Leaving the snow and ice behind (though not in Tokyo – this winter is unseasonably warm), I headed up to Nagano to ease myself into the fine art of temple viewing. This is a very common thing for tourists and locals alike to do in Japan, but there is a very real danger of getting “templed out”. The opening service at Zenko-ji (Nagano’s main temple) is at 0700 in the winter (sunrise), which is an easier prospect than the 0430 in summer. I filed in with a few worshippers, and was a little surprised when everyone turned to go after only a few minutes (though there was some drumming and bell ringing). As I descended the steps, I saw a small procession coming through the main gate and quickly got in line with the locals – it was the abbot on his way to start the day’s activities and I think I got indirectly blessed (I bowed but didn’t kneel, but his presence alone might have done it).
Nagano hosted the 1998 Winter Olympics, and there are numerous (probably little-used – London take note) facilities scattered around the region. One called the White Ring looks exactly like a UFO, and I would not have been surprised to see Sectoids come swarming out brandishing plasma pistols.
On my way south, I stopped off at Matsumoto – a castle reputed to be one of Japan’s top three (it’s nicknamed Crow Castle as apparently it’s painted black, but it’s actually painted black and white – I guess Magpie Castle didn’t cut it) – and arrived in Kyoto in the evening. Kyoto was the main reason for me warming up on temple visits, as there are several hundred (if not thousand) in the area and no less than seventeen World Heritage Sites. I spent two days pounding the streets, saw a whole heap of things over an area of around a hundred square kilometres and, predictably, got templed out. There are temples and shrines around every street corner, planned gardens behind every gate and koi carp in every pond. I saw several geisha (or possibly maiko) shuffling around, though I suspect they were Japanese tourists doing the geisha / maiko experience tour. The bamboo forest could have been taken straight out of My Neighbour Totoro. I left feeling like I’d done a whirlwind tour but seen just about everything on the must-see list plus a lot not on it.
After the ancient buildings and areas steeped in history, I headed somewhere a bit more (probably unintentionally) modern and inexorably associated with events sixty years old – Hiroshima. As just about everybody knows, it was here that the first atomic bomb was dropped towards the end of WWII (a dressed-up weapon test) and there is a huge area devoted to statues and tributes from governments and movements all over the world. The A-Bomb Museum itself gets the full force of the impact and aftermath of the bombing across with a kind of overwhelming understatement. Facts and stories are presented with a strong anti-nuclear stance, but there is no apportion of blame and the whole thing is, understandably, pretty harrowing. The scale models of the city before and after the bombing add a realism that just isn’t there when you look at photographs. Like so many places, words can only do so much – you can only get the atmosphere in person.
The only building damaged by the bomb to be preserved is the A-Bomb Dome (formerly the Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall), designated a World Heritage Site (after some argument) in 1996. Just across the river, there is a flame burning next to the cenotaph for the victims. It’s not designed to be eternal, though – it will be extinguished when the last nuclear weapon on earth has been destroyed.
There are plenty of other things going on in the city, though most tourists come for information related to the bombing. I checked out the manga library and finally found an English edition of Doraemon: Gadget Cat From The Future, which I’d heard a lot about but never read. Appropriately enough, they had a copy of When The Wind Blows. There is also a rather good Henry Moore at the Contemporary Art Museum and an installation I almost walked on as it was very similar to the floor.
Near to Hiroshima is the floating torii (gate) at Itsukushima Shrine in Miyajima – I arrived at high tide (so it wasn’t just standing in the mud) and completely unintentionally avoided paying the entrance fee by climbing the mountain before looking at the temple (clearly they don’t expect people to take a non-conformist difficult route). The whole area is pleasant, if a little overrun with deer and woodpeckers (warnings about antler-gore ambushes are all over the place, but there is no data on fly-by peckings).
After Hiroshima, rather than wind down from the emotional after-effects of the bomb-related installations, I took what I considered to be a natural progression and visited Nagasaki. I probably do not need to point out that it was the site for the world’s second (and, so far, last) atomic bombing. The memorials and exhibitions here are less disturbing than those at Hiroshima, but no less intense. The hypocentre is marked with a black obelisk (the area is now a park), and it felt a little odd eating my lunch directly under the spot where a nuclear weapon went off.
As my time in Japan drew to a close, I explored the port city of Fukuoka (from where the ferries to South Korea depart) and was suitably impressed by full-size models of the Chicago Pile and a modern nuclear reactor at the Kyushu Energy Science Center (they also have a neat game where an artificial sun moves across the sky and you have to tilt your solar panel to get the most light). The height of Japanese robot technology is on display at the Robosquare, including an enormous robotic Hello Kitty and several robotic dogs (who seemed able to detect me from across the room and scampered about trying to get petted). Tomorrow I take the hydrofoil to Busan in South Korea – an unplanned detour, but one that avoids flying and saves me twenty hours at sea (that is, twenty hours of seasickness).