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Hiroshima- not what you thought

Of course Hiroshima was high on my list of places when I planned a trip to Japan. The sombre heavy thought of what happened on that terrible day , August 6, 1945, is etched in the memory of anyone born in my generation.But what was it really like to have been there? What did the eyewitnesses feel and see? And how did the city rebuild itself? I had only ever seen pictures of the famous dome, and never seen anything else about the city. So armed with this lack of knowledge, and many questions we boarded our train from Kyoto to Hiroshima, changing at Shin-Osaka. As we arrived in Hiroshima it began to rain. I had found that our hotel, The Park Side Peace Park, was, logically enough a short walk from the Museum and Peace Park, which is served by a loop bus which circles all the main tourist sites, beginning and ending at the  Shinkansen Train station, and is free with the JR pass. Perfect! After asking at tourist information we easily found the bus and scrambled on board. It did indeed stop at the Art Museum, the Castle, the Atomic Dome and somewhere else I forget before stopping at the Peace Park. The hotel was one block away from the river which runs right by the Peace Park. We checked in and walked around a bit (in the rain) to get a feel for the place. My first impression was of a wide boulevard (called the Peace Boulevard) tons of tourists swarming around the museum and park, and lots of groups of uniformed schoolkids (like at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem) but also of a city with a positively calm vibe to it. There was bustle but not like Tokyo. There were crowds, but not like in Kyoto. WE immediately loved the place, but it was hard to define exactly why. There were trams clanging around, pedestrian streets with a food festival being set up right at the back of the hotel, and all in all a feeling of a city just getting on with the business of living.

Next day of course we started off by visiting the Peace Park and Memorial Museum. These were as sombre as one would expect but we felt that the emphasis was less on “oh how poor we are and how terrible it all was” but more on “Let’s achieve world peace by making sure nobody has nuclear weapons”. In other words it was less about the Japanese and more about humanity. Outside the museum we were interviewed by some kids for their school work and we also saw the folded paper cranes that are sent to Hiroshima from all over the world as a committment to world peace. Everywhere in Hiroshima people give you folded paper cranes.  From the museum we went walking right along the Peace boulevard up to Fujimidai Observation point, which I had noticed on the map and thought would be fun. The layout of the city is such that you are always walking along near the river, as the island on which the Museum is built is between the Kyobashi River and the Motoyasu River, so you continually see bridges, something which I had not known. The walk was most enjoyable and the views at the top of the hill very nice, also enhanced by a can of hot coffee from a vending machine. This is something great about Japan, that wherever you are you can get a hot can of coffee from a machine for 130 yen. Heaven!

From there we walked on to the Shukkien Gardens which were simply superb. I will probably put in too many pictures because the fall leaves there were just so spectacular, as was the walk along the river bank to get there.

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Shukkien Gardens

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Bamboo grove in the gardens

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Some nice ladies who took our photo

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Walk up to observation point

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Next day we took a day trip out of Hiroshima to visit Miyajima Island which had been recommended to us by pretty much everyone who had visited Japan. Even though the famous “floating torii” gate was being repaired and under scaffolding we were assured that the island was still worth the trip . And anyway it was a short train and ferry ride from town, all included in our JR Pass. We got on the train and about 30 minutes later reached the port. It was easy to see where to go, just follow the crowds. The 10 minute ferry ride was pleasant and the sun was shining. After we disembarked, most of the tourists ran off to climb the peak and take the cable car. So we ambled slowly through the small port town, enjoying the sunshine, the beach and the many deer that wandered around hoping to snitch an ice cream cone or some chips off the tourists, and occasionally succeeding. It was all very pleasant. Climbing up the peak to the ropeway was also pleasant as the foliage was really at its best. WE opted not to do the ropeway as it was expensive, crowded and we felt the view was fine just as it was. (but who knows,maybe it would have been amazing). After eating something in a tortilla (egg?) we wandered around some more, talked to some Japanese girls on a day trip just like us, and returned to the city, to wander around some more.

At night we walked once again along the Peace Boulevard, where a long row of illuminations had been placed, mostly fairytale characters, witches, pirate ships and castles, but so many we could not photograph all of them. We departed the next day, feeling that Hiroshima, like the Phoenix, has risen beautifully from its ashes and is doing a good job of showing the world how to live peacefully.

Japan Jaunt Part 2 – Kyoto- gets its own section

Right, before we continue our tour let us take a moment to consider culture shock. Because, of course, a journey is not just a geographical jaunt but also a cultural one. This is especially true when you live in the Middle East and you go to the Far East. How shall I put this? The Japanese are good at respect. They love order. The Israelis…. less so. Order and respect are not high on the list of adjectives that spring to mind in the Middle East. It seems that everything in Japan was designed to make you feel respected, or at least  comfortable. This applies to the uncanny quiet on a crowded subway train, where nobody speaks in a loud voice on their mobile phone. They don’t walk and eat. There are designated places in the food market where you should eat (because … no trash cans anywhere). Similarly  the orderly lines of people waiting to cross at a busy intersection and being careful not to knock into anyone. And in the  ubiquitous  convenience stores (konbini) where there are footprints and arrows on the floor showing you where to line up. Wherever we went locals were quick to come to our assistance whenever we paused to examine Google Maps. They bowed profusely when addressing us.  The station guards, bowing, are happy to direct you politely and not ignore you. The newsreaders bowed on TV. And the toilets! Oh my god, the TOILETS are just awesome. They play music so as you won’t feel embarrassed by your bodily noises. They are heated and they squirt water at you from all angles. All of this was a cause of constant wonder. And so to Kyoto.

We got a fast train to Kyoto, but not the fast train we were meant to get. We had a short connection at Nagoya and I was so worried we would miss it that we belted on to the platform, stood at the correct place (marked so you know which carriage you are boarding) and hurried to our seats that were occupied by two Japanese gentlemen. I showed them my tickets and one shook his head sadly and said “Wrong train”. Aha. But this train IS going to Kyoto, right? I asked nervously. Yes he said, Nozomi. The Nozomi is the SUPER fast train not covered in our JR Pass because it is faster than the REGULAR fast train. A young guard hurried up when he saw our confusion and said that we could just walk through the carriages to the first one where the non reserved seats are, but by the time we found a seat we were arriving in Kyoto, 20 minutes before we were supposed to. Never mind. I learned a new thing, that the trains have names ( Sakura, Hikari etc) and that it was not enough to know the time, the platform, the carriage and seat number but one also has to check the name of the arriving train before boarding.

Our arrival in Kyoto was D’s birthday and to celebrate we went up the top of the Kyoto tower at night which was quite a lot of fun. We then repaired to a nearby izakaya and ate stuff.

 

Kyoto is a bit difficult to tackle because it has become a victim of its own success. By that I mean that it has hundreds of temples, but the really popular and famous ones are overrun with tourists so if you want to see them you have to get there at the crack of dawn. And Gion, the geisha area, is totally overrun with tourists at any time of the day or night. WE only tackled a few of the popular temples because after a while one gets pretty overwhelmed. SO we first picked Kiyomizu-dera which was pretty bearable when we arrived and totally packed by the time we left. It was nevertheless very impressive, even when swamped with tourists and school children.

WE then walked along the river bank up to Gion Corner, where we met an Israeli tour guide called Shimrit, from Kfar Saba, who is  married to a Japanese guy and lives somewhere near Kyoto. She directed us to the Geisha area, where we observed NO geishas. Moreover there are now signs up barring photography ,since the geishas are fed up with rowdy tourists shoving cameras in their faces when they try to enter a tea house or a taxi.There are countless police and guards trying to maintain order. The main street of Gion was so stuffed with tourists that you can hardly move and is not an enjoyable place in my opinion.  We beat a hasty retreat and set off for Nishiki Market which was utterly wonderful, and full of all manner of exciting things, both edible and whimsical.

Our next touristy site was next morning,Fushimi Inari, a short train ride from the train station near our guest house. This site, I had been warned, is highly popular with the Instagram brigade, so if you want to see it in its glory, be there early in the morning. We arrived there at around 8 am, which seemed to be early enough. The instagrammers, however were there and snapping away, with and without selfie sticks. There were also some school kids who asked us some questions. We then visited Tofukuji where the entrance to the gardens cost money but as you see was well worthwhile.

Another “must see” I had read about is called Arashiyama and it boasts a very widely instagrammed bamboo forest, a river with a “romantic train and cruise” and numerous temples. Again we set off early to avoid the hordes. Arashiyama was my first experience of being underwhelmed in Japan. Since Japan is such a highly tourist destination, there are many “must sees” and not all of them are what they are touted to be. For us Arashiyama was one such. There is a bamboo “forest” but it is more of a grove and no great shakes. The “romantic train” was packed and we could not get on it until 3pm ,so we gave it a miss. The area was ok but not wildly exciting. We returned to Kyoto city and decided to give Gion another try, but on the way we found Maruyama Park which was far more rewarding.

Day 5 of Kyoto (we allocated it 6 days because there is such a lot there) we headed for Nijo castle. Not overly crowded and rather lovely. Shoes were removed and photography not allowed inside, but the beautifully landscaped gardens were certainly worth a shot or three. Thankfully not the instagrammers were not in abundance.

We rounded off our time in Kyoto with a far less touristy site, in fact we were totally alone there. It was a rather quirky place, quite a long way from all the hot spots, mentioned online as “Monster Street”. There were not a whole lot of monsters, but hardly any people either which was a blessing. We rather liked it there.

And so to Hiroshima…. stay tuned.

Sizzling Sicily Part 1

To be honest I possibly would not have booked this trip if I had realized just  how hot it was going to be. We travelled between 16 June until 4 July and most days it was over 30 and really hard to walk around. But, hey, you have a/c in your car and in your hotel so not so bad right? What we started to do was to rest between 12 and around 5pm and then go out at night, just as the locals do.

But let’s go back to the beginning. This trip only happened because D’s leg was good enough to be able to walk a bit before we left, and being unsure of how much walking he would actually be able to do, we planned it as mainly touring by car with bits of walking. In the event, by the end he was walking a good 7km a day so that was really fantastic. Had we known, we might have decided to ditch the car hire and travel by public transportation. Not sure how good it is, didn’t check it out. Car hire has its advantages of course, but also many diasadvantages. More of this later.

But having said that, it meant that he did a lot of driving (we did about 1,500 km over the 18 days) and that made it less enjoyable for him, especially because driving in Sicily is not at all straighforward. The roads are often extremely narrow, the one way system in the medieval towns is horrific, and parking is an added headache. But no matter! We did it and we enjoyed what we saw.

A circular, clockwise tour of the island, starting and finishing at Catania, gave us rather a good route, I think, with a few days at each base, (except for Ragusa) so as not to have to pack/unpack endlessly.

Route map

sicily map

Both the main cities of Palermo and Catania we found totally underwhelming. Despite having beautiful architecture, the centres felt run down and dirty and sometimes a little edgy at night. If you look at the photos it looks actually stunning, but we saw far more beautiful places- particularly Siracusa, which I think was one of my favourite places. Catania has the ancient Roman amphitheatre in its centre, but the rest of the downtown didn’t feel so inspiring. We did two day trips from Catania- one to the beautiful Taormina and its sister Giardini Naxos, and another to Etna.  Taormina, despite being something of a tourist trap, just screams to be photographed, and even the hordes of tourists cannot tarnish its beauty. Giardini Naxos at the bottom of the mountain has a gorgeous beach and harbour and is really quite a charming place.

Etna turned out to be a bit of a disappointment because although the drive up was beautiful, we didn’t go right up to the crater because it was horrendously expensive. At the bottom they said you can pay to do the final bit at the top, without adding it would cost double the price. We didn’t feel it was something we HAD to see, so we decided to forgo.

From Catania, we continued on to Siracusa, which is an absolute gem. The island of Ortigia is where most people stay, but it means not driving your car onto the island, where only residents can drive. This was in fact wonderful. We parked our car for 3 days in the Talete car park and spent three glorious days wandering around the little alleyways and courtyards and finding a wonderful sea view at every turn. The newly discovered Hebrew writing at the mikve underneath the Church of St Felipe was an added bonus. There is a great Jewish quarter with lots of wonderful stuff. Actually we saw two mikves, and the guide told us that there are probably many more that have not yet been excavated.

 

Apart from the Jewish quarter, we also enjoyed the Castle, the main Piazza Duomo area, the Fontana Diana and Fontana Aretusa area. The whole island is not that big, but wandering around the maze of little streets is just a delight.

Before leaving Siracusa we checked out the Archeological park in the other part of the city (not Ortigia Island) and saw the cave known as Dionysios’ Ear, with its amazing echo. We continued on to spend one night in Ragusa, the strange city on two hills connected by a very long staircase of over 200 steps. On the way there we stopped at the amazing mosaics at the Villa Romana in the city of Piazza Armerina.

 

Mosaics at Piazza Armerina

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Mosaics at Piazza Armerina

From Ragusa we continued on to Agrigento, famous for its Valley of the Temples. First we wandered a little around the old town of Agrigento which was pretty much deserted and absolutely charming. In the evening we went to visit the archeological site of the Valley of the Temples, a UNESCO Heritage site and quite splendid. This was a wise move because we saw the temples in the evening when it was still hot but bearable. There is a main concourse with temples all the way along, from Temple of Juno (misnamed) at one end and Temple of Vulcan at the other end, and various others along the way. It is a very impressive place if you enjoy history.

After two splendid days in Agrigento we continued on along the south coast towards Trapani but not without stopping at a couple of points on the way. The first was the amazing view of the Turkish Steps  ( nothing to do with the Turks) . The second was the little town of Sciacca to have a sandwich and gaze at the sea. We did not descend the white cliffs at the Turkish steps to the beach, but we saw people swimming down there (a long way down!)

I will continue the journey on to Trapani in the next entry.