Japan – Two Hearts That Beat As One

The island of Japan is located in the North West quadrant of the Pacific Ocean. It’s a country that is steeped in culture and history, and yet has also managed to embrace modernism with open arms. We visited both Tokyo and Hiroshima and discovered that despite their difference in appearance, their hearts are well and truly the same.

Thanks to Mazda, we were in Japan to see the latest offerings in the automotive world at the Tokyo Motor Show but our itinerary extended beyond the vibrancy of Tokyo to the equanimity of Hiroshima, and gave us the opportunity to immerse ourselves into the underlying culture of Japan.

On the face of it, Japan is a complex country filled with mystery and intrigue. A facade possibly compounded by the fact that for around 220 years, it isolated itself from the outside world (Sakoku), only to be forced open by the American Black ships (commanded by Matthew Perry – not the one from Friends) in 1853. Since then, their culture, food, creativity and overall, their achievements have been revered the world over.

Both pride and respect (which we saw as conformity) are seemingly the backbones of Japanese culture and with the number of people that are crammed into the cities, they are traits that are well and truly needed. From stations to food halls, the Japanese appear to be content (rather than resigned) to queue patiently and orderly for long periods of time to get what they want, and without a hint of line-jumping.

The Pulse of Tokyo

Greater Tokyo has a population of around 14 million and it shows. At peak rush hour times, the streets (near places like the train station) are literally filled with a near-endless flow of people; it’s simply amazing to watch and nigh-on impossible to battle against – think ‘going the wrong way up a one-way street’ and you begin to get the picture.

To house and employ such a large concentration of people, the Japanese inevitably needed to build upwards, and up they did. With around 150 skyscrapers (of 150 metres-plus tall), Tokyo’s skyline is a myriad of architectural goliaths, and a fair amount of ‘life’ takes place nowhere near the pavement – for example, like many Tokyo hotels, our hotel reception in Strings by the Intercontinental, was nowhere near the ground; in fact, that was 26 floors away.

Time to get exploring. Up until 2010-11, the tallest structure in Japan was the Eiffel Tower-inspired Tokyo Tower. Standing 332.9 metres tall, it is both a broadcasting hub and a tourist attraction, and a prominent feature on much of their promotional paraphernalia. However, we passed right by this orange and white icon to get to somewhere much taller, namely the Tokyo Skytree Tower.

At 634 metres, it’s almost twice the size of its predecessor and nearly three times the height of our SkyCity one. Again, it doubles as a tourist attraction and a broadcasting tower but boasts a huge amount of stores, restaurants and nightlife. Take the elevator to the 350th floor (Tembo Deck) and you find the view is ‘treemendous’. It offers a 360-degree vista of the city, its surroundings and beyond. We were told that on a clear day, you can even see Mount Fuji but despite the sky being virtually cloud-free, unfortunately, today was not that day. The Skytree Tower gives you more of an holistic perspective of Tokyo and how expansive Greater Tokyo is. On the subject of holistic, be sure to stand on the glass floor too – it’s an out-of-body experience for many.

Our next attraction took us back to the ground and way back in time. Japan has a history that dates back over thousands of years with religion playing a big part of its heritage and regardless of whether your faith is Shintoism or Buddhism, there are quite literally hundreds of temples and shrines in Tokyo (thousands in Japan) to pray at. From small, garden-sized lots to impressively huge sites, these places of worship are guarded by Komainu (lion-dogs) and provide a place of calm, sanctuary even, from the contrasting noise of the outside world. Good luck and Good Karma rituals are prolific and vary from ‘wishing well’ coin tosses to ‘what’s behind the door’ drawer openings.

As the Senso-Ji is Tokyo’s oldest and most visited temple (30 million per year), it was a must-see on our tour. The Senso-Ji is both a Temple (Sensoji Kannon) and a Shrine. It is dedicated to Guanyin (the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy) and really is an impressive sight. Dramatic structures are softened by ornate carvings. Bright gold and vivid colourings contrast boldly from the deep and symbolic safflower red-dyed woods. Statues of stoic Japanese warriors stand firm beside fragile paper lanterns. It’s an outstanding array of ‘conflicts’ that are visually, incredibly complimentary.

For those keen to take away a piece of Japanese memorabilia, the Nakamise Dori is a 250-metre lane (running from Kaminarimon Gate to Hozomon Gate) serving up arguably the biggest display of souvenirs and well worth a look.

If you’re in a shopping mood – Ginza is the place and pace to go. It is a brand lover’s paradise on a mammoth scale. We nose-pressed the store windows of some of the world’s most desirable brands but resolutely held firm, opting for food over fashion.

Meals at the restaurants are creative, colourful, vibrant and delicious. So much care is taken on the preparation and display, and the pride that is taken on service is very noticeable. We ate a lot over the week, and pardon the pun, it’s a real takeaway experience from the tour. From expensive cuisine to food hall madness, the tastes still make my mouth water.

The Tokyo Imperial Palace I hear is a lovely place – we only got as far as the grounds, and not just because of the way we were dressed; visitors can only visit on the Emperor’s birthday (23rd January) and the New Year’s Greeting (2nd January). However, the the cherry-blossom filled gardens are a green-fingered fan’s dream and the stone work on the Meganbashi (eyeglass bridge) is very photogenic.

With our exploration of Tokyo concluded (I know we barely scratched the surface), it was time to head off to Hiroshima for quite a different experience, which meant taking the train, the Shinkansen bullet train to be exact.

Riding the Shinkansen from Tokyo to Hiroshima is an event all by itself. It leaves and arrives literally as advertised on the ticket – you can set your watch on it. Again, travelers stand in orderly lines at appointed areas awaiting the train’s arrival and there seems to be the exact amount of time allotted for boarding and taking your seat before the train heads out again. The carriages are clean, spacious and ‘tag’ free and food carts travel through the aisle to keep passengers nourished as the Shinkansen hits speeds of over 300 km per hour. Even at that speed we still managed to see Mount Fuji (at last) in all her snow-capped glory.

At Peace in Hiroshima

Hiroshima means White Island and it’s also known as the City of Peace. With a population of 1.2million, it’s the eleventh largest city in Japan and the Oleander is its official flower (it was the first flower to bloom after the bomb). It has six rivers that flow through it with a whopping 2,897 bridges and can be summed up with 5 ‘B’s Bridges (as before), Busses (Efficient Public Transport), Bars (700 in one area), Baseball (Toyo Carp) and Business (with Mazda being the largest employer and economic contributor).

Itsukushima is a World Heritage Site off the south-west side of Hiroshima and it’s chock-full of temples, monuments and shrines. It has lots of wild deer and is believed to be where God lives – so well worth the visit. The bright orange Grand Torii Gate stands partly submerged in Hiroshima Bay and (in Shinto religion) acts as a passageway from the profane to the sacred. It leads you to the Itsukushima shrine and all the wonders that lie within.

The shrine itself (with origins dating back to the sixth century) is a series of one-level buildings with a wooden walkway throughout. Every stage has a story to tell and although it is very well attended, you do get a sense of tranquillity as it is predominantly surrounded by water.

We took a walk through some of the native flora followed by a cable car ride up Mount Misen. Unfortunately, our view was blighted by rain and cloud cover but it was still an amazing ‘gorillas in the mist’ experience.

We were dropped off at the base of Aioi (T-shaped Bridge), the place known to be Enola Gay’s original target and quickly followed the river around to the Genbaku Dome. Like a living time capsule, the Atomic Bomb Dome is a monument and permanent reminder of the horrific event that happened on August 6th at 8.15am. Although in ghostly ruin, what remains of the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall has been secured and made structurally sound, and stands tall in the UNESCO World Heritage site.

We rang the large Peace Bell, and then the smaller one at the Sadaku Sasaki Children’s Peace Monument, both symbolic and thought-provoking. To me, the aura that envelops Peace Park is incredibly difficult to describe. I would say it’s a complexity of opposites. You feel moved as you stare at what remains of the A-Bomb Dome but also feel heartened by the brightly coloured flora that surrounds it. It’s as quiet as a library and yet (while we were there), the sound of children’s laughter resolutely pierced through the macabre air.

A visit to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum followed. It’s factual and direct, shocking in many ways, but what surprised me was that I found it to be as impartial as a professional news reporter. The before and after pictures, models that show the relative size of the Atom bombs ‘Fat Man’ and ‘Little Boy’ to both each other and to adult humans, stone steps on which a ‘human shadow’ remains etched, the contrasting dark imprint of a person against the bright ferocity of the blast. Near the exit, two Peace Watches tick. One counts the hours since 8.15am August 6th while the other displays the hours since the last nuclear bomb blast in North Korea.

Obviously, one week in Japan was not enough time to explore a fraction of what this mystical country has to offer. But what it did give me was an insight into how modern and ancient cultures can work simultaneously. Even the seemingly shallow high-tech buzz of Tokyo has an underlying depth to it, you just need to look beyond its tall buildings and bright neon lights.
With the contrast between pace and appearance, Tokyo and Hiroshima may, on the face of it, be very different cities but in my opinion, when you get to their core and see their pride and respect, they are two hearts that beat as one.