Okayama

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Next to Okayama by rail (all our travelling in Japan was by rail), where we quickly headed to the Korakuen Gardens, considered one of the three most beautiful gardens in Japan. It was begun by a feudal lord in 1686 and completed in 1700, and of course has been much changed over the centuries. It was  the personal place of the ruler during the period of the daimyos. After being bombed during WW2 it was restored using Edo period paintings and designs. It is in the scenic promenade style, whereby the visitor sees a new view at every turn of the path, and has man-made features such as streams, waterfalls, rocks, hills and forests, and pavilions (such as the Ryuten). Each feature has a symbolic meaning (the secret of Japanese gardens, large or miniature). Zen, for example, likes to use the sacred symbols of the circle, square and triangle. There are also lawns and little rice paddies (to remind the daimyos of the ordinary people they ruled). The colours change with the seasons, cherry blossom in April, azaleas in May and June, iris and lotus in June and July autumn colours in October (in theory anyway, autumn being late this year we missed the browns, reds and yellows almost completely).

Next day we visited Imbe to see some famous Bizen pottery ware (using techniques dating back to the 700s). It is earthy, rustic pottery and we were invited to see a kiln in action (with Japanese tea added in – the Japanese are very polite and welcoming). The potter was a master potter called Shuzoh Ogawa. On our last day we visited the Prefectural Museum of Art in a splendid modern building (there are many such in Japan, using Japanese architects, among the world’s best), and often commissioned by very rich Japanese as their contribution to culture (better than buying football teams!). Then to the Yumeji Art Museum featuring the work of Yumeji Takehisa (1884-1934), sometimes called the Japanese Toulouse-Lautrec, a founder of the Japanese Art Nouveau movement. (We were to find a good deal of Art Nouveau works in Japan, something we have a great interest in). We found his work interesting but too often there is a sentimental element, not to our taste (but perhaps like English Victorian art in some ways) – women waiting for their lovers or sadly thinking of departed ones, etc.  There was also some prefiguration of comic characters, anticipating the modern Japanese love of (or obsession with?) cartoon and comic genres. More on Nara next.

Osaka and Hiroshima

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We had only a day at Osaka. Osaka Castle is the main attraction, begun in 1583 by the famous unifier of Japan Toyotomi Hideyoshi, destroyed a number of times across the centuries (eg 1615, 1868), reconstructed in concrete in 1931 and then refurbished at great cost in 1997. There are 8 stories, which include some museums plus a splendid view of the city from the top floor (much arduous climbing). We felt we could have stayed longer in Osaka.

Rail to Hiroshima on our trusty Japan Rail pass (the trains are fantastic in Japan, fast, extra clean and reasonable in cost). Hiroshima was at times a gut-wrenching experience but ultimately uplifting. After viewing Fudo-in, a temple in the lower hills on the north side, in a rare surviving style of Kaga architecture, we went to the Atomic Bomb Dome and Peace Park. The Dome of cement and stone was the Industrial Promotion Hall and a centre of operations for Japan’s Fifth Army (hence a target). It became the hypercentre of the world’s first atomic blast, everyone instantly killed, building decimated but its shell remained standing. It is now propped up and conserved, with twisted metal stairs, misshapen walls and window frames, a testament to man’s savagery to man. Many wanted it taken away but it was kept and is now a World Heritage Site.

The Peace Park is ironically a very peaceful and pretty area. Hard to realise that in this area over 350,000 people died. There are features and fountains, and children play there. The Children’s Peace Memorial was inspired by Sadako, a little girl who died of leukaemia brought on by radiation. When she found out she decided to fold 1000 paper cranes. She died when she got to 644 but the children from her school folded the remaining number to fulfil her wish. The Museum is quite striking, telling a quite balanced story of Japan’s militarisation before and during WW2, the aftermath of the bomb and later history of Hiroshima, which is now a thriving city. Quite heart wrenching was the area where remnants of people’s clothes, shoes and so on are collected, together with photos of the damage. There are many personal stories about how people survived and tried to come through the great crisis. We felt that all world politicians and statesmen should have to visit the Peace Park. Next Okayama and Nara.