Tokyo, Haunting Hiroshima and Spooky Gunkanjima

Di and I were only staying one night in Tokyo, mainly because, on our one and only other visit to Japan six years ago, we stayed in Tokyo for ten nights. This trip we didn’t have time for a long stay. In fact, we only went to Tokyo for one reason, and one reason only, to meet up with people we have never met!!!!

Des and Jo are New Zealanders from ‘across the Ditch’ and have been travelling the world for several years longer than we have – so we had to take the opportunity to tap into their wealth of experience and learn from the many mistakes they have made on their travels, and I mean many!!!!

During the course of our travels we have discovered the vast digital online world of travel bloggers and we have literally become one, or at least attempted to. This society of adventurers, who travel for extended periods of time, normally many years, becomes somewhat of a ‘family’ and, being online provides travellers, like us, with guidance, support and entertainment.  We knew Jo and Des, aka World Wide Adventurers, were going to be in Tokyo and they offered to share their AirBnB they rented, so we just had to go and meet them.

We arrived at Tokyo station and caught the subway out to Shinjuku. There waiting at the subway exit was Jo and Des, it was like meeting up with long lost friends and not meeting someone for the first time – you have to love the internet …. sometimes!!!

It was back to their place and crack open a few beers and talk about ……….travel, what else!!

We could have stayed all evening chatting away but, as we are travellers, we had to get out of the room and do some travelling. We set off on foot for nearby Shinjuku.

Shinjuku is the worlds’ busiest train station and has a large entertainment and commercial area surrounding it. Shinjuku is a maze of gigantic skyscrapers and neon lights, lots and lots of neon lights!!! It was just the perfect place for us to wander.

There are many bars and restaurants in Shinjuku, but they come at a price, and long-term travellers are always conscious of the pennies and ‘how much did that cost’. We stopped at a pub and bought two pints of beer and two half pints of cider and paid 3200 Yen or about AUD$40 – looks like we are not getting drunk here – we moved on.

The streets are full of the weird and wonderful and that is just the people walking down the streets.

The Japanese ladies love the unusual and dress to be noticed. They dress to be cute and, to be honest, at times they look childish, something out of a Japanese anime series like Sailor Moon or a nursery rhyme like Little Bo Peep, or the school girl look, or French waitress, it is all frills and bows and oh so cute – and they are so hard not to perve on, with Diane’s permission of course.

Photo Courtesy of World Wide Adventurers

Photo Courtesy of World Wide Adventurers

If the restaurants, bars and cutesy girls are not enough there are also many shops; vast electronic shops, souvenir shops, sexual toy shops, clothes (conventional and zany), the list goes on, but you can guarantee it is a nonstop attack on your visual sense, your eyes will spin!!

The area of course has a red light district, not the main red light of Shibuya, but a red light district none the less. There are no street walkers, as such, but there are bored looking ladies holding up signs directing prospective customers to ‘Ladies Bars’ – or these bars could be bars where ladies like to have a few quiet ales after work!!!

The red light establishments are hostess bars and yes, host bars, which provide male companionship for ladies after they have had a few quiet ales after work. There are Love Hotels and the massage spas – to release that after work tension.

The neon advertising of these places is amusement enough and laughing will release the travel tensions. The last time we were in Tokyo there were many male escorts wandering the streets, this time they were not seen and I wonder if they have been forced into the ‘host bars’.

There are also several large Pachinko gaming rooms in Shinjuku. Pachinko is an amusement machine that uses silver balls to obtain jackpots of more silver balls by falling into little holes – a bit like a pinball machine. The silver balls can be redeemed for tokens which can buy prizes, the prizes can be sold back to the Pachinko arcade in a shop next door for cash – all legal in a country where gambling is illegal – see there is a way around everything if you just think about it!!

Pachinko Gaming Room – You are not supposed take photos inside, hence a quick one from the door.

We had to steady our nerves and relax after all the glitter and flashing lights of Shinjuku, and what better way than to eat copious amounts of sugar – we had ice cream and waffles!!! Now everything was spinning and, like energised moths, we were fixated by neon light after neon light!!!!!

More neon lights

When the sugar crash hit us, and we could stand no more entertainment, we passed under the railway bridge and there on your left as you exit, you will see several small alleyways. You enter the alleyways to an intriguing world of the Golden Gai. The Golden Gai is a collection of alleyways of shanty style bars, clubs and restaurants all squashed into the tiniest of space and, of course, all packed out with people. We wandered through these streets but we wished we could have had dinner at these quaint, but packed little bars and restaurants – but we had eaten earlier. Be warned though it was stifling hot in these narrow alleyways and yours truly was perspiring profusely!!!

One of the Golden Gai alleys

Restaurants were crammed

We then headed back to Jo and Des’s place and, of course, four travellers with about five years recent on-the-road travel experience between us got lost!!!!! Insert eyes rolling here. Thankfully Mrs Google saved the day and we followed the sacred phone home.

Normally Di and I rarely stay awake beyond 10.30pm and Jo and Des are apparently the same – well after a few nightcaps the travel war stories were running thick and fast.

Our bed for the night with fellow travellers, Jo and Des

These tall and true travel yarns flowed until we finally hit the sack after 1am – it was a terrific night and well worth the one night detour to Tokyo. So as Murray Head once sung, “One night in Tokyo and the worlds your oyster’!!!! Okay that was Bangkok I know, but you get the point and the song is now stuck in your head!!!!!

Thank you Jo and Des, our first digital online travel friends, for hosting us. We have had the pleasure of meeting you both and learning from the best. It was a wonderful night.

Di and I were back on the Shinkansen (Bullet Train) and heading for Hiroshima early the next morning. We were both surprisingly chirpy, considering!!! The train took four hours and we used our JR Pass. Hiroshima is infamous as being the first city targeted by an atomic bomb. We were staying a five minute walk from the main train station at the APA Hotel Ekimae Ohashi, and paid AUD$70 a night.

Over our extended travels Di and I have stayed in some pretty good accommodation, we have stayed in some crappy accommodation, we have had large rooms, spacious rooms, apartment rooms, dowdy rooms, majestic rooms, tranquil rooms, smelly rooms, dark rooms – well you get the picture. The room in Hiroshima was the tiniest room imaginable, it had a small double bed, a large TV mounted on the wall, a miniature desk with a minute fridge and chair – it was a room for Munchkins!! Once we placed our luggage in the room, there was ONLY room for one of us to be standing at any one time – it was like shuffling cards each time one of wanted to go to the loo, it was all so up close and intimate I discovered new parts of Diane I never knew existed – the hotel room was #@#$#@# small!!!! It was 11 Square metres.  Three sides of the bed were squashed up against a wall with access to and from the bed only available by clambering over each other – see there is a silver lining to any tale of woe!!!

Di had to lie on the bed to take this photo.

We had two full days in Hiroshima and our first day was spent going to the Atomic Bomb Memorials and the Peace Park. At 8.15am on the 6th of August 1945 the US dropped an atomic bomb in the centre of Hiroshima hoping it would bring the war with Japan to an end. The population of Hiroshima at the time was about 350,000. The bomb destroyed about 70% of the city and by years’ end some 160,000 people had died as a result of the explosion and its’ after effects. The death toll over coming years would increase due to the increase in cancers and illnesses caused by radiation poisoning from the bomb.

The walk, from our hotel to the Peace Park takes about 30 minutes, and is an easy two road journey.  I arrived at the Aioi Bridge, which incidentally was the target of the bomb – the bomb actually detonated 200 metre away from the bridge, above a hospital, and was designed to detonate 600 metres above the ground. By detonating above the ground the heat generated by the explosion can travel further causing greater destruction.

Standing on the Aioi Bridge the first thing you see is the Atomic Bomb Dome. The Dome is the façade of a domed building that was nearly directly below the bomb when it detonated. Being nearly directly below somehow allowed the domed top to withstand the force of the explosion and remain partially standing, whilst everything around it was flattened.  The domed façade is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a memorial to those killed.

Photo taken from Aioi Bridge

The Peace Park is very large with many different memorials scattered throughout the park. It is now a beautiful location lined with trees and a park area where two rivers meet at the Aioi Bridge. After the bomb blast, scientists estimated it would take over seventy five years for any plants to grow again in the area. Seeing the lush greenery of the park some seventy two years after the bomb shows the successful efforts to regenerate the area made by the people of Japan.

Peace Clock that chimes every morning at 8.15am in the Park.

Peace Clock

There is the Peace Bell that visitors can toll for peace.

The Park is also the location of mass burial site where thousands of people were buried – a mound now signifies the exact spot.

Mass grave mound

There are monuments to the children killed, mothers killed, the parents killed, the Koreans killed, the Cenotaph, the school children killed, the Peace Boulevard, the Gates of Peace, etc,  it is just such a touching, emotional and sombre walk through the Peace Park.

Gates of Peace

Once through the Peace Park you arrive at the Museum and it is here that the full impact of the devastation really hits home. The museum costs 300 Yen to enter and starts with pre bomb photos of Hiroshima. This leads to post bomb photos and the devastation is truly mind blowing, I was stunned.

There are also 3D CGI movie displays, where you can follow the bomb from the moment it leaves the plane, to its detonation above the city, and then follow the path of destruction caused by the heat wave. The heat wave, at its centre, was somewhere around 350 degrees Celsius. The museum is a must visit.

The Memorial Hall, just down from the museum, has a room called the Hall of Remembrance where you can sit and observe a panoramic view of the ruins of Hiroshima made from 140,000 tiles (estimation of those killed by the blast) – this is a quiet and an emotionally draining room – I sat there alone.

The Peace Park memorial is tastefully done and is a raw experience and is a must visit place in Japan.

From there I walked back along the river to Hiroshima Castle, it took about twenty minutes. Hiroshima Castle is a large complex surrounded by an impressive moat. The current castle is a replica of the original castle, as the original castle was completely destroyed by the bomb blast. This replica was built in 1958.

Hiroshima Castle

The castle is now a museum for history prior to WW2. The castle grounds, in particular, the moat area are very scenic and are a pleasure to explore.

It was then a 40 minute walk back to the hotel. Japan at this time of year, July, has been very hot and an extremely humid experience, be warned.

The next day we went out to Itsukushima Island which is just off the coast of Hiroshima. To get there take the Sanyo Train line from Hiroshima Train Station to Miyajimaguchi Train Station. The journey takes about 30 minutes and is covered by your JR pass. It is then a five minute walk to the pier. This is where it gets really good, because the Miyajima Ferry out to Itsukushima Island is also included in the JR rail pass. The ferry trip takes about ten minutes.

Once you are on the ferry make sure you stand on the right side of the ferry. This is because the ferry veers to the right of the island to allow out coming ferries to depart from the island pier. Once the out coming ferry has departed the ferry to the island swings past the red Tori Gate at the Itsukushima shrine. The Tori Gate is built in the ocean and from the right side of the ferry you get some good views. Just make sure you are situated on the right side of the ferry early, as once the ferry swings to the left there will be a stampede of people to the right side of the ferry with cameras poised and prime locations are venomously fought over.

View from the ferry of the Tori Gate

The Itsukushima Shrine is what people come to see. Itsukushima shrine is a Shinto Shrine and has the ‘floating’ Tori Gate in the harbour. The original shrine was built in the 6th century but has been destroyed and rebuilt several times throughout history.

Itsukushima shrine

On exiting the pier at Miyajima, simply turn right and follow the tourists. We were there early, around 9am and the flow of tourists wasn’t too bad, this tourist trickle will become a torrent as the day wears on.

On the way to the shrine there are wild deer in the streets, nowhere near as many deer as there were at Nara, but still enough for the tourists to pester with their cameras (yes we have photos).

The shrine is built on the water and is all very picturesque, just make sure you go there at high tide, as we did, or your photos of the shrine and Tori Gate will be spoilt with them both being perched on sludgy sand at low tide.  It costs 500 Yen to enter the shrine.

 

 

Once through the shrine you will come to Daiganji Temple. You then swing around and climb the steps up to Gojunoto, the five storied Pagoda. This pagoda is obviously on top of the hill and all you need to do is look up to see it. The pagoda was built in the early 1400’s.

Gojunoto

Gojunoto in the background

We then worked our way through a labyrinth of small narrow streets to the main shopping and restaurant area. We saw some seriously large oysters on the grill – massive, secret to Japanese virility!!!

We then headed back to the pier and awaited the arrival of the now jam packed ferries for our return journey.  As it was only 1pm the return ferry was reasonably empty.

I loved visiting Hiroshima and the Peace Park was certainly a moving experience. It saddens me that as I write this blog there are still nations in the world who threaten the use of bombs far more lethal than what was dropped on Hiroshima – will we ever learn!!!!

The next morning we caught the train to Fukuoka (be careful how you say this in mixed company) for our last days in Japan. We stayed at an AirBnB for three nights in Fukuoka (any slip of the tongue can be embarrassing).

Di was tired and needed a couple of days rest. We had one day left on our JR pass so I set out again on my own to catch the express train to Nagasaki. The train journey was fantastic and the journey took me along some beautiful coastline. On the journey to Nagasaki the tide was high and on the journey back it was very low, giving a terrific contrast of the coastline.

Views of the coastline on the trip to Nagasaki

Nagasaki, of course, was where the second atom bomb was dropped on the 9th of August 1945 leading to the end of the Second World War. I wasn’t  going there to visit their Peace Park and memorials, what I wanted to see was Gunkanjima.

It took three hours to get from where we stayed at Fukuoka (I even have to type it slowly) to the pier to catch the ferry out to Gunkanjima. On arrival at Nagasaki train station, exit the station and turn right. You then walk about ten minutes until you come to a small bridge and there you turn right and walk to the pier. Walk along the pier until you get to a large building, this building is the ticket office for various ferries and tours just ask for Gunkanjima. The tour to Gunkanjima cost 4500 Yen each (AUD$46) so it is not cheap.

If you have seen the James Bond movie ‘Skyfall’ you would have seen James (first name basis) held prisoner on an island with a deserted decaying city on it. Well there is one of these islands with a deserted decaying city on it off the coast of Nagasaki.

The island is called Hashima Island but it is more commonly known as Gunkanjima. Gunkanjima literally translates in Japanese to ‘battleship’. The island looks very much like a battleship the way the buildings on the island have been erected.

Looking like a battleship in the distance

The island was home to over 5000 people who worked the undersea coal mine on the island. In 1974, the coal basically ran out and overnight the mine was closed and the islands occupants shipped out on mass. The island overnight became deserted. The city died.

In the resulting years the weather, in particular the typhoons and heavy seas that bombard the city each year, took their toll and the abandoned city began to collapse. In 2009 the Nagasaki local government opened the island up to tourists. Gunkanjima’s popularity has grown ever since.

Before you commence the tour you have to sign a waiver that you do not suffer from seasickness (another reason Di did not come), you do not have heart troubles, etc. The reason is the seas can be quite large and treacherous around the island. If the seas are very bad, or worsen, so that it is unsafe to get on the islands, the tours will be cancelled.

I was lucky on the day I went out, the seas were dead flat and stayed that way. The island is 15 kilometres off shore. It takes about an hour in a ferry to reach the island. The ferry left at 1pm and I was amazed to see about forty people, of various ages, making the journey with me out to Gunkanjima.

The ferry trip out to the island was great, you pass the Coast Guard, the Japanese Navy, ship builders and go under a magnificent bridge. You then pass several small islands and many reinforced sea walls protecting the harbour when the typhoons hit.

Gunkanjima is simply mesmerising as it buildings slowly materialise as you draw near to it. There is a large ten metre high sea wall erected around the whole of the island and it looks nearly like a fortress – or the lair of an evil, megalomaniac ,super villain – cue the James Bond theme music!!!!

You are allocated a guide to go around the island with – I, of course, was with the foreigner group and our guide spoke pretty good English.

The foreigner group were mainly Hong Kong Chinese. I struck up a good conversation with Agnes and Justin, two English teachers from Hong Kong.

Agnes and Justin from Hong Kong

Tourists are only allowed on about one fifth of the island. This one fifth part is mainly the area surrounding the now defunct mine. Tourists are not allowed to wander through the town itself as the buildings are unstable and parts, and even large parts, of the buildings are now collapsing. We only got to go near the outside of some of the residential buildings. The area looks like the scene from a post-apocalyptic end of the world zombie movie all rolled into one. It is amazing.

We stayed on the island for about an hour – yes, I would have loved to have wandered through the city area, but what we saw was worth the money and the trip out.

Agnes, Justin and I sat on the top deck on the right side of the ferry when it departed as we heard the ferry will cruise slowly around part of the island. The ferry did exactly that, it slowly sailed along the seawall on the other side of the island where the main city part was. It was an eerie spectacle watching these shell-shocked and scarred building pass on by.

Once the ferry reached the end of the island it turned around and set sail back to the mainland. The left side of the ferry only got a brief period to observe the ruined city – on departing the island make sure you are on the right side of the ferry.

Agnes, Justin and I stayed on deck and chatted about travel, Hong Kong and English language teaching, they were such a lovely couple and it was great to meet them.

The tour round trip took three hours and I loved the tour. I thought it was worth the while – some rough seas would have made it all the more interesting!!!

I went straight to the Nagasaki Train Station and caught a train fairly quickly and was back with Di by 7pm in Fukuoka, I had left at 8.20am so it was long day, but an extremely enjoyable day.

We had a blog writing day the next day and then the next day we were off to South Korea by ferry.

I simply love Japan, it is a marvellous country to visit and so easy to travel around. We spent just under a month there and the time absolutely flew past. I would recommend you put Japan on your must visit list, as it is well worth it, and there is just so much to see and do. The Japanese Rail Pass for foreigners is also a must. We made good use of our 21 day pass and it was financially beneficial saving us money.  Goodbye Japan it has been a pleasure.

The adventure continues…………………………..

4 Comments

  1. Margot and John

    Enjoyed reading about Japan. We are intending to go next Spring.

    Best wishes

    Margot and John

    Reply
    1. meandering_wanderers@outlook.com

      You will absolutely love it Margot and John.

      Reply
  2. Jo

    How easy it is to travel the world these days, make friends online and feel like long lost buddies when you meet.

    Too true guys – it was awesome to meet in Tokyo, share our war stories and expensive beers! I knew we should have gone back to 711.

    And sooo many similar habits it was scary!

    Reply
    1. meandering_wanderers@outlook.com

      So true Jo. I hope we can catch up again somewhere in this big, wide, wonderful, world we live in.

      Reply

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