July 03, 2004
Fire flowers over Miyajima

13 August 1999

Tod was scheduled to arrive at Hiroshima at about quarter to one in the afternoon and I had no intention of running around to see things without him, so my morning was relaxed. I caught the 11:00 train to Hiroshima and arrived with plenty of time to scope out the coin lockers, load up on brochures at the tourist information desk and even to have a cup of coffee.

All my free time pointed out a delightful opportunity of good timing (finally!). While sipping my coffee and reading the tourist brochures, I discovered that Miyajima, a small island that was the destination for the next day, was holding its annual hanabi (fireworks) festival that night. So if we adjusted our itinerary we could see Miyajima’s today and visit the Hiroshima sights the next day. Which we did.

When Tod’s train came in, we went off for lunch. Hiroshima is known for two delicacies: oysters and okonomiyaki. Oysters are not my favorite food, so we opted for okonomiyaki for lunch.

Okonomiyaki is something like a pancake or a frittatta. We’d eaten them in Tokyo, but only at a fancy Ginza restaurant where the staff did the cooking. In the rest of Japan, okonomiyaki is a participatory experience.

We were seated at a table with a grill in the middle. Tod figured out the menu quickly and ordered two bowls of the basic “stuff” which included batter, eggs, cabbage and strips of pork, then added some extra toppings—garlic, rice paste balls, mushrooms. They arrived and I realized I had no idea what to do next! I looked at the waiter with a questioning look in my eyes and a little shrug, and mimed turning the bowl over onto the grill.

He was aghast. He kneeled at our table and explained the correct method for making okonomiyaki. Remove the pork strips and sit them on the smaller of the two paintscrapers that were out implements. Mix the remaining contents of the bowl and add the extra ingredients. After things were well mixed then the contents could be poured onto the grill. The larger spatula was used to shape the runny edges into a neat circle. When the pancake was golden brown on one side, the pork was laid on top and whole thing was flipped with the larger spatula to cook on side two.

He left us to cook but returned frequently to give us more water and watch our progress. He even corrected our mistakes. The result was delicious and the cooking was fun. Fully stuffed, we were ready to face our next challenge—an early check-in.

Our hotel was a traditional Japanese hotel with a good recommendation but a 4:00 check-in time. If we wanted to be on Miyajima in time to see the island and find a reasonably good place to sit among the crowd, we’d have to be there by late afternoon. So we headed across town to explain our predicament a few hours ahead of the check-in time.

They woman at the desk was understanding, took our bags, gave us advice on reaching Miyajima and even dug up some English language maps. But the price of our stay at the New Kikusui included a dinner we would not be able to eat and there was no refund. That was OK, though. We chalked it up to the price of changing plans at the last minute and went on our way to Miyajima.

The journey from the hotel involved a streetcar, a train and a ferry and took about 45 minutes. The ferry was filled with young women in yukata with their hair arranged in upsweeps and held in place with hair accessories ranging from traditional lacquer combs to Hello Kitty barrettes.

Two brightly blonde American girls, dressed in yukata and sitting with a group of Japanese girls similarly costumed and coifed, carried on a loud conversation about the immaturity of one of their American associates. I gathered that these two, and their absent companion, were exchange students or very young English teachers. Fortunately, they and their cortege vanished into the crowd as we disembarked and they scurried away towards the shops.

Because I had an agenda. It’s sort of a pain to have to see the sights when you visit somewhere. I planned to incorporate Miyajima into a story I would write for a magazine when I got back home, so I needed to check out and photograph as much as I could while I was there: the (inevitable?) ropeway to the top of Mt. Misen, the sacred forest and its wild monkeys; the view from the hill, the treasure house.

And of course, the most famous sight on Miyajima, Itsukushima Shrine is one of the Three Most Beautiful places in Japan. It sits on pilings at the water’s edge and at high tide it looks like it’s floating. The huge red torii gate sits further out in the sea and is an often photographed landmark—almost an icon of Japan.

Japan is full of “Three Most ” rankings. I don’t know who comes up with them, but I guess with every town laying claim to the longest, shortest, tallest, oldest, newest or most something or another, it pays to have someone ranking them all. But the lists get a little weird: three most beautiful northern water scenes; three oldest castle towns with original roads; three tallest flagpoles in forest settings. The teams who go out and create these lists must be employed by the government.

Anyway, here we were at one of the Three Most Beautiful places in Japan and it was not living up to our expectations. First of all, the tide was out, so the shrine and its gate were not floating on water, but mired in mud. Then there were the deer. Very tame, miniature deer roam at will charmingly chewing on trash and tourists snap their photos. They are adorable, but the island at low tide has a distinct scent of deer urine.

But we were going to brave it all. Tod was feeling tired and had a headache from his trip. But there was a bus outside the ferry pier that Tod said would take us to the ropeway station halfway up the mountain. It would save us the fifteen minute uphill walk. We hopped on and a few minutes later found ourselves halfway around the island at a beach. Not the ropeway station. I tried to make the best of it and snapped a couple of photos to commemorate our error and we hopped on the return bus.

Tod’s headache was getting worse and the sun was just beginning to go down—we wouldn’t have enough time to reach the summit of the mountain, shoot photos and get back down in time to get a good vantage for the fireworks. So we abandoned everything but the fireworks and walked off in the direction of the shrine. The hanabi would be launched from barges in the water on the other side of the torii.

We walked through the makeshift festival arcade and scoped out the food options. Although still full from our late lunch, we knew that our stomachs would eventually start to grumble. When that time came, we passed up the traditional Japanese grilled whole skewered squid, the bits of octopus tucked inside a ball of batter and fried, the fried noodles. We went straight for the “familiar” foods—french fries and American Dog which you will recognize when it’s described as Corn Dog on a Stick. So much for going native…

Finding a suitable place to watch the fireworks was a challenge. The photographers’ tripods had the best views of all. The clustered between the shore and the torii facing the barges where the fireworks were waiting for dark. These photographers would get great shots of the gate silhouetted against the fire flowers in the sky.

Other photographers preferred a flanking view. No matter where we tried to stand or sit there was a photographer in front of us. I was wishing I had a tripod of my own. But I didn’t and the dozen or so photos I attempted that night look like fireworks in an earthquake!

The fireworks were incredibly beautiful. Japan knows how to do hanabi. All summer long you can see fireworks on the weekends and not the 20 minute Independence Day show at the park, but sixty to seventy five minute extravaganzas. Beautiful, huge loud displays. The Miyajima hanabi were especially beautiful and designed for those photographers. High circles of white and pale colored exploded above water level fountains of sparks. After a few minutes of action, the show paused for the smoke to clear and then began anew. Each set was more spectacular than the last.

Eventually it ended and we threaded our way back to the ferry. I bought a candy mekan—like a candy apple but a mandarin orange instead of an apple. A deer was stuck in the middle of the surging crowd. Confused and frightened, he was trying to back his way out of the crush of people but instead, backed into Tod! We reached the plaza outside the pier and stood in line with the thousands of other people who wanted to get back to Hiroshima. It took more than an hour to get on the ferry for our five minute ride across to the mainland.

Exhausted by the time we reached our hotel, we asked for our key and got into a conversation with the man at the desk who had lived in Tokyo for a number of years and knew our neighborhood. That was nice, but really I wanted to go shower (I hadn’t had one since 9 that morning!) and collapse into bed.

I was so tired that I couldn’t’ find the towels or the yukatas or the bars of soap that were neatly laid out on a lacquer tray and tucked into our closet (I found them in the morning). I showered with leftover soap I’d carried with me, used a washcloth to dry myself and fell into my futon. Tomorrow would be the last day on the road and I was looking forward to being finished with traveling.

Posted by kuri at July 03, 2004 05:26 AM

Post a comment

Email Address (optional):

URL (optional):


Remember info?