April 1st marks the beginning of the Japanese fiscal year. It’s during this time that many changes happen in businesses and schools. Students graduate, teachers rotate through different schools, and a fresh sense of beginning fills the air amidst warmer weather and cherry blossoms.
Perhaps the best part about this time of year is that it provides English teachers like me a chance to travel and see new parts of Japan. With two weeks in between graduation and opening ceremony, I found my self with a lot of down time in the office. I spent much of this time planning my spring vacation trip.
Even though there are no classes, students continue to go to school to attend various club activities. Teachers commute to school as well, to prepare for the upcoming year. It’s interesting to note that in Japan, homeroom teachers stick with the same students, and move up a grade level each year. I also find the high turnover rate of teachers fascinating. Gym teachers change schools every year!
Luckily, I will remain at the same two schools. I’ve begun to settle in, as I connect better with other teachers and understand the routine of junior high schools.
As mentioned earlier, the arrival of spring means travel time. So here is a description of my trip to Hiroshima, Onomichi, and Matsuyama.
Last Wednesday I woke up at the crack of dawn to bike, catch a bus, and transfer to a train, before boarding the bullet train to Hiroshima. I arrived just after nine o’clock with plenty of time to enjoy my McDonalds breakfast, before touring the Mazda automobile museum and factory.
The tour (free of charge) was informative and offered a nice balance of history while providing a unique behind the scenes look of how each car is assembled. The facility in Hiroshima is the head quarters of Mazda. It’s a large property complex with 3,200 company workers living in dormitories, where they are provided with a hospital and athletic center.
Mazda prides itself in striving for excellence, and standing out from its competitors. This is seen in their creative rotary style engine. They are the only car manufacturer to successfully develop and use such an engine. Through trial and error, and after many failures Mazda developed this unique motor after other automakers gave up on the idea. The perseverance to overcome early hardships at Mazda, symbolizes the spirit of the Hiroshima people.
After fantasizing about buying a Mazda back in the states, I took the streetcar to Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, where I was asked by an older lady is she could take my picture in front of the A-bomb Dome; the only building to withstand the force of the atomic bomb dropped on August 6th, 1945. It was an odd request but I happily obliged.
I spent the next couple of hours just taking in the beautiful scenery of the city, as the riverbanks were all lined with cherry blossoms. I grabbed some soba for lunch and found one of my favorite things in Japan: the basement of a major department store called, SOGO. No, it does not stand for that special once a season baseball practice when coach yells “SOGO! Suns out, guns out!” and everyone gets to practice with their shirts off.
Instead SOGO in Japan is just a department store. But, I shouldn’t say, ‘just’, since every department store basement in Japan boasts a massive food court, with vendors offering all types of delicious cuisines. I picked up some fresh sushi and some momiji manju, Hiroshima’s famous souvenir. Momiji manju is a small maple leaf shaped cake filled with sweet bean paste. I even watched the chefs make it right in front of me.
I soon checked into my hotel nearby, where I wolfed down my sushi. By 5:30, I was out the door and on my way to the Hiroshima Carp professional baseball game. Once you’re at Hiroshima station, it’s easy to figure out where Mazda Zoom Zoom Stadium is because you just follow the red sea of Carp jerseys funneling into neighborhood streets en route to watch their beloved hometown boys.
Since it was still April, it was a brisk night to watch baseball outside. Besides my jeans and a light jacket, I didn’t have any warm clothes. I intentionally packed light for the trip. I came equipped with just a 25-liter backpack for 3 nights. However, I soon warmed up once I left my seat to tour the stadium.
Unfortunately, the ushers prevent fans from entering the any section of the stadium without a ticket for that specific section. But, I wasn’t going to let that stop me from getting close to the field. Especially on a night when the stadium was half full. I figured I’m only going to be at this ballpark once, so I might as well make the most of my time here. Thus, I pulled the foreigner card and told the usher in mostly English and some broken Japanese, that my friend was already at my seat with my ticket. Do I feel ashamed? A little. But, hey, YOJO! (You’re only in Japan once).
The game itself wasn’t too entertaining, as the Carp fell 6-2 to the Yakult Swallows. However, you would have never known the score was that lopsided, based on the amount of cheering and energy displayed by the fans. Drums, horns, and the unmistakable sound of inflatable plastic sticks striking each other, echoed throughout the stadium. It was a fun atmosphere to be apart of, despite the home team loss.
After the game, I managed to find and eat a late dinner at Okonomiyaki Mura, which is literally translated as, “Okonomiyaki City”. Okonomiyaki is a grilled dish comprised of egg-based batter, shredded cabage, thinly sliced pork, various seafoods, all coated with a thick and sweet sauce (think Worcestershire sauce, but sweet). And Okonomiyaki mura is a five story building in the city, housing an endless array of little okonomiyaki restaurants. Each one tastes slightly different, but each have one thing in common: all are Hiroshima style. Meaning, they are made with three times the amount of cabbage as normal, with noodles layered into the dish as well. Needless to say, it was delicious, especially at around eleven at night.
While enjoying my meal, my phone decided to die. Despite showing a battery life of 10%, it automatically turned off. It’s never good when you’re phone dies. It’s even worse when you are in a new city, and don’t remember where your hotel is. However I was fortunate enough to have a group of teachers sit next to me at dinner. One of which spoke English, and we chatted throughout the entire meal. At the end, they paid for my meal, insisting that it was, “Japanese style”. After, they even walked me to my hotel. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, Japanese people are some of the nicest people I’ve met. Day one was very full, and I was ready for sleep.
I opted to walk twenty minutes from my hotel to the station, instead of taking the streetcar. I feel by traveling on foot, you gain a better understanding of the city and it’s people. Plus, it’s always entertaining to take in the morning sites. I witnessed storeowners sweeping the sidewalk, polishing off display windows, and meticulously cleaning out debris logged in between the corner hinges of front doors. Yes, the Japanese take great pride in presentation.
After an hour plus train ride, I arrived in Onomichi, a small port village loaded with shrines and home to some of Japan’s most famous authors. Now, when one visits Onomichi, it is imperative that one eat Onomichi style ramen. What makes Onomichi style ramen special is the soy sauce based broth and small melted chunks of pork lard. It’s salty, fatty, and tasty.
While waiting in line at, “Ichibankan Ramen” I met a couple of Japanese tourists who made the trek all the way to Onomichi for the ramen. After guzzling down our bowls, we walked across the street to try some traditional Japanese ice cream flavors at what the sign read as an, アイスキャンデーの店 , translated to, “ice candy shop.” Essentially, it was a popsicle shop. The owner recommended I try the sake flavor. It definitely had a unique taste, but wasn’t too bad.
I briefly checked out a few shrines that were scattered on the hillside overlooking the bay. By three o’clock I was on the five minute ferry with my rented bicycle ready to start the Shimanami Kaido, a bike route through a chain of islands connecting Japan’s largest island, Honshu, to Japan’s smallest of its four main islands, Shikoku.
The 45-mile cycling route goes through scarcely populated towns and six major bridges. There are rent-a-cycle terminals stationed along the road, so it’s easy to rent a bike for ¥500 ($5) a day and return it at a different location for a ¥1000 (you do the math) deposit fee. I chose to bike it in two days because there were some places on the islands that I wanted to take my time to explore. However, it can easily be completed in a day. I was also a week removed from a 75-mile bike ride around Awaji Island, so the idea of cycling all day on a grandmother style bike was out of the question. I felt like the Wicked Witch of the West riding around on this bike. All I needed was a little dog in my front basket, which, by the way, I did see.
After a sunny morning, clouds rolled in to make for an overcast day. The gray of the sky mixed with the depression of once bustling little towns, now deteriorating away due to a rapidly declining population, made for some bland scenery. I was also hungry, which may have impaired my vision. Luckily, I found an excellent gelato place only minutes from my private guesthouse. All the flavors were made from local fruits like orange, mango, peach, plum, fig, grape, and kiwi. The selection seemed endless. The best part was that it was all fresh and local. I chose a mango/fig combo. The mango was bursting with a smooth flavor and the fig had a surprisingly delicious grainy texture.
By 5:30 I checked in at, Setoda Private Hostel. I was their only guest and they made me a delicious dinner featuring locally caught fish. After the meal, I soaked in the newly completed home made bathhouse overlooking the sunset on the beach. It was the perfect way to end the day. The look and smell of white spruce lining the walls instantly created a relaxing atmosphere. I soon made my way to my room and stacked five futons on the floor for my bed. I slept like a baby.
…to be continued