Thursday, July 12, 2012

Mount Aso

We left Hiroshima early in the morning on a train bound for Mount Aso, the site of one of the largest active volcanoes in the world. We hoped we would have a clear view despite the heavy rains that we travelled through. From the train station, we walked the short distance to our hostel and were delighted to discover that it was the nicest we had been in so far; we’re sure we won’t find another one like it on our trip.  The spotless building was made to feel like home, with beautiful furnishings and every amenity we could want. Thoughtful touches like a woodstove, a clean and well-organized kitchen, a library of manga and board games, and stuffed animals to sleep with allowed us to enjoy the rainy evenings that we spent inside.

We woke up the next morning to blue skies and we knew that we had to take advantage of the unexpected break in the weather to explore the volcano. We took a short bus ride up to the base station with a plan to hike around the crater and then back down to the town. When we got to the station, though, we were informed that the crater was closed due to noxious gas emissions. Aso is a caldera volcano, with an ever-broiling cauldron of sulphur dioxide formed after an eruption caused the mount to collapse in on itself. When we approached the base, we could see the fumes spewing out of the crater, and we could certainly smell the eggy sulphur. But we had read that Aso’s sulphur output was inconsistent and that access to the crater was often opened and closed by the hour, so we waited at the station hoping that we would be able to see the volcano we had travelled so far for.

After an hour without any sign of Aso letting up, we decided to take another hiking route and check back later. We began walking toward some extinct craters in the vicinity while the sulphur fumes climbed into the sky behind us.

On our way, we came across a man with a van on the side of the trail, selling helicopter rides over the volcano. At first we scoffed at the unofficial appearance of the set-up, but we had earlier seen a helicopter circling safely, and we realized that this might be our only chance to see the crater. Yann and Emilie could not be convinced, but Antonia talked James into taking this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and we signed up.

We are very glad that we did because this was one of the best experiences of our trip so far. Our first-ever helicopter ride was exhilarating not only because of the thrill of being so high, but because of the spectacular views that it afforded. We got the see the entire landscape of extinct craters, but most breathtaking, of course, was the view of the volcanic cauldron that turned out to be off-limits to pedestrians all day. We flew directly over it, and the sulphur fumes dissipated just enough for us to clearly see the green-blue sulphur lake spewing the noxious gas. It looked violent and hellish, but it was beautiful from the safety of our helicopter.

Yann and Emilie greeted us on the ground, and we continued on our hike to an extinct crater. A steep climb rewarded us with great views of the mountains and lakes surrounding us.

 We got to walk around the edge of the now grassy extinct crater...

and got another perspective of the rocky one that was still very active.

That evening, we capped our lovely day with a feast of homemade tempura with beer in our beautiful hostel. We were the only guests there that night, allowing us to pretend that we lived in our own grand mansion.
Since we were a little sore from our hike, the next day was a great opportunity to take a day trip to nearby Kurokawa, a small town famous for being full of some of the loveliest onsen in the country - this part of the archipelago being perfectly suited for the hot springs that come from volcanic sources. The town boasts dozens of onsen and ryokan – traditional Japanese lodging, usually very fancy – that see Japanese tourists wandering the streets between onsen in only their robes and slippers. Staying at a ryokan was a bit expensive, but we bought a pass to visit three onsen for only 1,200 yen – about $15. All of the onsen were ridiculously beautiful. We don’t have pictures to show you because of the tradition that onsen bathing should only be done in the nude, but just imagine the most idyllic natural springs that you can, and you will be halfway there. Some were outdoors, with steaming water in a stone pool overlooking a waterfall in a glade. Some were indoors, with large picture windows giving a view of bamboo, streams, and more waterfalls. The first one was nearly empty except for us, so we got to revel in our own secluded paradise. The second had some baths separated by sex, as we were used to, and some that were mixed; the Japanese don’t have the same shyness about nudity in front of the opposite sex as we North Americans. We weren’t yet ready to do as the locals do, though, and we bathed separately again. At first we were confused about where the changing rooms were, though, and thought we were supposed to undress in the washrooms and walk the halls of the fancy hotel in our birthday suits. We realized just in time that the changing rooms were directly beside each individual bath, and we laughed for the rest of the afternoon at the thought of the faux pas that we nearly committed. The baths here were in a bamboo grove with stone Buddhas adding to the relaxed atmosphere. One bath had a deep area with a bamboo swing to help hold you up. The third onsen was the fanciest we visited, but it was also exclusively mixed. We hid behind small ‘modesty towels,’ but they have to go in a sort of less-than-stylish turban on your head once you’re in the clear water. We enjoyed one outdoor bath beside a huge waterfall, and one inside a cave. It was all very relaxing and indulgent, and we reflected on how lucky we were to spend a day in such fantastical surroundings.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012


Our plan after Kyoto was to hike for a few days on the Kumano Kodo trail, an ancient pilgrimage through a forest in a nearby province. The night before we were to leave, we decided to stock up on necessary supplies, especially snacks in case we needed lunch on the road, or in the rare event that we got lost and needed sustenance. Yann, the ever-cautious planner, decreed that we should take at least twenty packages of food each. In the interests of reason and the weight of our backpacks, we settled on ten snacks per person. We had fun at the 100 yen store picking out our survival packets.

But we never got to go on our trek. Later that night, amongst the snacks that nearly covered our small hostel room floor, Antonia had the urge to check her email, even though it was late and we had to get up very early to catch our train and start our adventure. It was very lucky that she did, because she had just received an email from the Canadian Embassy in Tokyo advising us about Typhoon Guchol, forecast to land in Japan the next day. We broke the news to Yann and Emilie, and together we did some research – sure enough, the typhoon was heading exactly where we were going on our trek. After much deliberation, we decided to to postpone our hike and head to Hiroshima first. We half-joked that our snacks might become emergency rations, depending on what Guchol decided to do.

We took the Shinkansen to Hiroshima and when our hostel upgraded us to a Japanese-style room with an ensuite bathroom for no extra charge, we decided to stay two nights. We were very glad that we did, because Hiroshima is a lovely city. Although it will always be known for being the site of the world’s first atomic bombing, Hiroshima’s citizens have proudly rebuilt a vibrant city where we were able to balance learning about the terrible tragedy with having fun exploring the rest of the city.

On our first afternoon, we set out to find a particularly strange arcade game, called Cho Chabudai Gaeshi, that we had learned about in Canada. Chabudai Gaeshi is a Japanese phrase meaning to flip a table in anger. The table-flipping video game is equipped with a plastic table that the player can pound in anger, and then flip at the right moment.

The game measures how hard the table is flipped, and has an animation of the damage that would have been done. James had done some research and located an arcade in downtown Hiroshima that likely had such a device, and we finally found the strangest game we would see in Japan. We each played it, trying out different scenarios that are designed to make you mad enough to flip a table. Scenario 1: You are a boss at an office and your employees aren’t getting any work done, so you flip the table. Scenario 2: You are a bride at your wedding reception, and your family is complaining about the food, so you throw the table under your multi-tiered wedding cake. Scenario 3: You are a businessman who has come home from a hard day at work. You sit down to a dinner that is not adequately delicious. To make matters worse, your two bratty kids are texting and squabbling at each other at the dinner table, so you flip the dinner table. Scenario 4 (the most sympathetic one to us): you are a teacher and your class isn’t paying attention to you, so you throw your desk across the room. The actual table-flipping is very fast; most of the game consists of the animated set-up and then hilarious replays of the flip in slow motion, complete with a slowed-down replay of whatever angry tirade you were shouting at the time, from about fifteen different angles. Then scores are added up based on how many objects your table destroyed and how many fires it started. (It should be noted that James scored first place for his scenario). Here is Yann playing as the angry school teacher:

The weather was lovely in Hiroshima, so we figured that the typhoon had blown over or never materialized. We decided to head back to the Kumano Kodo, and Emilie and Antonia booked a hostel for the start of the trek. When they returned upstairs after using the phone, the boys had turned on the news, which was devoted to coverage of the typhoon’s destruction in other parts of the country. There was footage of cancelled trains and 900 homes being evacuated. We tried to downplay the significance of 900 homes in the scope of the entire, densely-populated country, until we learned that all of these homes were in the town at the start of the Kumano Kodo. We decided to reassess our plans the next day.

We headed out for dinner in the beautiful evening and found an okonomiyaki restaurant just down the street. We had loved the okonomiyaki in Kyoto, and now we had the opportunity to try the Hiroshima style. This restaurant was run by a very sweet elderly couple who must make a very good earning on baseball nights, since we were just metres away from the stadium of the beloved Hiroshima Carp, main rivals of the Tokyo Giants. 

We sat at the counter and watched the couple grill our pancakes right in front of us – this time they were thin, with piles of cabbage and sprouts, a fried egg on top and grilled noodles underneath – even tastier than the fluffier Kyoto version.

Here is the finished product:

The next morning we boarded a local ferry to visit Itsukushima, an island off the city, site of a famous shrine and thought to be so holy that laypeople weren’t allowed to set foot on it for much of its nearly 1000-year-old history. The torii to the shrine is in the water off the shore of the island, allowing people to pass through it in their boats without having to step on the holy island. The water torii are very beautiful, with a reflection in the water and the mountainous shoreline behind them. 

After taking a ferry to the holy island, we visited the torii and wandered through the shrine, which is also built over the water, and was one of the prettiest we have seen. We even got to see a shinto wedding ceremony taking place. Like Nara, the island is populated by sacred deer, but visitors are not supposed to pet or feed these ones, as they are more wild. In fact, one walked right up to Antonia and began trying to eat her shirt and then her belt!

That afternoon we paid a sombre but worthwhile visit to Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, the site of the memorials and museums dedicated to the victims of the atomic bomb that fell over the area on August 6, 1945. We first stopped at the Atomic Bomb Dome, the ruins of a building that stood almost directly under the epicentre of the blast. Most buildings in the city were made of wood at the time and were totally demolished the instant the bomb exploded. This was one of the few stone buildings in the city at the time, and the remaining skeletal structure stands as a strangely beautiful, stark reminder of the destruction that ravaged the city within seconds. Nearby, we met a man who was in utero during the explosion, and speaks to tourists everyday about Japan’s experience after the bombing. He provided us with information that he said wouldn’t be available to us in the official museums. For instance, the Japanese government does not like to acknowledge the true number of atomic bomb victims because of its commitment to compensate them financially, and also because it would like to deflect responsibility for bringing the country into a war that had such devastating effects. He also told us that many Japanese stigmatize survivors, preferring not to date them, for example, because of the fear that they carry disease and mutation. It was interesting to learn about the controversy over the use of nuclear power in Japan - he told us that a majority of citizens are against it because they have witnessed the effects of a nuclear disaster, but the government relies on it for power generation.

Next, we walked to the Children’s Peace Monument, dedicated to all children who died as a result of the bomb, and in particular to Sadako Sasaki, who developed leukemia after the bombing, and folded one thousand paper cranes as a wish for recovery. She died when she was just twelve years old, but she has become a symbol for peace. Her statue is now surrounded by millions of cranes that have since been folded by children around the world, arranged in colourful patterns. We saw a group of adorable children holding a ceremony to dedicate their cranes to Sadako’s memory.

We then walked past the eternal flame, which will only be extinguished when all nuclear weapons have been destroyed, and the cenotaph, where ashes and names of the dead are buried, to reach the Hiroshima National Memorial Hall for the Atomic Bomb Victims. This modern, minimalist museum is centred around a large, bright, round room that is empty except for a small fountain in the centre, and serves as a quiet place to reflect on the bombing and its victims. The hall also has screens displaying the pictures and names of the victims, and we visited an exhibition of personal effects discovered in the ruins and stories of survivors.

We spent most of our time at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, which details the history of the city during the war, the bombing, and the rebuilding periods. It is an excellent museum that taught us a little about nuclear physics and the Manhattan Project. It also displays personal effects and stories from the aftermath of the bombing, and provides information about the movement for the abolition of nuclear weapons. We spent hours here, but we admit that we didn’t have the wherewithal to look closely at every display. The intensity of the tragedy was overwhelming. We can’t properly convey what we saw, and we will just affirm that it was an unimaginable atrocity. Proponents of nuclear deterrence should see the list of the sixteen times the US has considered using a nuclear weapon since 1945, as well as the long list of accidents involving nuclear weapons. Every time any nation has launched a nuclear test since 1945, the mayor of Hiroshima has written an official letter of protest.

Looking to lighten the mood, we went to a nearby izakaya - a Japanese pub – for dinner. It was intimidating to walk through the door into a room full of businessmen smoking and drinking, but the staff sent us up to the third floor where it was a little quieter. We ordered beers and cocktails like plum wine with soda, and ate delicious Japanese pub food like tofu pizza and edamame. 

When we checked the weather in the Kumano Kodo, they were still experiencing heavy rains, and we decided that we would have to forgo our hike for more time visiting the volcano at Mount Aso. We are still carrying some of the mountain of survival snacks, but they have come in handy on long days of sight-seeing and train rides.