Go West

For a long time, I fantasized about traveling past the sprawling metropolitan areas of Kantō and Kansai to western Japan, which I’d hoped would be less developed than the densely populated and heavily industrialized area I live in north of Tokyo. Perhaps it’s something in my Scandinavian-American blood, this incessant urge to go west and explore unseen lands. (Admittedly, the promise of new and interesting food factored into my thinking as well.) Having already seen two of Japan’s least populous prefectures, Shimane and Tottori, I decided to swing south to the Sanyō coast and travel west along the Seto Inland Sea, which some have called “the Mediterranean of Japan.”

The trip begin in Okayama, where I met a friend and hopped on a train, another train, and finally a ferry toward Naoshima, twenty minutes off the coast. An island once defined solely by its fishing industry, it is now home to some of the best contemporary art in Japan.

For a conventional art-viewing experience, one can stick to Naoshima’s three concrete-walled museums.

However, we also found plenty of outdoor visual delights scattered across the island. Some are intentional…


… while others are more accidental.



The splashy colors and found objects decorating the island’s punnily named bathhouse were also a happy discovery at the end of a long, sweltering day. More interesting, however, was what waited inside: a giant stuffed elephant, painted glass ceilings, and a collage of vintage magazine clippings on the bath’s floor made for an out of the ordinary cleansing experience. (Of course, photography inside the bathing room was prohibited, but this poster gives you a pretty good idea of what to expect, should you make the trip.)


Naoshima’s real draw for me was the Art House Projects. Scattered about the village of Honmura, these renovated and repurposed houses are beautiful examples of the subtlety and craftsmanship of traditional Japanese architecture.

Two of the seven projects are in fact not houses but rather quasi-religious structures. One, Minamidera, offers a mind-bending visual trick, while the other, Go’o Shrine, presents two faces.

Public:

And private. (You’ll just have to go to see what I mean.)

Inside the oddly unsettling Kadoya, a dark pool of water blinks with LCD displays counting from one to nine and back again, all at different speeds, competing in some desperate race to a nonexistent end. We sat in the cool, dim room for what seemed like ages mesmerized by the firefly-like display, delaying our reentry into the midday heat.

Luckily, the island’s numerous cafes offered a welcome respite from the blazing sun…

…but after two days we were more or less exhausted, albeit thrilled by the experience. Under low clouds and a faint drizzle, we parted ways in Okayama, whence I headed further west to the somewhat gloomy port town of Kasaoka.

My day immediately brightened after a lunch of hiyashi bukkake udon (cold noodles in a dashi-based sauce) at a small shop specializing in sanuki udon, a famed variety from Shikoku’s Kagawa prefecture. This particular type of noodle is known throughout Japan for its thickness and delightfully chewy texture. True to form, these handmade noodles were springy, smooth, and slippery, with a good deal of heft and bite. Better yet, I watched as the owner prepared the meal before my eyes: gently lifting the floured, hand-cut noodles from a wooden tray into a basket to boil, drawing a knife through the smooth, shocking pink exterior of the kamaboko (fish cake), mincing pencil thin green onions, and carefully arranging toppings around the crown jewel: a raw quail egg nestled in a bed of grated daikon. Needless to say, I didn’t leave hungry.

(If you ever find yourself hungry in Kasaoka, take a left as you leave the station and walk along the sidewalk until you reach a three story building. Walk down the short staircase and you’ll find the shop, Kamofuku (かも福), on your left. Make sure you buy a ticket from the vending machine before sitting down at the counter! This particular bowl will set you back a mere 450 yen.)

Having slurped up my noodles, I quickly grabbed some provisions at a nearby grocery store and hopped another ferry, this time to Shiraishijima (Shiraishi Island). I had discovered this little island thanks to Okayama prefecture’s International Villa program, which aims to introduce foreigners to an area usually bypassed on the standard tourist circuit. While the word “villa” may conjure up images of sun-soaked luxury in the Italian countryside, don’t be fooled: these villas are not palaces, but they do offer comfortable accommodation and a friendly communal atmosphere at a good price.

The pictures I’d seen of Shiraishijima had primed me for hours of swimming and kayaking in the warm, calm waters of the Inland Sea. Unfortunately, the weather did not cooperate, and the scene from the island’s beach was a bit unsettling.

But an invigorating short hike the next morning helped put things in perspective.

After clambering back down, I hopped on one of the villa’s well-used bicycles to explore the island’s back roads. Soon, I was pedaling past farmhouses, coasting down steep hills with squealing brakes,  rushing beneath a thick canopy of trees alive with the calls of cicadas and birds, and swerving to avoid running over crabs scuttling across the road. As I circled back toward the beach, passing abandoned cars rusted by the salty sea air, I came across a haphazard scene of quarried rocks and used tires. A perfectly fitting industry for a place whose name simply means “white stone island.”

As the tiny passenger boat pulled away from the dock, I bid adieu to this strange little slice of Japan and began contemplating my next adventure. For this leg, I would bicycle seventy kilometers along the Shimanami Kaidō, a series of bridges and scenic highways that join Honshū (Japan’s largest island) and Shikoku (its smallest). When I stepped off the train in Onomichi , however, a light rain was beginning to fall. As I waited for the small ferry that would take me to the first island, Mukaijima, the drizzle lifted slightly, only to begin again as I disembarked. So began a rather cloudy but wonderful journey past farmland, shipyards, palm-lined beaches, endless citrus groves, and quite a few udon shops.

 


Although the trip could easily be completed in one day, I chose stop about halfway in the town of Setoda on the island of Ikuchijima. Before dinner, I soaked my aching muscles in scalding water at the hostel’s small bathhouse, which had been built by the owner. The food at the hostel, while nothing to write home about, was simple, homemade, and came with unlimited rice, which counted for a lot after a long afternoon of biking. (Not pictured here: the half liter bottle of beer I shared with my table mate, who was traveling east from Kyūshū on a Seishun 18 ticket.)

The second day began inauspiciously with pouring rain, which unfortunately fell relentlessly for the rest of the journey. Ill-prepared and lacking a rain jacket, I was soaked through after the first ten minutes of riding. Forty kilometers later, though, it didn’t matter. Before embarking on the sixth and final bridge, I stopped for some hot tea and a photo op.

Imabari, my destination on Shikoku, seemed to be suffering from the same affliction plaguing so many other regional Japanese cities: a mass exodus of youth. I was thankful to have my camera back, though, and killed some time wandering around before hopping on the bus to Hiroshima.

Retracing my bicycle route by bus, I was shocked by how quickly the scenery flew past the windows, and by how much one misses when traveling by vehicle. As the bus moved further west, the rain lightened and the clouds began to break. By the time we pulled into Hiroshima in the early evening, traces of golden light washed over the lush mountains surrounding the city.

No visit to Hiroshima would be complete without okonomiyaki, the as-you-like-it pancake of seafood, meat, and cabbage. That night, I took a seat at a counter and watched in awe as lightning-quick chefs layered squid, shrimp, and pork atop a base of curly Chinese-style noodles and green cabbage. The whole thing was topped with a thin omelet, brushed with sweet sauce, and finally showered with green onions, sesame seeds, and aonori. I ate the pancake straight off the griddle, watching in awe as the chefs worked their magic.

The next day, I took off for some requisite sightseeing…

 

…and enjoyed yet another lunch of chilled udon, plus freshwater eel over rice and roasted green tea…

…followed by shiratama zenzai (chilled red bean soup with chewy rice flour orbs), a classic Japanese summer dessert.

But, as everyone knows, a trip to Hiroshima is not about the food. As an American living in Japan, it seemed unconscionable to leave the country without having first seen Hiroshima. My motivations were personal, too: as a student of history and an alumna of the university that helped make the atomic bomb reality, I wanted to confront this awful part of history, to try to understand an event that, while unthinkable, could very well be repeated. Needless to say, visiting the memorials with March’s disaster still fresh in my memory was a particularly poignant and difficult experience.

This building, the so-called Genbaku (atomic bomb) Dome, was formerly known as the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall. It is one of the few structures that remain from that August day sixty-six years ago.

At the Children’s Peace Monument, paper cranes donated from across Japan and the world are displayed in glass cases. (The cranes are a reference to Sadako Sasaki, a young survivor of the bomb who subsequently died of leukemia. Before her death, she folded hundreds of paper cranes, with the hope that doing so so would cure her of her illness.)

Chains of paper cranes, which can be found all across the Peace Memorial Park, are continuously replaced with donations from around the world.

 


I spent hours at the Peace Memorial Museum, absorbing the many stories of those who were alive on August 6, 1945. Artifacts from that day – torn school uniforms, a watch stopped at precisely 8:15, carbonized food inside a warped metal lunch box – were displayed alongside plaques describing their former owners. Of course, the stories are far too numerous to recount here, nor would my words be able to do them justice. It is clear, however, that merely remembering is not enough; these stories must be carried into the future, alive, where they can be acted upon, not put to rest. There’s no better time to begin that process than today.

We can start here:

Stories from Hibakusha (atomic bomb survivors)

Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum

NHK Peace Archives

MIT Visualizing Cultures: Ground Zero 1945

The University of Chicago library: The Chain Reaction

Readers, friends: how do you see your role in making history present?

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One thought on “Go West

  1. This is an awesome combination of travelogue, cultural commentary, historical insight, with a bit of food along the way. And of course the photography is wonderful, as we have come to expect from Emma. Although in concept I support her conclusion that we must keep important historical narratives alive to inform our future choices, I confess I’ve not yet connected to her suggested links. I hope to do so and then respond more fully.

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