bombs, shrines, food, and an angry beetle ::::
This is the third installment of our Japan trip, now in Hiroshima and Kyoto.
Day 7 / Hiroshima: We start today with an early breakfast. Many Japanese bakeries have French pastry influences, creating flavorful mashups of French and Japanese. Here’s my savory onion, mayo, and cheese pastry, the only food photo I’ll show for Day 7:
History is more important than food. Until today, the Japan skies mostly have been light gray, bright colors of gardens and temples contrasting and sharp against them. Today, the sky is ironically sunny and cheery. It is a poor reflection on what I feel. As Americans, we learn a paltry history of Hiroshima, and a stilted one and one of erasure at that. On August 6, 1945, at 8:15AM, Americans dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, just 600 meters above and 160 meters southeast of Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall, the remains of which you see here. It instantly killed everyone in it and injured thousands more.
At least 140,000 people died as result of the bombing by the end of 1945. This number is woefully low in the entire count including deaths occurring years later. The bomb was so horrific it either immediately vaporized bodies leaving NO trace of them or left people suffering for years with agonizing illness or cancers secondary to radiation from the blast. Can you imagine that? The skeleton of the building that remains is a tiny footprint of the destruction this bomb caused. You can see the material destruction when looking at the building. History tells us there are more layers than just rubble and concrete. I can almost hear the screams of the lives affected.
Preservation of the building was debated for many years. Some felt it should be a memorial, others felt it evoked too many painful memories and should be torn down. Preservation focused on keeping the building just as it looked after the bombing.
The before and after photos of the building and surrounding city are striking.
There are thousands of origami paper cranes at numerous memorials around the city. The cranes are strung up into multicolored chains, many donated by schoolchildren around the world. The cranes below drape around the Memorial for Mobilized Students and the Children’s Peace Monument. At the time of the bombing in World War II, students over the age of 12 were mobilized for labor to help with the war. 7000 of them died at Hiroshima. 7000 children. The paper cranes represent hope and healing. The folding was inspired by Sadako Sasaki, a girl who developed leukemia and died years after the Hiroshima bombing. When she first developed leukemia, a hospital roommate told her of the Japanese legend that folding 1000 cranes could bring a wish.
At the entrance of the Hall of Remembrance, an indoor memorial for quiet reflection, docents hand us each a small origami box. Inside sit two paper cranes and “Peace” written on the bottom face. The crane picture you see in between the written words is cut out from paper. For scale, this is how tiny each box and crane are:
The hall is a place of contemplative thought, carefully designed to include a 360 degree panorama of Hiroshima as seen from Shima Hospital, the hypocenter of the bomb blast. I have very few photos as is low lit inside and didn’t feel like a good time to snap a lot of photos out of respect. This panorama is made from 140,000 tiles, to mark the number of victims estimated to have died by late 1945. The lower half of the wall displays 226 neighborhood names in the city at the time of the bombing, the lower the name, the closer the neighborhood was to the hypocenter. The burbling fountain in the center shows a clockface sculpture marked by 8:15, the time of the blast. It offers water to the bomb victims, as many died pleading for water.
I am amazed at how quickly people forget or deny history like this, especially when our country was directly involved with it. At the hall, we listen to an audio re-enactment of stories told by people recounting the day of the bombing. We sat for over 20 minutes and still did not hear a repeated story, there are that many. A digital catalog of people who’ve died was created for families to find relatives, even now. The black and white photos range from showing us infants to elderly people.
Somber (and hungry — the kids had a rice cracker interlude here), we head to the water’s edge. We ferry separately (Peach, Grub, and I; Sky-Girl and Eat) to Miyajima Island (the cropped out reason is a tantruming child had to redirect our initial plans). There is a wild deer park on Miyajima, though the animals are wandering all over, many of them greeting us off the ferry just past the pier. The pull to the island is the large “floating” torii gate of the Itsukushima Shrine. The shrine was built over the water on piers, to appear floating. It is dedicated to the daughters of the Shinto god of seas and storms and brother of the sun goddess. The gate of Itsukushima Shrine, the torii, has been in place since the year 1168 (although this one had been rebuilt in 1875 — amazing that it withstood the atomic bombing. Divine indeed). Like the shrine, it also appears floating magically on the water at high tide. It is one of the most famous sites in Japan, tourists flocking here from all over the world. We are here at low tide, stepping along wet sand, whelks, tiny hermit crabs, and coin offerings.
The heat and debilitating headache got the best of me by the end of the day. The kids and Eat had dinner. I slept for 12 hours with a pillow pressed over my head. Jet lag certainly was a part of this, as was my empathic internalization of bomb history. It was a lot to take in whilst also attempting to answer many of Peach’s “why” questions and concerns about atomic bombs and needless wars between countries not too long ago.
Days 8 and 9 / Hiroshima –> Kyoto: Again, a day of trains, now to Kyoto. Our apartment is nestled in a tiny alley off the Sanjo Shopping Street; it takes a few helpful neighbors to find the place. We realize once we are standing in front of our door, we needed to walk all of 20 feet from the original place we got lost. The ramen at restaurant Yoshiharu, also on the Sanjo Shopping Street, lived up to my anticipation for authentic Japanese tonkotsu ramen I’ve been waiting for. Tonkotsu broth is creamy and sticky from the hours long cook time to break down collagen and proteins from boiling pork bones. I ordered it with ajitute-tamago (
), the soft yolked ramen egg, and mayu, a black bitter garlic and sesame sauce. The ajitute-tamago and mayu are absolutely obligatory for me in my bowl of ramen, no debating. I’ve made my own mayu, and while simple to make, mine did not compare. I’ve also made tonkotsu broth that pales in comparison. I have a lot of work to do when I get home. We slurp loudly, as is custom when eating ramen in Japan, and clean our bowls.
Takenobu Inari Jinja shrine (武信稲荷神社) in Kyoto is hidden in the Nakagyo-Ku neighborhood, near our apartment off the Sanjo Shopping Street. It was founded by Fujiwara no Yoshisuke in 859, a powerhouse in politics at the time. He created this shrine as a wish to everyone’s health.
Sakamoto Ryoma, an important figure in the Meiji Restoration, hid here. In a nettle tree that still stands, he carved the first character of his name “ryu” (龍) which means “dragon” to send a message to his fiancée that he was safe. In 1868, the Meiji Restoration restored imperial rule in Japan and solidified political rule under the emperor.
An important symbol in Shinto shrines is the fox (キツネ, 狐, kitsune) statues. They are often dressed in red votive bibs (涎掛け, yodarekake) as a sign of respect. Kitsune are messengers in Shintoism, magical, shapeshifters, and often portrayed as transforming into beautiful women. Folklore tells us a man named Ono longs for a wife, meeting her on a moor. They marry and have a son. When the son was born, Ono’s dog also gave birth to a pup. This pup became more violent toward the wife, so much so that she begs for Ono to kill the pup. He refuses. She is viciously attacked and scared, in turn resuming her fox body, and runs away. Ono calls after her (paraphrasing) “You are a fox but you are the mother of my son and I love you. Come back when you can. You will always be welcome in this home.” She returns every evening to sleep in her husband’s arms. (Not sure what happened to the pup at this point.) Kitsu-ne means come and sleep, and ki-tsune means always comes. This poor kitsune has a broken nose, masquerading as a cat:
But it didn’t get too wet in the rain:
We walked to Nijo Castle (二条城 Nijō-jō), about a half mile from the apartment. It took 25 years to build, completed in 1626. It was built as the residence for the Tokugawa Shoguns in Kyoto. Shoguns (将軍) were military dictators of Japan, appointed by the Emperor. There is no photography allowed inside. The prominent memory I have is of the “nightingale floors” (uguisubari – 鴬張り). They are purposely constructed to sing and squeak as people walk across them, as a method of security, to prevent people from sneaking around, uncaught (even ninjas I bet!).
On the same property, there are dozo, earthen storehouses for rice (and sometimes weapons). They are designed to keep constant temperature and humidity while being fairly fireproof. The three remaining (of ten) storehouses at Nijo-jo are the only remaining dozo known.
We exit out of the two concentric fortification rings of the palace grounds and gardens then head back to the apartment. Bicycles whiz by us on the Sanjo Shopping Street. There is quiet chatter, as there is most everywhere in public areas in Japan. We stop by a takoyaki kiosk, and watch them being made.
The cook pours the egg based batter into the half moon oiled heated molds, poking a piece of octopus tentacle into each. Sprinkles of puffed rice and red pickled ginger (紅生姜, beni shoga) are last. As the batter cooks, more batter is added. We watch her do quick flicks with a chopstick to flip each takoyaki to brown all curves. We order a plate with four sauces, salty and with Japanese mayo, piled high with green onions and bonito (dried fish flakes). We polish it off quickly, alongside sashimi, back at the apartment. And then we go back and order more.
I have a great video of the cooking and flipping process on my phone but can’t figure out how to offload/upload it. It doesn’t show up on the cloud when I link the phone. Grrrr….
I walk with the girls down the shopping street and am pressured to stop for ice cream. When the first place we try is closed, we find another place called Premarche Gelateria. So French…and Italian. There are even vegan flavors which I try out of curiosity. Not bad. There is the Ninja (black sesame and black rice), ume (Japanese plum) sorbet, and brown sugar and toasted soy powder (kinako). It is a pastel palette of food, the colors much like Japan awash in the gray light I’ve mentioned and when the country is bathed in pale pink cherry blossoms every spring. (Or, some killjoy might say, “It looks like a J. Crew magazine!”)
We visit the restaurant Kyuzo for okonomiyaki (お好み焼き, griddled Japanese savory pancake), marinated pork, and horsemeat sashimi (馬刺し, ba-sashi) is our last stop for the day. The look on animal-loving Peach’s face when Eat tells her she’s eating horsemeat is priceless. She gets over it quickly and eats more. Grub just shrugs his shoulders and eats it. We watch Sky-Girl fall asleep at the table and get annoyed when she opens her eyes to see us giggling at the cuteness. The okonomiyaki is apparently pretty boring for her.
Day 10 / Continuing Kyoto:
Pastries for breakfast! Again! This cute place displayed tiny sketches of their offerings. Each drawing was no larger than a fingerprint:
Other fingerprint sized things that were not so cute this morning is this guy:
Stand down, dude. Stand. Down. Grub calls him Buster the Second, after the stag beetle he coddled a year ago. We walk past a flower shop, the kids excited to see some caged stag beetles up close. When admiring anything for too long in a shop in Japan, it is assumed that you want to purchase said item. Within minutes, we had plastic container with Buster and were short about 250 yen. The kids agreed Buster II would not be an agreeable travel partner on the train in a day, nor would he enjoy city life in Tokyo all that much. We let him free down the alleyway, just a few hundred feet where we bought him.
As the pinchy bug toddled off, we readied ourselves for a morning of shrines. Inari shrines are found throughout Japan, Fushimi Inari-taisha (伏見稲荷大社) being the main shrine in Japan and most well visited. Inari is the god of rice in Shintoism. There are dozens of torii (vermillion gates) lining the paths to the main shrine, casting orange light on the faces of those who walk the paths. Each gate is donated by a business, in hopes that it will bring them prosperity and honor Inari. The entrance to the shrine is also marked by fox (kitsune) statues — these are all without broken noses. There are kitsune-shaped and torii-shaped ema (votive tablets) here, hundreds of prayers and wishes being lifted to the priests.
We attempted to start early to visit the temple, but with three children, we were delayed with the normal bathroom and hunger issues, as well as a kinda pissy beetle distraction. By the time we made it to the shrine, it was packed with tourists. Getting a photograph among the pillars of vermilion was a quick point-and-shoot as other tourists waited.
Sky-Girl and I deviated from the main path a bit:
The level up the mount, Santokusha, is as far as we make it, given hunger, thirst, and general child antsiness. The highlight is stopping for amazake (甘酒), a fermented rice drink that is a favorite of Eat’s grandfather. He attended Kyoto University to gain an engineering degree, in the 1930s or 40s. This was during Japanese colonization of Taiwan and specifically when japanization of Taiwan took place. Many Taiwanese citizens were educated in Japan, spoke Japanese, converted to Shintoism, took Japanese names, and wore Japanese clothing for full “assimilation.” Japanese friends of the family told Eat that his grandfather’s Japanese is excellent and sounds like a native speaker.
We order the amazake both hot and cold, both of which are served with fresh grated ginger to stir in, and green tea on the side. I’ll have a homemade version on the blog soon hopefully. Amazake is made from rice and koji (麹), cooked rice (or soy beans) inoculated with Aspergillus oryzae — basically moldy rice. It is the foundation for Japanese foods, being used to make soy sauce, sake, miso, and mirin. Delicious!
We head back to the entrance to visit the food vendors for grilled savory mochi (yes!) and other yakitori.
That is just an appetizer.
Conveyor belt sushi was next! Everyone needs to do this. We actually had a DOUBLE conveyor belt system. The bottom belt had a rotating variety of sushi and desserts, which the top conveyor brought orders. You enter the order on the computerized screen above the table and by laser sensors and positioning, the item is whizzed out to you to grab. They count all the plates you grab to know how to charge you.
They have the silkiest chawanmushi (savory egg custard) ever — I need to revamp my recipe:
Walking around business districts, I often saw this little dude:
He is the raccoon dog (狸 or たぬき, tanuki) with a similar folklore importance as the kitsune. Tanuki are also shapeshifters, often jolly but gullible. He is a bringer of fortune to business, as he is often seen with a bottle of sake as a sign of virtue and a friendly smile tempting passersby to visit establishments and spend money.
I have one more Japan post to finish out our trip. Until then, eat some raw horsemeat and drink some sake while reflecting on atrocities of war with a kitsune curled up next to you. More simply put, learn the history of new places and go there. You may be surprised about the connections you have and how more similar you are to people than different.
One year ago: aunt mary’s salsa
Two years ago: tagliatelle with poppy seeds and prosciutto
Three years ago: one-eyed chihuahua cocktail