Mario Karting Through Tokyo

Japan Day 22 (Part I) - Akihabara, Tokyo

There was just one thing left to do on our Japan wish lists: dress up as Mario Kart characters and race around the streets of downtown Tokyo in go-karts. I’m not talking about a track, or a virtual realty experience, but actual vehicles zooming around the city streets. Who wouldn’t want to turn the world’s best video game into a real-life experience? Enter MariCar, where you can live out your childhood fantasies in a city as colorful and bizarre as a Mario Kart course. (Disclaimer: MariCar is in no way associated with Nintendo).

Due to its popularity, MariCar now has 11 shops around the country, the bulk of which are peppered around Tokyo. Each shop offers unique courses that include different well-known landmarks around the city, ranging in tour time from an hour and a half, to over three hours. The price averages around $100 per person.

In order to participate, you must obtain an International Driving Permit, which turned out to be the easiest piece of paper I have ever applied for. Before you travel, just fill out this form, bring it, along with the $20 fee, and your US Driver’s License into your nearest AAA office (found here), and they will fix you up with your permit right there on the spot. They’ll even take care of the passport photos for you. (Extra time required if they don’t know how to operate the camera).

Being the organizational nerd that I am, I made a big chart of each shop and what routes they offered, how long they lasted, and the price. (Their website wasn’t the easiest to glean this information from). We ultimately decided on the Middle Tokyo Tour from Akihabara #1 Shop.

We were so excited that we arrived in Akihabara, the geek capital of Tokyo, an hour early. So we grabbed Starbucks and walked around, looking curiously at lines forming outside various shops, waiting for them to open. Finally, it was time to check in.

We were greeted by two friendly Japanese guys who spoke proficient English. They handed us iPads on which to sign our lives away. Then gave us the orientation on waving at people as we drove by.

“Japanese people are very shy. We recommend you first make eye contact, and then wave with hand.”

I wish I would have had this advice sooner. My entire trip might have been spent cheerily waving at random strangers to see if I could glean a reaction from the crowds of otherwise introverts.

Our guide, Eiji, pointed out a rack filled with costumes to choose from. The majority of them were fleece onesies, which would have been perfect for a winter tour, but it was an 88 degree day in late June. I managed to find one Mario dress amongst the rack of fleece. Fletch wasn’t so lucky, and ended up in a Yoshi onesie.

Eiji led us and the other couple on our tour down the block to the garage where all the bright red go-karts were parked. My heart sped up a beat. This was going to be epic. We received a quick orientation on how to operate the vehicles. Seatbelts were there, but “not necessary.” Green meant go, yellow meant GO GO GO!, and red meant stop. Luckily Fletch warned me ahead of time that go-karts drive jerkily, so there were no surprises as I lurched out of the garage, and into formation with the rest of our Mario Kart gang.

And then we were off! Driving down the streets of colorful Akihabara in a Mario hat and a vehicle half the size of the other already-tiny vehicles. I was grinning like a maniac. I don’t even like driving, and I was still having a ball. The only thing that would have made it better would have been bananas to throw at the others. That was discouraged though.

Eiji was waving his arms around like a monkey, trying to communicate how he wanted us to follow; two by two at the stop lights, and single file around corners. Don’t leave enough space for anyone to merge into the middle of the group. I have no idea how what we were doing was even legal, but I checked before writing this post, and they haven’t been shut down yet.

Eiji gave us the full treatment and took enough photos to satisfy even the biggest Instagram fanatics. All the while we tootled our way through Ueno, Asakusa, past the sumo wrestling stadium, straight towards Tokyo Skytree, where we stopped for a photo break, Tokyo Station, where Fletch and I had started our Japan adventure three weeks earlier, and Ginza district, where we pointed out the hotel where we had slept that first night. 

Tokyo Skytree

Tokyo Station

At every stop light, we would wave to passersby, people who had moments ago been stone-faced inside their own little bubbles, but suddenly would burst out grinning and return the wave, displaying the same child-like delight that I was feeling. Some would hurriedly fumble with their handbags or pockets, trying to find a phone to snap a quick photo. Besides being a complete and total blast, MariCar showed us a side of the Japanese people that had so far been an enigma. People were smiling and being kids with us for a moment.

All too soon we were on a familiar street with bright colors and manga posters in every window. I recognized the gaudy shop signs, anime characters the size of billboards, and girls dressed as maids passing out flyers for various maid cafes. This was the end of our tour, and I felt like I wanted to keep driving around the whole of Tokyo for the rest of the day. I guess that's why they have 11 shops and dozens of different courses, so that you can do just that. If you are ever in Japan, and a fan of Mario Kart, I can't recommend MariCar enough. 

In Search of Green Eggs and Ham

Japan Day 21 - Shibuya, Tokyo

Fletch and I had been on the go for 20 days. 20 days of touring around Japan, of hopping between major cities, of riding bullet trains across the country. 20 days and so many different hotels that they were all starting to blur together. I went in trying to keep notes on each hotel's differences, for the purpose of writing a post of hotel advice for other travelers. But the truth is, in the $100 per night range, all business hotels are created pretty equally. They're all clean and neat and provide an almost-too-stiff bed. It is safe to shop by the square meterage. For $150 per night, there's usually a smart phone included and a few extra complimentary toiletries like facial products.

I’m not going to lie, I was feeling pretty darn satisfied with our trip exactly as it was. Even though we had barely scraped the surface of Tokyo, I felt like we had fulfilled everything we wanted to out of our trip. And so we were both very content to take a lazy day and just chill.

We eventually got hungry and ventured down the street in search of food. We didn’t have to look far, every other window displayed plastic replicas of every dish on the menu. We had an entire world of culinary creations to choose from, everything from heaping bowls of more traditional foods like ramen, to crazy creations like tempura fried American dogs (their word for corndogs) on top of an ice cream parfait. I’m not even making that last one up. The first sign of something resembling a salad lured us inside. Japanese cuisine, for all its perfection in every other area, is severely lacking in fresh, raw, produce. I was craving something green and crunchy like some sort of weird vegetable addict.

We were seated in a little private room off to the side, next to a window overlooking one of the main streets. There was a button to push to call our waiter over when we were ready to order. I was a fan of the restaurants with the buttons. It eliminated the need to have a server breathing down our necks, asking how everything was, the second we had food in our mouths. You know what I’m talking about. They actually don’t do that in Japan, because they’re not working for tips, but the button was still nice.

I ordered a big bowl of salad with avocados, tuna, salmon, and octopus, all served over a bed of rice, because that’s still as close to a salad as you can find in Japan. I didn’t care though. I was so happy for something green and fresh.

After lunch we walked across the street from our hotel to find the laundromat. Two little school boys in their uniforms were walking past us in the opposite direction, and one of them was making a joke while holding the corners of his eyes all squinty like we do to make fun of Asian eyes. Only he already had Asian eyes. Fletch and I both bent over double laughing. Our day was made. It was worth traveling to Japan just to see that happen.

The rest of the day was spent watching weird Japanese game shows on tv. We even recognized one of the celebrity guests. You know you’ve been in Japan too long when you start recognizing stars on TV.

We ventured all the way across the street to the nearest conbini for dinner (so far!) and I went on a green food binge, snatching up everything green I could find. Luckily, there were much better options for vegetable snacks here in the city than we had found from some of the other places we had been. If you are a weird vegetable addict like me and traveling to Japan, you may not want to plan too much time away from Tokyo. Most foods, while delicious, rely heavily on noodles, rice, and fish. Vegetables are usually small in proportion and pickled on the side for the aesthetic appeal. The diet is everything you ever wanted for the first week or so, but definitely leaves the body craving a few vitamins by the end of 20 days.

Edamame and Octopus Salad

Spicy Pickled Cucumbers

Hachiko, the Loyal Dog

Japan Day 20 - Himeji to Tokyo

I would have happily traded the time we spent in Kyoto for an equal amount of time in Himeji, but alas, after a mere night it was already the beginning of the end, and time to make our way back to Tokyo for our final days in Japan.

The trip from Himeji to Shinagawa took three and a half hours, after which we boarded the Yamamote line for Shibuya. That probably sounded like Greek, but after so many weeks riding trains across the country, we were well versed in matching up the correct lines.

Shibuya is the second busiest train station in the world, a place where life never slows down and the thought of how many people exist on this planet becomes suffocating. Approximately 1,090,000,000 people pass through each year. You better either know where you’re going when you debark, or be prepared to feel like Moses parting the Red Sea, as hundreds of thousands of people continue to flow around you. After settling into progressively slower and more relaxed towns the past few days, it took my brain a moment to jump back into high gear. I stared around at the sea of people and colorful signs covered in symbols I could somewhat pick up now, and saw a familiar name:


We joined the swarm of people flowing in that direction.

Perhaps you already know the story of Hachiko; it is quite well known, and even inspired an American movie. If you don’t, you may want to have a tissue handy, and prepare to read about the most loyal boy ever to roam this undeserving planet. Hachiko was a Japanese Akita dog born on a farm in Japan in 1923. A professor named Hidesaburō Ueno, who taught at the Tokyo Imperial University, adopted him and brought him to live in Shibuya the next year. Hachiko loved his master, as dogs do, and would accompany him as far as the train station on his commute to work each day. He would have gone further, but his master always insisted he go home at that point. Each evening, Hachiko would return to the train station, where his master would get off the train, and accompany him home. Every single day Ueno would get off the train, to find Hachiko there waiting for him. Now this is where the story becomes a real tear jerker. In May of 1925, Ueno died of a cerebral hemorrhage while he was at work and never got off the train again. Hachiko of course didn’t understand this. He went back to the train station to wait for his master. When his master didn’t return, he went back the next day to try again. And the day after that. And the day after that. Surely today would be the day his master would come home. That loyal pooch went back to Shibuya Station and waited every single day for ten years until his own death.

Sorry for ruining your day.

Hachiko in his later years. (Image source: Wikipedia)

The locals noticed the dog waiting at the station every day, year after year of course, and a year before Hachiko died, a bronze statue of the doggo was erected at Shibuya Station. Hachiko himself was even there for the unveiling. Then World War II started and the statue was recycled for the war effort, but after the war, the son of the original artist was commissioned to make another one just like it. That statue is still standing by one of Shibuya Station’s exits, and is a popular meeting spot to this day.

A crowd was gathered around the bronze Hachiko, queues of happy tourists lined up to take photos, benches of locals sitting and waiting for friends, commuters hurrying to and from their trains. And there sat Hachiko's likeness, staring at the train station, forever awaiting his master's return.

Bronze statue of Hachiko at Shibuya Station. 

Our hotel was only a ten minute walk away, but we walked shoulder to shoulder with the crowds the entire way. Thanks to Japan’s declining population, Shibuya is far from being one of the most densely populated areas in the word, but it still boasts a population density of over 14 thousand people per square kilometer. Being around so many people reminded me of the scenes in doomsday movies showing the earth being overpopulated.

We finally found the big, wooden, double doors that marked Shibuya Hotel En, one of two hotels left in the entire Shibuya/Shinjuku area that fit our brackets after Airbnb was shut down. For all of you Airbnb enthusiasts out there, take note of what the Japanese government did to crack down on Airbnb, because I wouldn’t be surprised if other places started to follow suite.

Airbnb started out as a humble way to rent out something you already had: spare space to spend a night, whether that be an extra bedroom or a couch in the living room, maybe your entire place while you were away on vacation. But humans, being a greedy bunch, and always excelling in ruining perfectly good things, found an opportunity to skirt business taxes, and started buying out entire blocks of apartments, furnishing them as minimally as possible, and renting them out on the app like they had just started their own hotel. I recently read an article that this practice is driving apartment costs way up, but I’m getting off topic now. Japan saw this happening, and decided to impose a mandatory license number that each Airbnb listing had to apply for. We were traveling through Japan when that fun went into effect, and caused 80% of Japan’s Airbnb listings to disappear overnight. It didn’t effect us much until Tokyo. We received the message that the apartment we had booked for that last week was canceled, a week before we were scheduled to show up. One week to search for a hotel room, along with all the other travelers who no longer had Airbnbs. There had been two hotel rooms available that met our parameters. There was no knowing what we were about to walk into.

We walked through two massive wooden doors facing a side street and entered a small, dimly lit reception area with wispy curtains made out of some sheer fabric, hanging sporadically from the high ceilings, all the way down to the floor. I wondered for a moment if I had accidentally booked a love hotel. My suspicions arose after we were handed the key and entered the elevator, which was a bright pink box with sultry mood music playing. The elevator doors opened and we were standing in a short hallway with half a dozen doors, the entirety of which was plastered with one giant mural of Mt. Fuji. You never know what weird experiences are in store for you in Japan.

The room was better than I had dared hope for. It was more spacious than the previous rooms we had stayed at in Tokyo, meaning all of one square meter difference from the last shoebox. Always read the square meters when booking a room in Tokyo. You’d be amazed how tiny some of those rooms get. You’ve seen the memes to always read the dimensions on Amazon, right? Yeah, imagine the hotel room version of that.

(Image source: Google)

The room had one wall made up entirely of straw, so that it looked like a giant bale of hay was keeping us from our neighbors. It’s too bad we didn’t have our emotional support pony with us. And then the bathroom was a giant glass box. Not a giant opaque glass box, but glass as clear as crystal. I’m having trouble imagining a scenario where I would ever want a glass box bathroom. Maybe if I were a rich hermit with claustrophobia. No, even then I’d feel like I was awkwardly sitting in a fish bowl. Luckily there were blinds.

We went for a walk around the busy streets, amongst the bright colors and window displays full of fake foods. Shibuya is a lot to take in for any person, even more so for two people who have spent the past five years on a series of isolated rocks in the middle of the ocean. I was drawn like a moth to a flame to two large aquariums that one department store had in lieu of display windows. Finally, a piece of home in this overcrowded, concrete jungle. I suddenly felt very homesick for the abundance of nature in the world I had called home most recently. We stood there identifying all the critters for a longer amount of time than the average train commute. We saw two blackspotted moray eels, one giant moray, and another moray who was just hanging out of his hole, head dangling like a limp noodle, like he’d given up on life. Eels don’t behave like that in the wild.

There was a blue tang, otherwise known as Dory, who looked like she’d been beat up by an electric eel and then run over by the shinkansen. A bignose unicornfish kept chasing her away from the small space she had tried to claim. Some yellow tangs had their fins all chewed up. One was missing its tail fin entirely. The bunch of them seemed so fragile and out of place. They didn’t belong here, in this little tank surrounded by busy city streets. A plaque below the tank said that the fish had come from Palau. Along with it was a photo of some of our old dive buddies from Sam's. What a strange, small world.

Poor little yellow tang in the back has his fins all beat up. 

We wandered the streets some more, Fletch always keeping track of where we were. He has an uncanny sense of direction, which is a huge relief for me. I don’t know where I would be without him and Google Maps. Probably wandering circles in the desert by now. We decided to eat at a soba shop where we ordered out of a vending machine for dinner. That was the second time during our trip that we both ate for less than $10. If you are traveling Japan on a budget, then noodle shops and conbinis are really the way to go.

Weary from the day's journey, we called it an early evening and headed back to our straw room. The city was just beginning to come to life, as the day's commuters and businessmen were replaced with young people ready to go out and party, neon lights enough to forget the sky was darkening, and music being turned up. It looked as though our daytime adventures were coming to an end, and the night would rule our last hours in Japan. We just needed to sleep first. 

Himeji Castle and the Haunted Well

Japan Day 19 - Hiroshima to Himeji

Fletch and I had saved our cheese tarts from the previous night for breakfast. They weren’t hot out of the oven anymore, but they still had the sweet richness of the best possible combination of a cheesecake and a tart. The six miniature pie crusts with creamy, cheesy goodness were gone a moment later.

Hiroshima was the end of our line, but to break up the journey back to Tokyo, I had scheduled a one-night stay in the little town of Himeji, just enough time to visit the namesake castle.

Miniature model of Himeji and the castle grounds.

We rode the two trains between the two cities, and walked across the street to the Hotel Nikko Himeji, a hotel that had clearly been the hotel at one point in time, but now was outdated, meaning good prices and spacious rooms for us. We even got a couch! And from the window in our room on the 12th floor, we could just make out the roof of the majestic castle off in the distance, peeking up over a shopping center in front of us. This had probably been a view worth a pretty penny before that silly shopping center popped up.

We had made it to Himeji in good time, and the castle still had a couple hours before it closed, so we hurriedly dropped our bags and ran back to the train station to find the Himeji Castle Loop Bus. An adorable little bus (of course it was adorable, it’s Japan) with an old-fashioned, trolly design pulled up and we squeezed in with a couple other tourists. The tiny bus accommodated only a few seats, and was more of a minivan than a bus really. Actually, American minivans would have dwarfed the little bus. The fee was a flat 100 yen, or $1. We rode down the few blocks of main road running straight from the train station to the castle. When the bus dropped us off, I ran forward to snap a quick photo, and the driver actually waited for me to catch the shot before pulling away, a nicety I would have never expected from a place that thrives on punctuality.

Himeji at the end of the main road, as seen from the bus stop.

Himeji Castle Loop Bus

Google Maps showed the entrance as being on the east side of the castle, and so we set off, circumnavigating the perimeter of the massive grounds. It turned out that had we walked just a dozen or so meters in the opposite direction, the entrance had been right there. But oh well, we got the scenic tour and discovered just how impossible it was to get into the castle grounds. It was built on a hilltop and surrounded by numerous walls and moats and more walls, extending upwards as high as the hill was. What a fortress! Eventually we found a small path leading us through a side route. Then there were more walls and moats and bridges to navigate before we found our way to the ticket booth. Himeji was already impressive and we hadn’t even made it to the castle yet. The scale of everything was way more grand than anything I had ever envisioned. I’d visited castles in Japan before and remembered being let down by how small they were. But of course everything in Japan is much smaller. I guess I had lowered my expectations for Himeji accordingly, and now I found myself weaving my way through this monstrosity. I was in awe.

Japanese castles featured long winding passageways and many, many gates in order to keep intruders from getting into the main parts of the castle. The walls of Himeji were 26 meters high (85 feet). The gates, in contrast, were so tiny that even I would have to stoop to enter (padding had been added to protect unaware tourists’ heads). What a fortress! And then of course the entire winding hike was uphill the entire way.

Massive walls of Himeji.

Contrastingly short gates of Himeji.

Himeji Castle is known as the “White Heron Castle,” because the white plaster walls of the main keep supposedly resemble a white heron in flight. In order to preserve its original shape and beauty, the entirety of the castle was restored between 2009 and 2015. During this restoration, every piece of the castle was taken apart, and then reassembled like a giant puzzle.

The walls of the keeps contained 997 openings called sama. These were for guns and arrows to be fired from, and were even coded by shape. Oblong openings were for the bows, and round, triangular, and square openings were for the guns. They were also at different heights along the wall depending on what position was meant to be used when firing: standing, kneeling, or prone.

Various plaques were scattered around with interesting stories. Many of the stories revolved around the sheer number of stones that were required for the construction of the walls, so many stones that Hashiba Hideyoshi had trouble finding enough. When a poor old woman who sold rice cakes in the town heard this news, she generously donated her hand mill stone. A net was wrapped around that section of the wall to show where it was, and to keep it safe. Stone lids from coffins were even dug up and used.

One old lady's hand mill stone, used in the wall construction.

We finally found our way to the entrance of the main keep. With the sheer size of the place being so magnificent, I guess I had expected an interior to match in the back of my mind. The inside was entirely wood, bare as bones and dark as night. Clearly it was too risky to have windows on the ground level.

We wound our way up floor after floor, steep, narrow, wooden staircase after steep, narrow, wooden staircase, until we made it to the sixth and final floor. The only other tourists around were a group of perfectly circular girls, one of whom was currently sprawled like a starfish across a bench, looking like she hadn’t moved that much in quite some time. It had been getting gradually brighter the higher up we ascended. The higher we went, the safer it was to have a window or two. The top floor was bright and open and showcased the most magnificent view of all the town and rolling hills around in every direction. What a view! One could see for ages up here. Not only was this castle impossible to break into, but with this view of all the surrounding land, there was zero possibility of the enemy sneaking up on the place.

Somewhere along the journey back down the rickety staircases, there was a view overlooking an old well and the ghost story of said haunted well. I nearly transcribed the story here, but I actually found a much more enjoyable rendition of it written by by folklorist Amelia Starling. I hope she doesn’t mind me copying her words here for your enjoyment: 
Like any good tragedy, this story begins with love. Love between a brave warrior, called Kinugasa Motonobu, and a servant, the beautiful, honest Okiku.

Okiku served a powerful, influential samurai named Aoyama Tetsuzan. He was also the regent of Lord Norimoto, the true ruler of the castle. One day whilst working, Okiku overheard Tetsuzan discussing a plot to kill Lord Norimoto and seize the castle for himself. 
Maybe it would have been better if she had never learned of this plot, or if she had ignored it. But when life gives you such choices, you either let them slide and what will be will be, or you take action. And Okiku was not a woman to let anything slide. In that moment, she knew she had to do something. She confided in her lover, Motonobu, and his allies, and they promised her things would be well and that the plot would be foiled. 
And indeed it was. 
Lord Norimoto was warned of the attack, and he fled the city. But although he was safe, Himeji castle and our lovers were not. In Lord Norimoto’s absence, Aoyama took control. He was furious that Lord Norimoto had escaped, and sought out the traitor. Secrets, secrets in his midst. Who to trust? No-one, no-one. 
The only thing awaiting the traitor was death. 
Fearing for their own lives, one of the warriors betrayed Okiku. They informed Tetsuzan’s accomplice, a man named Danshirō, of her role in foiling the plot. 
It was her, the servant girl. Because of her, Norimoto escaped! 
Danshirō was a devious, possessive man. He saw Okiku’s beauty, and planned to make her his own. Instead of informing Tetsuzan of the traitor’s identity, he confronted Okiku himself. Secrets, secrets. 
Beautiful Okiku, marry me, and your life will be spared. 
But Okiku had already given her heart to Motonbu. She refused Danshirō over and over again. 
No, no, I will not marry you!
Not a man to give up, Danshirō tried one final time to gain Okiku’s acceptance. He stole one of 10 valuable plates which were treasured heirlooms of the Aoyama family. 
It is easy to frame a servant for theft… 
All of the plates were here this morning! Who has been in? 
Only the servants, my Lord. 
What were they doing? 
Cleaning, my Lord. They always dust the plates… 
Who dusted the plates today? 
Okiku, my Lord. 
And where is she now? 
Okiku was running. From the otemon gate to the honmaru. In the West Bailey, and in all of the yagura. Through the gardens and every kuruwa, and to the moat and back. Running, searching. She crept into Tetsuzan’s rooms and counted over and over again: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9… 
Always nine. The missing plate was nowhere to be found. 
Seeing Okiku so desperate, Danshirō seized his chance. 
Marry me, Okiku. This is the last time I will ask you. Marry me, and I will return the plate and clear your name. 
But how could anyone agree to such a proposal, when they are already in love with another? Okiku’s love for Motonobu was true, and she was fearless. The reckless kind of fearless which only the strongest love can bring. She took a deep breath… 
No, Danshirō. I belong to another, and I will never, ever marry you. 
Danshirō’s jealousy and rage overcame him. This woman, who had foiled their plans and defied him, and still refused his affection no matter what he tried. This woman who dared to risk her own life for her love. Well, she need risk it no longer… 
Danshirō drew his sword. One swipe was enough. He was fast; so fast that Okiku didn’t have time to scream or run. By the time she realised what he was going to do it had happened, and her blood was spilling out of her. 
Where to hide a body? Somewhere deep, which daylight never shines upon and no human eyes ever glimpse… 
Somewhere like… a well? 
Yes, the well! 
Danshirō gathered Okiku’s body into his arms, and with a last, wistful look at her beauty, a lament to that which he would never own, he threw her into the castle’s well. 
Secrets. Leave them to rot in the sombre, damp underground. 
Okiku’s absence raised no questions. After all, everyone believed she had stolen the plate and they knew that Tetsuzan took no prisoners. Only Motonobu and his companions continued to fight Tetsuzan. Eventually they were successful. He was overthrown and Lord Norimoto returned to Himeji, and Danshirō’s terrible crime was discovered. 
In tribute to her love and bravery, Okiku was enshrined at Jūnisho-jinja. This modest, tranquil shrine is tucked away down a side street, quietly emitting its charm into the city. 
As for the well… 
Once the sun began to set and the shadows lengthened, people started avoiding it. There was talk of hearing strange sounds, like whispers, from within, and glimpses of the ethereal figure of a woman. 
For the few who dared to venture to the well in the darkest hours of the night, if they listened carefully, they would realise that the whispering voice coming from the well was counting. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9… 
1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9… 
Only to nine, never 10. One missing plate. One restless spirit eternally searching for it, counting every night. Never leaving her watery grave. 
Amelia Starling,

It took us roughly two hours to cover the entire castle at a leisurely pace. On our way out, we spotted an elderly gentleman riding a bicycle around the grounds, one handed, the other arm cradling his little dog. The little dog’s fur was so shiny and well groomed, that I almost mistook it for a puppy, but upon seeing the dog’s face, could tell that he was just as elderly as his master (in dog years of course). Master was meandering around on the bike, purely for the dog’s pleasure, and the look on the little dog’s face was the purest form of happiness. We stopped when we reached the crosswalk to wait for the green man, and the old man on the bike eventually came to a stop behind us. When he did, he pulled out a traditional hand fan and began to fan the happy little creature. What a sweet bond of friendship.

We walked down the main street, back towards the train station, keeping our eyes open for food along the way. We eventually came to a noodle shop, a quaint little hole in the wall with a tapestry hanging in the doorway. It just happened to be one of two restaurants I had been reading about in Lonely Planet, a homemade udon shop. We each ordered a hot bowl of udon noodles, and they were the best noodles we had the entire trip. So soft, so gooey, just the right amount of chewy texture, and nearly a meter long. We slurped and chewed and delighted in the textural experience.

We rested back at the hotel for a little while, and once dark set in, we amused ourselves by watching the two glass elevators journey up and down the shopping center across the way. They had color-changing lights, and we watched as people got on and off at each floor, going about their evenings. 

This was the first hotel we could hear the train from, which was surprising given that we had mostly been staying within close proximity to the train stations. It wasn’t like listening to the train back home, where you have to pause whatever you’re watching, and listen for a couple minutes as the train horn bellows loudly through the night and rumbles down the tracks, demanding the attention of everyone in its surroundings. This was more like listening to plane take off, a sudden whoosh of loudness that tapered and was gone almost as soon as you had heard it.

We found a hip little pizza joint for dinner, where we felt like we had been transported to a New York City sky rise for a couple hours. We ordered sangrias and pizza, oh how we had been craving pizza, and enjoyed the dim ambiance and view of the city through the glass panels that made up the walls. A pizza arrived for Fletch and and bowl of pasta arrived for me. I politely tried to explain in broken Japanglish that I had ordered a pizza as well. The pasta was removed from our table. Then returned to our table with numerous apologies. Our server came over to apologize. The chef even came over to apologize. Watching someone make a mistake in a culture made up of type A personalities turned out to be quite a circus of regret.

After dinner we returned to our hotel and headed up to the bar on the top floor, which was supposed to have a beautiful view of Himeji Castle. Having a drink overlooking the majestic structure seemed like a fitting way to conclude the day. The view was lovely, and Himeji was all lit up on the hill off in the distance, but trying to take a photo with my phone was like trying to capture a picture of the moon, nothing more than a blurry spec of light on an otherwise black screen. You’ll just have to go see for yourself one day. I loved the quaintness of the town of Himeji, which contrasted with the grandeur of the castle. It was just city enough to have all the conveniences you require while traveling, while still possessing the old-world charm of an era that is quickly disappearing from Japan. Himeji is definitely worth a visit.

Hiroshima’s Cry for Peace

Japan Day 18 - Hiroshima

Fletch and I took our time in the morning. We knew it was going to be a heavy day, so we weren’t in any real hurry to get an early start and jam-pack as much as we could into our hours of daylight. When planning our trip, I had asked Fletch what he wanted to see and do in Japan. His only real request was that he wanted to see Hiroshima, and learn about the Japanese side of WWII. That had been on my list as well, and so our only goals for the city were to visit the Peace Memorial Museum and to walk the Peace Memorial Park where the Atomic Bomb Dome and several other memorials were erected.

Hiroshima as a whole was a very quiet and peaceful city. We had noticed that about Japan, that despite the population density and size of the cities, places were surprisingly quiet. Now that we were away from the excitement and chatter of the bulk of the tourists, the quiet was even more palpable. Hiroshima wasn’t even a small place, with a population of 1.2 million, but it did have the peaceful serenity of a much smaller city.

It was lunch by the time we were ready to go, and so we walked to the adjoining train station to see what we might find for food. I felt uncomfortably self-conscious that day, being an American. No one treated us any differently, or gave us a second glance, but I still felt embarrassed. My country demolished your city, in the worst atrocity ever committed in war, but here I am touring and sightseeing like it’s just another world's largest ball of twine. I felt ashamed to be here.

Crowds and a few crying babies scared us away from some of the restaurant choices. Out of the remaining, the plastic pasta displays were the most enticing. There were dozens of different creative pasta dishes to choose from. We sat down and browsed the full menu, full of colorful photos. After days and cities of nothing but noodles and various fried foods, I was still craving something green and crunchy and rich in vitamins. I found a salmon carpaccio salad to go along with my veggie and squid pasta. The salad was minuscule, and contained only few lettuce leaves, but I savored every last one of them, thinking of the salmon as only an afterthought. Fletch did a shrimp and broccoli pasta in lobster sauce. Both dishes were good but Fletch’s pasta sauce was some of the best pasta sauce I’d ever tasted.

Vegetable and Squid Pasta

We found the Maple Loop Bus, or the Maipuru-pu as the Japanese phonetics spelled out. There were three different colored lines, all running around more or less the same tourist destinations, just in different directions. We decided to jump off at the museum first for our history lesson, before walking the park north to visit the memorials, ending with the Atomic Bomb Dome on the far north end.

It turned out that the main building of the museum was closed for renovations and earthquake proofing, but the east building was still open. We walked up to a large, glass, block of a building, and stopped in front to stare through the window at what might have at one point been a futuristic looking clock, part analog and part digital. The analog clock at the top of the tower showed the current time with two black hands, and the time that the atomic bomb dropped, permanently stopped, with grey hands. A digital display in the middle showed the number of days since the first dropping of the A-bomb: 26,621 days. An identical digital display on the bottom showed the number of days since the latest nuclear test: 295 days. The plaque read:

Peace “Watch” Tower 
This Clock Tower displays panels with numbers and cogwheels. The first panel indicates the number of days since the A-bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. The lower panel indicates the number of days since the last nuclear test. When a nuclear test is conducted, the number of days will be reset to zero to enhance the strength of the protest from Hiroshima. The cogwheels below represent a virtual countdown which warns us that we are on the path leading towards the annihilation of humanity. The concept is: the cogwheel at the top rotates 100 times per minute, but it will spin faster if the earth shows signs of being in danger. If it reaches the immovable cogwheel at the bottom, the clock will automatically self-destruct. In order to stop the cogwheels from spinning, we must work toward abolishing all nuclear weapons and seek for an age of coexistence among humankind without dependance on military forces.

A sign printed out explained that the latest nuclear test had been by North Korea, who announced it had conducted an underground nuclear test on September 3, 2017.

Peace "Watch" Tower

Already feeling the weight of what monsters the human race could be, we entered the building in silence and purchased two tickets.

The hallway lead us to a big empty room, with a panoramic photo stretched along the entirety of the walls. We were looking at a black and white photo of the city of Hiroshima before the bomb. We entered the next room to find the same panoramic view of the city, only this time after the bomb. Nothing was left save for rubble and maybe the odd tree stump. You’ve all probably seen photos. Blowing those photos up to life size and pasting them over the walls of the room to create a full, panoramic view was seriously chilling.

In the next room a few people were sitting on blocks and silently watching an old-fashioned tv with a grainy video playing. An elderly gentleman was giving a video testimonial of what he remembered from that day. We sat and watched, a dozen or so interviews, one after another, each person’s story lasting around five minutes. Everyone came from such different walks of life, from businessmen to school teachers, but they all remembered the same thing: a great white flash before being knocked unconscious and coming to several minutes later, to a grey world covered in ash. One gentleman had drawn out his entire story in a flip chart, and showed his own drawings of how he was so badly burnt that he could hardly move. He found a friend of his who had the bottoms of his feet completely burned off, and no idea how to help him. The friend couldn’t walk of course, and he himself was too badly injured to even think of carrying him. You could tell by the way his voice trembled, even all these years later, how much it pained him, above even the physical pain, to not be able to help his friend. Finally his uncle and aunt walked past and he was able to call them over for help.

Many of the stories were about the interviewees having badly burnt and mangled bodies running at them, and not even being able to recognize them as their own relatives. We sat and watched every last interview until the video looped and we were back to the spot we had walked in on again.

We left the small viewing room, which was simple and like something you’d find in a outdated library, and entered a grand display room like something out of a trendy museum. An entire wall was covered in displays, and a massive marble table took up the majority of the room, with interactive displays inlaid every few feet. In the marble spaces between the displays, the solid surface came alive with an eerie holographic display of the bomb being dropped and going off, silently, over and over again.

Main display room in the Peace Memorial Museum (Photo property of: Interior Design)

We parked ourselves in front of an empty display and began to soak up all the information. Screen after screen of information we read through, on everything: the development of of nuclear weapons, the decision process that went into choosing Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the extent of the destruction caused by the bomb, how the Japanese government didn’t even tell its nation that the attack had been nuclear until after the war, the research that went on for years and is still ongoing into the effect that the radiation had on people’s health, and lists of every nuclear test and accident that has occurred since that day that started it all. I was impressed because Fletch stood there and read through every last screen, with me reading over his shoulder. Had it been just me, I probably would have stopped reading and started skimming long before we reached the end. Not Fletch though, he made it through every last screen from beginning to end. I don’t know how long we stood at that screen reading everything; long enough to start shifting restlessly from foot to foot, moving to iron out kinks and aches, aches that were nothing compared to the graphic photos we were staring at. Long enough to feel sickened by the monsters we are.

When there was nothing left to read, we moved onto the displays scattered across the walls. There were models of the dome, before and after the bomb. Models of the scale of the bomb next to miniature people. Examples of tiles before and after the bomb. Examples of a glass Coke bottle before and after the bomb. A life-size model of the amount of uranium that was fissioned to create the nuclear explosion, less than one kilogram, a cube that was roughly one cubed inch in size. One little block that I could hold between my thumb and index finger, was enough to cause all that destruction. A portion of the wall was covered in enlarged photographs of people who made it to a hospital after the bomb, people so mangled and disfigured I had to look away.

Amount of uranium that fissioned.

It was 5:00 by the time we left the museum. It was a beautiful sunny day with blue skies, and the park was the picture of peace and quiet, with pretty green lawns, and trees, beautiful and alive. Hiroshima wanted primarily to send the message of peace far and wide, and this park was the epitome of just that. We slowly strolled the length of the park, silently letting the peace of today wash away the horror we had just been shown of yesterday. We strolled past the cenotaph, a curved concrete structure that held the names of every known person lost to the bomb. Then there was the Flame of Peace, set to burn until all the world’s nuclear weapons were destroyed, something I was now convinced would never happen.

Cenotaph in Peace Memorial Park, Hiroshima

Flame of Peace

Towards the end of the park we came upon a steep, three-legged mound, atop which stood a small girl with her arms outstretched and a paper crane stretching its wings out behind her, the Children’s Peace Monument. I knew this monument. I’d known it as long as I could remember. Growing up, I had three audiobooks that I used to listen to at bedtime, over and over again. I couldn’t even say how many times I listened to the story of Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes. Sadako Sasaki was exposed to radiation from the bomb at the age of 2, and 10 years later developed leukemia as a result. Based on an old legend, she believed that if she folded 1,000 paper cranes, she would be cured. Sadly, the disease claimed her life before she could accomplish her mission, and so her classmates finished the paper cranes for her and called for the construction of the monument in her honor, and in memory of all the children who lost their lives to the bomb. I had listened to that story so many times as a child, and now here I was standing in front of her monument.

Children's Peace Monument

All the emotion I'd been holding in all day fell on me like a waterfall and I broke down.

This was the culmination of so many stories. Sadako’s story, the stories I'd heard from grandparents and great uncles growing up who fought in the war, a visit to Peleliu three years previous where a war memorial had been adorned in paper cranes, the weight of everything we had taken in on this lucid day.

An inscription on the monument read,

This is our cry. This is our prayer. For building peace in this world.

I didn’t think seeing the monument would be so overwhelmingly emotional, but with so many tears streaming relentlessly down my face, I had to walk away. I had wanted so much to see that memorial, but now it was too painful to look at it another moment. I walked away without visiting the glass display cases filled with the thousands and thousands of colorful paper cranes sent in by school children from all over the world every year. It was too much. Fletch offered me his shoulder in comfort.

We continued our walk and found a concrete dome with a bell hanging inside. The Bell of Peace, the plaque read. Followed by:

We dedicate this bell
As a symbol of Hiroshima Aspiration
Let all nuclear arms and wars be gone,
and the nations live in true peace!
May it ring to all corners of the earth
to meet the ear of every man,
for in it throb and palpitate
the hearts of its peace-loving donors.
So may you, too, friend,
step forward, and toll this bell for peace!

The Bell of Peace

Fletch and I stepped into the dome together, and jointly pulled back the thick, wooden pole suspended behind the bell. We released it and listened as the hollow “donggg,” vibrated and extended out in every direction over the otherwise quiet park. The quiet of the city made it easy to imagine the ring slowly extending out to every corner of the earth, spreading its plea for world peace.

At the end of the park, and the opposite side of the pond, sat the Atomic Bomb Dome. The empty shell of what was once the Industrial Promotion Hall, built by a Czech architect, stood almost directly under the spot where the bomb had detonated. Everyone inside died almost instantly, but the dome survived, an eerie reminder of what had occurred. By that point we didn’t feel the need to walk over for a closer look. I was emotionally spent and happy to catch this last glimpse from across the pond. We had fulfilled our goal for today, and educated ourselves on a pivotal day in human history.

The Atomic Bomb Dome

We boarded the bus home, but ended up jumping off a couple stops early to hit up a little oyster restaurant sitting on the river’s bank. Hiroshima was known for oysters. I never really was a fan of that particular shellfish until my first visit to New Orleans. It was there that a friend had asked for help finishing off a plate of too many she had ordered, and handed me a shell the size of a teacup. I have loved those oysters ever since. If anywhere could rival NOLA oysters, surely it was the area of food-centric Japan that specialized in oysters. I was excited to see if they were as good.

Oyster Conclave Kaki-tei, Hiroshima (Photo credit: Fletch)

We ordered drinks and a set meal to share. Dish after dish was presented, some with various raw oysters, some with grilled oysters, some with oyster cooked into various quiches or soups. A pot of boiled oysters was followed by oyster and red pepper bruschetta. I was so thrilled for the bell peppers. I’ve already mentioned that vegetables were few and far between. All the dishes were divine, and having an entire set meal based around a single ingredient was a culinary novelty. I have to say though, NOLA oysters still came out undefeated.

Raw oysters prepared three different ways. 

We walked back to the train station, a pleasant 20 minute walk. Since it was our last night in the city, there was one last thing I wanted to do before finding our way back to the hotel. Hiroshima was food-famous, last and not least, for some sweets shaped like maple leaves. I’m usually happy to skip the sweets, but there had been a story in the manga I’d read the day before about the maple leaf sweets bringing happiness back to the lives of the people of Hiroshima after the bomb. After the day we’d just had, it seemed fitting to find some. Most of the sweets stores at the train station were already closed, and the few still open were sold out of everything save for a few remaining loaves of bread. After my fifth run into a shop with no success, Fletch pointed out a line coming out of a little shop and wrapping around the building. The sign advertised “cheese tarts.” Anything with a line of locals that long was surly worth waiting for. I stood in line while Fletch ran over to the nearest conbini to get drinks.

Hiroshima at Dusk

By the time Fletch and I found each other in front of the train station again, he told me we had to stop and watch what was unfolding for a moment. Amongst the crowd of faces, he pointed out a teenage boy, in trendy clothing, carefully wandering the crowd and scanning the faces around him. If he noticed a similar-aged girl, walking alone, he would single her out and approach, then ask something we couldn’t discern. Girl after girl either ignored him or turned him down. What was he asking? We stood and observed and opened our drinks. It soon became apparent that he had three friends he was working with, all behaving the same way. We called them: Gym Pants Guy, Blingy T-shirt Guy, Star Shirt Guy, and Black Pants Guy. We stood and watched, curiously, for a good long while. No one ever got lucky, but whatever they were up to had to work occasionally, because this seemed like a well-rehearsed routine. Fletch guessed that they were grifters.

When the game never came out successful, Fletch and I eventually grew bored of watching and walked back to the hotel, calling it a night.