Hiroshima – Solemnity, Sampuru, and Sake

This post contains gorgeous landscapes and good fortune so please bear with us through the less than carefree beginning.

Hiroshima, the name has some really strong connotations for me as I’m sure it does for everyone in the US and Japan. We happen to be in Japan at a really strange point in time where Kim Jong Un is….well, an issue, and the rest of the world is not really sure what to do about it. We awoke the other morning and found all over the news that a missile had sailed right over Japan while we slept. It was all over the news and Japanese TV’s everywhere were tuned in to the story. So let’s just say it’s a very poignant time to visit Hiroshima and see first hand how a busy city was reduced to rubble and then rebuilt to the vibrant city it is 72 years later; a sobering lesson on destruction and the human spirit. 

Nuclear warfare is a tough issue to tackle even in the best of times. The Japanese themselves were divided over whether to keep the Genbaku Dome – some thought they should take it down and move on with life while others wanted to preserve it. Ultimately, the building became the focal point of Hiroshima Peace Park, which, despite covering a difficult topic is a very thoughtful and well laid out park.

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While it really sucks to stand there and stare at this shell of a building you know was a result of your home country’s wartime actions, it was refreshing to see the park utilized by the locals and life marching on; people cycling through the park to work, mothers feeding their kids snacks on the bench, advertisements flashing across the intersection; and at the same time people taking in the enormity of it all.

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There were many free guides floating about in the park so we opted to get the local perspective here. Our guide wore a black dress with heels and says she has given tours here everyday for the last six months except when it rains. After finding out we were from the US she said, “Let me show you my husband,” and pulled out her phone with a homescreen of Tom Cruise, to which I told her that was my husband and we shared a laugh. Anyway, she showed us all around the complex and gave us a good history lesson about the dome and what happened on “that day” in 1945.

The museum was also very well done with lots of facts and history. My favorite plaque has a great message that again seems very affecting with today’s political climate:

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**Thus concludes the “heavy stuff”. Unless you’re talking about food, in which case we have just begun.**

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Here you can see Gregor’s mound of cabbage/bacon and the sad-looking stew I was about to eat. Please note the baseball game in the background, everyone’s attention was on the local team – the Carp!

Hiroshima is known for these awful dishes I call “spaghetti-egg-pies” which Gregor thinks are great. Okonomiyaki, as they are otherwise called, consist of noodles cooked on a grill with a mound of cabbage, egg, bacon, some rich teriyaki sauce and a crepe-like thing that gets an honorable mention. Apparently this concoction originated in Hiroshima and has somehow migrated to other parts of the country, but it is literally inescapable in the city. Thankfully the one night we ordered this, the place also had a great curried beef which is also everywhere in Japan and looks horrific but actually tastes good. I swore I would not eat this because the sampuru always looks terrible, but I must admit it was really delicious, like curried beef stew.

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Sampuru of the curry dish. Not very appetizing, right?

*Quick note- Almost every restaurant in Japan has “Sampuru” (from the English word “sample”, yes, it is funny) – a window display of plastic dishes that look exactly like what you are served. This mystified us when we first arrived as the dishes are accurate right down to portion size and garnishes, but it is a widely practiced part of Japanese culture to have a window full of plastic displays of your dishes. There is one town that specializes in making sampuru and will customize standard dishes or create them if there is no template available. A full menu of sampuru can cost $8000+ for one restaurant so it’s quite a business.

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Window display of fake food “Sampuru”

Our only full day in Hiroshima area was consumed by a trip to Miyajima, an island off the coast famous for this floating shrine and oysters. They also have deer which are basically domesticated and really lazy. We got an early start to avoid the crowds and succeeded in getting to the island in time to get some pictures before the mobs of tourists appeared. I can’t say I would list it as one of the top three views in Japan as advertised, but it was beautiful.

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Gregor decided to see what his life has in store for him and get a paper with his fortune on it. There are something like 38 fortunes and you shake a box of sticks until one comes out and whatever number that is you get the paper with that number on it. But it is written in Japanese so he just put it in his pocket. Maybe we will meet someone who can read it for him! (Hint, hint, keep reading).

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Gregor getting his fortune
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Many shrines have monks that will stamp a book and write in it for you, many Japanese tourists carry these and stand in line to get them written in.

From the ocean, there is a cable car up a pretty substantial hill to a nice viewpoint. You can then take the cable car back down if you wish. I was fighting a cold so our usual gung-ho approach of “of course we will climb the hill” diminished into taking the cable car up and enjoying the view, how luxurious! It would have been quite a climb so well worth the price of admission if nothing other than to avoid being a sweaty hot mess on the train ride back to Hiroshima.

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The viewpoint was spectacular and from there you can hike about half an hour to another viewpoint and walk down the hill, which is what we opted to do.

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First viewpoint
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View from the top!
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Gregor with his fortune
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Shrine near the base of the hill

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At this point it was lunchtime and after gazing over the bay and seeing oyster farms it was of course time to partake in some of the island’s famous fare. We ordered both fried and grilled oysters. These are the biggest oysters I have ever seen! Each fried oyster was about the size of a small egg. With that box checked off we strolled back to the ferry and got slightly sidetracked by the large market in town that had one of the most delicious desserts I have ever had. Not sure what they are called, but it’s like flaky pie crust with custard inside, or you could get caramel. Oh, and they serve them piping hot, oh so good! We ate these too quickly to get a picture 🙂

This seemed like a pretty full day already, but we decided to take a trip a bit North to Saijo, a town famous for sake. Reasonably, one of the most important ingredients in sake making is water so sake distilleries tend to cluster around water sources that have the best balance of minerals. All around town they have little fountains where you can fill your water bottles for free with the famous water, we did a little taste test and the water is very good in the town!

Each town seems to have a mascot to help you with your daily activities. The left is Hiroshima’s overfed deer-police and the right is sake-town Saijo’s “Drinky” the raccoon.

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We visited two of the distilleries and did a self-guided tasting at the first one (they just have bottles of sake out that you pour yourself), I cannot imagine this working in the US.

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Distillery #1

The second place we visited was a bit busier and had 4 or so tables where people were doing tastings. No open tables, but two empty seats at a table which the three Japanese men sitting at gestured for us to join them. At this place we got two flights of sake, one of the “standard” and one of the higher end stuff they had available.

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One of the men at our table (named Kiyoshi) at our table started chatting with us and spoke very good English. Come to find out he is a sake sommelier which he confided is not as hard a title to attain as a wine sommelier, but he sure knew more than us! Gregor took the opportunity of meeting a bilingual person to get Kiyoshi to read his fortune that he had been carrying around since he got it at Miyajima, unable to read it since it was all in Japanese and unable to prepare for whatever inevitable fate was about to befall him! Kiyoshi said “aah” and that he had gotten the same fortune before and it was a good one! Something about North East being a good direction and also that he was to have good luck. I should have paid more attention to that part as shortly thereafter he double-skunked me at cribbage! I don’t think I have ever been double-skunked! This fortune must be the real deal.

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Kiyoshi reading Gregor’s fortune for him

After finishing our sake tasting Kiyoshi asked if we would like to see a local shrine on our way back to the train. Always happy to trail a local around we walked over to see a lovely rock garden and then took the train back to Hiroshima.

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