In some ways our cruise ship stop at Hiroshima was a stark reminder of the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami. This remarkable city with a metropolitan population of about two million, site of the world’s first atomic bombing on August 6, 1945, was the most sobering and emotional part of our trip to Japan.
The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park was constructed in a central commercial and residential section of the city that had been flattened by the American bomb with its energy equivalent of 16,000 tons of high-performance explosives. Several museums, memorials and monuments are scattered throughout the park, attracting over a million visitors each year.
The horror of the event, and the loss of 140,000 lives, is captured at the Peace Memorial Museum with photographs, models, testimonials and charred or molten artifacts recovered from the site. The anguish is palpable.
Most remarkable is the Atomic Bomb Dome, a skeleton of a building at the end of the Peace Park, that somehow escaped total destruction. With the ribs of its domed roof intact, it remains as a physical reminder of the destructiveness of war.
After our cruise ship, the Ocean Princess, docked in Osaka at the end of its Asian cruise (cruising is an ideal way to visit Asia and we’d recommend Princess as an excellent, economical way to do it) we stayed on for a week in Japan’s third largest city and in Kyoto, a nearby city with 17 remarkable World Heritage sites.
We stayed at the high rise Hilton Osaka, an excellent, modern hotel adjacent to a bustling business section of the city with nearby train stations, restaurants and great shopping. Its massive lobby leads to a huge shopping centre and the views from the top floors, especially the Executive Lounge, are impressive. For a huge hotel (525 rooms) the service is outstanding, genuinely courteous and warm. But of course, that’s the Japanese norm.
Most visitors to Osaka visit the Shitennoji Temple, built by Emperor Suiko in 593AD, and Osaka Castle, a magnificent classical structure surrounded by a large moat and 30 metre walls. It’s much younger than the Temple, having been started in 1583, but suffered significant damage through the years. Now fully intact, it’s an Osaka landmark.
Japanese seem to love high-end Western style stores. There are plenty of them throughout the city but we loved the small shops and bustling local malls, many of them pedestrian-only and running for blocks. The ubiquitous 100 yen shops, similar to our dollar stores, are terrific places for souvenirs and unique sweets and biscuits (ideal treats for folks back home).
The food choices in Osaka are staggering. We particularly enjoyed the popular and economical okonomiyaki restaurants, with a hotplate in the centre of the table, where waiters produce a kind of pancake, pizza omelet with a pungent sauce that’s incredibly delicious. Hiroshima has its own variety of okonomiyaki so it was great fun to compare tastes.
For brunch one Sunday we wanted to try one of Osaka’s famed Michelin-starred restaurants and found Le Comptoir de Benoit, supervised by famed French chef Alain Ducasse. High atop a downtown office building close to the Hilton, its kitchen combines a French bistro experience with Osaka tradition. For a very reasonable price (at least for Michelin quality) we savoured black sausage with apple compote and confit of foie gras as appetizers, fresh snapper and braised duck thigh for our mains with “Baba au Rhum” (marinated sponge cake with ultra-generous dollops of rum) and an exquisite seven-layer chocolate mousse with orange sherbet for dessert. With a glass of champagne to start, this was all less than $50 apiece. Michelin starred quality rarely comes so modestly priced.
We have always wanted to stay at a Japanese ryokan, the traditional inn of the country, so we took a train from Osaka (the station is just across the street from the Hilton) to Kyoto. Train travel is always a joy in Japan because they’re comfortable, they run on time (usually to the second) and the passenger agents and conductors are always polite (the conductor bows towards his guests as he moves from car to car).
Kyoto is the former Imperial capital of Japan (from 794 to 1868), filled with priceless temples and shrines. Its historical building are so valuable, the city was spared allied bombing in World War 2. Particularly attractive among the 17 World Heritage Sites are Nijo Castle, residence of the shogun and the Golden Pavilion, a Zen temple whose top two floors are covered entirely in gold leaf.
We felt like we’d struck gold when we stayed at the exquisite Hoshinoya Kyoto ryokan. To reach its tranquil location a kilometre or two up a river from the train station, a shuttle boat is used. Once guests arrive at the dock, they’re welcomed to a quiet, peaceful wooded oasis with a reception area and series of comfortable rooms and suites facing the river. In a heavily populated country, it’s a setting that’s as tranquil as any you’d find in remote parts of Canada. Everything is done for the comfort of guests in a quiet subdued manner. Our concierge even showed us how to make incense balls and gave a demonstration of ancient Japanese instruments.
Like many ryokans, Hoshinoya combines traditional Japanese architecture, landscaping and decoration with modern conveniences like sophisticated toilets (various warm washes with heated seats that even open to greet you when you enter the bathroom) and huge, cedar bathtubs. This ryokan also gives its guests pajamas and lounge suits and jackets. The rooms are outsized (but be careful, the doorways are designed for short Japanese), efficient but discreet service (including Japanese or western breakfast served course by course in your room) and a dining room that includes outstanding cuisine and a talented noodlemaker who produces remarkably thin buckwheat pasta directly in front of guests and then cooks and serves it. The noodle maker studied for three years to make his noodles tender and exactly 1 mm thick. While watching the noodle show we enjoyed beautifully prepared and presented prawn, squid, smoked salmon and Kyoto duck. We also tried an assortment of tempura and deep fried tofu. Every course was presented with style and dignity.
As a base for visiting Kyoto and its centuries of history, this ryokan was ideal. We also found an intriguing local bonus. Near the boat launch, visitors can walk for about 20 minutes up a maple-lined mountain path to the Arashiyama Monkey Park. Not only do you get an outstanding view of the city of Kyoto spread beneath you, but 130 or so Japanese monkeys roam freely around the observation area and on the grounds. They can get very aggressive while looking for handouts so there’s a small gift shop with fenced windows where visitors can feed the monkeys from inside. It’s the opposite of monkeys in a zoo – the humans are inside the cage!
Japan has suffered greatly from the 2011 earthquake and tsunami but in no way has it altered the indomitable spirit of the Japanese people and their resilience in the face of adversity. Visitors should not hesitate to continue visiting this remarkable country.
All photos by John and Sandra Nowlan
Hiroshima’s most famous image
Geishas welcome Ocean Princess to Japan
Osaka’s popular 100 yen shops
View of Osaka from Le Comptoir de Benoit. Hilton is on the left
If You Go:
Up-to-date information on Japan travel: www.ilovejapan.ca
The Hilton Osaka website: www.hilton.com/osaka
Details about the Hoshinoya Ryokan in Kyoto: http://kyoto.hoshinoya.com/en/