Tuesday, March 31, 2009


I stood in the appointed spot on the platform (signs hanging from pillars and built into the floor indicate the exact stopping point for each carriage), and the futuristic, elongated streamlined nose of the bullet train arrived on the dot of 3:00. Of course. I really have to admire Japanese efficiency – even the buses run on time, to the minute. It makes the news if the Shinkansen is late. There are three classes of Shinkansen. Nozomi in Japanese means “wish” or “hope” - named because they needed something faster than the existing Hikari (“light” or “ray”) and Kodama (“echo”). The train from Himeji to Hiroshima, the Nozomi super-express, has only one stop: Hiroshima. It skims over Western Honshu at roughly half the speed of light, making the scenery flick past like a high-speed slide show as you barely have time to focus on one scene before it's gone, left far behind. Here a farm, a tractor ploughing the field. There a river trickling under a bridge. Now a cemetery, the square granite pillars of Buddhist gravestones glittering in the afternoon sun. A small town of detached houses. A castle, shining toothpaste white. A gothic cathedral (huh?! But before I even have time for a double-take it's gone). And everywhere sakura: standing with carefully tended topiary in gardens; framed by the torii gateways of Shinto shrines; painting pale pink smudges on spring green hillsides.

A train moving at this speed doesn't have time for natural obstacles. It goes through the hills rather than over or around them. I catch glimpses of small towns as we emerge briefly, only to plunge into the next one.

Trying to keep up with the scenery was giving me a headache, so I plugged in my laptop for the novelty of having a plug socket on a train, and reviewed my Himeji photos. I didn't have long though – the Nozomi covers the 200km to Hiroshima in just an hour.

Arriving at Hiroshima station, I heaved on my backpack, loaded with the excess baggage of my Kyoto shopping sprees. Following the instructions of the nice lady I spoke to at Aster Plaza Youth Home (I called ahead this time – I didn't want a repeat of my arrival in Kyoto!) I took the number 20 bus, missed the stop because I was struggling with my backpack, got off, walked back up the road, found the building, and checked in. The room wasn't the cheapest, but with a nice bed and en-suite bathroom it was definitely the best value I've found in Japan.

It was already late afternoon, so I headed straight out. I'd got two blocks before I realised I'd left my camera's memory card in the computer, so I went back, got the memory card, and started again. The air was warm, the late afternoon light was soothing, and the cherry blossom along the river was in full bloom. Not only that, but there were hardly any people. It couldn't be more of a contrast to the frantic circus of Kyoto's cherry blossom spots, with everyone jostling to position their tripods, zoom lenses and mobile phone cameras between peace V-signs and Hanami (cherry blossom viewing) parties. I passed a handful of people – cycling home, walking their dogs, or relaxing on benches under the cherry trees – on my way to the Peace Memorial Park.

In the park, the hanami picnics – family, office and even gaijin parties – were well underway on tarpaulins spread beneath the fluttering petals. Despite the reputation of hanami parties' as sake-soaked revelries, these could hardly be described as raucous. Peace pervades the park too strongly to be easily shattered, and the cheerful picnickers just enhanced the sense of calm in the air.

The overwhelming feeling of peacefulness in the park was surprisingly moving – by the time I found myself facing the building now known as the A-Bomb Dome I was almost getting emotional.

The A-bomb Dome stands as a symbol of Hiroshima's infamous past. It was the Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall until the bomb, having missed its intended target, a nearby bridge, exploded almost directly above it. The ruins – virtually the only part of pre-war Hiroshima still standing, having escaped demolition when the city was rebuilt – were somewhat controversially declared a Unesco World Heritage site in 1996.

Surrounded by the delicate pinky-white sakura, which in Japanese culture is symbolic of the ephemeral nature of life, it seemed especially poignant.


At 3:36 pm, Blogger Claudia said...

About six years ago I was standing in that same spot you did: facing the A-bomb dome while hanami picnics were happening all over the park. Oh to be back in Japan in the spring! Your post brought back memories of bullet trains, Kyoto, onsen, sushi, Shinjuku station, sakura and tatami mats.

Best holiday EVER and thank you for reminding me of one of the most beautiful places in the world.

At 6:46 pm, Blogger Sarah said...

beautiful photograph Charlotte


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