RETRO: A Japan Story from August 2004

[ originally published at ]

FIRST ~ Japan 070804: Bullet Trains at Tokyo Station

These sleek shinkansen machines can go all the way up to 300km/h. On one stretch between Hiroshima and Osaka, my GPS registered 286 km/h! No shaking, no rattling, just a hum. It covers the very busy 520km Tokyo-Kyoto route in just 2.3 hours, with trains leaving one station for the other every 5-10 min during peak periods.

JR train tickets, including for bullet trains. Top left is my first ticket – from Narita Airport to Tokyo Station. The nice English-speaking girl at the counter subtitled in red for me. Splendid start!

Japan 090804: Hiroshima A-Bomb Memorial Park

The Hiroshima Memorial Park, built to commemorate the 8.15am, 6/8/45, A-Bomb blast which took place 580 metres in the air somewhere above the slender car-parking building marked ‘P’ in the bottom pic. The bomb should have exploded right above the bridge in Pic #3 (from the top), but I guess that’s academic now. As a result some 140,000 citizens of Hiroshima perished (70,000 from the blast, 70,000 from radiation), and Hiroshima was decimated. Now a modern Hiroshima is a bustling and beautiful city, surrounded by mountains and the sea, with wide streets, trundling trams, rivers and waterways, and 1.1mil people.
I arrived at the city around 7.30pm, 8/8/04, aboard a bullet train from Osaka, oblivious to the fact that the city had just had its 59th a-bomb anniversary a couple of days before. Otherwise it would have been tough getting a room for the night. I ended up spending two nights in Hiroshima, and could not get over the fact that on 6/8/45 the whole city was obliterated, and had to be rebuilt from scratch – a testimony to the power of life over destruction.

Japan 090804: Hiroshima’s A-Bomb

In the grounds of the Hiroshima A-Bomb Memorial Peace Park, you will find a splendid museum detailing the event, with a strong anti-nuclear weaponry theme, not surprisingly. The pics attached below were taken in the museum:
Pic #1 (top): model of Hiroshima prior to the bombing.
Pic #2 (middle): model of Hiroshima after the bombing – only bits of some ferro-concrete buildings were left standing.
Pic #3 (bottom): a stitched pic of four separate photos I took of a huge display in the museum of the real panorama of Hiroshima a few days after bombing.
For orientation, the T-shaped bridge at left of Pic #1 is shown at the far right of Pic #3. It is partially hidden to the extreme left of Pic #2.
This odd-shaped bridge survived the blast and is still in use today. The A-Bomb was supposed to be detonated above this bridge because it was easily identifiable from the air. The bomb instead exploded 300 metres to the south-east of the T-shaped bridge, at a height of 580 metres, in order to maximise its destructive impact. The time was exactly 8.15am, 6/8/1945, on a beautiful sunny blue morning (similar weather to the day I was there 9/8/2004). The bomber had 4 possible cities to bomb, but Hiroshima got it because it had the best weather for the drop.

Japan 090804: Hirosima A-Bomb relics

The pics attached are real items, thanks to the A-Bomb, all on display at the museum. The blast from the bomb generated heat of almost 4,000C which vaporised (or burnt) people, and melted glasses.
Pic #1: melted glass bottles.
Pic #2: melted and fused empty ink bottles found in a spot where an ink factory used to stand.

Japan 090804: A quick trip to Miyajima and the floating shrine

After a sombre morning at the A-Bomb Memorial, I caught a tram to the Hiroshima train station, had a quick McD’s fillet-o-fish, and boarded an afternoon local train to the coastal town of Miyajimaguchi, for a ferry ride to the island of Miyajima, an hour away from Hiroshima. Miyajima is famous for its venerable shrine of Itsukushima-jinja (built 1168), whose vermilion gate rising out of the sea (not at low tides) is considered one of Japan’s top three most scenic views.
Top pic attached shows a view of the ‘floating’ gate from the path leading to the shrine on Miyajima island, with the mountains on Honshu island as a backdrop. Bottom pic shows the gate as the ferry approaches Miyajima island. The position of the sacred gate indicates that the whole island of Miyajima is a Shinto holy site and should be respected as such.

Japan 100804: Hiroshima-Osaka bullet train

After spending two nights in Hiroshima, I packed my stuff and decided to back-track to Osaka with a bullet train, and then change at Osaka for a normal express train for Kanazawa. I had the option of pushing further west to Kyushu island, but I reckoned the west coast of Honshu was worth seeing too, considering the lack of time. Anyway I had to head back to Tokyo for a date with missus. Maybe next time :-). Hence my furthest point from Tokyo is Miyajima, some 920 km away by train. Kanazawa, on the other hand, is only 470 km away, but on the other side of Honshu island.
Pics attached are taken during the bullet train ride from Hiroshima to Osaka (with a short 3-hour Himeji lay-over in between). The GPS caught the train doing 280 km/h, though the max speed I recorded was 286 km/h. The scenery was mainly mountainous interspersed with forests, villages and urban areas. Rice-fields were everywhere, even in between buildings in towns. The cabin of the train was very comfortable, spacious and quiet, with just a humming sound.

Japan 100804: Himeji Castle

Himeji Castle. Most famous castle in Japan, also known as “white egret castle”. More than 600 yrs old, but present structure was built 400 yrs ago by Tokugawa Shogun, totally wooden but coated with white plaster and well-defended by walls, ramparts, towers and moats. Climbing up the 6 floors of the castle tower was a bit of a challenge – narrow, steep wooden staircases (more like ladders). Featured in 007’s “You Only Live Twice” and countless samurai shows. Himeji Castle is registered on UNESCO’s World Heritage list.
Stopped by in Himeji for 3 hours while traveling on the shinkansen (bullet train) from Hiroshima to Osaka 10/8/04. Himeji is some 650km west of Tokyo. After stowing my backpack in the coin locker at the Himeji station, it was a 15-min brisk walk to the castle which was built atop a hill north of the city centre.

Pics’ descriptions:
Pic #1 – View of castle from near the main gate.Model of internal wooden structure of Himeji Castle.
Pic #2 – View of main street in Himeji from top floor of castle. The train station is behind the building at the end of the street.
Pic #3 – Model of internal wooden structure of Himeji Castle.
Pic #4 – View of castle from the garden below it.

Japan 100804: Harakiri-maru at Himeji Castle

So what happens when you are a disgraced samurai at the court of the Shogun. You come to this place, sit like in ‘tahiyat awal’ with head bowed in front of the platform where the dignitaries sit to observe (Pic #2), and proceed to disembowel yourself with a sharp knife. Not to worry, if you are in real pain, your assistant will lop your head with a stroke of his sword. Then he proceeds to wash the sepukku knife (which you used to cut your belly open), his sword and your stand-alone head in the well shown in Pic #1. This spot is known as the harakiri-maru, within the Himeji Castle walls. Or so the story goes.


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