The night bus from Tokyo to Hiroshima would take about 13 hours, stopping several times on the way. Since it was expected that most if not all the passengers would be sleeping, curtains were drawn all the way around the windows and the front of the bus; we could neither see what was happening next to us or in front of us. In a way it felt as though we were stowaways or part of some kind of human trafficking crime, aside from the plush seats and footrests. The girl sitting next to me was from Morocco, and I commented how I don't think I had ever met someone from Morocco, and how Morocco doesn't usually generate much news. To be sure, I did a quick online search which indeed yielded zero current results. I guess that's not a bad thing.
We arrived in Hiroshima as scheduled, and from the bus stop I found my way to the Mazda Museum and Factory Tour. I had time to kill so I ordered a chai latte (iced) and a cookie at the cafe located in the showroom. Having a fragmented night of rest (I'd guess I had slept at most two hours at a time before being bounced awake) I figure I'd need something to keep me going. We loaded onto a bus and were ferried a few kilometers away to Mazda's Hiroshima plant. We learned about the history of Mazda and its founder and got to gaze at beautifully restored specimens from the company's product line. But the highlight was actually touring a section of the plant where we could witness the final assembly of automobiles. A track slowly carted the cars along while automated robots and carts full of nuts, bolts and other bits strolled back and forth at each worker's assigned section. It was truly a well-oiled machine, although perhaps not as impressive as some of Japan's tricks.
Strolling the grounds, volunteer tour guides offer information and directions, and in my case companionship. Earlier I passed this woman and we greeted as we met. As I looped around to the entrance/exit, she was seated on a bench, her sunglasses and wide-brimmed visor shielding her from the early afternoon sun. Michiko patted the seat next to her and told me to sit down, so I joined her. We had a pleasant conversation in Japanese. I learned about her daughter and she learned about my family. She asked if I had eaten and replying I hadn't, she suggested we have lunch together at an okonomiyaki restaurant she liked. She said, "it'll be a date, what do you say?" I agreed. Hell yes.
As we walked to the restaurant my long legs could hardly keep up with this tiny woman twice my age. As we sat and chatted over delicious Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki, she joked that she picked me up (there is an expression in Japanese, "nampa," which is essentially picking someone up on the street). She whispered to me, inquiring about the people behind us. She asked if they were foreigners (she didn't want to look) and I said they were, possibly Australian. She said she thought so from their voices. I suppose I could have been suspicious that she would try to get money from me or something else, but I sensed nothing like that from her. In fact, she refused to let me pay for the meal, and after drawing me a map and pointing me in the direction of my next destination (a castle), she said she was busy and had to get home. Fair enough.
Spending the rest of the afternoon alone, I wandered about Hiroshima, visiting famous sites such as the Atomic Bomb Dome and the statue of Sadako, a young girl who was a victim of the war and the atomic bomb tragedy. I thought about her, and the other victims, and thought that in some ways she is like Japan's Anne Frank: both were young victims of a war that neither asked for, and both serve as a reminder to the horrors and tragedy of war.
At my hostel I befriended a fellow from Hong Kong and a girl from Hiroshima - both were serving an internship at the hostel - and both shared the names of my neighbors, Joe and Saki. Curious. Later Joe and I went down the street for Mexican food (I had a craving) and had some decent, although not entirely authentic, burritos. Joe had never had Mexican food before so he asked me what I thought he should try.
The next morning I woke up early to head to Miyajima, a very popular island near Hiroshima. The sky was grey and rain poured down, making the streets appear coated with black grease. I was given an umbrella by the front desk attendant, a tall, gentle, and barely audible New Zealander. Grateful was I.
Miyajima can be accessed by a badass speedboat, or a clunky, smelly ferry. Naturally, the cheaper option prevailed and after riding a streetcar to the last station, I filed onto the swaying hunk of metal along with all the other poor souls. The mist and rain attacked us as we climbed the stairs to the seats, our shoes a squeak-squeak-squeaking on every step. Soon we were on our way and docked on the island. Reverse order, rinse and repeat.
The rain did not deter the crowds, but only made navigating the narrow touristy streets of the island more difficult as I now had to avoid both puddles and getting my eye poked by a hundred umbrellas. As hunger set in I searched for nourishment and found a cozy restaurant slightly off the beaten path. When I arrived there were but a few patrons, but as the minutes passed the place became flooded with hungry tourists.
I decided to cut short my trip and make my way back to Hiroshima to wait for my bus that would later depart for Osaka, my next destination. Good thing too, as I had some trouble finding the bus stop as my GPS decided to be as unreliable as 2016 election predictions (or promises, for that matter). Alas, it all worked out.
Christine was putting on her shoes just as I appeared in the lobby the next morning after my pancake breakfast. She booked this hostel at the last minute per my recommendation ("they still have rooms available") since she had nothing planned. Christine is Chinese by blood and Australian by birth. As she sat at the hostel counter eating her microwaveable meal, occasionally glancing up to smile at me and Joe, I wondered if she spoke Japanese or what. Turns out it's English. We decided to meet up in Osaka after I arrived, and by chance this was the time. Together we went to Osaka Castle and wandered around the city, settling on a pretty legit sushi restaurant for lunch. It's the kind of place where you just shout out what you want to the chef behind the counter, and somehow he remembers everything and places it on your plate in front of you. A bit pricier than the usual kaiten-zushi (sushi-go-round), but well worth the extra yen.
Ami and Yoriko would be waiting for me when I arrived at the station near Yoriko's apartment. While we kept in touch via digital communication, I hadn't seen them since we met in Cambodia last year. When I walked through the gate, they stood there smiling their adorable Japanese smiles and we marched off to collect ingredients for our evening takoyaki party. It was my first time making it and I proved to be quite skilled at shaping the sizzling balls as they sat in the electric skillet. I kept offering to help around the apartment but my offers were continually denied. I could clean up, or wash the dishes, or take out the trash, but nothing. They decided that Ami's alarm would go off at 10am, but we turned the lights out before 11pm. While my futon wasn't the most comfortable place to sleep (none really are) I cashed in on all those dreamy hours.
The following day I met Sarah, a friend of a friend who lives in Osaka (and has lived over eight years in Japan) and we bicycled around the city. With no destination in mind, the warm sun encouraged us to take our time, and we found ourselves on grassy hills by the riverside, eating burritos in a hip diner, and weaving through businessmen and indecisive pedestrians. We had several of those moments when you realize the world is really tiny, and through our conversation we discovered we know some of the same people beyond our mutual friend. Well, isn't that something.
I caught a train to Kyoto and checked into my next hostel, a cozy little space in a quiet neighborhood run by a kind and helpful Japanese woman named Reiko. While she knew some English, we spoke mostly in Japanese, which was great practice for me. At one point, a little girl challenged Reiko to a game of "Go Fish" and I became the mediator and explained the rules. In this moment I thought to myself, "Self, if you can communicate, in Japanese, however primitively and simply, the rules of the ultimate game known as 'Go Fish,' you can do anything imaginable. Except become president. That's reserved for rich people, and bigots."
Reiko told me about an onsen that I could visit which would not discriminate against me for having tattoos, so I ended my evening with - finally - a relaxing, steamy hot bath among a bunch of naked Japanese guys. Well, it's about damn time.
In the morning I packed my things to leave the hostel, as I had another reservation elsewhere for that evening (I changed my plans a few times and the previous night was a last-minute decision. I decided to put my bag in a locker at Kyoto Station and head out to sightsee. Reiko sent me a text message, asking where I was staying that night. She had my name down for a second night, and indeed when I checked my confirmation emails, I had previously booked the same hostel. Oh how paying attention can go a long way.
Japanese people love the four seasons. They celebrate them, along with any and every other little event. And, they'll wait in line for all of them. Spring is perhaps the most celebrated season, and since it's hanami (flower watching) season, the Japanese (along with loads of Chinese, Koreans, and Westerners) were out in full force. Every place I visited required me to adjust my stride to avoid tripping or stepping onto someone - I made little steps as if I were wearing a kimono - and nearly every potential photo opportunity was squelched by scores of other people fighting for pole position. The final straw was at the Golden Pavilion, where we were herded along a walking path with nary a moment to relax and enjoy the view. Moo, moo. Move it, moron.
After collecting my bag from the station I returned to my hostel and chatted more with Reiko. A woman from Scotland, who I had seen leaving earlier, arrived just then and we decided to go to the sushi-go-round restaurant up the street. I didn't care for its touch screen or selection as much as other places I'm familiar with, but for about a dollar a plate, how can you complain?