Oh well. I guess I can’t end up floating helplessly amongst a bunch of naked men, or be force-fed the tortured, skewered carcass of an impaled baby bird every day. So without further ado, let’s just race through this, shall we?
At the conclusion of our previous entry, our intrepid travelers had just settled in for the evening at the last rest stop in Shikoku right on the coast of the Inland Sea. We woke up the next morning to find the first rays of the sun slowly filtering their way over the still quiet of the water. It actually was quite beautiful – the multiple tiny islands scattered across the water show up in multiple variations of violet and subtle shaded grey in the very early morning and very late dusk – gentle sloping curves and shapes jutting out of the water and blending into the horizon which very much resemble classical scenes found in old Japanese sumi ink drawings.
In general, my preference for beauty lies in bold colours and even bolder shapes (think brilliant hued autumn leaves, or majestic soaring stark white clouds against azure skies, gleaming glass and polished steel skyscrapers, etc.), but I have to tell you, standing on the coast at 5 am, not another soul around, staring out at the incredible stillness and quiet, the sense of well… I can’t quite explain it, but almost sadness and wistfulness and melancholy for a time and a place to which I rightfully lack any right to feel these things for… a sort of bittersweet longing and nostalgic sense of reflection for this place, this place which I have never known before, but wish that I had. It was beautiful and sad and gorgeous in its crystalline stillness, nary a soul stirring and only the neigh-imperceptible subtle gradation of the violet gray hues of the islands changing and shifting in response to the slow movement of sun rays across the still dawn sky serving as an indication that time still moved in this place.Anyway, after spending a good 10 minutes or so pondering life, the universe and everything whilst staring at the stillness of the inland sea before me, I finally reached the conclusion that while I still didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, I did know that I needed a coffee, and so with that, the spell was broken and I dragged my groggy panda bottom over to a nearby vending machine and purchased a can of coffee to wake me up and power me through the day.
By this point, the lovely Starbucks Girl had also awoken and after getting changed and washed up, we threw our belongings in the back of the car, jumped in, and started heading north, across the winding bridges and meandering island roads of the Shimanami Kaido highway. As far as Japanese highways go, this is one of the more scenic ones, spanning several beautiful little islands and nine amazing bridges, their cable supports and arching central piers standing in fascinating relief to the gorgeous deep violet orange blue hues of the dawn slowly developing in the sky above us. I should like to visit here again someday and if you ever have the chance (and a car) you should try driving it in the early morning too, when you have the entire length of the span practically to yourself.
We soon emerged on the other side and hung a left, heading towards Hiroshima and leaving behind Richie’s forgotten world, to be visited again some other time and maybe some other life. As we headed eastward, the scenery around us gradually shifted – unmistakable signs of urban development, but also ferocious fiery red hues of Japanese maples flanking the overpasses, covering the hills and dotting the undulating horizon lines of the distant landscape. It is as much a classic image of the Japanese Autumn as any that I have ever held in my heart – the curious mix of petrol-scented crowded highways, grey-white ferro-concrete covered hills and outcroppings and that cool earth smell of slowly dying trees and settling falling foliage that fills the heart and makes it sing with longing even as the periphery of our vision is surrounded by the vermillion shades of thousands of tiny maple leaves blurring into one celebration of the end of the year drawing into another. It’s one of the many images I think I will carry with me forever, long after I have left this place. More than the tourist sights, more than the “traditional” symbols, this everyday mix that is spectacular specifically for its mundane uniqueness, and the sensations that you will never experience anywhere else.
We roll into Hiroshima whilst most of the city was just starting about its morning and had to make a decision which sight we wanted to visit first. Hiroshima is famous for several things: the atomic bomb memorial most obviously, but also a castle, a garden, and last but not least, Miyajima, home to Itsukushijima shrine and its floating torii gate, one of Japan’s “Top Three Most Beautiful Sights.” We decided that it was too early in the morning to deal with the heaviness of visiting the Atomic Bomb Memorial and so instead headed off in the direction of the ferry port to Miyajima Island.
I’ll spare you the regurgitation of the wikipedia entry on Miyajima (you can read it here if you’re so interested) but basically it’s famous for a shrine (as previously mentioned), a torii gate that appears to “float” in the water, crazy deer, and momiji manju, a type of maple leaf-shaped sweet. It’s one of the more popular tourist attractions in Japan and quite beautiful (and crowded!) in the Autumn, though when we went there, it wasn’t too bad.
Getting to the island requires you to take a ferry, and being the clever young kids that we were, we queued up extra early to get a front-row seat by the window so we could see everything on the short jump across the bay to the island. Unfortunately, it turns out we weren’t quite a clever as we thought, for though we literally got the seat closest to the windshield, due to the complexities of ferry mechanics (i.e. turns out the back looks just like the front, as the ferry sails in a straight line back and forth), we ended up sitting at the very rearmost seat on the ship, facing the back (with a stellar view of the dock we just departed). I guess we now know why nobody seemed to be clamoring for those seats.
The ferry ride itself was quite short and we soon landed on Miyajima and wandered out of the ferry port and had no sooner set foot on the island itself when we were suddenly set upon by ravenous hordes of crazed deer. Look at this deer below. Just look at it. If that isn’t a crazed deer, then I don’t know what is.
Well okay, maybe “crazed” is too strong a word, but they were certainly persistent and hungry and I suppose that two clueless tourists seemed like prime targets. Back when I used to live in Wisconsin, people are prepared to deal with stray deer attacks (generally by virtue of a firearm kept conveniently at hand) but here, on Miyajima, bereft of a shotgun (or indeed any weapon save my best attempts to put on a menacing face and yell “HYAAAAWWWW!” whilst gesticulating wildly at the deer, an offense that sadly seemed to be somewhat-less-than-intimidating to the antlered beasts), we were forced to squeal in a girlish fashion and start waving our packs about to try and shoo them away.
Compared to the deer in Nara, the Miyajima deer were somewhat less bold insofar as they didn’t actively try to bite my ass (as has happened to me in Nara before), but they certainly didn’t hold back in sticking their muzzles in our pockets and bags in what I can only assume to be an attempt to ferret out any food we might have been packing. We didn’t have any food with us, so we turned out to be safe in that respect, however two deer in particular (who were clearly the most insane of the bunch, as when we first encountered them they were ferociously chewing through some newspaper with a frightening abandon) seemed to have it out for poor capybara-san, as they made repeated attempts to try to eat him! We had to hold on to the poor guy tightly whilst warding them off with repeated punching motions lest he disappear into their ravenous bleating maws.
After surviving the cervine gauntlet (study time: “cervine” is the adjectival form of “cervidae”, the latin term for deer. Glad to see 4 years of university spent studying genetics and biology hasn’t gone to waste haha), we made our way towards the inner portion of the island leading towards the famed Itsukushima shrine. This area between the ferry port and the shrine is lined with countless souvenir shops and covered with large cloth tarps to form a sort of long winding shopping arcade. Most of the shops sell various trinkets, commemorative goods, toys, hello kitties, and what not. But a large number also sell foods that Miyajima is “famous” for, including, of course, momiji manju, quite possibly one of the most delicious kinds of manju around.
Okay, the truth is, momiji manju tastes just like other manjus, but just happens to be shaped like a maple leaf (“momiji”). However, unlike most other manju, they are available in a wide variety of different taste treat sensations beyond the traditional bean jam filling – as far as I recall, I ate at least custard cream (yum), cream cheese (oh god, I was in heaven), chocolate (mmmm…..), strawberry cream (who doesn’t like strawberry?) and many others.
We also stopped by this one shop that sold momiji manju parfaits, which is kind of like taking a heavenly treat and then adding ice cream to it, which if you think about it, is pretty much a surefire recipe for success for one would be hard pressed to name a thing in this world not made 10 times better by the addition of ice cream, let alone a delicious cream cheese filled manju sweet.
The lovely Starbucks girl also bought some sort of bizarre fish on a stick but I honestly can’t recall anything about it, so busy concentrating on procuring more momiji manjus was I. I also recall her saying something about the world’s largest rice paddle (apparently Miyajima is famous for making rice paddles) but I was too busy stuffing my face to pay her much heed – I’m fairly certain I must have gained at least a pound between the start of this shopping arcade and the time I exited on the other side, by the entrance to the shrine.
The world’s largest rice scoop. Sorry, this is about as interesting as I could make this picture.
Ironically, after babbling on for paragraph after paragraph about crazed capybara-eating deer and my cream-cheese themed over-indulgence, I have remarkably little to say about Itsukushima (the whole reason we were here in the first place). You can read more about on Wikipedia, but basically it was really beautiful (and therein lays my profound insights into one of Japan’s more famous attractions, gentle readers), with lots of winding piers and walkways over the water (which I’ve heard was originally so we poor commoners didn’t defile the island soil with our slovenly unwashedness), big open tatami rooms, lots of that lovely red lacquered wood and white surfaces that characterizes Shinto shrines, and of course, the so-called “floating torii” which is just like any other torii around except it’s built in the middle of the bay and so, when the tide is in, appears to be “floating” (or so people say) in the middle of the water. The true appearance is a little more anti-climactic – it just looks like someone miscalculated when they were building the thing and now it’s standing in the middle of a flooded, muddy pit. But that may just be the inner cynic in me talking
Okay, so perhaps I over-exaggerate the mundaneness of its nature, but honestly speaking I was a little puzzled why this made it into Japan’s “Top Three Sights”, because if you’re into torii, the thousands of red torii winding their way up the mountainside of Fushimi-Inari in Kyoto seems to me all-together more impressive than this sad little half-drowned thing.
But you know, I was a good tourist and dutifully stood in the prescribed photo spot and took the pictures I was supposed to, which I have posted here on the blog for your viewing enjoyment. Just don’t judge the shrine by this torii alone – the shrine itself is much cooler and the surrounding areas very charming, being next to the bay and with ample stoneworks, nature and greenery all around, making for the perfect place to relax, take it easy and unwind for a bit. And of course, it was Autumn, so that only exaggerates the loveliness of the place.
After relaxing and enjoying the gorgeous morning weather for a while, we decided it was time to head back to Hiroshima to get on with the rest of our sightseeing. We make it back to the ferry port (by this time crowded with a steadily rising stream of tourists), determined to get a front row seat back to Hiroshima. Since last time we sat on the wrong side, this time we purposely sit on the opposite side of the ferry – only to realise, as the boat leaves the dock, that since the ferry doesn’t turn around, this means we have, once again, sat facing rearward with yet another view of the shore we’ve just left receding in the distance. It is clear, lovely readers, that we are most definitely not the sharpest tools in the shed (though I already knew that about myself). *sigh*
Our glumness at realising that we are the evolutionary equivalent of the retarded gazelle that zigs when everyone else zags and consequently gets eaten was somewhat assuaged once we reached the opposite side and were greeted with one of the most delicious smells ever – an aromatic bouquet that turned out to come from delicious grilled conger eel, a local specialty known as anago.
Being the quintessential Japanese tourists, we decided to partake of this and ordered up a scrumptious (and ridiculously overpriced) anago-meshi bento (a lunchbox consisting of grilled conger eel on top of rice) and sat down for a quick and tasty lunch (though I, being stuffed to the gills with momiji manju, could only finish about half) before heading back to the car. We didn’t have far to go to our next destination – it was just a few kilometers from the ferry port to downtown Hiroshima and its very sobering atomic bomb memorial.
But that is a story for the next post. Stay tuned.
Now listening to: Nadia Ali – Love Story (Andy Moor Vox Remix)