Long Distance Walks

Hiroshima: The Oleander Blooms

We are here, in Hiroshima, because of a solitary speck of time in the history of our world. It was 8:15 on the morning of Monday, August 6, 1945. The Little Boy atomic bomb exploded. 70,000 died immediately. Within three hours, a firestorm cloud would rage overhead, with an estimated energy 1000 times more than the bomb itself. By year’s end the death toll would rise to 90,000-160,000. 70% of the city would be levelled. Hiroshima, 1945. The first city on our planet to be targeted by a nuclear bomb.

Today, the hypocentre of the initial explosion is but an easily-missed plaque sitting alongside a modern commercial building. Mushrooming off to one side, much like the bomb itself, is a cultural landscape defined by that singular moment. Numerous memorials dot the treed grounds of Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, the Children’s Peace Monument and the Flame of Peace being two of the more evocative sculptural and architectural examples. Off to one side is National Peace Memorial Hall for the Atomic Bomb Victims. Visitors wind their way down to the partially submerged Hall of Remembrance, a spare, quiet space to reflect on that fateful event. (more…)

Miyajima: Island of the Gods

The gods may be in hiding this week.

It’s a brief train and ferry ride from downtown Hiroshima to the small island of Itsukushima, more popularly known as Miyajima or, perhaps, Miyashima. And popular it is. The ten-minute ferry ride is jam-packed with tourists, Westerners like us but primarily Japanese nationals. As we pour off the ferry, there is a sudden realization that this will be far from a tranquil visit. The scene is carnivalesque. Children and adults run about madly. Tame deer follow, hoping for a handout. Unknowingly, we have arrived at Japan’s top tourist site on the first day of Japan’s most popular vacation period, Golden Week. (more…)

Fukuoka: Robot Days and Ramen Nights

Fukuoka is anything but historic.

Yes, the area was invaded by the Mongols in 1274. Yes, there are the ruins of the 1603 Fukuoka Castle. And, true enough, we are staying in the very traditional Ryokan Kashima Honkan, a delightfully creaky old building.

But this is a back story quickly lost among the sleek towers of the city. This is Japan’s fifth largest city. It’s the place to come if you are a start-up company. The buildings are shiny, modern, new and Western. It’s a place to shop, to eat, to have fun.

This is the city we have come to see. (more…)

Another Day in Nagasaki

Our cruise ship slowly makes its way through Nagasaki harbour. Under the delicate spans of a cable-stayed bridge. Past Mitsubishi dry docks, busily fitting a new cruise ship. Past Catholic churches, their bright white walls and spires set against the dark greens of steep forested slopes. And onto the open sea.

We navigate around numerous uninhabited islands until one – our destination – appears on the watery horizon. A long, grey form crusted with ruins. From this distance it looks like a battleship and, indeed, it is locally known as Battleship Island, Gunkanjima. It’s real name is Hashima and the reason we and a boat full of other tourists are coming here is because of Hashima’s industrial history.  (more…)

A Day In Nagasaki

It is fair to say that most people recognize Nagasaki as the site of one of only two nuclear bombs ever dropped on a civilian population. As significant as that event was, as relevant as it may be today given the nuclear threat posed by North Korea, I will leave that for my next post. That devastating attack was simply the most recent in a lengthy history of international confrontation and intrigue that has shaped the city of Nagasaki.

That history is evident as soon as Gail and I cross the threshold of the Dormy Inn to explore the city. Tucked in between the city’s concrete post-World War II towers are streets foreign to the Japan with which we have become accustomed. Just across a small canal from our hotel is the gateway to Chinatown, home to Chinese traders from the 15th to 19th Centuries. Not much further down that canal is Dejima, an artificial, fan-shaped island built by the Japanese in 1636 to house – or, more pointedly, isolate and contain – the Portuguese, then once they were expelled, the Dutch East India Company. (more…)

A Day in Beppu

It’s about 6:30 in the morning as we wearily board the ferry that will transport us from Yawatahama Port on the island of Shikoku to Beppu on the island of Kyushu. Three hours to contemplate the walking journey we are leaving behind. Three hours to plan for our upcoming city tours: Beppu, Nagasaki, Fukuoka, Hiroshima and nearby Miyajima and finally Tokyo.

The conditions could not be better for our crossing. The waters of the Bungo Channel are glassy smooth. The sun rises over the hills of Shikoku, revealing a cloudless, deep blue sky. Small islands, tiny fishing boats, large cargo freighters come and go. Eventually, the Beppu skyline appears on the horizon.

Today’s journey has one goal: to get us to Nagasaki on the other side of Kyushu. Happily and conveniently, Beppu lies along that path. Beppu is most notable for its geothermal hot spots. Eight of them to be exact, colloquially known as the eight hells of Beppu. Far from hellish, the town is very resort-oriented, sporting many hot baths, sand baths and onsens.  (more…)

Shikoku: Last Steps

April 22, 2017

Today’s walk will be bittersweet. An easy 20 kilometers from now we will reach Ōzu, the endpoint of our springtime walk along the Henro-michi.

After a good Japanese-style breakfast, Gail and I set off from Matsu-ya, our business hotel in Unomachi. Budget-conscious Simon has foregone the expense of a hotel meal and is already on his way to his morning fast food fix at a Lawson’s convenience store.

The pilgrimage route takes us down the quiet streets of Unomachi, then Uwa. Or so we think. There is little definition, few clear boundaries and, it seems, no signage to tell us when we leave one community and enter another. But that is not unusual here on Shikoku. Streets just flow like a river from town to town, merge into rice paddies and cross forested valley floors, only to re-emerge in another community.  (more…)