Innocents Abroad in Japan, Part 2

“War is the work of man.

War is the destruction of human life.

War is death.

To remember the past is to commit oneself to the future.

To remember Hiroshima is to abhor nuclear war.

To remember Hiroshima is to commit oneself to peace.”

His Holiness Pope John Paul II on February 25, 1981

Traveling from Hakone to Hiroshima, we had to change trains at Shin-Osaka. As our second train sat on the platform with its door open, I made the mistake of starting to board too early. Smiling Japanese passengers called me back. We had to wait for a cleaning team to go through the cars before we could take our seats. We’d never seen a team of train-car cleaners work before. All were dressed in white jumpsuits. One woman carried a battery-operated vacuum cleaner. Like nearly everyone else we observed in Japan, they worked quickly and efficiently

Kay was skeptical about adding Hiroshima to our itinerary. I had pushed for it because I wanted to see how the Japanese had rebuilt the city that America had nearly obliterated with the world’s first atomic bomb on August 6, 1945. We spent two sun-filled days there. On the first, we went to the nearby island of Miyajima, a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of Japan’s most visited tourist spots.

Tori Gate of the Itsukushima-jinja

Its premier sight is the Torii of the Itsukushima-jinja shrine. The bright reddish gate stands, where it has stood for centuries, in the water fifty yards from shore. It is a lovely sight and must be one of the most photographed in Japan. At the time of our visit, there were many others wandering around the island, mixing with herds of small, tame deer that were hoping for handouts.

Miyajima is mountainous, and its highest point is Mt. Misen. Although I couldn’t see it from the village, I knew there was a ropeway to get to the top. Finally, a shuttle bus took twenty of us up the mountain to the ropeway entrance where I boarded a gondola that held six persons.

It took more than ten minutes to reach the Shishiiwa Station where I boarded a second, larger gondola for the final ascent.

View of the Inland Sea from Mt. Misen

Then, I climbed stairs to the Mt. Misen Observatory, a point of exposed rock from where I could see a panorama of the Inland Sea with a small, private island below and, to one side, a view of Hiroshima. Although the day wasn’t perfectly clear, the views were still impressive.

I had gone up to Mt. Misen by myself, and after the long descent, I found Kay where I had left her, sitting on a bench. She had found a coffee shop, drank two lattes, and returned to the bench where she was reading quietly.

We walked to a hot dog stand I had spotted and each ate a chilli dog. Mine included cheese. When the young woman took a piece of cold processed cheese and laid it on the bun, I thought it didn’t look too good. She then lit a blowtorch and melted the cheese in seconds over the chilli. I stood amazed, never having seen this method before.

On the twenty-minute ferry crossing back to Hiroshima, we fell into conversation with a couple we had met briefly the day before. Tracy and Mark are Canadians; she lives in Ottawa and he in Toronto. We hit it off conversationally and shared a cab from the central station to the Rihga Royal Hotel where we were all staying. We agreed to meet a bit later at the hotel-top bar. We learned that Mark and Tracy are both single and old friends who like to travel together on their time off from work.

It was dinner time, and at our companions’ suggestion, the four of us cabbed to a restaurant improbably named Lopez after the owner who is Guatemalan. The restaurant serves Okonomiyyaki, a Hiroshima specialty, invented after the bombing when all there was available were cabbage and eggs. We sat four abreast at the counter in front of a flat grill.

As we watched, Fernando Lopez and his wife prepared Okonomiyyakis for the four of us. First, Fernando spread a thin layer of batter on the grill to make thin crêpes. On top of them, he piled large mounds of shredded cabbage that seemed to be too much to eat. He sprinkled on various seasonings and added pieces of bacon. He topped mine with some battered-and-fried squid.

Inverting the wholes so that the crêpes were on top, he let the concoctions cook until the cabbage had wilted and the various flavors had blended. With a small, sharp, steel spatula I cut pieces from mine, which remained on the edge of the grill, and transferred them a bit at a time to my plate. Accompanied by a stein of cold draft beer, my Okonomiyyaki was delicious.

We spent an enjoyable evening with our new friends, and although we may never meet them again, this was one of those fortuitous encounters that make independent travel rewarding.

In this gustatory vein, I must describe the traditional Japanese breakfasts that Kay and I ate on two successive mornings at the Rihga Royal. Seated in the Japanese-styled dining room, we were served cups of green tea and asked if we wanted rice or rice porridge. Soon a large tray arrived for each of us. In addition to bowls of rice and miso soup there were small portions of Japanese omelet, cold grilled fish, boiled spinach, squid and bean salad, deep-fried tofu mashed with vegetables, and two kinds of Japanese pickles with a piece of leek miso. In addition, our waiter lit Sterno-like combustibles in two stone containers and set metal bowls with tofu, cabbage, and liquid on top of each. Once they had boiled and cooked, we spooned the contents into a bowl of soy-flavored sauce and ate it with a spoon. Japanese cuisine excels at mixing different flavors and textures; these were a welcome respite from the usual hotel breakfast buffets.

Our hotel is connected to Hiroshima’s large Peace Memorial Park through a long underground concourse filled with shops and places to eat.

A-bomb Dome

It led us to a spot near the A-bomb Dome, a tower with some ruined walls that had once an important civic building.

By some fluke, when the bomb exploded, it remained standing in its ruined state while everything around it was totally demolished. As with the half destroyed Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin, the A-bomb Dome has been kept standing as a testament  to the horror of war.

In the course of the morning, we toured several more of the park’s memorials, ending with a visit to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum.

Cenotaph for the A-bomb Victims

The park and its memorials have two purposes: They pay tribute to those who died in the attack and later from radiation poisoning, and they stand for the elimination of all nuclear weapons on the planet so there can be no more Hiroshimas.

Among many groups of young school children in uniforms and colored caps, there were teams of four or five that would approach us and ask us a few questions in elementary English. Each team carried a small map of the world and asked us to point to where we come from. I would indicate a spot at the bottom of Lake Michigan and get them to repeat the name “Chi-ca-go.”

Peace Memorial Hall

The accumulation of detail of the bombing produced an emotional effect on both Kay and me. This became especially acute when we visited the underground Peace Memorial Hall for the Atomic Bomb Victims. It is a large, quiet circular space whose walls are made of 140,000 individual tiles, representing the estimated number of persons killed outright at the moment of the bombing. The hall is designed for memory and contemplation

Saturday, October 28 was the kind of day we hope never to repeat. We said goodbye to the Rihga Royal and took a taxi to the Central Station for what should have been an easy trip to the small city of Tamano and nearby Uno Port. We thought “easy” because we had given our two large suitcases to the hotel to be shipped directly to Kyoto where we would arrive four days later. All we were carrying, in addition to our backpacks, were two small cases.

To make a long story shorter, we spent the next several hours on trains that took us as night was falling to a town named Tamano-i (not Tamano), hours from where we should have been across from the museum island of Naoshima.

The itinerary we followed had been given to us a couple of days earlier by a woman at a JR office where we went to reserve seats for our ongoing travel. The young woman mistook Tamano-i for Tamano, and we had no idea that a mistake had been made. In this we were at fault because we had not studied the small map in our Lonely Planet guidebook. Had we done so, we would have realized that Tamano was not very far from Hiroshima and that the trains we were taking to a more distant location were a wild goose chase.

The really stupid thing is that when we finally got to Tamano-i we walked half a kilometer in the pouring rain, still thinking we were in the right place. We went into a large store to ask directions, and it was only half an hour later after conversations in broken-English with the store staff and a phone call to the inn where we should have been hours before that we began to realize what had happened.

We had to retrace our steps and only arrived at our ultimate destination after 10 p.m. Thank goodness for the kind hospitality of a woman from the Uno Port Inn named Aya, who met us outside the station and led us to the inn and our beds for the night.

Uno Port and Naoshima

Rain again; due to a typhoon, the twenty-second this year. We’ve been told that typhoons are like mini-hurricanes that arrive with fierce winds and oceans of rain. As predicted the rain stopped by 5 p.m. During the rainy hours, we didn’t venture out of the Inn’s café.

View of the Seto Inland Sea from Uno Port

Once the sky cleared, we walked out to explore the seaside town where a single ferry shuttles cars and people from Uno Port to Naoshima, an island that has become world-famous for its art sites and museums.

Uno Port Inn, where we spent four nights, depends on travelers to Naoshima for its existence. About the Inn, I can say that its hard to imagine a greater contrast between it and the five-star Rihga Royal in Hiroshima. Uno Port Inn is little more than a glorified hostel, whose tiny rooms with minimal furnishings offered no more than a place to sleep and store our few belongings. Yet the Inn will always have a special place in our hearts and memories due to the friendliness of its excellent staff and the atmosphere in its café. Max Uesugi, who bought a defunct ryokan a year ago, used minimal resources and lots of imagination to reopen it as a modest tourist accommodation

Although Max is a native of the area, he has spent the last twenty-four years living in Brooklyn’s Park Slope where he and his wife work as adjunct university teachers and also make documentaries on cultural subjects. Max is Japanese but with a difference. His café offers the kind of choices more common in New York than here. For instance, for breakfast Kay and I ate egg, cheese, and bacon sandwiches on Kaiser rolls, just as we did when we lived on West 29th Street in Manhattan. Bagels with cream cheese were available, too. Kaiser rolls and bagels are not Japanese fare so the staff had to learn how to bake their own, which are very good.

The Inn is a quirky place. Its sleeping rooms are each identified with the name of a particular film director. Ours was for Shuji Terayama, an avant-garde Japanese poet, dramatist, director and photographer who died in 1983. At breakfast and in the evenings, the Inn’s café was a great place to hang out and chat with Max and guests from various countries.


Once the rain stopped, we had two full days to explore the island. Actually, it is Naoshima’s beautiful south coast, where architect Tadeo Ando designed three world-class museums, that we headed for.

The first is the Benesse complex that houses both a very pricey hotel and a museum in addition to a number of site-specific works like Yayoi Kusama’s ”Pumpkin” from 1994 that is the island’s most iconic sculpture.

“Drink a Cup of Tea” by Kazuo Katase

Other works are Kazuo Katase’s “Drink a Cup of Tea” (1987-94) and . . .

“Seen / Unseen Known / Unknown” by Walter De Maria

Walter De Maria’s “Seen / Unseen Known / Unknown” (2000).

In the Benesse House Museum we had our first exposure to Ando’s architecture.

Benesse House Museum

He loves natural light and strong geometric shapes.

Architecture of Tadeo Ando

The museum’s interior walls, like those of his other two museums, are slabs of polished concrete, unadorned except for the holes left by the molds in which they were poured.

The galleries, on different levels, are reached by stairs, ramps, and even an elevator, which made Kay happy. The sparsely arranged collection is contemporary and varied. Although photography was not permitted, I made notes of some of the works that I liked most: David Hockney’s “A Walk Around the hotel Courtyard Acatlan” (1985), Jennifer Bartlett’s “Yellow and Black Boats” (1985), Tom Wesselmann’s “Great American Nude #39” (1962), Yves Klein’s “Venus Bleue” (1983), and Winston Roeth’s “Ontario, Huron, Duluth, Erie” (1996).

We ate a very nice lunch in the museum restaurant. My set menu contained a bowl of rice topped with pieces of grilled sea bream that a waiter then drowned in fish broth, and the usual pickles along with an egg custard, sesame tofu, and a citrus-flavored dessert. At the end, we were served cups of soba tea.

Sitting next to us, were two young Chinese women from Shanghai who we had met earlier and who had helped us with directions. They knew more than we did about the layout of the island. We learned that one has worked as an ad producer for ten years while the other has just begun her own furniture design business. They were cultured women and very pleasant to talk with.

We had to wait until the next day to visit the other two Ando museums on the island. If the Benesse was what we think of as a traditional museum, housing works by many different artists, the Chichu Art Museum and the Lee Ufan Museum were something different.

The Chichu, meaning “below the ground” is rightly named and lit exclusively by indirect natural light. What’s more, it contains only three installations: five paintings of Monet water lilies, a strange, room-filling light-as-art work by James Turrell; and a 2.2-meter highly polished sphere surrounded by 27 wooden sculptures by Walter De Maria. Each installation occupies its own uniquely designed gallery. (We could not photograph these unusual works; however, you can easily view them on the internet.)

We’ve never toured a museum in such a regimented fashion. There were at least a dozen young women guiding us and giving us directions to follow. For the Monets and the Turrell we had to remove our shoes, a thing Kay is loath to do because of her physical issues. We’ve seen Monet’s water lilies elsewhere in Paris where there is a large gallery filled with them. We guess it’s no surprise to find them in Japan since it was his discovery of Japanese art that inspired Monet to paint them.

I believe that the governing concept of the Chichu is that its architecture and what it contains merge to form single works. Light and shadow are aspects of this. Perhaps even we, the visitors, become a part of the whole when we are directed so closely to form certain patterns.

Lee Ufan is a Korean who splits his time between Japan and France. Born in 1936, he played a central role in the Japanese Mono-ha Movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Mono-Ha translates as “School of Things.” Its installations “incorporated basic materials such as rocks, sand, wood, cotton, glass, and metal, often in simple arrangements with minimal artistic intervention.”

Lee Ufan Museum

Tadao Ando’s Lee Ufan Museum contains numerous examples of Mono-ha. In front of the museum’s entrance, a white, Ando-smooth concrete wall contrasts with the green of the natural surroundings. The ground surface is raked gravel. Along with a tall, slender, steel pole, there are a large boulder with brown and tan colors and a steel plate laying flat on the gravel. The geometry and color contrasts of the whole make a striking ensemble.

Inside, we walked past a sunken triangular space surrounded by high, smooth concrete walls. The entire bottom was filled with large, white stones.

One gallery contained several minimalist paintings, while other galleries, sized to fit single works, contained things like a dark steel plate leaning against a far wall with a large stone in front of it. The lighting was arranged to highlight both the plate and the stone while leaving the rest of the space in shadow.

Le Banc by Niki de Saint Phalle

Kay and I were surprised and a bit puzzled by what we had seen on our second Naoshima Day. We consoled ourselves by remembering the following words from an article on the country’s otherworldly architecture: “Japan has always been deeply encouraging of the strange, the weird and the experimental, especially when it comes to design.”