Cycling out of Hikari, I make very good progress on the flat roads north towards Miyajima and Hiroshima. There are a few hills, but the sunshine and lack of traffic makes it a breeze. By mid-morning I reach the town of Iwakuni. The most famous thing about this place is the Kintai Bridge, a wooden arched bridge over the Nishiki River. The original bridge stood for three-hundred years and didn’t use a single nail, with metal sheeting added for durability. As Iwakuni is a less visited area of Japan, there are some obvious efforts to appeal to tourists – mainly the fact that there are large public bins available for use. This is such a rare thing to find in Japan, it’s worth passing comment.
I have some local sushi and get chatting with a French-Canadian couple who are backpacking around the country. We snap photos for one another then head off our separate ways. I stop at a convenience store on the way out of town, and an elderly woman admires the bike, enquiring where I’m from. At this point it’s a bit of a script, with the same conversation about how I’m cycling around the country, the same small talk. This time around, the woman gives me a military salute, which is new. I salute back, she laughs and I hit the road again.
Floating torii gate of Miyajima
After several kilometres northward bound, I reach a ferry port and set out to sea. My next destination is the island of Miyajima, also known as Itsukushima. I have actually been to the island once before, the first time I’ve been somewhere familiar all trip. Perhaps one of the more famous locations in Japan, it has a red torii gate on the beach with the tide lapping at its supports. It’s a very photogenic location. Tame deer wander the streets, pestering tourists for food and attention.
There are a lot of foreign tourists here, the most I’ve seen all trip. Down in Kyushu, it was common to be the only westerner for miles around. Here, they’re ten a penny. The shopping arcade that runs next to the path to the shrine is packed, the stores overrun with tourists. I aim to try some local oyster and find a place that offers them cheap. After about two hours on the island, I get back on the ferry. As the day grows long, I pedal until dusk to reach my hotel in the centre of Hiroshima.
An okonomiyaki dinner
In the evening, I go to a ramshackle area near to the station, with a lot of tumbledown food joints and bars. Picking an okonomiyaki shop at random, I nestle myself in amongst the locals and order a beer. The joint is run by an old cook and his grandaughter, who banter a lot with customers. It must be rare to have foreigners in here, as the grandaughter asks how I even found this place.
While I wait for dinner to be cooked in front of me, a tipsy businessman shares some of his fried pork and asks me where I’m from. Cue the script. He tells me his sister lived in Brighton for some years, and he himself is off to France soon. In a good mood, or to show hospitality, he pays for my drinks as he leaves ahead of me. Well, I won’t refuse. I thank him and wish him luck. Once I’ve been served my savory pancake and eaten, I go to pay the bill… only to be informed that the businessman apparently already paid for everything, food included. Now that’s Japanese generosity.
Hiroshima and the atomic bombing
The next day, I’m doing some sightseeing around the city. The first time I came to Hiroshima, I was in a rush and had to leave quickly, so I aim to take it slow today. First I wander over to Hiroshima Castle. It’s a reconstruction, as so many of the castles are, so I don’t bother paying the admission fee to go inside. Also on the grounds are the former headquarters of the Imperial Army, destroyed during the atomic bombing. The high military presence was one of the reasons the city was targeted in WW2. All that remains now are the foundations.
Afterwards, I head in the direction of the Peace Memorial Park. There’s a temporary exhibition en route about the city of Hiroshima and its rebirth after the war. It opens with an animated movie about okonomiyaki, displays about the local baseball team, the Carps, and dedications to local companies and businesses. There’s also a recreation of one of Mazda’s first three-wheeled models, as well as a current sportscar painted in Ukrainian colours. Considering Japan’s strong attachment to peace (sentiments I’ve repeatedly heard from locals whenever war/foreign relations comes up), I’ve seen some pretty overt displays of support for Ukraine while travelling through the country. At the end of the exhibit, I’m asked to write my feelings on a post-it note, to join the wall of peaceful messages there.
After stopping off for an okonomiyaki lunch (this time with oysters), I begin to tour the monuments to the atomic bombing. One often missed one is the hypocenter monument, tucked away in a side street, located at the point the bomb was dropped. At the entrance to the peace park itself is the most famous monument in the city, the Atomic Bomb Dome, one of the only structures left standing around the radius of the bombing. Quite a few people take smiling selfies or throw gang signs in front of it, a bit disheartening to see.
Following hot on the heels of the G7 summit in the city (as well as the general reopening of the country post-Covid), the park is packed full of tourists and students on field trips. The park has many fountains and water features dedicated to those that died of thirst in the hours and days following the bombing. The Peace Memorial Hall in particular has a moving monument to the victims of the bombing, as well as testimonials from meteorologists that came down from the safety of a hillside observatory to help victims and make their findings on the bombing known.
Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum
The main museum, the Peace Memorial Museum, is totally packed out and the security guards do a poor job of crowd control. What should be a rather quiet and reflective experience is anything but. Packed together like tinned sardines, everyone shuffles slowly forward around the exhibits, as some tourists barge through without queueing, cutting ahead, and others come to a standstill to take selfies. Several tourists look bored, some joking and laughing, others pushing ahead without looking at anything properly. The deafening noise gets unbearable with everyone talking, and it all seems a bit disrespectful, considering the harrowing nature of the exhibits. Eventually things calm down, but compared to the museum in Nagasaki, it’s a bit of an unfortunate thing.
On site, there’s also a temporary exhibit about the orphans of the bombing, and the moral adoption that took place where foreigners (mostly Americans) would send money and letters to help raise the children postwar.
After a full day of sightseeing, I find a restaurant that specializes in fish cuisine and order Anagomeshidon, which is conger eel served on top of rice, another regional specialty. Close to finishing my meal, a waitress approaches and asks if I’d prefer to use a spoon, clutching one in her hand. I refuse but I’m a bit taken aback by it. Is this a foreigner thing or did I seem to be struggling with the chopsticks? I shake it off and head back to the hotel.
Next up is a journey along the Seto Inland Sea, along the Shimanami Kaido and into the island of Shikoku…