Sunday, 13 November 2016

Himeji Castle on a Sunday afternoon and Takoyaki!

We arrived into Himeji around 12pm and decided to go straight for lunch. Pierrick's eyes wandered in the right direction and caught onto a lovely tiny local eatery with tiny little tables outside serving little balls of gooey deliciousness.

We saw the outrageously low price (25 of them for 600¥) and without knowing what they were (the ladies serving us knew no English what-so-ever) we grabbed 25 balls with all the toppings; dried fish flakes, spicy sauce and mayonnaise and tucked in! There was a kind lady who had heard our failed attempt to find out the contents and she wonderfully translated for us; they were pieces of raw octopus, cut up into tiny pieces and mixed in a gooey dough and then grilled in ball griddles; they are known locally as Takoyaki and are a speciality of the Osaka region. I can tell you, I'm not a big fan of octapus but my god they were delicious! So delicious Pierrick went and ordered 10 more for 250¥ - to give you an idea of how cheap these were, they sell the same thing in Osaka, 6 Takoyaki for around 400¥!!

We then decided to make use of the rest of this hot and humid day and go visit the attraction we had come to see - Himeji Castle. On the way there we just had to stop by the Sunday Street food market and pick up some Manju (sweet balls of donut filled with sweet red-bean rice paste) which were delicious, we had chocolate and cream cheese flavours).

Himeji Castle has been reconstructed over the years to get it looking tip top but it's absolutely stunning. Sitting atop a hill it looks out over the small city of Himeji like a Queen on her throne. At 1000¥ to enter it was a little pricey but for Japan's top Castle it wasn't so bad. The castle has withstood the world war air raids (the whole of Himeji was flattened, but somehow the castle survived) and has taken years to refurbish.

It was originally built during the Edo period and it was built to represent a Heron in flight, blinding white with upturned roofs to resemble wings. The detail in the architecture is exquisite and the little booklet they hand you gives you a detailed account of its defence mechanisms (slits for windows so arrows and bullets couldn't get through), triangle, square and rectangular holes (Sama) in the walls to allow for weapons to be fired through and extremely high walls which were built to be fire-proof, and were built with materials to protect the castle from rain wind and snow. The Japanese were way ahead than us Europeans for their castles - I've even noticed castles in Japan have 2 moats, an outer moat and an inner moat, both with extremely high banks making it very hard for attacks. This is definitely the best Castle I have seen yet.

The castle itself has 6 floors and you get to visit all of them. Though there is not much outside the view from the top is pretty impressive however the experience of being hoarded around like cattle was pretty tough. We had chosen the worst day to do it - a Sunday when families and tourists alike were visiting. Due to the high amount of people visiting that day they were limiting the amount of people on each floor and so most of it was a waiting game, and then a tight shuffle up some stairs. Definitely not fun if you are agrophobic - I should think weekdays were a better day to visit.

The history of the castle dates back to 1333 and was built first as a fort and then constructed as a large scale Castle. The castle grounds are just as extensive as the castle itself and we spent all afternoon wandering through. There were also picture opportunities with Ninjas, Princess Sen, Samuri, so it was a great day.

That evening we checked into our hostel (very traditionally Japanese and very quaint) and went to a local Udon restaurant recommended by Pong, the girl who ran the hostel. Pierrick found his happiness - happiness has a word, its Udon.

We then went to buy some local Plum Sake as we wanted to taste some (delicious but very sweet) and went back to the hostel (after checking out the Castle lit up at night) where we drank and chatted to some of the other guests staying there. We were also offered some free wine by some of the locals drinking at the hostel bar. In all we had a great day/evening in Himeji, again, a city frequented mainly by day-trippers but it certainly has a cute charm which leaves you wanting to stay a little longer.

Saturday, 12 November 2016

Hiroshima - surviving the A-Bomb - and the stunning Miyajima

Upon arrival at Hiroshima we took the sightseeing bus as it was free with our train pass and dropped our bags at the hostel in order to spend the rest of the day sightseeing.

A little background on Hiroshima. Many will know it's history, it's a sad, horrifying history, when at 8.15am on August 6th 1945, the city fell victim to the world's first Atomic bombing (along with Nagasaki later on). The entire city was levelled and hundreds of thousands of people instantly lost their lives. Those who miracously survived the bombing, suffered irreparable physical and psychological damage for the rest of their lives and even the next generation (unborn babies, children) are still suffering from indirect affects today.

With a blinding flash, the bomb was detonated 600 metres above the city centre. It generated energy so fierce, it produced an enormous fireball reaching over a million degrees Celsius, a high pressure of several hundred atmospheres causing an extremely strong blast thrusting outwards crushing buildings, blowing people through the air and reducing everything within a 2km radius to ashes in the intense heat.

Walking around Hiroshima today, you couldn't imagine how a city could ever recover from such an atrocity, flattened completely and now a thriving bustling city, both in tourism; educating the world in an atrocity which should never happen again, and in business and youth. Most people only spend a day or afternoon here but we spent the night as we wanted to know the city a little better. And it's a huge contrast by day and night!

We spent the afternoon walking through the city centre, through the various monuments erected in memorial in the peace park which flanks both sides of the river around the Memorial Museum, past the A-Bomb Dome - a building in the epi-centre which miraculously survived the bomb and is preserved forever as a reminder of how resilient Hiroshima's people were in that time and how they can build up again and keep living. Frozen in time it is a symbol of peace for its people.

We also visited Hiroshima Castle which was mostly reduced to rubble in the bomb (the foundations survived) and so it has been rebuilt to show a little of what it was before the war and during the Edo period.

We then walked back in the early evening, sun setting, via the Peace Park, a very fitting end to the 11th November - Armistice Day, a symbol of remembrance of the war and the people who's lives were lost. Well, it wasn't just Europe who saw significant loss of life during the war, the effects were global, and they still are today. Hiroshima was as much a tragedy of the war, as D-Day was or the Battle of the Somme - yet we are somehow detached from it. The most disturbing thing about it, was how planned it was by the USA. Why did they choose to drop the bomb on Japan? Well, Japan was in an extremely weak position by this point, so the US had 3 choices on how to end the war; invade the Japanese mainland, ask the Soviet union to join the war against Japan, or use the Atomic Bomb. Of course, the Atomic Bomb had never been used on humans before, it's affects had never really been studied. So why not end the war, plus do a little experiment. It's disgusting really.

Why Hiroshima you ask? To ensure the affects of the Atomic Bomb could be accurately observed, potential targets were selected from cities with an urban area at least 3 miles in diameter, and air raids in those cities were prohibited in preparation. The 4 chosen cities were Hiroshima, Kokura, Niigata or Nagasaki. Hiroshima was thought to have been the first choice because it was the only one of the 4 cities that didn't have an Allied prisoner of war camp. Therefore, the US went ahead, and released a piece of hell that should never have been allowed to happen.

The Peace Park and the Memorial Museum were made as a reminder of what evils war can bring and a reminder that these bombs, or now nuclear weapons should not be allowed to exist. The damage by the a-bomb was so catastrophic that the people of Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Japan, are fighting to show the world that they should be eliminated from the face of the earth. Promoting world peace, they built the monuments in the Peace Park to create and install peace in the minds of people. The path to peace begins with even the smallest steps. And we learnt all of this and so much more just walking through the Peace Park, tolling the Peace bell, and watching the school children of Japan, singing and honoring the victims at the Memorial Mound, where thousands of bodies were cremated in the days after the bomb and placed there. It was a sombre afternoon but a very prominent one, and travel comes not only with new sights and culture, but also with strong messages and history of its people, and lessons to never repeat history. Unfortunately the human race never really learns it's lesson.

In a more happier note, Hiroshima was a beautiful place, and it left a mark on us. Especially for its food that night! We decided what else should you try than the local speciality Okinomiyaki. A dish of a pancake, topped with cabbage, noodles, meat and egg with a most delicious sauce on top. We checked out some of the top places to try it and the one we found was a winner as soon as we entered. The staff were the friendliest people in the world, and even though they only spoke broken English they tried so hard to communicate with us and wanted to get to know us. The awesomeness of this restaurant was also that they cooked the food in front of you on a hotplate, Teppenyaki style! Pierrick instantly bonded with them over Dragon Ball - a very popular manga comic/TV show. Pierrick went for the house special which included Tempura squid in the deal, and I went with the classic pork and egg, with an extra topping of Oysters - which are world-class here in Hiroshima, and super cheap and huge! We also had pork and kimchi Teppanyaki, plus liver Teppanyaki. Everything was delicious and it was even better watching it being made right in front of you. The oysters were amazing, grilled to perfection, melt in your mouth, so fresh!

We loved it so much we kept ordering more things just to stay longer. However there came a point after two hours of eating and drinking that we had to leave - though the place was open til 3am!

We then took a walk through the nightlife district of Hiroshima, which is completely different to the daytime Hiroshima, not a tourist in sight, bright lights, buzzing. It was great to see a city that had lived through so much, carry on as though nothing had happened.

The next morning it was time to visit the Peace memorial museum. This further educated us on the bombing. Not only did it take you step by step of what happened but it showed the horrifying effects and stories. Children's burnt, bloody clothing, a bike reduced to molten metal, stone steps with a black shadow of where a person had been sitting before reduced to nothing, shadows on bricks showing the direction of the light/heat blast, watches stopped at 8.15am - the only thing left of its victim. A lunch box; its contents charred black, found under the charred body of a little school boy. Then it also goes on to show the after effects of radiation; cancerous body organs, scars of clothing burnt into the skin, pictures of victims burned so badly they died of their injuries days or hours after. The black rain that came after the blast, the city burning for 3 days, of children that years later developed lukaemia and cancer from radiation. Of unborn babies that were born with disabilities. One bomb had destroyed generations. It also educated you on how many of the victims were Korean, working in Hiroshima under forced labour, and also most of the victims were school children, forced out of school and into labour, helping to pull down buildings to decrease fire outbreaks during air raids.

At the end it takes you via books where each president, prime minister, foreign minister has written their prayers for world peace while visiting Hiroshima, and yet every one of those has continued acts of war, and developed and owns nuclear weapons far worse than the A-Bomb.

We then made our move to MiyaJima, an island located just south of Hiroshima. We were spending the night in a hostel in Hatsukaichi as Hiroshima was fully booked (Saturday nights are very popular in Japan and get booked out way in advance we are beginning to realise!) So we used our JR pass to get to Hatsukaichi, before the station guard told us we were no-where near our hostel, and needed to take a tram for 3 stops and then walk. By this time we were fed up as it was super hot (we have been so lucky with the weather so far!) and we were in a tiny local town with no idea where to go. However we were lucky enough to literally stumble upon the tram tracks and follow them up to the station, where we then jumped on the tram and later managed to find our hostel.

By this time it was 3pm, it didn't leave us much time to visit MiyaJima but we could at least see the main bits before sunset. So we hopped on the tram and then the ferry over to this cute little island.

Upon arrival we were starving as we hadn't had lunch yet, so we grabbed some local fried fare on the cobbled street and marvelled at the tame deer walking around! They were everywhere! I was acosted by one (be careful when eating as they will try to steal your food!) And head-butted by it as I wouldn't give up my fried chicken! Luckily it didn't have antlers. We then walked down to the famous floating Torii gate and walked around the beautiful old Edo-style township and the Japanese gardens with the fiery red Autumn colours of the trees. We decided not to pay the entrance fee into the temple as it was super crowded and we preferred to enjoy it from afar.

 We then watched the sun fire purple colours across the sky over the Torii gate as the tide rose to show its full glory and walked the streets sampling grilled oysters and maple leaf cakes - very local delicacies before taking the late ferry back to the mainland. It had been a short visit and we would have loved to have stayed longer, maybe to hike the mountain - in hind sight we maybe should have spent an extra day there instead of Osaka but hey - leave something to return to right? Tomorrow it was on to Himeji to view one of the most symbolic castles of Japan.

Thursday, 10 November 2016

Yatai, Robots and Disaster Prevention

Our next destination was Fukuoka (old name Hakata), and it was an early 2hhr bus back to Tokyo to get to the Shinkansen station. When we arrived at the bus stop though at 7am for a 7.10am bus the driver of another bus told us it had already left! Ensue 5mins of panic thinking we would have to wait ages for another bus, however the driver, over a little sign language and broken English and japanese between us, radioed to someone his end and then allowed us onto his bus as he was going the same way! Stroke of luck!

Once back in Shinjuku, we took the subway back to Tokyo Station and then went to the Shinkansen ticket office to activate our Japan Rail pass - unlimited travel on any Shinkansen (apart from the Nozomi fast one), plus all JR local rail, some ferries and some buses, for 14 days. Though when we activated it we realised it would terminate a day before we thought it would so we'd have to spend two nights back in Tokyo before we left.

Once we had activated it the lady told us the first train we needed, the Hikari to Shin-Osaka, was at exactly 5mins! So we rushed our way to the platform and to our reserved seats, and it took 3hrs to Shin-Osaka. Once there we had half an hour to buy lunch and make our way to the next train the Sakura, bound for Hakata. This train took another 2.5hrs and once there, it was a simple 2 stops on the subway to our central Hakata Canal city hostel. It was in an old historic covered shopping street and was very plush - again, Japanese hostels are really worth the money. You even get free toiletries and such - only downside is they make you make your own bed lol.

Once there we freshend up and decided to go do the thing we had heard about the most - Yatai! Yatai are tiny Street food stalls, mini restaurants with enough space for around 6-8 people. The guy at the hostel had told us a good one to go to which would have menu we would understand - unless you know Japanese these places are unlikely to have any English, so it's good to know one that does. As otherwise it's just hoping you like what you point at on the menu, as there aren't even pictures, we're talking super local. Fukuoka is famed for its Yatai and for its superb food so we were looking forward to it, and it didn't disappoint.

The lady and it looked like her son, who ran the Yatai, were super friendly and gave us the English menu straight away. We went straight for starters and an alcoholic beverage - Sake and Yakitori. Fukuoka has a good selection of Sake and it was delicious, you can have it hold and cold, but we prefer it cold. It's basically a rice wine, made of fermented rice, a very subtle sweet taste and they gave you loads - it was a glass sat in a little coaster boat, and they deliberately pour the Sake over the rim so a little spills into the boat. The Yakitori we chose was pork and mince balls - delicious!

Then it was onto the next order, Kimche and Pork stirfry and fried pigs feet. We decided to go for something really local, but not too local like cow offal or whale meat! (Yes, they really did have that on the menu!)

Then finally we had baked Ramen, and a HUGE Asahi beer to share, which was delicious!

Part way through the meal a group of Japanese-Americans descended upon the stall, I think it helped that among locals they saw us - must be an English menu! Lol They were between the ages of 60-91 on an organised trip, there was actually a woman of 91 travelling by herself - hats off to her!

They were a lovely group and we enjoyed getting to know them over dinner. We then all decided we wanted ice cream for dessert so after finishing we all went to the local family mart - again me and Pierrick had no idea what anything was so we did a lucky dip and shared whatever we got. We then just walked around the area taking the sights in.

The next day the weather was pretty wet and grey, so we decided there wasn't much point walking around the city in the rain and so did some recommended inside activities - so we checked out RoboSquare - a free area where you can try out lots of different Japanese robots - some of them were old but still way more advanced than anything we had ever seen before - like the dog that can do things on command and speak to you and dance and pet it.

Afterwards we wanted to try out the Disaster Prevention Centre. We had seen it on a programme called 50 Ways to Kill Ya Mammy - a show where an irish irish takes his mum travelling and gets her to do daring things. Well when they are in Japan they go to a Disaster Prevention Centre and they had one in Fukuoka. It's actually super interesting and it's a mandatory thing for school children over here due to all the Typhoons, Earthquakes, Tsunami's, and Volcanic activity they experience here. It's a tour of one hour where they teach you how to escape a fire, how to use a fire extinguisher, an earthquake simulator and a typhoon wind simulator. It's actually something I never knew - like how to use a fire extinguisher - for example, we were supposed to be fire wardens for Manor House Backpackers as night Managers, but neither of us knew the first thing about fire safety! And it was interesting to experience what a natural disaster could feel like, as it's a very real thing when you travel - you never know when you may get caught in one.

After this it was too wet to do anything else and we were starving so we knew a good place back near our hostel to have something to eat, and for 730¥ we got a Udon noodle soup, Tempura and rice set which was huge! We then thought we would make use of the bad weather and book some more accommodation ahead of our further travels as it was likely to book up fast. And it was a good job we did as some places we are going to fall on a weekend - and it was fully booked or super expensive! So we had to figure out ways around it, change our plans slightly and book it all to avoid stressing later. It took us 6hrs to get everything sorted up until our return to Tokyo! Who said backpacking was easy? Sometimes it's like a full-time job - and super stressful!

So our next plan is Hiroshima, for one night and then down to MiyaJima for one night as we couldn't get two nights in Hiroshima, then a stop in Himeji, then Osaka and then Kyoto and Nara. In round-a-bout ways! As I'm writing this we are on our way to Hiroshima on the Shinkansen..a city that built itself up after the Atomic Bomb. More on that on the next post!