these little cakes like factories, from batter to box. We had every intention on having lunch, but ended up sampling all of the above foods and more.

Next, the souvenirs: Miyajima is famous for shakushi, decorative rice paddles in all sizes, including the O-Shakushi, the world's largest rice scoop. It took us a while to figure out what the deal was with all these paddles everywhere.

With our bellies full, we strolled beyond the shops, to the Itsukushima Shrine, where we could clearly view the O-Torii Gate at high tide. The really interesting thing about this gate, which sits 200 meters beyond the shrine, is it is surrounded by water during high-tide, but during low-tide you can actually walk up to it on dry land. Miyajima has long been revered as an "island of the gods." The Itsukushima Shrine and its O-Torii gate are a Shinto shrine first built in 593 (with the present design created in the 12th century). The contrast of the vermilion colored shrine and gate with the lush green mountain backdrop and blue ocean water was truly breathtaking.

Miyajima was a nice compact town to stroll around in. One block away from the crowded but enticing Ometosando, is Machiya Street, a quaint street lined with traditional Japanese stores, cafes, and houses. We walked up to the Five Storied Pagoda, a Buddhist shrine built in 1407. And set up in the mountain, glimmering in the sunlight was the Dai Shoin Temple, another Buddhist temple. After touring some of these picturesque religious sites, we rolled up our pant legs and spent some time at the beach playing in the sand, wading at the edge of the water, and collecting sea shells, with the floating O-Torii gate in the background.

As the hordes of day-trippers were heading back to the ferry to leave for the day, we headed back to our Ryokan and were shown our room by our extremely warm and friendly hostess. The room was a huge tatami two-room apartment with sliding paper doors. Our futons had already been set up for us. That evening we dined at the Ryokan, where our hostess prepared a delectable Kaiseki meal including sashimi, boiled octopus, tempura, scallops, grilled fish, fresh-water eel sushi, and fish-soup.

After dinner, we strolled back out to view the O-Torii Gate at low tide. We were able to walk on the sand right up the gate and touch it. There were even some barnacle-encrusted signs near the gate (written in Japanese) which had not been visible during high-tide. (Compare the below picture at low tide, with the similar family picture above, taken at high tide)

It was very quiet and peaceful at night. The storefront lanterns (wicker orbs covered with flowers with a bulb on the inside, which were hung from pieces of fabric) were lit, the sound of the waves was in the background, and the deer were finding their evening resting spots under the trees - it was a very serene setting. The character of Miyajima was totally different without the daytime tourist hustle and bustle. Later that night, Mike took a walk back out after the rest of the family went in. At that time of night, an occasional head-lamp equipped bike whizzed by and many Japanese were out strolling on the promenade, dressed in their Ryokan-provided yukatas, enjoying the night views of the Shrine and Gate, and the cool peaceful night air.

Hiroshima - Shukkeien Garden

After a good night's sleep at the good old Comfort Hotel Hiroshima (part of the Comfort Inn chain), we arose to a Continental Breakfast. We focused on the Japanese breakfast items like inari and onigiri, while all the Japanese guests loaded up on the American breakfast items like cereal and pastries. (Western breakfast is way better, but we wanted a change of pace!) These types of hotels are totally perfect for our family, but stood in stark contrast to our next night's stay at a Japanese Ryokan.

We then headed to Shukkeien Garden, a garden whose name literally translates as "shrink-scenery garden." The garden, originally designed in 1620, expresses the idea of collecting and miniaturizing many scenic views, and includes ponds, foot bridges, tea cottages, and mini-mountain peaks. Jacob and Lauren led us on our exploration through the park. It was quite a peaceful spot. (Like everything else in Hiroshima, this whole Garden was destroyed in 1945, and people were unsure what the long-term effects of radiation on plants and wildlife would be. Many predicted that plant life would never grow there again. But today, this beautiful landscape again grows here):

The best part of our Shukkeien Garden experience was meeting a little old Japanese woman, who worked in the Garden. We were able to communicate, very broken Japanese to very broken English. Throughout the hour or so that we were in the Garden, she would reappear out of thin air at various places, with helpful little hints - "Here are eels" or "Here, fish jump out of water" or "Here there is Japanese wedding ceremony." It was terrific and hilarious having our own little tree nymph guide. It was a very zen, relaxing end to our day and a half in Hiroshima. Next we were off to Miyajima!

April 26, 2008

Hiroshima - Peace Park and Seeing The City

This is the first post on our three-day trip to Hiroshima and Miyajima. We spent one and a half days in each place. This was the first of our two planned Golden Week Trips. As you will see if you keep reading, both Hiroshima and Miyajima were incredible places to visit.

On Saturday morning we took the Shinkansen out to Hiroshima. By Shinkansen, Hiroshima is only a bit more than an hour away from Shin Kobe station. It was Jacob and Lauren's (and Ilena's) first ride on the bullet train. As we were pulling out we had this great cross-cultural greeting exchange - Lauren waved to the conductor, he bowed back, and in return she wai'ed back.

After arriving at Hiroshima Station, taking a short trolley ride to our hotel, and dropping our bags, we made our first terrific find. While walking, we happened upon a sign outside a bank that said that the bank housed a collection of origami cranes that had been sent to Hiroshima by children and school classes all over the world over the past years. (these paper cranes are a symbol of peace, and the tradition of origami cranes has its routes in a famous and heart-wrenching story about a young girl named Sadako Sasaki who died as a result of the A-bomb ) We decided to check it out. Good call. This free exhibit, manned by two security guards on the third floor of the Bank of Japan, was one of the most touching things we had ever seen:

We then strolled up to the Hondori Mall, where we lunched on famous Hiroshima-style Okonomiyaki (which, we must say is far better than the Osaka-style - the difference is that it is made with soba noodes, more cabbage, and is carefully layered.) It may look a little strange to the uninitiated, but trust us - its awesome.

On our way to the Peace Park (Heiwa Koen), we saw some interesting stores, some of which specialized in traditional Japanese anime characters, like these:

The Peace Park is the center of Hiroshima. As we arrived, an elderly Japanese man was playing some eerie music and the weather was overcast. It definitely felt a little strange. But that feeling soon changed. And not only because the sun came out. The Peace Park is beautifully arranged in both concept and design. It includes the Children's Peace Monument, the Peace Flame, a saddle-shaped Memorial Cenotaph and the Peace Museum itself, all of which which line up and frame the A-Bomb Dome, which sits across the river from the park.

We had seen pictures of the A-Bomb Dome before and never really "got it." It's different when you are there. This was basically the only building left standing after the Bomb was dropped on at 8:15 AM on August 6, 1945.

The Museum itself was excellently done, and addressed all aspects of the bombing - the politics, the history, the science, and the deep human tragedy. It includes exhibits that try to explain why the bomb was dropped and why Hiroshima was the target. There are a side-by-side model city-scapes that show Hiroshima before the bomb and Hiroshima after the bomb. The effect of these before and after shots are just devastating. There are also some graphic sections that have pictures, artifacts, and accounts of the bombing. We took turns in the Museum, because we didn't want to take the kids in. (Afterwards, we both agreed that we could have. Being there, in the Peace Park, we certainly fielded many questions about war and peace and bombs. Which is a tricky thing to do with these little guys. They certainly asked piercingly intelligent questions, which we did our best to answer.) Here are some shots from inside the Museum:

The most striking and beautiful part of all of this is that a place that endured such a tragedy has turned it around into rallying call for peace.

The remainder of our day in Hiroshima after the Peace Park was a hodge-podge of neat little experiences. It is a compact city, and it is easy to get around either on foot or by street car trolley. Outside of the Children's Museum, we found a train for the kids to climb on:

We walked by the Hiroshima Carp Baseball Stadium (the "C" for Carp baseball caps look like the Cincinnati Reds). We walked by, but took a pass on the Hiroshima Art Museum. (Somehow its impressive collection of French Impressionist Art, albeit interesting, didn't seem like a "must see" here).

More our speed, in a nearby skate-park area, we watched some teens doing rad tricks on bikes and with balls. Jacob was spellbound. (So were we!)

We also happened upon a practice session for girls dance competition, as well as a huge karate tournament at the Prefectural Gymnasium. We were the only non-Japanese people in the gym. And it was great! (It was the random finds like this that really made our day!).

After a much-needed ice cream break on the grounds of Hiroshima Castle, we decided to forgo a trek all the way up to the Castle itself.

Instead we poked around the grounds and some of the outer building a bit, and then followed some loud cheering noises to a nearby girls High School tennis tournament. (As with the baseball games here in Japan, the tennis matches also included coordinated and choreographed cheering by one side or the other depending on which side scored a point). In this hotbed of teenage Japanese girls, Jacob, and especially Lauren, were mobbed at all sides by girls screaming Kawaii Kawaii (calling Lauren kawaii (cute) seems to be a biological imperative here; and the teenage girls are simply an unstoppable force). They are very sweet, but its also a bit overwhelming at times. Here is a shot of our new best friends from the tennis tourney:

Back at the hotel for a rest, the kids tried on the Comfort Hotel robes and the grown-ups snacked on our first 7-11 sushi (not bad). We then headed back out to the Handori area for dinner and found an absolutely stellar Tempura restaurant called Tempura Tenko. This was our first true tempura meal here in Japan, and it did not disappoint. The staff, who spoke English very well helped us choose our meals and politely explained which dishes should be dipped in salt, which in curry, and which in tempura sauce. We dined on a truly dazzling array of seafood and vegetables, and it was all so light and fresh and delicious. It is going to be hard to eat what we've previously been calling tempura ever again.

After dinner we were all in good spirits, as we held hands and walked back down Rijo Dori to our hotel. Since we were all in one room, we crashed early with the kids. After today's terrific, but whirlwind tour, that was definitely a good thing.