Hiroshima: My First Castle

I mentioned in the last two posts how I went to the Bus Centre to buy a pass but I don’t think I’ve actually talked about it much. It’s called the ‘Visit Hiroshima Tourist Pass (small area)’, costs 1000 yen and lasts three days. All trams are “free” as well as the ferry to and from Miyajima and most of the buses in the city. It doesn’t work on the Astram Line or JR trains though. The two first days I was in Hiroshima I didn’t use the trams much since most of the sites were within walking distance, I activated it on my third day so I could use the discounts (the pass also offers a small discount to Hiroshima Castle, Shukkei-en, the Peace Museum and the ropeway on Miyajima) and for the ride to Miyajima.
The wide area pass is 3000 yen and, as well as everything offered in the small area pass, also covers bus rides to Onomichi, Takehara, Sandankyo, Saijo, Miyoshi and Fukuyama. The Pass is made out of recycled paper cranes too, at least now we know what happens to all those senbazuru and I’m glad that they’ve found a way to make use of them rather than simply burning them.

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Because I never have enough of temples and shrines, I started the morning of my third day in Hiroshima by visiting Mitaki-dera towards the west of the city. After a free tram ride to Hiroshima Station I hopped onto a free bus that would take me to my destination. The bus took me through the streets I’d walked down the day before during the temple walk for a while, but soon the houses started to get smaller and the roads became less crowded. It wasn’t until all the other passengers had gotten off and the bus was taking corners and small streets in an area that no longer looked like Hiroshima that the forested mountains came into view.

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‘Mitaki kannon’, the name of my bus stop, was the last, and the driver dropped me off before turning around and leaving me in the middle of a slope with nobody else around. I started to walk upwards for a while — my map suggested that it would be at the end of the road — and only three minutes later I reached some stairs that led to the temple.

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Maybe because the skies were grey and any sunlight that would be lighting up the area was blocked by the lush green trees and forest all around, but the temple felt dark and humid. Nobody was there. There was a sign saying that there was an entrance fee of 500 yen, so I left a coin in a box that was there.
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My favourite spot of the temple was the Tahōtō two-storied pagoda, said to date back to the Muromachi period it was relocated from a shrine in Wakayama in 1951 to help the souls of those lost in the bombing to rest in peace. I always think that pagodas with a circular structure seem so beautiful, there are usually lovely patterns and woodwork painted in bright colours that I never get tired of looking at closely. This pagoda was no exception.

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Mitaki-dera was one of the few places I visited where the hydrangeas were still in full bloom, although there weren’t many, next to a line of tombstones each with their incense that permeated the air and I could smell from far away. After spotting the biggest spider I had yet to see in Japan, black and brown perched on some grass next to a stream, I came across a small kura storehouse that worked as bathrooms. I feel it’s important to mention all the storehouses I saw during my trip; after visiting Kurashiki I’ve developed a fondness for them and it was always exciting when I found one.

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Next to the main temple building was a small counter, a woman ran up to me as she saw me looking around and gave me my temple stamp. The woman smiled as she was writing it, the papers and stamps in the little room were piled under some rule of organised chaos and it was much more welcoming and approachable than the other times I asked for a goshuin at other temples.

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Mitaki-yama, the mountain where the temple is located, also receives the names of Uematsu-yama or Soko-yama. This is because Ueda Soko, he who designed Shukkei-en Garden in Hiroshima planted a pine tree on the summit to enhance the natural backdrop of his garden. Borrowed scenery, I think they call it. I didn’t realise until I was writing this, but ‘Mitaki’ gets it’s name from the three waterfalls that were within the temple grounds.

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Crossing a small restaurant on my way out I returned to the bus stop. Apparently there aren’t many buses and the next was still 45min away, so I decided to take a train back to the city instead. On the way down to the station I came across another small temple, Saigan-ji, that I only looked at from the outside, and a big black butterfly I didn’t hesitate to take dozens of photos of (I’ve never seen a black butterfly before!). Other than a motorbike and an older woman I didn’t see any other people until the station.

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Since I don’t eat on trains in order to not annoy those around me, I downed my bag of bean flavoured chips while I waited and soon the train arrived to pick up the three Mitaki locals and myself. The train was surprisingly crowded and had to stop at the next station for five minutes, but other than that it soon dropped us off at Hiroshima Station and I was on my way to the next site. There’s a little information desk next to the tram station where I went in to ask which bus I could take for free with my pass, they pointed me to one that was just about to leave.

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Unfortunately, when I was about to get off the bus and showed my pass to the driver, he said something in Japanese. After many ‘wakarimasen’s and ‘sumimasen’s from me and a few sentences of whatever he was saying, I decided to just pay the fee for the bus so the other passengers wouldn’t have to wait for me.

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The good side of having taken the bus was that I found a beautiful manhole cover!

With Hiroshima Castle right in front of me I could already feel the excitement starting to bubble up inside me. It was the fifth castle I had seen from the outside, but the first I would finally be going into!

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Ninomaru seen from behind

The Ninomaru is the first building one sees as they enter the castle grounds after crossing the initial bridge, entrance was free so I made my way in and looked around. It was reconstructed with wood and resembles more what it would’ve looked like in the past. One of the sides only had a large taiko drum in the middle of the room, the other had a few tatami mats and the small room on top of the entrance had a couple of wooden models of the castle. The hallway between the two yagura was full of photos of the reconstruction of the castle and, although all explanations were in Japanese, I still understood the general idea of how it was done.

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Just outside the Ninomaru there are a few lines and signs on the floor that I had no idea what they were for, after my castle visit I learned that they must be the locations of the rooms and other buildings belonging to the castle. The water of the moat was full of koi fish and turtles, I found it ironic to see them all there considering the castle is also called ‘Carp Castle’. There was a very big eucalyptus before the bridge that had survived the bombing, the branches twisting and turning and falling all around it. It reminded me of a tree I used to have in my garden when I lived in New Zealand, with a curtain of leaves surrounding the whole thing and a strong branch where I used to lay on as a kid and hide from the world for a while. It was like a little natural hut.

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Right before Gokoku Shrine is a bunker where the first radio broadcast out of Hiroshima fallowing the atomic bombing was made, now there are only a couple of senbazuru waterfalls and a small building hidden between trees and moss.

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There are a few things worth mentioning about Gokoku Shrine. First, it seems to have a fish theme (I’m tempted to say koi fish, but it could well not be for I know nothing about differentiating fish species). I bought an ema board to add to my ema collection because it had a beautiful picture of two swimming around each other. I had initially planned to land in Hiroshima Airport and thought to buy my shuincho stamp book here since the design is also very beautiful, but with my change of plans I am still very happy with my current book.
Second, it was full of miko; three of them behind the counter, two in the back room and another one outside. I’ve never seen so many miko at one shrine!

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Chinowa ring at Gokoku Shrine

Lucky for me, I was there to see two special events take place. There weren’t any big celebrations, if I didn’t know any better I might’ve thought that the decorations belonged to the shrine and were there all year long. The Tanabata strips matched the colour of the light green roof and the brown of the wood and the bamboo tree hardly stood out for it was so thin. I will talk about Tanabata at a later date though, I was in Osaka for the official festival and saw a bigger celebration take place.

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Tanabata decorations

Gokoku Shrine also had a chinowa purification ring on the pathway leading to the shrine. Made out of dry grass, one is to pass through the ring with a series of loops and serves to wash away any impurities or bad luck. This custom is said to have started after Somin Shôrai, a legendary hero, tied a magical ring of grass around his waist and thus managed to escape an epidemic. At some shrines they offer slips of paper shaped like a person during the time that the chinowa circle is in place that you can take with you as another means of purification. Shape-wise, they reminded me of a kami called Shikigami, pieces of paper that come to life under orders of a master and usually are in charge of spying (they also appear in Spirited Away).

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After imitating another lady that was there and doing the adequate loops around and through the circle, I considered myself purified and moved on to the castle itself. There was a couple getting married on the stairs leading to the castle that were resting for a while; the white dress Japanese brides wear never ceases to amaze me. Going in I stopped to buy the entrance ticket but the woman said I couldn’t use my discount unless I had a booklet that came with the pass, so I decided to go back to my hostel, have some lunch and then come back to the castle with the booklet in tow (I had left it next to my futon because it seemed more like a promotional thing for restaurants I wasn’t interested in). It was just past noon so I still had plenty time and the hostel wasn’t far away.

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Giant crow!

Leaving the castle I walked through a park claimed by small school children running around in their matching uniforms and cute hats, I found banners with pictures of kappa on them that I guess belonged to the pool next door and a static black train that I climbed into to look around. I was back at the castle half an hour later and ready to go inside this time.
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I’m sure some of you have heard of the Battle of Sekigahara and some of you may already know the full history behind it (most probably more than I do), but for those of you who don’t I’ll give you a quick review to situate the past behind Hiroshima Castle — and also many other castles I visited during my trip, I’ll be talking about many castles from here onwards.

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Long story very short, Toyotomi Hideyoshi became very influential, unified Japan and eventually died. At the time his son Toyotomi Hideyori was still a small boy and not yet able to take on his father’s role, so Hideyoshi had left five regents in charge until he became of age.
One of them was Tokugawa Ieyasu who went off to Edo and further north to defend his lands from the attack of Uesugi Kagekatsu —another one of the regents—. Ishida Mitsunari from Sawayama saw this as the perfect opportunity to take Fushimi Castle, now that Ieyasu was distracted, as a means of showing the country his strength.
The west side of Japan (including Ishida and Mori clans, between others) was roughly in favour of Hideyori becoming the future shogun, while the Eastern forces (including people such as Fukushima, Hidetada and Ikeda), since they belonged to Tokugawa, wanted Ieyasu to become the next shogun. After the attack at Fushimi Castle Tokugawa’s forces and himself made their way from Edo back along the Tokaido and Nakasendo routes and the western and eastern forces clashed at the plain of Sekigahara (about halfway between Nagoya and Lake Biwa) resulting in the Battle of Sekigahara. Three years later Tokugawa Ieyasu became shogun, although Hideyori didn’t disappear until much later on.

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Hiroshima Castle was built by and was home to Terumoto Mori, a powerful lord whose domain covered much of the Chugoku Region. A castle town formed around it and Hiroshima prospered as one of most important towns in the area with its ideal location on land and next to the sea. The second floor of the castle talks about castle-town life and offers pictures, tools and even replicas of a samurai house, a merchant house and a tea house (plus a cool video) to help understand this period.
Since Mori had aligned himself with the western forces in the Battle of Sekigahara, Ieyasu took the castle away from him and he was left with only what would be most of Yamaguchi Prefecture today. Fukushima Masanori from the eastern forces took his place and lived in the castle for many years. At the time, if a castle was damaged the shogun had to give his okay before it could be fixed. A flood had destroyed part of the castle and, although Fukushima asked permission, a response never came even after two years; Fukushima preceded to mend his castle. I think this was reasonable as I definitely wouldn’t want to live in a home in such conditions for two years, but of course it was a trap. Tokugawa had suspicions about Fukushima’s loyalties and now that he had disobeyed and fixed the castle without permission, the lands were taken away from him.
Nagaakira Asano was the new owner of the castle, whose clan would control the castle, and with it the domain, for many generations. The original castle keep and several other structures remained through the Meiji Period but were completely destroyed by the bombing. The castle keep was rebuilt in 1958.

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The first floor explains all of this history, and probably more that I can’t remember, plus it has a very interesting model of how the castle would’ve looked. I honestly had no idea that there were so many buildings apart from the main keep and yagura, but the model showed rows and rows of tatami and rooms after another occupying what would probably be most of the castle grounds. They have a few architectural objects and also talk about the small town on the delta before Hiroshima.
The third floor was my favourite simply because of the armours. I had seen a few samurai armours before in the Tokyo National Museum of Ueno, but there were so many people there at the time that I hardly had room to look at them properly. This time I stayed and imagined them being made in front of me, threads with such strong colours being looped together with the plates. It almost seemed more like art than a dressing for war, I still remember clearly the dark blue of one of the armours.

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Observation Platform

The rest of the third and fourth floor have great displays of swords and a gun, although I think the fourth floor changes exhibits every now and then. Most people seemed to be passing the displays rather quickly, I was practically alone looking at the weapons, but the Observation Platform was full of people. I liked the bars around the fifth floor, making it feel like a cage. Since it’s a cement reconstruction the inside of the building doesn’t feel like a castle (really just an interesting museum) but when I was on the top floor and could feel the wooden walls it was easier to imagine how castle-life must’ve been.
Making my way back down to the bottom I collected the castle stamp and asked a Spanish couple to take some photos of me with the castle. I took 3h15min to visit the whole castle and grounds (including Gokoku Shrine), so I set off to visit Shukkei-en before it was too late. Worth mentioning that they do samurai performances (singing, plays and sword shows) every Sunday from 13:30 to 15:00h at the Ninomaru in case any of you are interested in seeing that. On Saturdays you can also spot people dressed up as samurai walking around the castle at about the same time.

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Hondori Street

Unbelievably, I only realised I had gotten lost trying to find Shukkei-en when I saw the Ichiran ramen place along Hondori. I don’t know how I managed to walk in the wrong direction but I’m not much of a garden person and I would be seeing Koraku-en later on anyway so I decided not to backtrack and stopped at the restaurant to eat instead. For anyone who is interested though, right next to Shukkei-en there is the school Sadako Sasaki used to go to, there’s a statue of her at the entrance.

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Hondori Street before the bombing

Ichiran is a chain of ramen restaurants popular especially for people going solo. At the entrance there is a vending machine where I asked and paid for what I wanted (there are pictures, I got a bowl with an extra egg), the machine printed out a piece of paper that I picked up and, after looking at a board displaying which seats were empty, I walked into the restaurant and sat down. The restaurant is a line of individual cubicles, a wall in front and at both sides, giving every person a sense of privacy.
I had been to the Ichiran near Shibuya Crossing in Tokyo on my first trip so I knew what to do already. There was a sheet of paper waiting for me on the table that I had to fill in with my personal preferences of spiciness, amount of water and whatever else was customisable. It was only in Japanese though, so I circled randomly (Tokyo has an English option) and rang the button once I was done. A few seconds later someone from behind the counter opened the small curtain in front of me and took my sheet of paper and the ticket from the vending machine. I couldn’t see their face, they couldn’t see mine, and I didn’t have to talk to anyone. When my food came a short while after I had apparently ordered a big spicy bowl so I made the most of the free refillable water at the side to make sure I finished it.

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Ichiran

I walked around Hondori for a while, re-visiting Daiso, before making my way back to my hostel. The lump that had appeared on the side of my foot after my hike up Mt.Shosha was finally starting to disappear and I could walk longer distances before it started to hurt, but I was still in need of a sit-down. Especially because the next day I’d be waking up early and spending the day walking around Miyajima!

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