As a lover of foreign cultures, adventure travel, experiential learning and connecting with people from different backgrounds, moving to Japan to teach English through the JET Program was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It enabled me to immerse myself in a foreign community, develop international friendships and feed my desire to experience a totally foreign part of the world. A-year-and-a-half into my tenure as a high school English teacher in rural Japan, I can say with zero reservation that taking that leap of faith was truly life-changing. The people, culture and travel lifestyle provide thrills and joys that I could never have imagined before I stepped out of my comfort zone.
People often ask me, “How’s Japan?” which is a difficult question for me to answer. There are so many directions I can go, none of which adequately capture the essence of living in a foreign culture and the opportunities available at your fingertips, a mere bus or train ride away. So instead of focusing on my daily life in Japan, let’s go on a journey together recounting one of my favorite trips – a long weekend adventure down to the historical southwestern city of Hiroshima. Hiroshima sat atop my list of Japanese destinations and this trip had been in the works for over a year. Hiroshima’s rich history, inspirational resilience, local pride, unique flavors and outdoor sports were just a few of the reasons building my excitement. As my travel mate Michael and I penciled out our itinerary, it became quickly apparent that we had a full agenda – one that could potentially cross the fine threshold of exhaustion that we all must carefully tread. Peace Memorial Park. Huge Japanese sake festival. Famous island Shrine. Archipelago bike ride. Surely other adventures. It seemed pretty ambitious, but this was a Japan bucket list trip, and that meant we’d be maximizing every moment. With our itinerary set, Michael and I set out for the Peace City.
Part I – Hours 0-24
A-Bomb Dome: one of the only buildings in central Hiroshima not to be totally destroyed on 8/6/1945
After a combination of night bus and bullet trains, we arrived in Hiroshima bright and early on Friday morning. Not wasting any time, we headed over to our first – and most important – stop of the trip: Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park.
We knew visiting the Peace Memorial Museum, A-Bomb Dome and Hiroshima Children’s Monument would be a deep and powerful experience, so we allotted the entire day to soaking in the emotions. We started off in the museum which intensely captures the mass destruction and tragic loss that struck Hiroshima at 8:15am on August 6, 1945. As you move from one exhibit to the next – processing the gut-wrenching images and accounts of that tragic day. The mood was somber. I felt a hollow emptiness fill up inside my gut; my faith in humanity felt depleted.
A girl with leukemia folded thousands of paper cranes to inspire others to persevere. Now they are a symbol of Hiroshima’s children’s resilience
Just when you feel your faith in humanity dissipating, the museum beautifully depicts Hiroshima’s sense of resiliency. Sadako Sasaki, a lively elementary school student, inspired a movement while bedridden with leukemia. Sadako loved folding origami paper planes, and encouraged others to join her.
A friend told Sadako that if she folded 1,000 paper cranes herself, any wish she wanted would be granted. So Sadako relentlessly folded paper cranes, day and night – in pursuit of the magical four-digit marker. Unfortunately, after folding 644 cranes in just a few months, she tragically passed away at just 12 years old. Sadako’s classmates folded the final 356 cranes to honor their fallen friend. Two years later, the Hiroshima Children’s Peace Monument was erected to pay tribute to Sadako and the many thousands of children who lost their lives as a result of the atomic bomb. To this day, paper cranes still serve as the primary symbol of Hiroshima’s children because they provided hope and optimism during a time when prospects were so grim.
Peace Memorial Park — site of Pres. Obama’s speech circa May 2016
As I processed Sadako’s story and the remaining several exhibits about the rebuilding of Hiroshima and decades of advocating for a world without nuclear weapons, I felt my faith in humanity being replenished. How could a community battered by such colossal force somehow still be so resilient – combating war and violence with peace, love, education and vivid narratives of their plight? Through mediums far more effective than war and violence, the people of Hiroshima share their pain – in selfless hope that no community ever feels the force of nuclear weapons again.
As you walk through Peace Memorial Park, you see flocks of children listening intently to elderly people telling stories. The storytellers are not ordinary people; they are the hibakusha – atomic bomb survivors, who relive their traumatic memories day-in and day-out so future generations can understand the tragedy that Hiroshima endured. Now seven decades later, the hibakusha population is dwindling, but their stories – along with Hiroshima’s unwavering pursuit of a world free of nuclear weapons – will live on as graphic reminders for many generations to come.
Carrying hearts heavy with grief and souls inspired by resiliency and love, we bid Peace Memorial Park farewell and headed to our accommodation. After a long night of travel and emotionally taxing day, we were prime candidates for late afternoon siestas which turned out to be the perfect battery recharge before our first night in Hiroshima.
Paper cranes made by Pres. Obama
“The world was forever changed here, but today the children of this city will go through their day in peace. What a precious thing that is. It is worth protecting, and then extending to every child. That is a future we can choose, a future in which Hiroshima and Nagasaki are known not as the dawn of atomic warfare but as the start of our own moral awakening.” – President Obama (May 27, 2016)
Part II – Hours 25-48
After a delicious ramen dinner of melt-in-your-mouth pork, fresh veggies in a soothing broth, we set out to check out one of Michael’s research discoveries – Bar Ken’s and Tres Marias. One review said that patrons often walk in “with the intention of staying for only an hour or two, but as the majority have discovered… That rarely, if ever, happens.” It’s a good thing we got our afternoon siesta because we fell all the way into Ken’s Spanish black hole. The chill vibe, lively music and cheap drinks made the evening approach morning very swiftly. We bonded with locals into the wee hours then, as the birds started chirping, headed back for a quick snooze before Hiroshima Day 2 – Japan’s largest sake festival – was to commence.
We awoke in the late morning, scarfed down a couple big plates of Japanese curry and were off to the suburban city Saijo for Japan’s premier sake festival. The sidewalks were lined with food vendors and streets were packed like sardines with festival goers. Saijo’s main downtown park is transformed into “Sake Village” where you pay a 2,000 yen (~$20) entry fee and then go from booth to booth with a small cup, tasting the finest sakes from all 47 of Japan’s prefectures. Sake culture in Japan is very similar to wine in Italy or France. People devote their lives to brewing the finest sakes and concocting the perfect flavor. I can taste the difference between nice and cheap sake, but even in the best of times, I’m far from a connoisseur at articulating the fine discrepancies among flavors. Alas, after our first half hour in Sake Village, I made no progress honing my sake describing abilities.
After tasting our fair share of Japan’s finest sakes and mingling with old Japanese sake connoisseurs and friendly college students, we headed back to Hiroshima to indulge in a highly necessary okonomiyaki dinner. Okonomiyaki – a scrumptious mess of various meats, veggies and sauces smooshed together into a big ball of goodness that looks like a combination of an omelet and pancake – is Hiroshima’s soul food, and it is so oishii (delicious in Japanese)! We wandered into Okonomiyaki-mura – a several story downtown building filled exclusively with ma and pa okonomiyaki joints – and indulged in a feast!
Part III – Hours 49-72
Itsukushima Shrine torii gate — Miyajima
We slept late Sunday morning as we only had one major spot to hit. Little did I know at the time, those couple extra hours would turn out to be a major blessing. We headed down to Miyajima, a small island off the coast of Hiroshima that is home to Itsukushima Shrine, one of Japan’s most picturesque shrines. People from all over Japan and the world flock to Itsukushima to pay homage to Buddha, see the harmonious old architecture and embrace the natural serenity that has been preserved for centuries.
One of Japan’s most picturesque photos
Itsukushima Shrine torii gate
Part IV – Hours 73-96
Favorite Shimanami Kaido bridge onto Shikoku
You can plan and plan until cows stop mooing, but sometimes you need to call an audible. It’s important to recognize when you should improvise away from your agenda and when to stick steadfastly to the gameplan. In the final 30 hours, I faced several critical junctures. If I chose the wrong route at any of these intersections, it could have severely affected the overall success of the trip.
Riding the Shimanami Kaido bike route from Honshu (Japan’s main island) to Shikoku (the fourth largest island) was darn near the top of my Japan bucket list. I had watched every YouTube video and been counting down to this day for months. I tried to convince Michael to ride with me, but I think I’ll need a PhD in persuasion to convince him to ride anywhere beyond the bare minimum, most direct route from A to B. Evidently, I would be flying solo on this stage of adventure. Time was going to be tight so I plotted out the exact times of each train and bus I needed to catch. The plan consisted of going to bed at 11pm, getting up at 6am to catch a train to the starting blocks, renting a bike, catching a ferry, riding across six islands, returning my bike, catching a bus back to Honshu, catching a bullet train back to Osaka, jumping on my night bus back to Niigata, and going to school the next morning. If just one step in this complicated progression failed, the effects inevitably would boomerang. My preparation was flawless. All I had to do was not screw it up and everything would work out perfectly!
Remember how I said you sometimes have to call an audible? Well, that audible was signaled prior to kickoff, as okonomiyaki dinner rapidly turned into a night out with new Hiroshima friends. 11pm quickly became midnight…and 1am…and 2am…and 3am…and before I knew it, the birds were chirping and the sun was about to begin its ascent. A harsh reality was setting in. If I go to sleep now, I’m going to miss my chance to ride Japan’s most famous cycling route and feel my least favorite emotion: regret.
The splendid Seto Sea
It was time to call audible #2. I went back, packed my bag and headed to the station to catch the first train south. I immediately conked out when I got on the train and magically woke up an hour later in Onomichi – the starting blocks for the ride. Slightly sleep deprived but totally jacked up on adrenaline, I headed down to the bike rental stand, and before I knew it, I was fully outfitted and ready to roll.
I try to avoid hyperboles, but this was undoubtedly one of the best bike rides of my life. As I leisurely bounced from island to island through the South Seto Sea, I mindfully tried to absorb all sensory stimulation – the cloudless blue sky, the refreshing ocean breeze, the tropical palm trees along the beaches, the gentle elevation grades considerately designed so cyclists of all abilities can enjoy the route, the clearly-marked trails separate from fast-moving traffic (Japanese efficiency!), scores of swagged out cycling teams getting their training in, the list could go on and on. I cannot imagine more ideal cycling conditions. As I traversed the final bridge and approached the finish line, I felt a wee bit sentimental about finishing. I composed myself and realized this was no time to be sentimental – it was time for audible #3.
I quickly compared my options. Option A: Spend $30 to sit on a hot bus for two hours before another 12 hours in transit back to my town. Option B: Save $30 and ride the most beautiful bike route in the world again. Option B it is. The ride back was equally spectacular and I stopped to embrace my surroundings more often. I rolled into Onomichi about 5:30 and returned my bike just before sunset. Just as I had planned months ago, I uneventfully hopped on the bullet train to Osaka, quickly inhaled one final okonomiyaki dinner, caught my night bus back to Niigata and went to school without any complications.
As I reflected on our action-packed weekend in Hiroshima, I had a startling realization. “The threshold” that I analyzed so carefully was far more of a relative concept than I imagined. We had just gone virtually nonstop for four days, experiencing Japan to the fullest with no residual fatigue. This was concrete evidence that when we are deeply engaged, we can push beyond our mental and physical limitations to turn almost anything into reality. Realizing that that gear exists was a significant epiphany for me. While it’s a device you obviously want to use sparingly, it’s empowering to know that it exists. This trip challenged my perception of “the threshold” and inspired me to continue setting lofty travel goals and pushing myself. Peace Memorial Park. Huge Japanese sake festival. Famous island Shrine. Archipelago bike ride. Indeed other adventures. It was a bit ambitious, but I’d do it all again in a heartbeat. Thank you, Japan, for providing the opportunities to immerse myself in your culture, learn about the world and broaden my horizons to people, places, customs and adventures that never before existed in my wildest dreams.