Hiroshima

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This is the toilet in our budget hostel in Hiroshima.

It had a heated seat (variable temperature), two bidet functions (which you can probably see illustrated on the control), and a button for playing a flushing sound effect.

There are no bog standard toilets in Japan — you either get one like this with bells and whistles, or a squat toilet.

Either way it will almost certainly be spotlessly clean.  Japan is the cleanest place I’ve been, I don’t know how they do it.  I think perhaps untidyness is not very Japanese, so there’s not much mess to clean up in the first place.

In case the floor is dirty in the bathroom (which it never is), toilets in hostels and guesthouses come with a pair of bathroom slippers.  Before entering you step out of the general slippers which you’ll have been provided with, and into these special slippers, making sure not to let either pair cross the threshold.

Generally places like hostels, restaurants and museums will have the fancy toilets, while you’ll get the ‘Japanese style’ ones in more old fashioned guesthouses and some (though not all) public toilets.

The squat toilets are referred to as ‘Japanese style’ because they used to be the norm, but the snazzy ones seem more Japanese, and more common, to me.  Apparently there’s recently been a push to install new toilets in elementary schools, which generally have ‘Japanese style’ ones as they were mostly built in before the 1980s.  Most school buildings are old because there’s no need to build new ones, since Japan’s population is declining.

I read that children starting school are afraid to use the squat toilets, which they’re not used to, and so avoid going.  Apparently more than half of parents ‘train’ their children before they start school, by taking them to old fashioned public toilets to practice.

After staying in our hostel for one night we had to do a frantic search for accommodation, because everything was booked up.  This was our first lesson in how to travel in Japan —plan ahead, especially at weekends.  We ended up in a ryokan, a traditional Japanese guesthouse, which was right in the centre of town.  It had a squat toilet.  It also had an 11pm curfew, which we had to run back to make.

This was a pretty basic ryokan, but it had all the key ingredients: tatami mat floor, big soft rolled up beds with voluminous duvets, a low table with tea and teapot, Japanese style bathroom with sit down showers and a soaking tub, and yukata (cotton kimonos).

We asked for breakfast for the next morning, and the owner apologised that it was only Japanese style, which obviously was what we wanted.  It was delicious.

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We had rice, salad, fried eggs, pickles, seaweed, fermented beans (much nicer than they sound), tea, and in Arthur’s case miso soup.  The owner even made me a little dish of pickled seaweed instead of the seafood stick that Arthur had.  And as with almost everywhere we ate, it was all presented on beautiful, interesting crockery.

Hiroshima was mostly about eating for us, it turned out.  (Though we did eventually make it to the Peace Museum, more on this below.)  The wet weather meant we couldn’t explore much on the first day we were there — the rain was so heavy that you were soaked to the skin in seconds if you walked anywhere.  Even with a brolly your legs got soaked in a minute or two.  So we confined ourselves to the central area of town that’s mostly covered arcades, did a bit of vintage shopping for a new shoulder bag, and ate.

Lunch was okonomiyaki, which is a pancake layered with egg, noodles, and other delicious things, cooked on a hotplate.

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Again, it was delicious.  Nothing like the Japanese food I was familiar with — salty and slathered in sauce, and even slightly greasy (for Japanese food, anyway).  I had iced tea with mine, and Arthur had a cold sake, which came with a beautiful ceramic cup (of course).  The lady who cooked it seemed genuinely thrilled that we wanted to take her photo.  Or possibly highly amused.

After three or four hours of very strenuous bag shopping and soaking in the ryokan bath, we moved on to dinner: tsukemen.

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It was delicious.  Like, really, really delicious.  Fresh and light and flavoursome and crunchy and rich.  Perfect with an Asahi in a freshly frozen glass.

And none of this stuff was expensive, at least not by European standards.  The okonomiyaki was about £3.50 each, and the tsukemen (from Bakudanya on Fujimi-cho, you should definitely go) about £4.  A large beer will typically be about £2.50 in a casual restaurant, tea can be less than a pound.

Tsukemen is basically a bowl of cold noodles and other bits, which you dunk into a cold broth thick with sesame seeds, then eat.  In this case the noodles came with cabbage, spring onion, cucumber, and sliced cooked pork.  I palmed my pork off on Arthur.  (Not a euphemism.)  After some enthusiastic dunking I decided the broth probably had meat stock in it, so I didn’t drink it at the end and Arthur got that too.

I found that a relaxed attitude to accidental meat and fish consumption is needed in Japan, at least if you want to sample local specialities, which I did.  It would be extremely difficult, and dull, to only eat things you can be sure are vegetarian, so I just did my best and avoided things that I was sure were meaty.  (N.B. Miso soup is almost never veggie.)

Eating out in Japan is pretty straightforward, but trying to get something loosely vegetarian can be a challenge.  English isn’t that widely spoken, and English menus aren’t often available, at least if you want to eat cheaply and at more local places.  This generally isn’t an issue, because there’ll usually be a picture menu, or more often, models in the window of what the place sells.  Alternatively, ordering will be done on a vending machine, which rarely has pictures and never has English.  This is really easy if you don’t care what you eat, you just need to make an educated guess about which buttons are main courses, and which one is beer.  It’s a bit trickier when you’re trying to order something veggie.

After dinner we had a couple of drinks.  First some very pricey but extremely good craft beer (or ‘beer’ as it’s known in Britain), then on to a bar in a super cool concrete box for another beer, and in Arthur’s case a Japanese whiskey.  The razor sharp hipness of the building the second bar was in was pleasingly blunted by one wall showing early 90s music videos.  While we sat at the bar the owner quizzed us about our music taste and then laughed at us.  We laughed back at him when he rather inaccurately guessed that we were on honeymoon.

On our second day in Hiroshima the sun finally came out, and we managed to see a bit of the city, and get to the Peace Museum.  Although, before we went in we stopped at an international food festival that was going on outside…

The museum walks you through the day the bomb fell, and the aftermath, in generally thoughtful but occasionally gruesome detail.  I found the mannequins of victims walking zombie-like to keep their arms, skin hanging off, away from their bodies, tasteless.  Sometimes words do a better job.  On the other hand, the objects on display were horrendously illustrative without verging on the theatrical.  Outfit after outfit with the back totally burnt away by the blast.  Burnt, mangled lunch pails and spectacles.  Glass bottles fused together in the heat of the fires.  Fingernails that had grown black and twisted afterwards.

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Another really successful exhibit was the large model of the city, with a red orb hanging over it showing the fireball at the moment of the blast.  Somehow this brought home the horror of that moment, even having read and seen plenty about it before.

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I suppose seeing it shown like that, so close to the point you’re standing, gives it immediacy.  Being right there makes a difference.

On the way out of the museum you pass a stand inviting you to sign a petition for nuclear disarmament.  Hiroshima, unsurprisingly, is at the centre of a global movement towards nuclear disarmament called Mayors for Peace.  The mayor of Hiroshima in the early 1980s started the organisation, which member cities join to show their support for a beginning of negotiations towards nuclear disarmament.  There are now nearly 7000 cities signed up worldwide.

Around the museum is a park, with various memorials.  One of these is the Children’s Peace Memorial.  The memorial depicts Sadako Sasaki, a Hiroshima girl who was two years old at when the bomb went off.  She seemed to have survived unharmed, and appeared healthy for several years, but died of leukaemia aged 12.   Around the statue hang chains and chains of tiny brightly coloured origami cranes, folded by children from all over the world.

The story goes that while dying in hospital Sadako Sasaki was told by her room-mate the Japanese tradition that folding 1000 paper cranes will grant you a wish.  She managed to fold 1000 shortly before her death, but her wish (to stay alive, or for nuclear disarmament, depending on who you ask) was not granted.

Something I didn’t know before visiting the museum was that a high proportion of those close to the hypercentre were school children, who had been put to work that morning creating firebreaks in the city centre.

Of those less than 1000 feet from the point where the bomb, ‘Little Boy’, exploded, 93% were killed.

Other memorials dot the park too, and across the river is the shell of an exhibition hall.  Now known as the Atomic Bomb Dome, the hall was the only building left standing near the hypercentre, and has been left as it was, in memory.

The whole park and museum complex is really well put together, definitely worth going.  I guess it’s the main reason we went to Hiroshima, though it turned out to be a great place to visit generally, by which I mean it had lots of delicious food to try.

Not ones to let catastrophic human suffering distract us from stuffing our faces, we even ended our Hiroshima trip with an ice cream in the sun.  Which is the point of peace, really.

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