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Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Chūgoku Trip: Days 1 and 2 4月18日と19日

One good thing about Taiwan is its close proximity to Japan. Much of the former colonial power can be reached in less than three hours flying time from the Beautiful Isle, but in addition, there are direct flights to a number of Japanese cities, making Taiwan a convenient base for traveling to Japan. Take Hiroshima 広島, for example. From most places outside of northeast Asia, Hiroshima can only be reached by first flying into Kansai International Airport 関西国際空港, and then taking an expensive bullet train 新幹線 ride from Ōsaka 大阪 to Hiroshima (unless you have a Japan Rail Pass, highly recommended if you plan to travel extensively around Japan). From Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport 臺灣桃園國際機場, however, China Airlines 中華航空公司 has flights two days a week to Hiroshima Airport 広島空港. Provided the carrier's less-than-stellar safety record holds up during the trip, the flight only takes a couple of hours. I left Taiwan around 5:30pm last Wednesday, arrived in Hiroshima Airport at around 8:50pm local time, and after breezing through immigration and customs, I was on a 9:10 bus from the airport, and heading toward the city. From the terminus at Hiroshima Station 広島駅, I hopped on a streetcar and got off a few stops later at Kanayama-chō 銀山町駅, where my home for the next three nights, the Chisun Hotel, was waiting for me just on the other side of the road. I was checked-in shortly after 10pm.

The next day, Thursday, was when my vacation started in earnest. Leaving the hotel around 8 in the morning, I hopped on a streetcar (not this one pictured below, which was heading toward Hiroshima Station)...

...and took it to the very end, Hiroden-miyajima-guchi Station 広電宮島口駅. Though it was very inexpensive to ride (only ¥270, or about $3.30), the hour-long trip through Hiroshima's suburbs was a little tedious. After finally reaching the terminus, it was a short ferry ride to Miyajima 宮島.

Properly called Itsukushima 厳島, Miyajima is both one of the most sacred sites in Japan's native Shintō religion 神道 and one of the traditional Three Views of Japan. This was my second trip, actually, to Miyajima, as I had visited this part of Japan (briefly) back in August of 1990. Upon alighting from the ferry, I soon came across one of the island's many tame deer:

Just as in Nara 奈良, these animals are considered messengers of the gods and are therefore safe from harm. As a result, they've grown accustomed to being around people, and can be a nuisance at times, especially if you if you happen to be snacking. Moving on from Bambi, Miyajima's most famous sight soon came into view. Even if the name of the place doesn't ring any bells, surely you have seen this image. The "Floating Torii" 鳥居 is featured in virtually every tourist brochure and coffee-table photo book on Japan:

I was fortunate in that the tide was in, allowing for the classic view of the torii. When I was here almost 22 years ago (!), the water had receded, and I could walk out onto the mudflats for a close-up view of the gate.  The torii fronts Itsukushima-jinja 厳島神社, one of the most important of the many Shintō shrines around the country, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The shrine is noted for its "floating pavilion", which is built out over the water. When the tide is in, it does indeed appear to be floating on the surface. Here is the view looking toward the main hall of the shrine...:

...and the view in the other direction of the torii:

After paying my respects to the gods 神, I left Itsukushima-jinja and made my way along the streets, which were pretty quiet at this time of the morning (around ten on a weekday):

I had picked a good time to visit Japan. The start of the  Golden Week holidays ゴールデンウィーク was still about a week away, so most of the places I visited on this trip were not yet overrun with tourists. And though the peak of the cherry blossom 桜 season had already passed, there were still plenty of beautiful blooming flowers to be seen, like this one in Ōmoto Park 大元公園:

The park was also the site of Ōmoto-jinja 大元神社, a National Treasure 国宝 by virtue of having the oldest bark-shingle roof in Japan:

For me, though, the significance of the park was that it was the starting point of the Ōmoto hiking course 大元コース leading to the top of Mt. Misen 弥山. The path was paved and not too difficult, but it was steep and took a while to ascend. About an hour up, I came across a small cave called Iwaya-daishi 岩屋大師. The interior was very dark (not to mention low), but my camera illuminated the shrine inside quite nicely:

Just past Iwaya-daishi, I took a rest at the peak of Komagabayashi 駒ヶ林:

Q: Who's the sex machine that drives all the ladies wild?
A: It ain't me.

From Komagabayashi could be glimpsed Misen's peak:

Over hill and dale I trudged on (after donning my shirt again, to the relief of the other hikers), reaching the main hall of Misen-hondō 弥山本堂, one of many sites in this part of Japan connected in some way or another to the great Japanese Buddhist monk Kōbō-Daishi 弘法大師:

Across the way was an even more Daishi-related site, the Reika-dō 霊火堂:

The building itself isn't that old, but inside is a cauldron of water that is kept simmering by a fire lit by Kōbō-Daishi himself 1200 years ago! The story goes that the fire has never gone out, and you are free to help yourself to a taste of the water. Which I did. And being warmed over a 1200 year-old fire, it tasted pretty damned good!:

Finally, after nearly two hours, the top of Misen was reached. At the top were more cherry blossoms and deer...:

...and a small observation tower providing views of the mainland and the Inland Sea 瀬戸内海. When I first came here in August of 1990, the sky was clear and there was a spectacular view of some the islands surrounding Miyajima. This time the weather was hazy, and the views were nowhere near as good. Still, I felt a great sense of accomplishment in having hiked up (the first time I took the gondola - I was much lazier in my younger days!), and the sights were still pretty good:

The video I made provides a better representation of what could be seen:

Other than being better for your health, by not taking what the Japanese call a "ropeway" ロープウェイ, I was also able to avoid Miyajima's somewhat testy gang of monkeys that usually congregates between the peak and the gondola lift station. So I continued walking down, descending via the Momiji-dani Course 紅葉谷コース. Momiji refers to the colorful autumn leaves, and while I was hiking out of season, the flora was still pretty beautiful in places:

By this time, I was getting hungry, having only had a couple of Granola bars at the top of Komagabayashi. One of Miyajima's specialties is anago アナゴ, or conger eel, and this lunch set, which I ate outdoors under the trees, was my first real meal on this trip (donuts from Mister Donut ミスタードーナツ don't count):

After reaching the end of the hiking course, I sampled another of the island's delicacies, oysters カキ:

Although a blonde nearby thought they were disgusting, I found these grilled oysters to be quite tasty, but then when I had hair it was a dark brown color. Fortified, I walked over to check out the island's beautiful five-storied pagoda...:

...and Senjōkaku 千畳閣, the "Hall of a Thousand Tatami Mats". Construction was started in the late 16th century by the warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi, but was left unfinished when he died, and thus has no ceilings or a front entrance:

The final place I visited before leaving Miyajima was the temple Daishō-in 大聖院. It's hard to describe what this temple was like - numerous structures were crammed on, and in some cases into, a hillside and, unusually for a Japanese Buddhist temple, had some sort of connection to Tibetan Buddhism (prayer wheels, pictures of the Dalai Lama). The best part, however, was that it was free to enter:

Finally, it was time to go, but not before picking up a can of the local craft beer at the ferry port (and consuming it later in my hotel room):

Upon returning to the mainland, I opted to take the more expensive but faster JR train back to Hiroshima, whereupon the clouds that had been threatening to rain all day finally opened up. Which was too bad, actually, because I was planning to go over to Mazda Zoom-Zoom Stadium to see the local team, the Hiroshima Carp 広島東洋カープ take on the Yokohama DeNA BayStars 横浜DeNAベイスターズ. In fact, I did walk over to the stadium...: see if the game was on. The rain was falling steadily, and so was the temperature, but the teams ended up playing anyway. I love baseball, but the idea of getting wet and cold, and of possibly catching a cold and hampering my holiday, didn't sound very appealing. Instead, I retreated back to my hotel, opened up the can of the aforementioned 地ビール and enjoyed watching the Carp-BayStars game on TV in the comfort of my warm, dry room.

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