Alexandre T. Analis
While cities such as Tokyo, Osaka, Kobe, Nagoya and Kyoto are well known to foreign travellers, relatively few head for Hiroshima. Yet Hiroshima, one of Japan’s 47 prefectures, is truly worth the detour. Found on the edge of the inland sea of Seto Naikai and the Chugoku mountain chain, this administrative district stands out for its remarkably beautiful setting. Every season brings out different aspects of the charm of Hiroshima, and the region overflows with cultural and historic attractions. It goes without saying that a visit to the city must include a stop at the Genbaku or Atomic Bomb Dome, a monument listed as World Heritage by UNESCO since 1996. The ruins of what was formerly the prefecture’s Industrial Promotion Hall provides a striking testimony of the drama experienced by the population of Hiroshima on 6 August 1945 when the first atomic bomb in history ravaged the city and killed over 140,000 persons.
Relaxing in Shukkei-en Garden
Discovery of this site goes hand in hand with a visit to the Peace Memorial Museum. Drawing an average of 1.2 million tourists every year, this museum helps explain the causes and consequences of the bombardment, and on the commemoration date every year, it is the site where moving ceremonies are held in memory of the victims. Yet Hiroshima is not limited to catastrophe tourism. Visitors can also enjoy strolling along the quays and on the many bridges of the city (crossed by six rivers); they may also attend the Flower Festival held from 3 to 5 May, or discover three art museums, the World Peace Memorial Cathedral, as well as Hiroshima Castle holding a museum on samurai culture. When the weather is fine, it is possible to take a walk in Shukkei-en Garden; created in 1620 at the request of the daimyo Asano Nagaakira, this pleasant space notably comprises a traditional pavilion, a large lake that is home to fish and turtles, as well as the Rainbow Bridge.
Sensations for the taste-buds
When it comes to gastronomy, a stay in Hiroshima would not be complete without tasting the delicious okonomiyaki, omelettes stuffed with a range of ingredients (cabbage, bean sprouts, soba or udon noodles, eggs, slices of pork…). Once your appetite has been satisfied, it is agreeable to walk to Hondori Shotengai, a district perfect for shopping or all-night activities. Near Hiroshima is the island of Miyajima, amongst the “three most beautiful sights of Japan” according to seventeenth-century philosopher Razan Hayashi. The island is namely renowned for the Itsukushima Sanctuary, added to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1996. Well known as a perfect example of the shinden-zukuri architectural style of aristocratic residences, the sanctuary is made up of a number of buildings linked by vermillion corridors, that seem to float on the sea. The buildings face the vast Otorii Gate, a Shinto gate 23 metres high, weighing 60 tonnes, symbolising the frontier between our world and the sacred zone.
Miyajima, beautiful and mystical
The summit of Mount Misen (600 m) is accessible by cable car or by foot (40 minutes’ walk). This mountain, covered by virgin forest, symbolises the purity of nature, carefully preserved on this island where you will find neither a birth ward nor a cemetery. When strolling along Machiya-dori Avenue, you can discover shops, galleries and very ancient dwellings. This is also an ideal opportunity for trying the local speciality: oysters – grilled, fried or plunged into a rice soup. The tall five-storey pagoda constructed in the 15th century is also worth a look. A good time to visit Miyajima is in February, for the Oyster Festival, or at the end of July/early August when the Kangensai Festival places the spotlight on court music (kangen) and you can admire boats decorated with flowers, paper lanterns floating on water, and traditional lights illuminating the sanctuary buildings.
Hotel or ryokan?
As for accommodation in Japan, travellers have two main options: classic hotels or the ryokan, the traditional Japanese inn composed of typical elements (low tables, sliding doors, futons, tatamis, hot baths and sometimes even hot springs called onsen). At Hiroshima, the Rihga Royal Hotel is a luxurious establishment highly appreciated by tourists. Its 488 rooms are comfortable, modern and spacious, and it is found at the heart of a lively district near a large shopping centre. For those looking for more authenticity, the ryokan Teien no Yado in Hatsukaichi-shi is a genuine haven of peace. Opening in 1964, this inn stands out for its hot springs and its enchanting garden with a pond, offering a splendid view of the sea. The ryokan has 14 rooms, a tea lounge and a bar lounge. Those preferring to sleep at Miyajima can choose from a broad selection of ryokans: the Iwaso, a superb establishment open since 1920 at the foot of Mount Misen, the friendly Iroha close to the port, or the Benten no Yado Itsukushima, famous for its delicious cuisine.
The spectacular Sandankyo gorges
Around 45 minutes by car from Hiroshima are the not-to-be-missed gorges of Sandankyo. This natural site, 13 kilometres long and 13 kilometres wide, is one of the most stunning in Japan, drawing about 60,000 visitors per year. The visit is pleasant even in summer as forest provides protection from the sun. All along the river Shibaki-gawa, visitors can admire impressive waterfalls and discover extremely diverse flora and fauna. Following this physical effort, travellers generally appreciate the noodle dishes typical in this region (nagashi somen) and grilled fish served in traditional restaurants. In winter, tourists are just as numerous thanks to a nearby ski resort benefiting from exceptional snow coverage. Other magnificent landscapes can be observed when crossing the terraced rice fields of Ini, not far from Sandankyo. If looking for a place to stay in this verdant spot, we recommend the very pleasant ryokan Kagura Monzen Toujimura in the village of Aki-Takada: the rooms are comfortable and the meals excellent.
Kagura, theatre with a difference
In addition, this ryokan offers the advantage of being right next to a theatre where spectators can watch kagura (literally, “pleasure of the gods”). Invented six centuries ago, this Shinto artistic rite combining dance and drama features intrepid heroes, ghoulish demons and frightened young damsels. Costumes can weigh over twenty kilos and are made by craftsmen who carry on an admirable tradition. Musicians also appear in traditional dress and bring rhythm to a show that the young and old alike enjoy. Before leaving the prefecture of Hiroshima, you should finally visit Tomo No Ura, a small port close to the town of Fukuyama. This spot, where time seems to have come to a standstill, notably inspired well-known filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki to make his animated feature film Ponyo on the Cliff. A stroll along the alleys of the port and on the docks will lead to the Buddhist temple Tomo-Taichoro, visited during the third shogun kingdom by a Korean envoy who deemed it so marvellous than ten others followed him to see this wondrous place for themselves.
The crafts of Bizen
Ushimado is a good starting point for visiting the prefecture of Okayama. This port is reputed for the quality of its seafood that can for example be tasted at the Limani Hotel, a magnificent establishment at the edge of Setouchi Sea. This body of water is often nicknamed by the region’s inhabitants as “Japan’s Aegean Sea”, hence explaining the hotel’s references to Greek architecture, geography and culture (limani is a Greek word for “port”). Boats are available nearby for taking a spin on the sea and discovering lush, deserted – or practically deserted – islands. Half an hour by car from Ushimado, the town of Bizen also offers a few surprises. The So Isezaki pottery perpetuates a tradition dating back over 1,000 years. In the pottery’s kiln, typical of the region and restored a decade ago, over 3,000 objects of all types are produced every year: pots, vases, dishes, plates, ashtrays, phials, funerary urns, sculptures… Every item is unique and the raw materials used (red pine, coal, rice straw…) have specific virtues; as a result, water held in these creations remains pure longer, allowing vases to hold flowers for longer; the taste of sake becomes more rounded; the foam of beer disappears more slowly.
Naoshima, the island of art
Not far from Bizen, travellers can stay in luxury at the hotel Setouchi Kojima in the town of Kurashiki. This immense establishment, where rooms are designed like ship cabins, affords an unbeatable view of Setouchi Sea and the Ohasi Bridge. It is also right near the Washuzan Highland fun park. The restaurant offers traditional Japanese dishes as well as French haute cuisine. The Setouchi Kojima is also close (half an hour by car) to the port of Uno. From there a ferry will take you, in twenty minutes, to Naoshima, a natural gem in the prefecture of Kagawa. With only 3,300 habitants, this small island is a genuine artistic paradise. You can for example examine the “Art House” project: seven superb traditional dwellings restored by artists, sometimes via the incorporation of modern artworks (Tatsuo Miyajima, James Turrell, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Hiroshi Senju, Yoshihiro Suda, Shinro Ohtake…).
A treasure trove of museums
Naoshima is also worth visiting for the Chichu Art Museum. Mainly constructed underground but offering beautiful natural light in certain spots, the building designed by Tadao Ando exhibits works by Claude Monet, James Turrell and Walter De Maria. Also designed by Tadao Ando, the Benesse Museum, inaugurated in 1992, is just as worthwhile visiting; here you can admire works by Alberto Giacometti, César, Richard Long, Jasper Johns, Cy Twombly, Robert Rauschenberg, Sam Francis, David Hockney, Andy Warhol, George Segal, Yannis Kounellis, as well as numerous contemporary Japanese artists. As the island holds many other artistic attractions (the Naoshima Baths, the Lee Ufan Museum…), the best option would be to spend at least one night here. The hotel Benesse House is found between the museum of the same name, a park and a beach. Rooms are spacious and offer a magnificent sea view. Different restaurant options are available. Open-air artworks are on display near the establishment.
Perfume of nostalgia in Korashiki
Those who prefer to just make a daytrip to Naoshima should take the ferry back to Uno and go onto Kurashiki. In this charming town in the prefecture of Okayama, once again you can choose between classic accommodation at the modern and comfortable hotel Nikko Kurashiki, or traditional accommodation at the ryokan Kurashiki containing five spacious rooms and a small typical garden. Kurashiki is found in the traditional district of Bikan, perfect for strolls from the quays of the river Takahashi to old dwellings, and visits to the Ohara Museum. Founded in 1930 by the industrialist Ohara Magosaburo, this is the oldest private museum in Japan. It holds several collections including one dedicated to foreign art where you can admire works by Claude Monet, Amedeo Modigliani, Le Greco, Paul Gauguin, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Georges Rouault, Andy Warhol, Henri Matisse… Other collections are devoted to national crafts and Asian art, and the museum also contains an annex with sculptures namely by Auguste Rodin as well as a memorial dedicated to the artist Kojima Torajiro, a friend of the museum’s founder.
Tasting traditional sake
Before arriving at Okayama, there is one last place you should visit in Kurashiki: the sake cellar of Kikuchi Shuzo. This producer perpetuates a family tradition dating back to 1879 and was awarded a gold medal at the International Wine Challenge 2012. At the head of a company twelve persons strong producing 90,000 litres of sake per year (around 200,000 bottles), Kikuchi Shuzo shows visitors around his storehouses and patiently explains how he makes sake from organic ingredients. After the tasting, it is time to head for Okayama, the endpoint of the voyage. Famous for its fruit (white peaches and seedless grapes), this town holds numerous attractions, not in the least the Koraku-en Garden where you can sip green tea and nibble on a few rice-based cakes before visiting Okayamajo Castle, the Orient Museum, or the Yumeji and Hayashibara art museums. At this point, you can leave with the impression of being more familiar with a little-known region of Japan – and the desire to come back to see all the treasures that limited time has not allowed you to see …
More detailed information is available on the following websites: www.jnto.go.jp, www.jtb-uni.com, www.jal.com, www.okayama-japan.jp et http://visithiroshima.net