Saturday, April 27, 2013

Maple Leaves and A-Bombs

A couple weeks ago I posted the recipe for okonomiyaki, the Japanese pizza/pancake for which Hiroshima is well-known. I think I possibly made my visit to that city sound light-hearted and enjoyable (which it most certainly was) but as you would probably be aware, everything has not always been rosy for the capital of Hiroshima prefecture.

8:15am on August 6, 1945: the US Air Force became the first country to employ nuclear weapons as an item of war. Looking at the city today, it’s hard to believe that 70 years ago there existed nothing but rubble. The only reminder of the atrocities of that day is the Hiroshima Peach Memorial Park that lies at the centre of the city, a location which was once the city’s busiest commercial and residential district. The buildings that were once there were levelled in the bomb blast and today there are a number of museums, memorials and monuments in their place. These include the famous A-Bomb Dome, the skeleton of the former Industrial Promotion Hall and a concrete protest against the use of nuclear weapons. Another famous monument is the Children's Peace Monument that is dedicated to the children directly and indirectly killed or affected by the bombing. It's construction was inspired by the true story of Sadako Sasaki, a 12 year old girl who believed she would be cured of her leukaemia (caused by radiation from the bomb) if she folded a thousand paper cranes. Her story, and the story of many others, are detailed in the museums that are scattered around the park.

The A-Bomb Dome: a concrete protest against the use of nuclear weapons.

School children pay their respects at the Children's Peace Monument 

A view of the Memorial Cenotaph and A-Bomb Dome from the museum.

Frozen in time: a pocket watch recovered from the rubble, the hands stuck at precisely at 8:15 am. 
It was very surreal for me to visit this place after many years of reading about WWII and the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Standing in from of the Dome, it was like I had been transported into the pages of my textbook. It was surreal. 

The various exhibitions at the main museum also left me lost for words. Possibly the most powerful item was the pocket watch (see above) and another larger wall clock, frozen at the exact time the bomb hit  the city. Others included the photo of a man's shadow which the heat had burnt into the wall behind him and a lunch box still containing charred rice, a meal a child worker never got to eat. Perhaps I was lucky in the sense that I had just come from Nagasaki, the other Japanese city to have an atomic bomb dropped on it, where I had been to the other atomic bomb museum and therefore had been able to mentally prepare myself for what was to come in Hiroshima. 

One thing that struck me, both in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, was the resilience of the survivors. Surely you would want to give up after so much destruction and death? Apparently not. The reconstruction of both cities was a truly remarkable process and really does go to demonstrate the power of the human spirit. It makes me wonder why we bother with it all though. I was so close to being born in a nuclear age myself now I go back and look at history and it just makes me think: why. Why does the human race do such terrible things to each other? And how do people find the willpower and strength to carry on after such terrible times? On days such as ANZAC Day on the Thursday just gone, we commemorate the Australian and New Zealand soldiers who fought in war.  I feel as though the civilian populations of affected regions deserve the same respect and admiration often reserved for those who "fight for their country". 

But my visit to Hiroshima wasn't all about okonomiyaki and being confronted with the horrors of war. I also had the opportunity to get out of town and head to Miyajima, a wee island in the Inland Sea of Japan, just northwest of Hiroshima Bay. The island is famous for being the site of the Itsukushima Shrine, UNESCO World Heritage Site. During high tide, the ocean washes under the shrine and the gates look as though they have been built in the sea. Why go to Venice when you can go to Miyajima? 

While I was traveling in Japan, I aimed to try at least one  dish for which the region was famous.  Even though it is part of Hiroshima prefecture, Miyajima has its own menu: yakigaki (grilled oysters), anago meshi (conger eel on rice) and momiji manju (baked maple leaf-shaped pastries with various fillings). The momiji manju traditionally only come filled with sweet red bean paste but with tourism and the general westernisation of the Eastern world has resulted in a whole variety of different fillings - apple, cream, custard, almond, strawberry and chocolate, to name a few. I also ate the most amazing sweet potato ice cream while I was on the island, although I'm not sure how traditional that one is. Needless to say, I didn't need much dinner upon my return to the youth hostel. I was pretty much food-ed out by the time I had tried everything I possibly could. Traveling alone means you don't have anyone to share the meals with either! Such a shame ;-) 

Apart from the food that is unique to Miyajima, I found a few other quirky/amazing-for-the-bogan-Aussie things as well: the beautiful red maple leaves, deer and monkeys hanging out in the parks, a shamoji fetish  (a shamoji is a wooden spoon used to serve rice and it wasn't really a fetish, it's just that the monk who invented it supposedly lived on Miyajima) and a troupe of super fit grandmas and grandpas who like to hike up mountains in their spare time. Unfortunately it was an overcast day so I wasn't justly rewarded after I made it to the 535m peak of Mt Misen, but I imagine the view would be quite stunning when the sun makes an appearance. 

Itsukushima Shrine

The famous 'floating' gates of Itsukushima Shrine

A view of the gates from inside the shrine

The process of making a shamoji from a block of wood (from right to left)

The Big Shamoji
Deer in the park next to the island's aquarium 

Deer in the park

Maple leaves littering the trail up Mt Misen

The view from the top of Mt Misen 

Anagomeshi lunch set 

Yakigaki from a street vendor 

Not-so-traditional-but-no-less-incredible sweet potato ice cream

Tools used to create the maple shape of momiji manjus back in the good ol' days
Tough decisions: a selection of the available momiji manju flavours

Since I've started, I think I may as well bore you with some other details of my Japan trip! They will probably come in dribs and drabs, related to the recipes I post... so watch out! Those of you who have been whinging at me for not putting my travel photos up on Facebook, these will be your opportunities to see what I got up to :-P

- Matilda 

1 comment:

  1. Awesome post, Yas - it initially seems so otherworldly until you realise that it was only half a century ago that these terrible events happened. The images of the A-bomb dome and the pocket watch are very powerful. Also found it wonderful to see that picture of the children paying their respects at the memorial. Keep the posts and lovely photos coming!!! :D These photos from Japan need to be shared ;D Thought about posting these on fb too? :)

    And i've heard about and seen photos of the floating shrine before - i didn't know you visited there! Amazing!!! xx