We picked another AirBnB apartment for our two nights in Hiroshima, and it was right in the center of town and near the tourist attractions! Our apartment was on the top (ninth) floor and has a balcony with a view of the river. The apartment also included two bikes, so we got to explore at our own pace instead of having to catch a subway or bus. After we settled in, we rode our bikes to one of the most famous historic castles in the area. Like many cities in Japan, basically all the “historical” buildings we saw were reproductions, rebuilt after the war.
The atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima just over seventy years ago, so the city has certainly had time to rebuild. Just walking around and viewing the city, it’s hard to believe that this is where so much death and destruction took place. The only remnant of the horrible atrocities that occurred is the Hiroshima Peace Memorial. Originally an exhibition hall, this building was the only structure that remained somewhat intact within 1000 meters of the hypocenter (nerdy aside: the difference between hypocenter and epicenter is the vertical axis. The atomic bomb actually exploded 600 meters above the surface of the ground, so this point in the air is the hypocenter. The epicenter would be the point on the ground directly below the hypocenter). It was left standing during the rebuilding process to serve as a memorial of the bombing and a symbol for peace.
Hiroshima Castle looks like a five story pagoda from the outside with the upturned roofs on each story. It was built back in the 1590s by a conquering feudal lord, only to be lost 19 years later to another shogun who held it for 250 years, until all shoguns were “retired” in 1867 by the emperor. The castle had the usual museum stuff such as area history, along with cool samurai weapons, armor, and even a replication of a samurai’s rooms, complete with furniture! We also got to try on kimono and armor, and the top floor had some good views of the city.
We stopped by the nearby Pokémon Center (because that’s the first building you look for whenever you travel to a new town, duh!) and then went to a beer festival that happened to be going on while we were there. The festival was quite small compared to some we’ve been to, but it was fun to walk around and look at the different beer offerings from so many different countries!
Afterward, we got some breakfast and dinner (meat and salad) from the grocery store on the ground floor of our apartment. Back in Thailand, it was cheaper and faster to go out for meals, but in Japan we decided to make our own dinners every once in a while. We couldn’t pass up making the avocado salads that we had gone without having for so long! We slept well on an American style mattress, although it felt authentic because it was on the floor without a frame.
The next day, we decided to explore the museums and peace memorials. We mostly read testimonials and heard eye witness accounts, saw personal items like clothing, and heard some heart breaking poems. There were pieces of buildings embedded with exploded glass, and a wall imprinted with the shadow of a person who was instantly incinerated. The museum did a very good job at making the losses of the atomic bomb seem very personal – the museum was entirely about a short history of Hiroshima leading up to the bombing, the bombing itself, and the immediate aftermath. No politics whatsoever except to explain that the U.S. and Japan were on opposite sides during World War II.
The museum did a terribly good job at conveying how victims were affected. Obviously, thousands of lives were lost instantly as the air close to the hypocenter rose to thousands of degrees Fahrenheit. But many people suffered horribly burns – radiation or otherwise – and died after days or even weeks. Even those that survived with no apparent injuries contracted cancer as much as twelve years later. Every single unborn child that survived the bombing was born with severe mental deficiencies. Perhaps worst of all was that on the day of the bombing, there happened to be a large scale building demolitions project underway. Buildings were being intentionally destroyed to create firelines in case of conventional bombing; these building demolitions were to be done almost exclusively by children between the ages of twelve and thirteen.
Outside the museum, there were some uplifting monuments to look at. The Children’s Peace Monument was created in memory of children who died during the bombing. Paper cranes are sent to this monument from all over the world – the traditional belief is that if you fold one thousand paper cranes, your wish will come true. There was also a cenotaph, which contained the names of everyone who died that day. The Peace Flame was lit in 1965 and will not be extinguished until there are no longer any nuclear bombs on the planet.
We left the park to head to a garden – the Shukkei-en Garden. We just can’t get enough of the beautiful Japanese gardens! We got some snacks and drinks and sat on the edge of the pond, just watching the turtles, fish, and people!
Julia had read about a really good conveyor belt sushi restaurant in Hiroshima, so we biked over there for dinner. It was quite a long ride – over an hour – but the long ride would definitely be worth it. There was a long wait and nothing at all was in English, but as usual our Japanese hosts were happy to assist us! The nice thing about a long wait at a conveyor belt sushi restaurant is that you can just grab and eat the second you sit down! The sushi was really good here, and each plate was only 100 yen – that’s about $0.92!
The next morning, we packed up and left our apartment to make the journey to what would be our last port-of-call of our trip: Osaka! At this point we were both sad that our trip was coming to an end, but grateful that we wouldn’t have to carry our large suitcases and bags of souvenirs everywhere with us for much longer.
When we had our condo in Thailand, we had the luxury of leaving all of our possessions at the condo whenever we took short trips to the surrounding areas, bringing only a backpack each. But in Japan, we *each* carried a large rolling suitcase along with backpacks. We also had a large trash bag that was completely full with shoes and other items that could afford to bounce around a bit. To top it off, we had a large painting and wood carving that we had purchased in Thailand (around 40″ by 18″) wrapped in bubble wrap. Dragging all of this stuff around, jumping on and off of trains and subway cars, and rolling them to and from various apartments was beginning to take its toll on us!
Anyway, we got into Osaka and checked into yet another Airbnb apartment. We decided to go on a long walk heading north, towards the downtown area and cultural center of the city. After a while, and resisting the urge to check out one of the many seedy karaoke bars that we passed, we stumbled upon an area that we could only describe as “anime heaven”. We walked into a store and it was filled wall to wall of all types of merchandise relating to Japanese media – be it manga (comic books) or anime (cartoons). Just when we were thinking that we had never seen a store so large that was dedicated to anime and manga, we realized that there was an escalator. And it went up for four more floors.
There were tons of stores like this, but not all of them specialized in anime. There were at least five or six stores that specialized in trading card games (Magic, Yu-Gi-Oh, Pokemon, etc.), but my personal favorite was the video game store. This store wasn’t quite as large as the other stores in the area but it was completely full of retro video games and video game merchandise! We spent at least an hour in there just looking at things – Broc didn’t want to miss anything cool! The fact that Broc was able to escape without spending any money is a testament to his psychological will.
The next day, our first of three full days that we’d be in Osaka, we rented some bikes and set off to explore the city. Our first stop was at a restaurant that specialized in a make-your-own Takoyaki, a ball shaped snack invented in Osaka. We had seen similar snacks all over Japan and Southeast Asia at food trucks, but having them at this restaurant was another experience entirely!
We started by ordering what fillings we wanted in our Takoyaki – we settled on cheese, potatoes, shrimp, and onions – and then they brought what we needed to get started! We oiled up a device that was basically a cupcake tray suspended over a flame, and then poured the batter and whatever fillings we wanted into each crevice. As the batter cooked, we had to slowly rotate each ball so that it would get nice and round. The cooks at the food trucks made it look so easy, but it’s pretty difficult to rotate a soft ball of wheat with only some chopsticks! After they finished cooking, we enjoyed them with some dipping sauces…delicious!
After lunch, we wandered to a nearby area called Tennoji Park. There was an outdoor concert going on, so we sat down and watched for a little bit. It was pretty entertaining, though the band we were watching chose to sing Christmas songs (in May) for some reason. They sounded pretty good, though! After getting some ice cream and walking around yet another beautiful Japanese garden for a bit, we got back on the bikes and set off for Shitennō-ji Temple.
This temple was founded in 593 and was the first Buddhist temple ever built in Japan! Unfortunately, the main part of the temple was under construction when we went, so we couldn’t see any of it. However, some of the surrounding buildings were quite impressive to see!
It was starting to rain, so we decided to head back to the apartment…but not before stopping at yet another Pokémon center!
The next day, we decided to check out Expo City, a shopping plaza located at the site of the 1970 World’s Fair! We took a few local trains before getting on a monorail that took us right to the entrance. As we stepped out of the monorail, we were greeted with the sight of thousands and thousands of people – it was PACKED! It was a beautiful sunny day; everyone was glad to be outside after a few days of gloomy skies.
There were tons of attractions, but of course we were immediately drawn to the Pokémon Expo Gym, which had just opened five months prior to our visit! We had trouble figuring out exactly what you were supposed to *do* at this place – the only pamphlets were in Japanese and the first few employees we talked to didn’t speak English well enough to explain it. Through all of the broken English and hand gestures, we eventually found that the main activities were watching short Pokémon movies (Japanese audio, no subtitles) and playing motion capture arcade games. The place was pretty clearly marketed towards young kids, but we weren’t gonna let that stop us! We bought enough credits to try out a few games and played around!
We played three games in all – a boxing game, a bowling game, and a “Subway Surfer” type of game where you try to avoid obstacles. They were pretty simplistic and didn’t have a lot of depth, but the motion capture actually worked pretty well and it was a lot of fun!
Having had our Pokémon fix for the day, we headed outside to see what the rest of Expo City had to offer. There was a building called “English Village” that had all sorts of classes and information about the English language. The receptionist for that building (who spoke fluent English) told us that Japan is trying to make a collective effort to speak better English. We wanted to walk around and explore in there but there was a charge just to walk in; we felt that we had a pretty good grasp of English already so we decided against it.
There were a few of other attractions – an IMAX theater, a museum focusing on “the beauty of creatures”, and a large shopping center – but they all had really long lines, and we really wanted to walk around the nearby Expo Commemoration Park. We grabbed some lunch and people watched for a while (always entertaining in Japan) and then walked towards the park. The first thing we saw was the Tower of the Sun, a 230 foot tower that was dedicated for the World’s Fair.
This park was also crowded with people, but the park was so large that it wasn’t hard to find a little breathing room! We had a great time just walking around and exploring the various trails.
On the far corner of the park, there was a Japanese garden with a traditional Japanese tea house. We had the tea house all to ourselves – it was a nice little break from all of the walking around we’d be doing that day!
We started making the long journey back towards our apartment, but decided to splurge on dinner and get some world famous Kobe steak. Luckily, the restaurant we found had seating for us at the bar immediately – we had read that you normally have to make reservations days in advance!
We had pretty high expectations for this meal. Everything we had ever read about Kobe steak was that it was the best meat you could ever eat. When I took my first bite, my initial feeling was sadness…because I knew that shortly, the meal would be over, and I would no longer be eating it. It really is that good. There are a few restaurants on the West coast that serve authentic Kobe steak – if you ever have an opportunity, I really can’t recommend it enough. It’s something that everyone should experience at least once. Luckily for us, this meal wasn’t too expensive for the quality we got – including drinks, we spent around seventy dollars!
On our last full day in Japan, we rented bikes again with our sights set on Osaka Castle. Overall in Japan, we had great experience riding bikes. Every city was set up very well, with bike lanes on every street including busy downtown areas. Bike rentals were very cheap – usually between five and ten bucks a day – and the bikes were very high quality! Between bikes, the train/subway system, buses, and taxis, it is very easy to get around any Japanese city without having to own your own vehicle! It’s also amazing how you can go from any subway stop in Japan to any other subway stop in the entire country without having to leave the rail system. I know it’s not even close to practical in the US…but wouldn’t that be nice?
Osaka Castle is surrounded by a moat (two moats, actually – an outer moat protecting the larger area and an inner moat protecting the castle itself), which is surrounded by a nice wide walkway along with some grassy areas. It was another beautiful day, so there were tons of people out enjoying the weather! There may have been some sort of event or gathering, because there were a lot of people camped out with picnic tables, barbecues, games – it actually seemed very American!
After wandering around for a while, we parked our bikes and walked up to the castle proper. The castle serves as a museum now, and nearby outside were tons of food trucks, and even some carnival games! We got some lunch and tried our hand at a game where you throw shuriken (ninja stars – with actual sharp metal tips) at targets to win some cheap plastic prizes.
The museum inside (no pics allowed 😦 )had some great exhibits detailing various battles and acts of succession that took place in and around Osaka Castle over the past centuries. There were also many actual samurai swords used at that time, including one inside a clear box that you could grab by the handle…cool! Heading up to the roof gave us some great views of the city, and then we were on our way.
The next place we wanted to see was the Umeda Sky Building, a 568 foot tall building with a “sky walkway” – an escalator with nothing below it but the ground hundreds of feet below. Julia was cool as a cucumber the whole time (of course), but I was pretty nervous going up the glass elevator and then going across the walkway. But, I survived the day and it turned out to be a great time! There were surprisingly few people at the observatory, so we had free reign to get any view we wanted.
We biked back towards our apartment and decided to go to Kura Sushi (the same chain that we went to in Hiroshima) to get some more delicious and cheap sushi. After dropping off our bikes, it was back to our apartment to get packed and ready to get on a plane back home!