The most amazing thing happened to us this morning, we walked into a building and through a door into a capsule; then voila, we’re in another town. It’s called a train here, the same name as the thing we have at home and although there are similarities the result is oh so different. Trains are all vaguely moist seats, suspicious sticky handles, foul smells from the drunk guy that vomited on the red-eye last night and outdoor voice bogans proudly displaying their horrendous parenting. Oh the joys of trains. These magic capsules though have none of the rustic sense of danger, escaping without a skin disease or reduced faith in humanity is no challenge at all. Oh the humble Japanese calling these wonders ‘trains’, I do hope we get these things in Australia soon; or do we just need to eradicate the bogans?
For the sake of ease we’ll take on the local vernacular, good travellers as we are, and call them trains. Flung far across the country in greater comfort than a posh German car we leave Himeji station into blue sky and bright sunlight the likes of which we haven’t see in weeks. A cityscape of typical Japanese style unfolds before us, all orderly cleanliness upholding the linear image of mostly dated buildings to a neat aesthetic that edges close to urban fatigue but escapes with a sense of precision and minimalist retro charm. Down the arrow straight street our eyes are drawn unerringly to what we’ve come here to see, Himeji castle.Like Nagoya castle, Himeji castle calls forth images of the grand powers of the Shoguns from the Edo period with warrior tales clinging to every arched gable and refined art expressed by every reach of trained tree branch. Across an impressive timber bridge and through the impressive gate we approach the impressive ramparts to the gleaming white Himeji castle that makes the term impressive seem rather insipid. I think we just found where fairytales of princesses and brave knights came from, and it’s a long way from Europe. Crowning high stone walls that taper to the sky, Himeji castle feels a little like an overly ornate scale model that instantly popped into life size with it’s impossible overhanging eaves, picture perfect symmetry and gleaming facade that glows like it’s sprinkled with fairy dust.
A pathway winds its way up into the castle in very indirect fashion, twisting and turning drawing us in, mouths agape all the while. Up tight staircases and through rooms dripping with dramatic scale timber we poke through small windows at the modern city that sprawls far and wide catching more than the occasional whim of living in a place like this. The child in me wishes more than just once that we could lift this whole castle and plant it into the Blue Mountains of Australia. Six floors of dreamlike escape takes us to the crowning top where the spines of hulking roofs lead our view out to ornate sculptures and a real world far far away. From here we can see the station that we’re soon to go to but for a moment our inner child romps around the room playing noble samurai warrior rescuing the princess, or maybe the prince, but lets not get caught up in details.Down tight stairways we descend the floors and so we extract ourselves from the fairytale that is Himeji castle. Our world will be dated architecture, concrete and bitumen again soon but for one last glance its timber with centuries of stories and battlements upon which legends were made. Himeji castle is one of few grand castles left in Japan and after centuries of raids, natural disasters and WWII bombing that levelled this city the main keep has remarkably endured. A lack of great disaster or social collapse has kept an unbroken like of skills, knowledge and records making the recent restoration of Himeji castle as accurate as can be; guesswork from grainy old photographs are not necessary here. But fairytales pass, the captured prince remains locked at the top of the keep and I leave with my own prince charming not ruing the rush to reality on the way back down that arrow straight street once again.
Back in the magic ‘train’ we shoot towards our final stop for the day still staggered at the way we can zip around this country so easily. From fairytale Himeji we are all too swiftly in an all together different kind of place; the buildings are similar to most other cities we’ve seen but there’s no grand castle full of stories to be found here. No castle but the story is far more famous, for all the wrong reasons. On August 6th, 1945, at 8:15am the otherwise un-noteworthy city of Hiroshima became one of the most well known cities in the world, from obscurity to fame, quite literally in a flash.The story is well known, Japanese military aggression poked the bear in its attack on Pearl Harbour and the bear bit back. The world saw its first ever A-bomb, nicknamed Little Boy, and was never to be the same again. The debate is a complicated one that rings out in school classrooms and bars alike: the human tragedy is undeniable, nor are the atrocities of the great forces of Japan. Did the A-bomb call a swift cessation to world war saving millions of lives or was it belligerent disregard for innocent civilian life by trigger happy faceless men? In Hiroshima peace park there is nothing to be heard of this philosophical roundabout, just a lingering truism that war is everything other than glorious and peace must be the goal for humanity.
Walking the sombre procession of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum is a somber experience, all the more so that Aki is with me silently downcast at remains of children’s clothing and parts of a cit destroyed; all similarly scorched. A scratchy memory from school tickles my mind of a watch that was found with the hands burnt to the face at 8:15am, the time of the blast. The watch sits here in a glass case, the hands at 8:15am such a powerfully poetic reminder of a moment that changed the world. Much of the information here draws back what I learned at school, it’s not necessarily an eye opener but a slap in the face. Aware of the severity of this place to a Japanese man I wait till we’re outside to venture an enquiry into his take on the events here. Silence for a moment, it’s obviously a hard topic for him, it is for anyone. In his time, the response ‘We don’t hate America, it’s war, just war is unacceptable’. On that elegant note the lingering remnants of Hiroshima are summarised. Hate is not harvested, retribution is not sought and Japan’s own failings are not shied from; peace is the focus that must remain.The flame of peace burns here in this park and will continue to burn until there are no more nuclear weapons in the world; a vain hope it feels like right now but I guess the people of Hiroshima know better than anyone the need to persist in a fight that might seem hopeless at times. Reminders are everywhere here, the now famous A-bomb dome sits alongside the taller buildings of the city that has rebuilt itself again, the skeletal shell one of few structures left standing despite there not being a single survivor from inside the dome that stood up to the bomb.
Today we’ve ventured from a fairytale to a nightmare, from Japan’s powerful heights to it’s humble surrender, from past glamour to recent tragedy and present reminder, all on the magic train from the future. Himeji castle and the city of Hiroshima are both powerful images but for very different reasons, when paired with the staggering efficiency of Japanese trains we’re afforded the rare juxtaposition of seeing them virtually on opposite sides of a sliding door. Japan, like all nations, has a great many stories to tell; what’s uniquely Japanese is the unbroken lineage that binds them all together with no historical black holes or blind gaps of guesswork. From whimsical fairytale to heart squeezing horror, Japan is more than the old cliche of four seasons in one day: it’s a bedtime story that became a dream which descended into a nightmare and leaves us confused at a waking moment fighting today to conjure a hope for what tomorrow might be.